“….But there’s also no safety in continuing to open your heart to someone who’s careless with it. So what then? This is the realm of management, not change. Self-protection should become your primary goal. Limit contact if you can, just like you would with any toxic relationship.”
This quote came from a book called Rethinking Narcissism by Dr. Craig Malkin. It was interesting, but not necessarily helpful for the particular situation I discuss here. I was able to glean some valuable points from it though, such as the quote above.
The relationship needs to be managed. What does this look like? While every situation and its nuances vary, there are some general practices you can exercise to help you keep your sanity.
In normal relationships, you should be able to tell the person how you feel. This will not work in an abusive relationship, however. Because narcissists lack empathy, their feelings and perceptions are the only reality they know. They may come across as empathetic at times, and perhaps have moments where they genuinely seem concerned, but this is often faux empathy or intellectual empathy. They have the ability to recognize that this is normal behavior, therefore something they should exhibit. This awareness often enables them to manifest some semblance of empathy or compassion.
A common example that I have heard, read about and know about from my own experience is the narcissist’s response to sickness. Particularly when it is anyone but them. When they come down with an illness, you are to expected to be an angel of mercy, anticipating every need, meeting them before being asked, wiping fevered brows (yes, said for effect) and making their favorite comfort foods. The point is, however, that the world revolves even more around them when they are sick.
Then you get sick. How dare you. Irritated at the inconvenience you are causing them and impatient for you to return to your normal duties, sickness becomes a cause for irritation. They want to know how long before you are back to being able to meet their needs. Children can also fall into this category for other reasons like taking extra attention away from them or disrupting their homeostasis.
This is just one example of a lack of empathy, but it is that lack of empathy that makes expressing your feelings, in an attempt to come to an understanding, ineffective. In fact, sharing your feelings highlights your weakness to the narcissist. Your feelings suddenly become a battle ground. They are scrutinized for their legitimacy, used as an example of your lack of coping skills or used against you in the future.
Over and over again, I was told that I needed to stop thinking like I was in a normal relationship. No one ever enters a marriage expecting to have to maintain barriers that will protect them. You enter marriage expecting mutual respect and compromise, but this kind of relationship is not about being free to express how someone’s actions made you feel. It is about drawing lines and setting limits to establish what is acceptable and what is not.
If you do not do this, you will be the only one functioning in a normal capacity. Your attempt to follow the normal rules of engagement will constantly be frustrated. Does this sound grim? I think so, yet I do know of a few people who seem to be able to make this work or least livable.
Your expectations need to change in order to do this. Discard expectations of mutual respect and compassion. In fact, set the bar low and you will find yourself feeling less hurt. Model behavior that is normal, but don’t expect that they will change. Is it possible? Of course. Is it likely? No.
Remember this is about management for the purpose of self-protection, not about changing them. The key is setting limits. For example, if you decide you will not stand to be called names anymore, make that a rule. Then establish an appropriate consequence for breaking that rule.
In fact, this is advice my counselor had given me. At the time it sounded audacious and brazen, but now I see that my tears, anger or pleading had no effect on that particular behavior. No matter what I did, I was incapable of getting it to stop. I had not tried this though.
When I was still planning on returning home, she gave me practical tips for management (only she did not call it that). She told me, “When he calls you names, pack your bags and calmly gather the children and inform him that you find his behavior unacceptable and that you are leaving for a few days to give him time to consider his behavior. Then go to a hotel where he cannot get to you. Let him know you will be available to take a call in case of an emergency.”
“If when you come back,” she continued, “he resumes his behavior, calmly tell him ‘I see you have not had enough time, I will leave and try again in a few more days,’ then leave again,” she said.
This is management.
Establish limitations and when those are breached, follow up with an appropriate action to give him time to consider changing his behavior. My suggestion is just to make it appropriate for the infraction. This is not about revenge. This is about establishing boundaries and following through to show that you mean what you say. It is still exhausting and you will be tested for sure, but the more you establish this pattern, the more likely you are to see the behavior diminish.
If you have no intention of following through, then you might as well not have the boundary and things will continue on just as you have been.
Does it sound hard? It is. Does is sound broken? It is that too. But if you are going to try to make this work and keep your sanity and personhood, it is necessary.