We often say that a bad relationship or divorce can feel like war. It does.
I was looking at a man, face red with rage, justifying his aggression with ideas only he could understand. I saw an entitled man, a self-centered, vindictive, and self-righteous man. He was a man of influence and uncontested power. A man who claimed to be threatened and defending himself.
It wasn’t a Soon-to-Be-Ex-Husband in a fit of verbal abuse. It was Vladimir Putin, the president of my country, on national TV, justifying his order to send troops to Ukraine. He claimed the move was to defend the Russian population and our interests. And his language was concealing the fact of genocide.
As a woman recently divorced from a narcissist, I felt it as I also saw it and I heard it. It was all too familiar. And as soon as I recognized the dynamic, I woke out of my phase of denial and experienced this incredible clarity on the conflict. I understood the aggressor’s tactic: his seemingly logical justification for violence. For war.
A Note Before We Begin
Dear reader, in this blog post I’d like to share my impressions of current events as a Russian, as a means for bridging the gap between us—you in the West and us, here in Russia. These are my personal thoughts only, with no wish to offend anyone in the world. But as one who was denied her feelings for a certain period of time, and who was told her emotions didn’t matter for the duration of my marriage, I am taking this moment to express myself, because I know I am not alone and it must be done. The powerful community of SAS for Women emboldens me. I’d like to think of us as sisters spanning the globe, across thousands of miles, supporting each other through crisis, tough times, divorce, and now, war.
We are all scared now, and uncertain of our future. We don’t know what to expect or how to deal with the sense of having no control. But I believe a better understanding of our circumstances and whom we’re dealing with can provide light for the end of the tunnel.
Below are my 8 points connecting aspects of divorce with war and our current political reality.
1. Being Entitled
Sometimes people feel entitled—to other people. They seek the undivided attention of their parents, a friend, or a lover. If a spouse or a friend has a new outside influence, they get jealous. Not because their love is strong, but because they fear losing control and their attention. They can feel hurt and betrayed when the person they feel entitled to gets other friends or lovers.
For centuries, Russia and Ukraine were one country, governed from Moscow. When the Soviet Union fell apart in 1991, many Russians, the current president included, didn’t believe the separation was real. On the personal level, Russians and Ukrainians are intertwined, intermarried. Until the start of the “events”, there were officially 2 million Ukrainians living in Russia and 8 million Russians living in Ukraine. We regarded each other as brothers. On the extreme end of the politics, Russian leaders regarded Ukraine as a natural sphere of interest, an entitlement, a country that must value its ties with Russia first and foremost. When Ukraine preferred to have other allies, Russia got jealous. For many years Ukraine wanted to become part of the European Union and build ties with NATO not least to safeguard itself from a Russian military invasion. With this invasion, Russia was punishing Ukraine for going off with someone else.
2. Power Dynamics
In a conflict, be it a divorce or a “military operation”, it may seem that there are two equal parties, like in civilized tennis match. When I was getting divorced, I could feel keenly how society and the state made many things easier for a man. A man can scare a woman with aggression, and even act on it. In Russia, where we have serious family abuse issues, threats aren’t considered to be a problem by the police.
I am seeing the same abusive, bullying tactics by the army today. Russia is a 150-million strong country, while Ukraine has 50 million inhabitants. The quarrel isn’t equal. The weights are different, as is the opportunity to pull in allies. The countries have different importance in the world economy, too. And as usual, the stronger side uses this strength to its advantage, pretending it’s level playing field.
3. People Get Hurt Senselessly
When this all started, an English friend messaged me to ask how I was doing and said: “Mr. Putin must see sense and stop”. My friend implied that Putin should see how many people are getting hurt on both sides of the border. He must see how his own people are being badly affected by the sanctions. He must get the economics of it. He must realize it’s futile and bad to harm everyday humans being, let alone old people and children. He should stop.
That logic doesn’t work.
It’s the same as when a narcissist is aggressive to his* spouse in front of the kids. He doesn’t care about the kids — just about his own battle. And often the kids are pushed into taking sides or are punished for seeming to take sides and allying with their mother.
Consider reading “41 Things to Remember If You Are Coparenting with a Narcissist.”
The same happens in war. In Russia, people were told that those who tried to flee Russia, would have their property taken away. And those who speak against the war can get up to 15 years in jail.
4. Not Looking for a Win-Win
My divorce lawyer told me a story of a female client he once had, a woman who was willing to back down, to reach a compromise with her Ex, only to see him bit by bit consume everything she was giving up, and wanting more.
Like war, in a divorce from a narcissist or an abuser, the aggressor doesn’t want to reach a compromise. They announce their target and even pretend to act in someone’s best interests – the kids, or the Russian-speaking population, but their end game is victory. Nothing less. They want to defeat. They want to see a loser. They want to celebrate their victory and feel strong.
Peaceful negotiations must come from a place of strength, from legal support and allies.
By the way, bullies get surprised to see strong defense or resistance. They are enraged if their counterpart gets allies. Because in their minds, they have already won. They feel entitled to win due to their strength, weight, and self-righteousness.
5. Gaslighting and Smear Campaigns
When I initiated divorce, I did it because I could no longer stand verbal abuse in front of other people and in front of my kids. However, my Ex assured our mutual friends that I left him and the kids to enjoy sexual encounters outside our marriage. He believed it himself. He spun the story from me being the victim to actually the villain.
Watching the news and propaganda from all sides, I find it hard to believe what is true and what isn’t. I know that people can go to great lengths to distort the truth for their own gain, to turn victims into villains. They seem to do this spinning naturally.
6. Hard to Relate
We know that we can lose friends as we go through divorce. Because we can find it hard to relate to other people and they can’t relate to our problems.
A woman set on remaining married and a woman planning to divorce will find little to talk about and can sometimes drift apart as friends. We can even find it hard to relate to someone going through a divorce if it’s very different from our own.
Conflicts can polarize people. We feel strongly about an issue and can decide to stop talking to a person due to their views. During the Covid pandemic, friendships suffered due to different views on vaccines. During the current political crisis, we all feel scared and unsure. Yet we find it hard to relate to each other because we experience fear in a different way. In Ukraine, people fear for their lives as they spend time in bomb shelters. In Russia, people fear for the direction their country is going. Will we turn into the next North Korea or Iran? Will our children be able to travel? Will our sons be drafted? Will we ever be able to see our friends and families in other countries? Will the internet work?
Societies in the West fear for their livelihoods as recession looms. They fear the threat of nuclear war.
We all see scary videos and photos in the press or the Internet. We all remember relatives or history lessons retelling us the atrocities of the world wars. We are all living through the same events, but we experience them differently. And instead of feeling together, we run the risk as people of drifting apart.
7. Feeling Powerless and Ashamed.
Going through a divorce, we can face criticism from other people, or from our internal voice, demanding “how did you let this all happen? How did you end up with such a man or partner? Such an abuser? Why didn’t you build boundaries? Why didn’t’ you protect yourself? How could you allow such a co-dependent relationship to flourish and your own personality to disintegrate?
Consider reading “27 Cautionary Signs You are in a Toxic Marriage.”
Here in Russia, such questions equally crop up during discussions of the war. How could we have allowed this to happen? Why haven’t we made it clear that we don’t support these policies or current events?
The answer is this: it’s not the lack of our expression that is the problem. It’s the Narcissist who doesn’t want to hear anything and doesn’t care what others want.
As people of all countries watch this conflict unroll and feel increasingly helpless, people here in Russia also feel ashamed of being associated with the initiators of the war.
To cope with the feeling of anxiety and helplessness, psychologists teach us to concentrate on things we can control in our lives, like our health, our immediate families, or by helping others or by creating things.
8. Can Someone Save Me?
When we live through a conflict – be it in a bad marriage or war – we crave to be saved. It comes from realizing how powerless we are in the face of larger foes.
When I was experiencing marriage challenges, I sometimes thought that maybe I’d meet a new man who would understand me, and that in fact, he’d save me, he’d whisk me away. Similarly, I often dreamt of moving to a different town or country, even as a way to escape. In the end, it turned out I had to accept it wasn’t about someone else or running away. I could no longer stay in a difficult marriage. I moved out, I created a new home and I rebuilt my life. And while my family and friends supported me on my journey, I saved myself.
On that note of personal responsibility and saving yourself, feel inspired. It’s a new day for women getting divorced. Check out our short movie, “One Woman’s Journey.”
It is reported that 200,000 Russians left Russia in the first 10 days once the war began. They couldn’t stay in a country that invades its neighbors. They feared for their own freedom of speech and livelihoods.
As I sat with girlfriends drinking tea and talking aloud about different immigration possibilities, a friend of mine cut to the chase, “Can someone save us?!“ As those of us who consider ourselves westernized Russians talked more, and specifically, how we could be saved from this regime, another friend sighed, “I guess it’s only up to God now.”
Another friend who works in a large organization said that for the first time in her long career she hears top managers mention God during business talks.
A survivor of divorce, I know that one day it will end—even if it takes longer and destroys more value than we ever wanted. We need to take better care of ourselves and our loved ones now. When the new life starts, we can appreciate our bravery and resilience. This is the real strength that matters.
With this strength, we can rebuild bridges. Hopefully, the rift between women and the rest of the population in any given country won’t be too big by then.
Natasha Repina is a writer living in Russia. She wishes to increase understanding between people of different countries and in no way wishes to offend. For reasons of security, she is unable to leave her personal information, but you are encouraged to connect with her by commenting below.
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* At SAS, we support same-sex marriages. For the sake of ease, we may refer to the Ex as “he/him” but we understand that exes come with many gender identities.