Detaching emotionally from a toxic, abusive person that you have loved deeply is never easy. But what do you do when you find out that they are grappling with a major life crisis?
How do you reconcile the sense of obligation that you feel with taking care of yourself?
How do you deal with that reflex feeling of guilt?
These questions all came into focus when this dropped into my Inbox.
“Dear Dr Annie,
I find your advice spot on. I need some help and I don’t mind sharing my story with everyone but I didn’t want to take up space if others couldn’t relate.
I’ve been married to the narc 47 years, separated for one. No contact went out the window after 4 months. Regardless of PFA and court order, he stalks, calls, follows, texts. Anyway I’ve heard this lie before but this time I think it’s true that he has cancer. I feel sad for him. I would like to help him (not living with him!!!!) I know he won’t change! But for my peace of mind, what do I do?
You have my permission to use my question and your answer to help others if you would like.
Thank you in advance for your help.
Happily, not everyone has been as long-suffering as to stay 47 years with a toxic, abusive partner. Plus, not everyone will have to confront the issue of a possible terminal cancer. However, many of us face this troubling “What if?” scenario inside our own head. A lot of us face it in reality, also.
So, my guess is that this is an issue that most of us can relate to. Linda, I am grateful to you for raising it.
But before I answer, I want to deal with the possible, “That’s easy for you to say, Annie” charge, that I hear from time to time. I have twice faced a similar enough scenario in my own life. I understand just how difficult these scenarios can be.
Scenario 1 – the suicide risk
When I finally got “my” abusive husband to leave, he enlisted with another psychotherapist. (He was always happy to spend good money to talk about and parade his toxic nastiness. He truly believed it made him special).
The psychotherapist chose to have a conversation with me. During the course of it, he told me two important things,
1) I was living with domestic violence. (That was something I hadn’t ever realised.)
2) My husband was a potential suicide risk.
Now, I had guessed that the husband might well be a potential suicide risk. (Dare I say, with the levity of hindsight, that he always had “so much potential”?)
At the time, we had a 13 year old daughter together. So, I had cause to be deeply concerned – not just for my own conscience but for the future emotional well-being of my daughter.
On balance, I guessed that he probably would not commit suicide. But how could I possibly know?
So, I was left weighing up my best course of conduct.
Since I wasn’t the relatively healthy, emotionally robust person that I am now, it was hard. However, the seeds were there, as they are in everyone, no matter how traumatized.
The conclusions I came to were,
1) I had felt suicidal many times during the course of the relationship and tried to take my own life once. That had not changed anything. He had not dialed down his abusive behavior just because I was severely distressed.
2) If I sacrificed myself to protect his mental health – which I had already done many, many times – he would once again feed off me to the point where it might kill me.
3) He was – allegedly – a grown man. At some point, he had to take responsibility for himself. If he were to kill himself, in the end that would be his decision. I would deal with the fallout for my daughter and myself if it happened.
I was fortunate. It didn’t.
But the decision that I came to – which I stand by – was after 20+ years of abuse and misery, I was through with sacrificing my life for his.
Scenario 2 – the terminal illness
After my parents had disowned me, I went through 20 years of estrangement with my entire, toxic family. Every so often, there had been attempted rapprochements, but they never worked out. My parents still wanted to control me, choose my lifestyle for me and punish me for making my own choices.
Then, one night, one brother called to say that my father had terminal leukaemia. He had about 3 months to live.
Once again, I was far from being the woman that I am now. I was still living my wounds, not my healing.
On balance, I decided to do what I could for my father but without tolerating further emotional damage. If he and I could connect in a viable way, then, I would spend time with him and support my mother. If it became abusive, the family wouldn’t see me for dust.
Although I didn’t yet know the word, I had thought my way through to showing up for him in a boundaried way.
That is the personal experience that underpins my approach.
Returning now to Linda’s case. With the benefits of an objectivity that she does not have, I would want her to ask herself the following question.
The killer question
1) Is there a part of her that still has to prove that she is a decent, caring human being by showing up for her abusive ex?
If there is, then she is likely onto a loser whether she shows up or not. Here’s why:
- The facts show that this man has devalued and dismissed years of her investing her love and selflessness in the relationship. That sets a very bad precedent.
- He has continued to disregard her wishes even after the separation – because what he wants, he has to have. At whatever cost to her. That means that he remains a serious threat to her happiness and peace of mind.
- He has a proven, toxic track record of lying and manipulating. He has pulled the cancer story before. He could be doing so again. If he is, and she falls over herself to support and be there for him, that will cause her a lot more damage.
- She wants to help him. But how much would he really value her and the help that she offers, when he has a long, LONG track record of trashing her feelings. (Yes, we can all fantasise about the Hollywood BLISSFUL EVENTUAL VALIDATION ending but – spoiler alert – that is never going to happen.)
- She owes him NOTHING. If, Heaven forbid, she had the cancer, she knows that her toxic ex would do nothing for her – except, maybe, try to get her to sign away whatever assets she has to him.
- If he is playing games, again, and she gets in touch she invalidate everything that she has done to keep him away from her and appears to collude with him against the courts etc.
So, in conclusion, I applaud Linda for asking what she should do. To me, that suggests that she already knows that there is something a tad “off” about her reflex desire to help.
What Linda owes her toxic ex
My take on the situation is that having – thanklessly – given him 47 years of her life and been separated for 1 year, she owes him nothing, at all. The fact that she has had the legal establishment involved means that she, essentially has no room for manoeuvre. Linda’s issue now is, how she feels like a good person while having to maintain a tough boundary.
Annie Kaszina, international Emotional Abuse Recovery specialist and award-winning author of 3 books designed to help women recognise and heal from toxic relationships so that they can build healthy, lasting relationships with the perfect partner for them, blogs about all aspects of abuse, understanding Narcissists and how to avoid them and building strong self-worth. To receive Annie’s blog direct to your Inbox just leave your details here.
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