When I managed finally to end my extramarital affair — to break the tedious, traumatic cycle that it had become — I thought that this would take the form of a normal breakup. I’d been very clear with my lover that the relationship was over. He had always claimed to love me deeply and I told him that if this was true, he would respect the fact that I now wanted him to leave me alone forever.
“OK,” he said. “I do believe you mean it this time, and I won’t be in touch. But please don’t block all forms of communication. That feels so knee-jerk and brutal. I won’t contact you, you can trust me on that, but we respect each other too much to have a childish delete-and-block policy. Don’t we?”
I thought there was a strange logic in this maturely worded plea. Adult humans, I told myself, didn’t need the safety net of digital padlocks to keep each other at bay. I knew I wouldn’t be contacting him again and he had promised me he wouldn’t bother me. So I agreed to the terms.
In doing so I was, as so often during that year, an absolute fool.
Not even a week had passed before his first text message popped up. “I am sorry to text you when I said I wouldn’t. But I have realised that we shouldn’t sit in our separate houses missing each other,” the message read. “I know that what you didn’t like from me was my vacillation, but I am prepared now to offer you absolute certainty. I want to start spending structured time with you.”
I said no. I said that I was not interested. That I was sorry we had caused so many people so much pain, and I was happy to talk about anything he wanted to talk about if that helped him process the fact that things are over, but not if it included any mention of reconciliation because that was no longer an option.
I was shaking as I sent the text, feeling sick, hating it, but on the screen, my words read as calm and firm and polite. But I should not have replied at all. Doing so instigated a message-based bombardment that was as predictable as the change of the seasons. I now realise it is a narcissist’s textbook routine, but at the time I didn’t know enough about that to identify it.
First, he tried calm logic and reason — we had both left our spouses for each other, why wouldn’t we choose to be together, now that he was strong enough to face the idea? (I did not bother now to press the point that only I had, in fact, left my home and only I was now living alone).
Then there was vitriol — clearly, I had never loved him, I was a scheming bitch like he’d learned all blonde women are, he should never have been fooled, I had planned all the way along to hurt him. I was weak and an idiot for throwing away such a good thing as what we had. (This phase of texts was very short and it was followed immediately by words of deep contrition).
The contrition segued into loving pleading — could I really not remember how good we had had it? Had I ever loved anyone as much, had I ever had such great sex? Could I not see how much he loved me, that he would resort to begging so uncharacteristically? Did that uncharacteristic begging not prove how much he was prepared to lose to win me back?
And back he swung, then, to the calm logic he’d adopted at the outset. Calm persuasion, he was clearly sure, was key. Maybe because I am an outwardly calm and rational person generally it was the button he pressed hardest and most often.
Behind all of his words lurked our undeniable shared humour and everything that had ever made him attractive to me. He always understood my points of view easily and mirrored them right back at me (this in itself should have been a warning very early on), and of course his charm was now on a consistent full beam. He was using it cleverly, lacing references through his texts to various jokes we had shared.
It did tug at me a bit. I was completely alone at this point, and I missed him — or, no, the idea of him, the one I’d had before I saw the truth of it all. But more than that, I really believed that he missed me too. And I thought that I had hurt him by ending a relationship that I believed was toxic but that he claimed was not.
I knew he was weak and that he had been very cruel to me, and I was starting to see that he had character flaws so deep it shamed me not to have spotted them long before. But I still believed that he missed me and that some of his pleading came from a place of true sadness. That some of his cruelty had arisen from the stress of our situation. And that this was my fault.
The text exchange eventually ended with me blocking his number, as I should have done from the outset. But my ensuing belief — that I had contributed not only to my whole family’s misery and to my husband’s misery, but also to unnecessary sadness in my former lover — was horrible. It was another separate layer to my guilt and I dwelled on it for a long time.
Over a year later I saw my former lover, by chance, in a pub. It was Christmas. It was 14 months since that last exchange of texts and I had not seen him at all in the interim; when I collided with him in the busy bar it was entirely surreal because I had almost forgotten his face. Our eyes met and it was like years had passed but also no time at all. (I knew that he was still married. He had never, in the end, left his family home even for one night).
We were both drunk, but he was drunker. He said, “Do we need to have a conversation?” I said to him “I just want to know why. Why you lied to me, why you let me go through everything I went through. I’m glad now that we never got anywhere, but that doesn’t stop me wanting to know why you bothered with any of it. It doesn’t make sense and it just feels so cruel.”
He said “Look. Nothing has changed for me. I still love you. I love you. Is that what you want me to say?”
I said “No. It is not what I want you to say. I told you what I want. I want you to explain why you spent all that time lying to me but you still tried to make me believe everything was my fault. I want to know why you’d let me live through that experience if you loved me. It feels like inhuman behaviour and I want to understand it.”
He said, “I don’t know what to tell you. I just love you so much. I think about you every day. I have a list of things I want to talk to you about. Books I think you’d like. Films I think you’d enjoy. Songs that make me cry because they remind me of you. I miss you every minute.”
I was a year wiser and I had spent a lot of time with a therapist that year. I knew, now, the truth about narcissism and control and I knew that my former lover did not miss me. What he missed was the idea of me. He missed knowing that I was out there, waiting for his texts and emails. He thought that referencing our shared love of culture would be a useful way back into my head.
I reasoned that he probably had not yet found another woman who would fill that particular spot in his life, and it would be easier to have me back there rather than put the hours of groundwork in with someone new. He would not give me any kind of answer, and I knew that now too. I pushed the revolving door very hard and walked out of the pub.
What I have learned since that day is that because a narcissistic personality is governed primarily by selfish urges, I was right to believe that he did not miss me as a person. But it’s simplistic to state that he missed only the idea of me. There are other layers to what a narcissist means when they state that they miss someone, or that they are sorry.
A narcissist cannot feel genuine regret or shame (in the way that I felt such deep regret and shame about my affair) because genuine remorse radiates outwards. Genuine remorse relates to bad feelings about damage done to other people, wanting to make amends to other people, and wanting to change future behaviour to protect or repair other people.
Narcissists can certainly regret things that didn’t work out. They can have deep regret for failed relationships and they may feel loss very deeply. But they feel that regret and loss only insofar as they relate to their own agenda and feelings. Their remorse points inward.
They may feel very sad that they lost someone and they may genuinely miss that person. But again, it relates to them. It’s because in losing that person they lost access to their “narcissistic supply” (of validation, adoration, or sex).
So, no. A true narcissist cannot miss you, not as you or I might understand the term.