It’s tempting, I know – beginning to consider jumping back into the dating pool again immediately after untangling yourself from a narcissistic or psychopathic relationship. It’s as if we might feel somehow empowered by seeking out another mate, a sign of recovery if we can put ourselves back out there and reignite the ability to love, maybe even satisfying our weakish self-esteem by looking to others to make us feel desirable. With codependent personality patterns, it’s almost a given to feel alien without a partner, vulnerable and incomplete and maybe even flailing, an uncomfortable state of being resolved only by meeting someone new (or reuniting with someone familiar) and entering into a relationship once again.
This is no longer true for me; I’m not looking for another relationship any time soon. But I’ve been there – saying goodbye to one person while feeling “empowered” to “get back out there” and find my prince, even if that meant kissing an obscene number of frogs in the process.
I know better now; I’ve learned my lesson. That strategy looks good on paper, dear ones, and it might even relieve something uncomfortable in the short-term, but it crashes and burns sooner or later.
What I’d never realized before (but do now) is that it takes time to recover from relationships like these, where we might have dissolved ourselves into the other person, losing ourselves in the process, or they injected their personalities and preferences into us. (Rubbing off too much on each other too quickly is a red neon sign.) It takes time–and work–to recover from the abuse involved – the manipulation, the dismissal, the avoidance and distance, the rage, the criticism, the projection, deflection, gaslighting, betrayal…there’s so much to recover from, never a deficit of material.
I try not to make a habit out of speaking for broad swaths of a specific group, but I reckon it’s safe to say that most of us are shredded by the time the relationship ends. We’re usually exhausted from trying, from talking, from thinking, from brainstorming, from sleuthing, from monitoring, from adulting for grownups besides ourselves, from clinging to them, from stubbornly maintaining our own reality in the face of their twisting–or outright denial–of it. People in our situations almost always are.
Predators, they know this. They can sense it from across an expansive banquet hall. Life transition periods in general* and our individual histories can leave us vulnerable for quite a while, and that is what they look for, because we’re often easy to lure, fool, and trap.
Predators use body language at long distances, observing us from afar at first. Then they’ll unabashedly look for their “in”, even if they have to fake having something in common with you. Beware the two extremes – the one with the transfixed gaze upon you for several hours, or the one who magically appears out of nowhere that you hadn’t seen thus far.
Society has generally taught females to be nice and agreeable and unquestioning, not necessarily strong or self-sufficient/independent or assertive. That same society prizes, especially in men, a ballsy cut-throat approach, ideally gilded in a bad-ass image, reinforced by the poster-people of material success; when you woo people and push for what you want at all costs, not taking no for an answer, you win. And it’s perfectly acceptable if you accomplished this by wearing the other person down until they simply gave in. What does it matter, so long as you drive a Jaguar? Society does indeed have two very distinct sets of instructions (and expectations), depending on how you pee. We sense this, but often fail to realize the very real, very serious, and very personal implications. The end result for our purposes: they take their “in” opportunity toward their target, and we willingly let them do it.
Predators look for the one who is too nice, highly agreeable, too passive. The ones easily swayed, convinced, hooked, then trapped. They test out lines of bullsh*t with specific intentions – to impress, intimidate, or soften you. They’re gauging your response – your words, your facial expression, other body language. This is remarkably not unlike pressing buttons on a switchboard and seeing which ones light up, and what color.
If they see you respond favorably, this reassures their flimsy sense of self that they might be on the right track, even if they don’t understand why. They file it away in their arsenal to be utilized later whenever they want to gain something, extract something from you, tighten their grip on you, or soften you back up.
On the other hand, if they sense they’ve crossed a line, they pull back instantly, put on a sheepish or awkward mask, and pinky-swear that they were “just kidding”, maybe complete with a nervous laugh that convinces you that they’re vulnerable too. You then feel a sort of solidarity, which is a powerful intoxicant.
Disordered people (pathological narcissists, psychopaths) are lazy; they prefer the ones who won’t question them or speak up or resist. They want someone who hesitates to hold them accountable. Have you ever noticed how many will position themselves so that they can move in with you or otherwise leech off of your resources? Watch for this, dear ones. They might feign almost a self-conscious “are you sure?”, but talk is cheap; they’re perfectly willing to snatch up whatever you’ll give (or loan) them, with an eerie readiness, with not another peep afterward. Their ideal target is the one who is kind, shy, and generous. The one who lets them off the hook.
It’s okay to be kind, shy, and generous. Don’t let them off the hook. Better yet, keep your kindness, shyness, and generosity on the down-low until they’ve earned it. Keep them on the hook until they’ve proven (through action) that they don’t need to be on it, too. And that takes much longer than a few weeks to months.
Take a good year or two or several after the relationship has ended. Catch your breath. Soothe yourself. Investigate and analyze – what went wrong? What was their role in the whole saga? What was yours? How did you each contribute to the situation? What were the early signs, those emerging red flags we so often bat down and shove aside because the mask they wear is otherwise so convincing and magical? What might you do differently now, if you encounter something similar? It’s not about rumination or getting stuck on the past. It’s about learning from it so that you can move on to a healthier and happier future.
Going forward, what will you–and what won’t you–tolerate from another person? That’s the definition of boundaries in a nutshell: establishing (preferably ahead of time, during Peace Time, when you’re not under stress or duress) what behavior and treatment you will and will not tolerate. That’s the first half; the second half of that definition is assigning actions you will take in response to various boundary violations. For example, leave the room, leave the premises, kick them out, cut off something of theirs that you’re paying for, stop doing something you currently do for them, refuse to talk to them for 24 hours, take a week apart with no contact, block the person on social media, or maybe even sever ties altogether.
Boundaries are key; learning to set–and maintain–them is even key-er. Words mean nothing if not backed up by action, the threat of consequences means little if not enforced, and your boundary infrastructure is meaningless if applied inconsistently. Dear ones, if you’re having to have Another Talk with your minor children about helping out around the house, and this has turned into a weekly or biweekly routine, or you’re still rushing in to “fix” an uncomfortable situation between you and a loved one, you have issues setting and keeping healthy boundaries, and dating again should be the dead-last thing on your mind.
Be(come) the one who misses nothing – and respects her-/himself enough to act accordingly.
You know you’re starting to get there when you no longer gaslight yourself. When you can enforce your solid boundaries, each and every time without fail, without feeling like an ogre or feeling the urge to apologize or back down. When keeping the peace or making people like you or making everybody get along is no longer your top priority, and you refuse to sacrifice your own wishes and wellbeing in the process. When you show up for You. When you no longer have to worry about what everybody else is doing and monitor them constantly, and you accept that you have limited influence over others and their behavior. When you start planning your daily activities around You, planning your life around your bucket list and what you want out of life. When other people no longer exhaust you, either because you feel like you have more resilience, or better yet, because you decline to interact much with exhausting people.
You know you’re getting a little closer yet when you can balance a reasonable amount of empathy with an equally-reasonable lack of rationalizing, justifying, or explaining away certain behavior. When your harsh Inner Critic is counterbalanced by your own self-compassion. When you can look back on what happened without fear, grief, anger, anxiety, depression, dwelling or rumination, bitterness, hostility, or downward-spiraling. When you can reflect instead with an air of healthy distance, objectivity, clarity, acceptance, and peace.
You know you’re starting to nail it when you no longer need or crave a relationship and you’d prefer to wait for as long as it takes until you find the right one. When you won’t settle for a sub-par partner or someone throwing red flags all over the place. When you’re content to just Do You and self-partner and fortify your life with other fulfilling people and activities, refusing to compromise or sell yourself short or sell yourself out. And you actually have these nourishing activities and circles of people already ironed out and well-oiled, as a matter of established lifestyle, to the point where dating becomes strictly optional and a purely voluntary decision….
…Which is precisely the way it should be. ❤
*divorce, death of a loved one, career or job change, a move to another place, hormonal changes or other changes in physical health, retirement, other significant events
PS: A very deep thank-you to the loved one with whom a recent conversation inspired this post. ❤