Kiwi woman opens up on her 13 years married to a narcissist

Stock image of woman looking sad
Sarah* detailed the shocking treatment she endured across 13 years of marriage. Photo credit: Getty Images

This was one of Newshub's top stories of 2023. It was originally published on May 28

Warning: This article discusses psychological and physical abuse.

A Kiwi woman who was married to a narcissist for more than a decade has warned others in situations like hers to notice the signs and "wake up", saying a better life is waiting on the other side.

Sarah* detailed the shocking treatment she endured across 13 years of marriage for the latest episode of New Zealand mental health podcast Are You Mental?, released on Sunday.

In the podcast, she revealed how her husband's controlling behaviour manipulated her into staying with him despite his multiple affairs, compulsive self-absorption and fits of rage.

The episode also features Auckland psychologist Nettie Cullen delving into the mindset behind narcissistic personality disorder (NPD), and an interview with self-confessed US-based narcissist Lee Hammock, who has been documenting his journey to recovery on social media.

'The biggest mistake of my life'

It was in 2004 that Sarah first met Reuben*, the man she would go on to marry.

"I was at a nightclub in town, got dancing and talking, and then gave him my number. He called me the next day and we went out," she told counsellor and Are You Mental? host Mick Andrews.

"And then he was going back overseas, so we kept in touch and started a relationship through email."

Having never been in a long-term relationship before, Sarah didn't really know what she was getting into. But, won over by his pilot career and love of dogs, they had a strong connection from the off.

"It must have been about a week after I met him, he had sent a dozen red roses and I was like, 'Wow, this is intense. Maybe he's got stronger feelings for me than I thought.'"

Just three months into their relationship, however, Sarah encountered the first red flag.

"He told me that he was actually in a relationship with somebody else," she recounts.

"He told me she wasn't someone who he expected to marry, that he could see more of that in the qualities that I had. So even during shocking news, he was trying to butter me up and make me still feel like I was his priority and not the other person."

Despite the shock reveal, Sarah appreciated that Reuben was upfront with her, and was still very much caught up in the heady romance of a new relationship.

But those closest to her expressed their concern.

"Some of my friends had met him, and one of the girls had said to me before I moved [to be with Reuben] that I was making the biggest mistake of my life. She was right.

"My family had met him and they said, 'It's totally up to you. If you think that he's right for you, we will support you'. But I still remember on my wedding day, as my dad was walking me down the aisle, he turned to me and said, 'It's not too late to back out'."

Happy husband, happy life

Despite a couple of well-intentioned warnings, Sarah was in love.

She married Reuben in 2005, but it didn't take long for his narcissism to rear its head. By the time they'd been married for a couple of years, Sarah was dealing with Reuben's destructive behaviour on a daily basis.

"It was all about him and how great he was, and I felt like he had no empathy. When I had any concerns, he just said I was emotional and it was all in my head.

"He just could not see how his actions could affect other people. I think in his eyes, he deserved better, and I wasn't giving him everything that he expected or wanted in his life. He needed someone to be there for him and him alone, and for him to be the focus of everything."

Sarah says Reuben was obsessed with flashy cars and expensive houses, always wanting "the latest and greatest" as a way of showing others how well he was achieving. He became transfixed on career progression as a means of earning admiration from his peers.

Reuben's narcissism only worsened when he and Sarah had children together, she says, as he was no longer the centre of attention.

"I didn't realise how miserable I had become. It was never 'happy wife, happy life', it was always 'happy husband, happy life'. And you get to a point where… you don't say anything, you just shut up. It was toxic."

Looking back, Sarah says it's clear she was being gaslighted by Reuben.

"I didn't even know what gaslighting was until afterwards. He would just constantly say 'What are you talking about?' 'You're crazy' … trying to make you second-guess yourself."

The affairs

As their marriage progressed, Sarah suspected Reuben was having an affair.

She would regularly catch him having hushed conversations in quiet corners of their property, or texting into the early hours of the morning, and wondered why he was no longer interested in her sexually.

Sarah's repeated accusations of infidelity were met with denials, but one night in bed, she confronted Reuben and he finally admitted he'd been cheating on her with not one, but two women.

"He said he'd met a couple of people while overseas. The first one I found out later was a stripper, and the other girl was someone he felt sorry for, who he was trying to be the knight in shining armour [for]."

Despite admitting to the affairs, Sarah says Reuben showed no remorse - and incredibly, even suggested they hire one of the women he was sleeping with as their au pair.

"I was just lying in absolute shock, going what the hell? After that he obviously felt better, so he fell asleep, but I couldn't fall asleep. I went outside and I was like, 'Who the hell am I gonna talk to? What am I going to do?'

"So I rang his mum. I always had quite a close connection with his mum, and she said, 'Kick him out'. So I went into the room and I said, 'I can't have you here. Get your stuff and be gone.'"

Sarah says the worst part was having to explain to her children what had happened.

"I said to the kids, 'Your dad's kind of in timeout at the moment. He's going to stay with somebody else because he's broken mummy's heart.'

"My eldest son said to me, 'Are you guys separating?' And I said, 'I don't know yet, darling'. And he goes, 'He's always yelling at you anyway, mum'. And my heart just broke, thinking, 'Oh my goodness, I tried to stop the kids hearing this stuff, but he knew.'"

Sarah says Reuben tried to win her back after their fight, but it was too late - she was no longer interested in making the marriage work. She stopped responding when he talked to her, which caused him to fly into fits of rage.

"I didn't see a lot of his narcissistic traits until I stopped listening to him and I broke up with him. That's when the hatred and a lot of crazy things happened."

"When things are going his way, he's happy. When things don't, watch out. There were times after we were separated that I actually got quite fearful because I could see the rage inside of him."

'You need to wake up'

It's been five years since Sarah broke off her marriage to Reuben.

She hopes that by speaking out about her own experience, she can inspire others in a similar situation to take that same step for themselves.

She says people who suspect they're in a relationship with a narcissist should consider whether they still know who they are, what they want for their future, and whether they still feel loved, appreciated and respected.

"If you're not getting those things, then you need to wake up," says Sarah.

"You get into a slumber, you get numb to it all. [But] you need to be able to wake up from it and to realise what's actually happening. And if you're wanting to be in that relationship, why? What are you getting from it? Is it beneficial or not?

"I never wanted a broken marriage, but it happens, and you work through it. You need to be true to yourself. And if you've lost yourself, then that's a huge sign that it's a relationship that's not good for you."

Sarah says for those willing to take the courageous step of leaving a toxic relationship with a narcissist, something much better awaits them on the other side of it.

"There's so much in the world that you can do, and people you can be with who appreciate you - and it doesn't have to come in the form of a marriage or a relationship.

"You actually can get to happiness. You can actually be loved. There's so much that I missed out on because I was trying to make it work with one person and everything else just went away.

"So on the other side of breaking off from this one person who you believe is a narcissist, there is a better life out there for you where you can find you again."

The psychology behind narcissism

Auckland psychologist Nettie Cullen told Are You Mental? that despite the assumptions people make about narcissism, it's actually a disorder of self-esteem.

"The reality is that the person presenting in that kind of narcissistic way is actually more commonly the most insecure person in the room, but they've developed a way of defending themselves against that insecurity," she explains.

"I often think about it like a pufferfish swimming happily through the ocean and then a threat appears. And this little pufferfish turns into this massive, spiny creature - and that's all there to defend themselves against the perceived threat."

This grandiosity comes from an overinflated understanding of how special, unique or exceptional the person believes themselves to be, Cullen says.

"So I'm the best, I'm the most beautiful, and the most successful; or, on the other hand, I'm the most maligned, I'm the most victimised, I'm the hardest done by… I'm so much 'more' than everybody else, whether it's that I've suffered more or I've achieved more or I'm more beautiful or I'm smarter.

"[Narcissists think like] that to defend themselves against the fear that I'm not at all amazing, that I'm insignificant, I'm unlovable - and that that's a deep insecurity. Most of the time they don't realise that [they have these fears]."

While narcissism at its most extreme is a serious personality disorder, Cullen explains that narcissism is a spectrum, and we all to some degree have a desire to feel special.

"It's actually a very human and helpful trait, within reason.

"We're all on a spectrum from no narcissistic traits whatsoever - which has its own problems - right through to having such a high degree of narcissism that it interferes with our daily life and our relationships and it wreaks havoc."

The sad irony is that the behaviour of narcissists tends to alienate them from people who would provide them with the sense of safety and security they crave, Cullen says.

"They never get the needs met that they really need. Instead, they invest in being the special, the unique, the wonderful as a way of avoiding their relational insecurity.

"So they never let their vulnerability show, they never let their defences down, they never get to form those relationships that would actually be beneficial and healing."

Cullen says the first thing those who feel they might have narcissistic personality disorder should do is take responsibility.

"For a person who really wants to understand themselves more deeply and is prepared to do the hard work, the brave work, there's a lot of hope… Being able to acknowledge and take responsibility is the path to healing."

*Not their real names.

More about narcissism as well as other mental health issues is explored in the Are You Mental? podcast, which can be streamed via all major platforms.