CNM 029: Husband & Wife Discuss New Life After Her Narc Ex – with Matt & Susan

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We’ve been talking a lot lately about narcissistic abuse here on the blog and podcast. Two of my last three episodes were focused on this topic, and today we have one more episode, but from a very unique angle.

One of our listeners contacted me after hearing episodes 26 and 27 This listener is the husband of a woman who was in a 10-year marriage with an abusive ex-husband. He wanted to share his perspective on what it’s like being married to a someone who’s been through this.

So, we were able to get both of them to come on the show together for a joint interview.

I hope you enjoy it!

Interview with Matt and Susan

Brian: Matt and Susan, welcome to the show it’s so nice to have you with us.

Matt and Susan: Thanks for having us, it’s nice to be here.

Absolutely. Well I want to start with our first question.

Question: Please tell us about the situation you were in when Susan had gotten out of her abusive relationship. What was life like around that time of your lives?

Matt: We were working together at the time. I was away from work, but we had our group of friends. So when the incident (break up) occurred she had sent an email to the group just to let us know why she wasn’t at work anymore. At the time we were sharing a locker and she needed some stuff out of that locker. So I went into work to get that for her, and then our e-mails back and forth kind of sparked the relationship.

Susan: It was it was a difficult time for me. You know, when you were with an abuser, they’re very isolating. They control where and who you can hang out with them. So when all this happened, I didn’t really have a very good support group in the northwest, and when my ex was arrested and I got the restraining order, I found the only place I could go was where my folks lived in California. So I had to move quickly.

Question: About being isolated. Can you take a minute and tell us what was it like from your perspective inside that relationship? What did he do to you?

Susan: It starts subtly, kind of like the warming of a crab in a pot. It starts with things like, “I don’t want you talking to him.” Or, where they hold your hand real tight when they don’t want you to talk. Or, when you’re trying to get away from an abusive verbal berate, and they block your way. You’re trying to leave, and they take your keys. You know, it just starts subtle and then it just progresses to things like breaking items that are important that you.

You know when you’re in counseling you come up with rules? Basically, they use the rules against you. I find it very frustrating. They make every effort to do the things you don’t you ask them not to do, so it’s a very confusing time when you don’t realize you’re with an abuser because you’re not getting hit. In society, being hit is a strong signal of abuse. A black eye is clearly abuse, but those little things fall through the radar a little bit.

Question: I’m curious about Susan’s frame of mind after leaving the abusive relationship. Did you feel confused? Were you going through any post-traumatic stress? Were you having panic attacks or any aftereffects of the abuse?

Susan: It was an interesting time. It was wonderful to be with somebody who acted congruent. Matt treated me the same way he felt about me, versus my other relationship where I was being told I was loved, but I was being treated so harshly that it was confusing. It was hard. I couldn’t trust myself in a sense. We were very vocal and very open with those concerns.

Matt: It was very liberating coming to that realization too. She spent some time getting counseling through the women’s shelter where my parents lived. She also got the book Why Does He Do That, which is pretty good book for domestic violence and controlling behavior.

Susan: Yeah, by Lundy Bancroft. It was very eye opening for me.

Brian: The last guest I had on the show mentioned that exact same book.

Matt: There’s a follow up book to it.

Brian: I’ll have to look that up and we’ll put links to those in the show notes for this for this episode. Thanks for mentioning that.

Question: Matt if you wouldn’t mind elaborating How did Susan seem when you met her? From your perspective, what were your biggest observations about her coming out of this painful relationship?

Matt: I think the sense of having the rug pulled out from under her was hard. She was with the same person for ten years, and had been conditioned into that role. So it was hard for her when it was over, kind of like a kid all of a sudden having lots of freedom before they’re ready. So, there was that sense of, ‘What do I do now?’ kind of a feeling. Also, having a small child and being essentially unemployed and homeless in another state was hard. She was with her parents though, so that was good.

But there was that sense of, ‘How do we get back on track?’ She had plans to move back up here. Between the two of us, we are very open about what we wanted. We kept everything up front. There was talk of rebound, and questioning whether we were making bad decisions because of emotions.

We were open about all those feelings. For me, it was helping a good person in a bad situation. And whether we ended up together or not wasn’t the end game for me. It was a bonus if we did. If not, then you know, I just helped somebody. So, I think it was just accepting that upfront and not having any expectations.

Brian: I definitely want to revisit that and I’m glad you brought that up because one piece of advice folks receive a lot of times is to take some time for yourself. So, I want to ask you more about that in a second. Before I do though…

Question: I wonder, Matt, from your perspective, did you notice any triggers in Susan day to day; things that seemed to trigger her or set her off, that seemed unusual to you?

Matt: Not really. We were in a long distance relationship at the start, so we didn’t have a lot of exposure. I think it was mostly e-mails to begin with, and then we started doing almost nightly phone calls after that. The big stressors at that time were frustrations with family court and how extensive it is for someone who’s basically had to leave their job because they had to leave the area to get away from an abusive relationship. It costs thousands of dollars every time you go to court, so that was a big stressor.

Question: Why don’t we talk about that now as a matter of fact? Please share more about what it was like going through court. I understand there was one child involved. Can you tell us about that?

Susan: It was a rude awakening for me. I grew up thinking that courts are just, which is a misconception. We had to see a judge in family court about my ex husband’s visitation rights with our 11-year-old daughter. I had a restraining order, but they still deem that every parent has the right to see their child. So this particular judge said it was okay to have one day of travel and 10 days of visitation with him once a month. That was before our daughter was even one year old, and I believe that has caused some problems with her.

It’s very frustrating to know you don’t have that control with your own child anymore, even when you know it’s not right. They’re more about parents’ rights than they are about protecting the child.

Matt: There’s a general lack of knowledge in the court system about narcissistic issues and high conflict divorces. I guess you can’t blame the court, but they should have more resources, even if it’s just one psychologist that can say, “Yeah these behaviors are consistent with A, B and C, and this is not good for a child.

But not many people know about this stuff; even mental health professionals. Narcissists don’t just call up doctors and say, “I have a problem. I’m a narcissist.” They’re the ones that are projecting and putting their problems on everybody else, so it’s hard to get them officially diagnosed. They can put on a happy mask and go through an hour interview, no problem. They have no problem lying under oath in front of a judge or anything like that. They’re able to cheat, but we have to play by the rules, and it’s hard to win in that environment.

Question: Are you still currently dealing with legal issues, or have you worked through those at this point?

Matt: They are ongoing but there’s been a long break. There’s a second divorce happening right now, so maybe his focus is elsewhere. It’s a carbon copy of the first marriage; all the same behaviors, the same complaints, and there’s another kid involved.

Question: How old is your daughter now, and does he still have those same 10 day per month visitation rights?

Susan: She’s eight, and no (he does not have the same visitation rights). Once the divorce had been finalized, even though we went through a custody evaluation, he ended up with the same rights most dads get. Every Tuesday and Thursday, and every other weekend despite our concerns.

Matt: Susan had to move back, so it became more of a normal kind of custody schedule. It doesn’t involve flying or anything like that.

Susan: I was highly encouraged to move back by the custody evaluator, and so I did so.

Question: And now let’s fast forward into the future. It sounds like things have died down a bit at least for now. Shifting gears a little bit – what has it been like as far as your healing process goes? I know it’s been quite a while now, but what would you say about the abuse and the emotional repercussions of it? What sticks out in your mind as the most helpful thing that got you through it?

Susan: For me it’s definitely taken time, and love has been important for me. Matt’s love for me, and just being patient and kind and gentle; those things with time have definitely helped bring healing. I’m not perfect. I still struggle with some things, especially if we’re in court with my ex. But I’m definitely feeling more sure-footed and strong.

Brian: Great segue into a topic I wanted to discuss.

The last episode we published was with a therapist. Andrew Johnston, and we talked about emotionally focused therapy. I don’t know if you caught that episode yet, but healing is done in the context of relationships. It’s couples therapy, and an attachment relationship is used to heal in this case. The first attachment relationship anybody has is with their parents or caregivers. And we tend to take the patterns of an attachment relationship and carry them forward into adult love relationships because that’s the next most significant attachment relationship. So, when you have wounds that began in any of those attachment relationships, Emotionally Focused Therapy takes the approach of healing them within the context of another attachment relationship.

Question: It’s interesting to hear you say that love from Matt has helped you to heal that. Can you talk about how you think that’s happened? Have you gone to couples therapy together? What is it about being in relationship with Matt has helped you heal? Matt, feel free to chime in as well from your perspective.

Matt: I think that’s an issue I’ve realized recently. I have not focused directly with the healing process as much as I’ve understood domestic violence and more of a defensive stance against her ex. I haven’t been focused on Susan’s issues in a direct manner.

I’m respectful of her, and I just let her be her. I sweep away the eggshells because she shouldn’t have to walk out around on eggshells anymore. People make mistakes. I trust her heart. She always has good intentions. So if there’s a mistake or we just disagree on something, I fundamentally trust her overall. It’s not an issue of anger or anything like that, but as far as couples counseling, it’s something I’m very open to.

Susan: We haven’t done couples therapy together, but I do feel like a lot of the things that you were talking about were definitely at play, just unknowingly with Matt. Like you said, if there was any disagreement he would give me the benefit of the doubt. He valued my input.

There were times where I was always waiting for the shoe to drop, like he was going to get angry and lash out at me. But it never happened. More and more you grow to realize you can trust and you’re safe, and I think that’s big.

Question: Thank you for sharing that. I would love to rewind at this point and get back into a topic you brought up a few minutes ago, Matt, about getting into the relationship rather quickly after Susan’s previous relationship ended – wondering if you were moving too quickly. What was that like? What was going through your heads at that point in time?

Matt: It was unusually uncomfortable. I wondered if it was too good to be true. Maybe it is that we clicked right away. It was a logical question in my mind. It had a lot of red flags as far as Susan just getting out of a relationship.

They recommend 90 days of no dating for an addiction, and a year of no dating for abuse victims coming out to relationships. But our friendship got a little stronger right away just from e-mails. It was probably six weeks before we began dating more traditionally (still long distance, but in my mind we were a couple). To me it felt good and it felt right, but we were still a little bit cautious about it.

Susan: Yeah I think we both felt it probably seemed odd to a lot of people. But when you have a love for a friend, I don’t feel like it’s such a big jump for that to bloom. We had the benefit of having a friendly relationship beforehand. I could trust who he was presenting because I had that history of who I saw him to be at work.

For me, the whole reason I ended up in an abusive relationship was this need for love that I didn’t feel I was receiving, especially from a male growing up. And, among other things, I think that’s what cued me to end up with somebody who spoke the right words but did the opposite of what love looks like. I was married just about 10 years, and by the end of that you’re really love-starved. I was really needing that role.

Question: Since you’ve been through all this together, where’s your focus going forward now as a couple?

Matt: For me it’s just living a normal life. We’ve got a great family and a great life. We might have the occasional distraction with court or something like that. We keep studying and moving towards healing.

And then there’s the modeling for our kids; trying to show them what a good relationship is like. Hopefully our daughter doesn’t end up in a situation like this, or is able to recognize it sooner. We want her to have support from male and female role models.

We’re very conscientious of how we act in front of our kids. We’re good at quietly doing a little sidebar if needed, like, ‘What are we going to decide for this, this and this,’ and then we can present it to the kids as one unified couple so we’re not contradicting each other in front of them. We’re just focused on doing what normal families do.

Susan: Yes I agree. I try not to let my ex husband dictate our life. I keep him in the background so we can have our own life.

Question: If you were going to offer any advice to someone who is (or has been) mixed up in an abusive relationship, what kind of advice would you have? I’d love to hear what your perspective is on this. What do you do when you come out of this relationship and you want to date again?

Matt: I think that taking the time off does make sense. We are a little bit of an exception to that rule. Do some research and read about it. Like Susan mentioned, being in an abusive relationship is like slow boiling water. Things get worse and worse and you don’t always realize what’s going on, but you get the right book you talk to the right people, and they put some light on the situation. You really need to recognize a problem before you can work to address it. From my perspective, be patient and understand there’s good intentions there.

Susan is a trauma victim and things are affected when you go through stuff like that. If she reacts to something in a way that I don’t expect, I don’t take that personally. I understand there’s more background to certain behaviors that she might still have.

Susan: I think counseling is huge. I think anyone coming out of an abusive relationship definitely needs that. And I think having a stable person to talk your feelings out with, even outside of the counselor, is super helpful. I really think Matt and I did a very good job always talking things through. I’m naturally a feeler, and I think Matt is naturally a thinker, and it’s hard when you’re starting a relationship because I can be whisked away by my emotions. So it’s always helpful to logically look at things and just take your steps slowly even though it didn’t seem that way for us.

Question: You seem like an exception to the rule but it’s worked out for you and that’s great. That’s the long term goal. Good for you. As we wrap up this conversation I wonder if there’s anything we haven’t talked about or any final thoughts that you would like to share with people listening?

Matt: I think plugging some of the books that I found would be helpful.

Brian: Sure, go ahead.

Matt: The main one that I found most helpful was The Narc Decoder: Understanding the Language of the Narcissist by Tina Swithin. She’s got a whole series on divorcing a narcissist that were really good, and she kept a blog about it. The book helps you sift out what’s going on when you get communications, texts, e-mails or calls, things like that from somebody with a narcissistic presentation.

Susan: For me, and I would say this to any girl in high school, “Pay attention to behavior and not so much to words.”

Matt: And listen to your loved ones too. Because when somebody says, “Why don’t you just leave?” Even if it’s a little bit out of ignorance, they might be seeing something that you don’t.

Brian: Great piece of advice. It has been wonderful chatting with both of you. I’m so glad we were able to make this happen.

Thanks Matt. First of all for reaching out to me, and thank you for both taking the time to be here.

Susan: Thank you Brian. I hope it helps somebody.

Matt: Yeah, thank you for doing what you do as well. I’ll be listening.

Brian: I appreciate that. Thank you so much.

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