What is the key to a good relationship?
I am not sure this is a simple one-answer sort of question but there is one fundamental aspect to maintaining a thriving relationship. It is keeping a short tab or wiping the slate clean. Marriage counselors and veteran couples alike will vouch for this.
In any normal relationship I would agree with this. Relationships are made up of two humans and humans as they are, make mistakes. It is inevitable. And quite often these mistakes are repeated. The very same request you made of your husband yesterday, and each of the five days prior, has still gone unfinished (make that not even started). Your wife severed yet another extension cord with the electric hedge trimmer. (You have no idea how easy that is to do!)
All these things, while they may seem important at the moment are not worth eroding a relationship over. These “wrongs” should be gotten over and forgotten.
Each day should start with a new slate wiped clean of yesterday’s faults.
When however, is this not good advice?
I started out being a grudge holder. The cold shoulder, not talking to you, you-had better-grovel-first kind of grudge holder. Over time, I believe I can truthfully say I stopped this behavior. I would say this is a good thing, but in some ways it wasn’t. Allow me explain.
I began to wipe the slate clean. Forgiving and forgetting (at least trying to). I said it was ok to “it won’t happen again” and forgave when it did. Over and over again. There are mistakes and bad habits that get repeated and then there are intentional behaviors that will morph into different manifestations that will never go away.
It is the second of these I intend to focus on.
When you are married to an abusive narcissist (also termed malignant narcissist), the relationship gets tricky. There is a mixture of both your common marital annoyances and there is something much more insidious woven throughout.
The truth is the narcissist has no intention of changing. Oh yes, maybe changing the game plan a bit, but not fundamentally changing their character. There will be tears and pleas for forgiveness. There will be remorse and efforts made to “do better,” but there will almost never be repentance and true change even if it sometimes resembles it.
Remember, I said it can get tricky. According to Dr. Alison Poulsen, PhD, narcissists are not likely to change because they either lack the desire to do so or do not see the need to. In my experience this was the tricky spot. There were plenty of tears and “sorrow” over failures and numerous promises to change. I saw this as a recognition of guilt and an admittance of the need to fix something. This, however, is a narcissistic ploy; an admission to a perceived fault in order to satisfy the injured party and essentially “get them off their case.” (Yes, that was divulged in some honest [I think] moments of retrospection by my former narcissist.)
I received one particularly heart-wrenching letter admitting to all kinds of failures that was signed “Sincerely, as sincere as I have ever been” (I may share this letter sometime). I held on to that letter because to me it was a symbol of hope; a promise of change. Two years later after things had not improved but continued to grow worse, he told me that after he wrote that letter he continued right on doing the very same things (things that were being hidden from me) that he had apologized for. (Crushed)
“Sincerely, as sincere as I have ever been.”
Words are tools to the narcissist. Tools to getting what they want. They hold no meaning or value. They are merely a means to an end.
So based on the fact that the narcissist is not likely to change (Most scholars state it is actually impossible). Based on the fact that their apologies, contrition, promises and acts of penitence are nothing more that manipulations to lull their victim back to sleep, how does one address the issue of wiping the slate clean in a narcissistic relationship?
This is tough, because while I don’t want to be the messenger of doom and gloom, I do not want to give false hope either. For me, it ultimately proved impossible. I tried for years to make it work. I changed. I fixed things. I worked harder, all the while morphing into someone I was no longer able to recognize. I was losing myself, trying to please my narcissist. Yet there was no measure of what I could do that would prove to please in the end. It was never enough. The cage got smaller and the keeper of the key got angrier, louder and more unstable.
It is possible however to live with a narcissist. This can mean one of two things. You live your life according to your narcissist’s rules and “everybody is happy.” This is an illusion. You are merely playing the game to make your life easier. Trust me, I know the drill. In the end, you will lose yourself. It is the ultimate price you pay. But that payment is not enough. Do not think you can protect your children. They will play the game too and so it will continue to carry forward to your future generations.
The other option is to live with your narcissist and manage them. This takes a very strong person. Life will be a battle. Your narcissist crosses your boundaries and you will exact consequences. They may learn that they cannot continually get away with a certain behavior but do not think it is fixed. It merely changes shape. Perhaps you love your narcissistic spouse and want to continue to live in as much harmony as you can with them. You will have to be strong and consistent. I cannot advise here. I was not a person who could manage living my life freely with a narcissist. I struggled with feeling like I was being “mean.” Perhaps it is because that is what he told me I was. I just know I was unable to make and maintain boundaries.
Wiping the slate clean will not help your non-narcissist spouse start throwing their dirty socks in the hamper or cease to cut through power cords, but neither will the non-narcissistic spouse seek to control you, lack empathy and use you to their own ends. When you wipe the slate clean with a narcissist you are not lovingly giving your repentant spouse another chance. You are giving them a green light to continue on their current pathway. You are not holding them accountable. They will not change.
A slate wiped clean makes for a happy relationship, unless you are with a narcissist. It just gives them permission to carry on.