Sometimes your partner’s exes disappear from your lives as soon as possible — and sometimes, when you’re with a previously married man, they come around again in the form of a toxic, narcissistic ex-wife.
Sounds familiar? Don’t worry. You’re not alone, and there are solutions to your situation.
In this article, we’ll show you how to detect if she’s a narcissist and what you can do about it.
Signs your husband’s ex-wife is a narcissist
1) She’s manipulative
“Nobody can be kinder than the narcissist while you react to life on his terms.”
People who want to use other people for their own gain will do everything they want and anything they can to get them to do their bidding.
Has she ever been cold and indifferent one minute and then warm and kind another, particularly when she wants something?
Narcissists can be chameleons.
They don’t mind that they manipulate people’s emotions because of who they are at the moment; they simply don’t care about those kinds of things. They can tailor the way they act based on the person they’re talking to and the goal they’re looking to achieve.
Is she trying to manipulate the children into thinking that you’re a heartless stepmother? Suddenly she’s the best mom ever, baking them cookies and letting them stay up past their bedtime.
Or is she trying to get on your good side so that you’ll let her see the kids more? Out of nowhere, she’s a textbook-perfect ex-wife, causing no trouble at all.
Manipulation isn’t always glaringly obvious to you, especially during your first encounters with her. They could also come in sneakier and more (seemingly) positive forms, such as love bombing.
A “love bomber” is someone who showers people with love at the beginning of a relationship to gain their trust and control their vulnerability. She might be this way to you or the children too by giving you gifts until you feel that she’s making a positive effort.
Even though she’s a narcissist, she still could have genuinely loved your husband. This could even explain why she’s acting out towards the two of you.
In the words of Dr. Andrew Klafter, for narcissists, “passionate love turns to passionate hate”.
2) She’s unnecessarily involving herself in your lives
When she and your husband were still together, she may have used her narcissistic tendencies to gain power and control over him. She could be used to doing this in relationships as it gives her the sense of being on top and having complete control over their relationship.
Now that they’re divorced and he’s remarried, she pops up in your lives often because she hated losing control of the situation (and your husband, along with their kids).
Inserting herself into your lives is her way of attempting to take back the reins and have the situation under her power.
It’s one thing to have civil interactions when it’s unavoidable given your kids and it’s another to have her inviting herself over to your house on an everyday basis just to snoop on your marriage.
Narcissists love attention, and they love manipulating situations to get their way.
If you notice that she meddles in things that aren’t her concern (because they aren’t about the kids), it’s time to step back and see what you can do about it.
3) She can’t take criticism
During the times that you do have to interact with each other, see if you’ll notice that she can’t take criticism when someone points out a mistake or a flaw in her.
Narcissists aren’t capable of self-reflection or entertaining comments about self-improvement from others because they truly believe that nothing’s wrong with them.
You could tell her that she should be less snappy with the kids and she’ll either spin it out of proportion with sarcastic I’m-the-bad-guy comments or pretend to nonchalantly brush it off, saying that she doesn’t care and she thought about doing it anyway.
Dismissing the criticism and acting as though she’s above it when she’s actually internally raging is typical for narcissistic people.
She may have even tried negotiating with your husband during the divorce process, saying that she believes that he made the wrong decision to leave her because she never did anything wrong.
And when it comes to parenting the kids, she could aggressively disagree with the way you’re handling them as the biological mother knows best.
If you were to try and understand why she thinks that way, it could be because that’s how she protects herself; all sorts of criticism, even if they’re constructive, are perceived as threats to her.
Because she feels attacked, she’ll defend herself by either being aggressive towards you or acting like it doesn’t bother her at all. Either way, she blocks out negative feedback about herself as much as possible.
4) She lacks empathy
Have you ever asked her to pick up the kids from school because you were running late at work, expecting sympathy from another working mom, but being met instead with an uncaring wall of a woman?
Narcissists don’t feel for other people because they think only about themselves. They’re unapologetic about their actions, even when it hurts or upsets others.
She won’t like putting herself in someone else’s shoes — only her own platform heels.
Contrary to common belief, a study has found that narcissists do see and acknowledge emotions. The problem isn’t that they don’t detect negative emotions; it’s that they don’t do anything to make the person feel better.
Instead, they use those emotions to manipulate people into becoming a means to achieve their own goals.
If you talk to her about something she did or said that hurt you, she won’t try fixing things. The chances are higher that she’ll use what you told her against you in the future.
5) She comes off as self-entitled
According to Susan Krauss Whitbourne, Ph.D., there are two kinds of narcissists.
There are the grandiose narcissists who like to blow up their own sense of self-importance and the vulnerable narcissists who use their narcissism to mask their insecurity.
If she thinks that she deserves special treatment for no other reason than that she’s her, chances are she’s the former kind.
If she thinks that you should have less of a say with the kids’ upbringing solely because she thinks she’s the only one who deserves that last say, it’s the entitlement speaking.
Narcissists feel like how they want things to happen should happen — not because of some effort to get there on their part, but because they believe that it’s inherent in them to get what they want.
Whitbourne says that they have a sense that they’re entitled to get their way just because they’re them and they genuinely believe that that makes them worthy of success.
If she acts out with you because she didn’t get enough time with the kids that week or your husband didn’t speak to her much at a parent-teacher conference, she’s throwing a tantrum because she didn’t get what she fully thinks she deserved.
6) She always needs admiration and attention
Your husband probably has that one crazy story (or ten) about his experiences with her need for admiration. It could be instances like her outright saying “tell me I’m pretty” or, more subtly, fishing for compliments when she wore an outfit she knew looked good on her.
Maybe you do too if she shows up to a parent-teacher conference with the most extravagant example of an over-dressed outfit just because she wants compliments from the other parents. It’s one of the most telltale signs of narcissism.
Like Narcissus in Greek mythology (who was the reason why the term “narcissists” was coined), they like to preen in their own reflections and look for others’ compliments. Suzanne Degges-White, Ph.D., says that they need to be admired every day.
Of course, with admiration comes attention. Narcissists need to always be the center of attention, whether it’s at a party or when she’s alone with you or with the kids. They’ll demand it and find ways to regain it if it’s lost.
If all of these signs sound like her, feel free to shout “bingo!”.
Now that you’ve established that your husband’s ex-wife is a narcissist, here are some tips for your next steps in dealing with her.
What you can do about it
1) Don’t let her get to you
When dealing with her, it’s important to remember that you need to manage your emotions (because she won’t).
She wants to get under your skin, and she’ll do anything to do that. She could try things from subtle jabs during necessary conversations to gaslighting you and your husband.
Her thoughtless and irrational actions will have real repercussions, and she’ll do anything to pin the blame on anyone but her.
Don’t give in; it’s only going to cause problems in your family if you believe her fantasies.
Don’t believe her when she says things are yours (or your husband’s) fault if you know it’s not true, even if it makes you second-guess your version of events. Remain confident in your version, which is reality.
When talking to her, be polite but firm. Maintain your self-control because, again, she won’t. She’ll try to manipulate you both at any opportunity to get what she wants (which can be anything from gaining custody of your children to getting your husband back).
It’ll be difficult to act like these things don’t bother you, but it’s necessary for showing her that she’s not getting to you. Remember, the only thing that you can control in this situation is your behavior.
You can’t try to reason with an ex like this; narcissists can get irrational and that’s something neither you nor your husband can control. All you can control is how you react to her.
If you’re finding it hard to stay in control when interacting with her, try using a pre-made script for the conversation. If you have something to go back to and ground yourself to, it’ll be easier not to let yourself get carried away by emotion.
2) Communicate with your husband about the situation
You aren’t alone in this problem and neither is your husband. While this is hard on you, take the time to understand his side of things. This is a painful process for him too.
This is a woman with whom he thought he would spend the rest of his life, and now she’s using that sentiment to turn him against himself. It isn’t a pleasant experience.
Talk things out with him. Ask how he’s doing, how he’s coping, whether there’s anything you can do between the two of you that’ll help.
At the same time, tell him how you feel. Tell him what’s on your mind about the situation, about what you think any next steps should be.
Get on the same page with each other and process things together. Showing a united front could be helpful both for the two of you constructively and for your kids to see.
3) Accept that she won’t change
When dealing with a narcissistic ex, you have to accept the situation.
It may sound counterproductive, because aren’t you supposed to do something about what’s happening?
This doesn’t mean that you need to accept and support her for who she is. It just means that you shouldn’t expect her to change; remember when we said narcissists don’t believe there’s anything wrong with them? That’s why they won’t change.
There’s no helping someone who doesn’t think they need help.
Dianne Grande, Ph.D., says that a narcissist “will only change if it serves his or her purpose”. If a narcissist suddenly starts changing for the better out of nowhere, be wary of it.
4) Use the Gray Rock Method together
Do you know how rocks on the ground blend into each other with none of them standing out — they’re all just rocks?
That’s the idea behind the Gray Rock Method. It means blending in, becoming insignificant to them by not giving them the spotlight that they desperately try to cling to.
Narcissists are in it for the attention, even if it’s the negative kind. If she realizes that she’s not getting it from either of you no matter how hard she tries, chances are that she’ll look for the attention somewhere else.
5) Find a support system
Dealing with this situation is tough on everyone, but make sure that you find ways to cope on your own. Process this with your friends or consider therapy.
Remember: you never have to deal with this alone.
6) See the bigger picture
Throughout all of this, don’t lose your sense of purpose.
Why are you here? Why did you marry your husband? What are your goals together, and what are your goals as an individual? What are your goals for your stepkids?
Don’t let your husband’s ex-wife derail you from your tracks.
The only thing you can control here is your own behavior, so behave like she doesn’t matter to you until she truly doesn’t. Focus on constructively supporting your family and set a positive tone for it.
What if she tries to manipulate the kids against me?
A study has shown that something common to divorcing narcissists is the ex-spouse becoming a Narcissistic Parental Alienator (NPA).
In this case, the ex-wife (who is the biological mother) manipulates the children into having a negative view of their father (and you).
She would do this by indoctrinating her children with the version of you two that she wants them to believe in. She wants you to get on their bad side, and the children would naturally believe her because they trust their mother.
Are you suddenly impatient in their eyes? Does he have anger issues? Does he spend more time with you than with them?
NPAs will feed alternate versions of reality to their children to get them on their side, giving them a sense of control over their children and having their attention to themselves.
The same study shows that children in this situation can develop Parent Alienation Syndrome or PAS. Children with PAS start to have an inner conflict with themselves, doubting the target parent and trying to match up the version of them that they hear from their alienator parent with the version that they see in real life.
Symptoms of PAS include:
- Unfair criticism of the target parent with no specific evidence for those criticisms
- Unwavering support for the alienator parent
- Feelings of hatred toward the target parent and/or their family members
- Usage of adult terms or phrases
- Refusal to talk to or see the alienated parent
As their stepmom, here’s what you can do about the situation.
Get your children to spend time with you
Let the children get to know you more as a person, separate from their mother and their father. Ground them in the reality of your personality, and learn to listen to them well when they speak.
If they get to know you for who you are, they’re more likely to correctly match who you truly are to their idea of you in their heads. It’s easier for them to believe in an alternate reality if they don’t have a true one that they can ground themselves to, so be patient. If the alienator parent has been doing this for some time, it’ll also take some time to undo it.
Maybe you could do an activity that they enjoy like playing games or watching movies at home. You could also invite them to do something that you enjoy doing, like one of your hobbies.
The important thing is to spend time with them and ground them in reality, not the fabricated one that they hear from their mother.
Don’t disrespect her in front of the children
Ever feel like bursting sometimes, especially when your children say something bad about your husband? Keep it under control and don’t start negatively talking about their mother.
Bad-mouthing her in front of the children will only further deepen their idea of your conflict in their heads. If their mother said that you have anger issues and you unintentionally look like you do, they’ll be more likely to believe her and everything else that she says.
Remember that they trust and love their mother. If you speak badly about someone that they trust, they won’t be able to trust you.
Let them know that you’re not there to replace her
“You’re not my mom!”
It’s a common thing for stepmoms to hear this from their stepchildren, and it’s understandable for them to feel that way.
All their lives, they had one mother and one father who were together and who loved each other. Now, they rarely see them in the same room together and their father has married somebody else. Looking at it from their perspective, it’s completely natural for this to be their reaction.
Something important to do here is to reassure them that you’re not trying to replace their mom.
They’ll always have their mom there, but assure them that they’ll also have you — not to take their mom’s place, but to be an additional adult who loves them and who they can trust.
Your husband’s ex-wife won’t say these things.
She’ll be too wrapped up in herself and in her manipulations to explain to the children that you’re not out to take her spotlight; to her, everyone who challenges her place is out to take her spotlight.
Since they won’t hear it from their mother, it’s good that they’ll hear it from you to proactively counter it if they do feel that way.
As always, communicate with your children. Don’t make them feel even more out of place than they might already feel in your family since your husband married you. Make an effort to talk to them about how they’re feeling and open up your feelings to them so that they learn to trust and open up to you too.
The bottom line
Don’t let your husband’s narcissistic ex-wife block out the good things about your relationship and your family. While there may be unavoidable reasons for her to still be around, it doesn’t have to wreck your family’s dynamic if you know what to do about it.
Just move forward with your family and grow with it the way you plan to.