O'TOOLE: Understanding my ex's narcissistic disorder

In last month’s column, I made a mistake. I wrote that Elvis purchased a white Cadillac and had it painted pink for his mother.
Feb 4, 2014


In fact, the Cadillac’s original color was blue, not white.

My bad. I’m sorry. That’s what happens when I write my column with a migraine.

Speaking of migraine, I once fell in love with a very charming, very handsome man. He wined me and dined me; he lavished on me flowers, jewelry, CDs, live concerts. His parents were kind and still married. He didn’t frequent bars, sleep around or hit me. We liked the same music and movies. He was funny.

It was a blissful romance for years. Until it wasn’t. I ended it, the tiniest sliver of my sanity intact.

I spent years in therapy trying to figure out why I was unhappy with him. During some particularly trying times, friends remarked on his selfishness. I dismissed these comments out of hand. He cleaned all the snow and ice off my car, filled my gas tank and changed the oil for me. He stopped to help every time he saw a motorist stranded in a ditch. Those didn’t seem like behaviors of a selfish man.

A few months ago, I reconnected with a college friend, who told me my ex’s behavior sounded like narcissistic personality disorder. She recommended some books and I researched the affliction online. At long last, a light blinked on.

Narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) is also known as malignant narcissism (MN). I like the latter term best because it reminds me of cancer — and, in my experience, excessive narcissism is an emotional cancer.  

Narcissism isn’t all bad. A moderate level is necessary for each of us to maintain healthy self-esteem. It’s when narcissism repeatedly undermines our relationships and wounds others that it becomes dangerous.

The NPD Association identifies seven common traits of MN. My former partner had six.

The most harmful was his need for control. He made the major decisions in our relationship — including where we lived, what car we purchased, when we would have children and how many. When I didn’t agree with him on these issues, he feigned interest while I explained my point of view, then coolly responded that he based his choice on the advantages to me; he made it seem he was thinking of me above all.

Ultimately, however, his choices benefitted him and hurt me.

His need for control was so great that he limited my access to our finances. He hid the checkbook, banking statements and bills. This was before online banking. So, I never knew how much money we had or how much we owed.

While a stay-at-home mom, I was completely dependent on him for money. He would often give me a small amount of cash on payday, and when I went to the store a few days later, I would find my wallet empty. When I confronted him, he claimed he needed the money for gas or some other necessity.

Friends say I’m smart and talented. So why did I stay in a toxic relationship with an MN for so long?

I was gaslighted.

The term comes from the 1944 movie “Gaslight,” in which a husband repeatedly flickers the lights while convincing his wife that the flickering is her imagination. He wants her to believe she is insane so that he can steal from her while she languishes in an asylum.

Now my partner didn’t go quite that far, but he did try to convince me that our relationship problems were all in my head; that my perceptions, intuitions and reasoning were faulty, and my migraines and depression were proof and symptoms of my “wrong think.”

Gaslighting is brainwashing.

Maybe it sounds like I blame my ex for the deterioration of our relationship. I don’t. I blame his MN.

The resources I’ve found at narcissisticpersonalitydisorder.org have helped me to better understand why my ex behaved the way he did and why I responded the way I did. For the first time since our breakup, I feel the beginnings of forgiveness and healing. I don’t believe that he is the villain and I am the victim. The villain is MN and we are both victims. Our child, too.

My ex will likely never seek treatment for MN. The MN makes him believe that his relationship problems are the fault of others, not himself — so why would he need treatment?

But I am learning to deprogram myself. I am shedding the misbeliefs he drilled into me that I am naïve, incompetent, weak. I am beginning to see I’m loveable and gifted, a good friend and mom.

It’s a good beginning — for my daughters and for me.

— By Kelly O'Toole, a Tribune community columnist



Former Grandhavenite

It would be interesting to hear his side of the story, but good luck to you either way.

I think to some degree our society trains people to become narcissists with the idea that "you're smarter, you're more talented, and you can do anything you set your mind to! You DESERVE whatever it is that you want, unlike all those other people." It's a case of "Lake Wobegon Syndrome" where every kid in town is above average according to their parents, and their self esteem needs to be promoted at all times even at the expense of others' self esteem. Some of the worst people I've met have had the highest levels of self esteem, often crossing the line into narcissism.


Sounds like your ex is O'bummer and Big Govt.


I think it's terrible that you publicly put it out there of your ex-husband's condition... if that's supposedly what he has. There are always two sides to stories. Shame on those who have to blab their one side and throw it in there that their ex-husband had a personality disorder. While I don't know him, there could be people reading this that do. It's just awful that you couldn't find something better to write on than something like this.


@speak. There are three sides to a story...Her side, his side, and the truth. That's not to say that the husband did not have a personality disorder. Ms. O'Toole seems to be very objective. I'd just like to emphasize the importance of determining what part EACH person plays in the relationship, because that is the only way to get to a point where matters can be resolved...Wherever a relationship ends up, it is a product of both of their actions and/or inactions. Ms. O'Toole, thanks for putting yourself out there, to help others to become aware.


Congratulations you all get participants ribbons around your neck and a 3’ trophy! J/K, society is so concerned that someone may have a flaw in their little life exposed we tend to tell everyone they are super extra special, so when relationships are like those described are we really surprised?


The article and the Lady involved speak from a very objective point of view- the res on here saying there are two sides to a story- or raising the importance of a severe mental disorder in this society are either naive or Psychopaths/narcissists themselves. These people lack empathy, they lack any kind of conscience, morally do not have the awareness to know how their actions hurt people. I was involved directly with someone suffering from NPD- these people are predators,lacking any kind of humanity- 'A Soul with No Footprints' again those saying there are 'two sides to this' are naive and uneducated to the evil in these people.


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