When I first heard my therapist associate the term narcissism with my partner, I was surprised. Surely he was mistaken; after all, my partner is often misunderstood. But I did sit up and pay attention, because my therapist was not the first person to suggest this.
Nope, my tia loca said something to a similar effect a few months before. She is an intelligent and highly perceptive person who has herself been betrayed and has survived a malignantly dysfunctional relationship.
Unchanged on the surface, I began to sit back and simply watch, taking notice. I made every attempt not to filter my observations through any bias; I simply tried to pay more attention.
Turns out, they were right. The traits are subtle to the untrained eye, but they are unmistakably there.
Today, I began to research the term in earnest. Most people are aware of the story of Narcissus, the Roman guy who fell in love with his own reflection. Most people have a vague concept of modern narcissism – one who is excessively self-absorbed and all that.
But it goes deeper than that. I found the textbook-style descriptions of the grandiose I-can-accomplish-anything-and-I’m-better-than-you less helpful than the personal anecdotes of those who’ve been tangled up with one of these characters and have personal battle stories to tell.
I am one such person, so now, having clocked in 14.5 years of involvement, I’ll tell my version of the story, too.
My partner is not one of the stereotypical, violent, angry overachievers depicted in the conventional psychology resources. He does not outwardly have an inflated sense of self, nor does he insist on exerting much authority. He certainly isn’t impulsive or physically abusive. But the victim’s anecdotal stories seem to hit home a little too hard this afternoon just the same.
My narcissist withholds affection. This includes affection in all forms. I have hardly ever been “sweetheart”, “honey”, “baby”, or any other pet name. I have only been “dear”, but that’s usually when he wants something.
If Dave Ramsey (the fantastic financial guy) goes so far as to say that a person needs a minimum of four non-sexual hugs a day just to maintain good mental/emotional/physical health, then I am screwed. I maybe got hugged once a month or less, until therapy motivated him to give me a quick hug and kiss goodnight, if I was still up and he was going to bed. I can honestly say he never strokes my hair or rubs my back and despite being a structural doctor and massage therapist who can easily see I need help, he hardly ever volunteers to work on me.
In fact, it’s often a bother for him to do so, although to his credit, he doesn’t sigh too heavily when I ask him, a last-ditch option I only resort to when the everyday aches and pains get too intense to keep tolerating. I’ve otherwise quit asking.
The only exception to the above occurs when his appetite for sexual intimacy is heightened, or he’s afraid I’m depressed/lonely/hopeless enough to think more seriously about leaving him.
My narcissist uses me. Some of this is not his fault; he’s legally blind, after all. He can’t get around on his own. He can’t just turn the truck key in the ignition and go somewhere on a dime.
However, I do all the driving with no extra thanks or consideration or offer to rub my stiff neck and back. Not even after the nonstop 9.5-hour drive at 75-80 mph from Louisiana, during which I mentioned periodically and in no uncertain terms (without whining) that I hurt.
I have also been used as a financial source. He has racked up debt, lied to me about it, allowed it to accumulate, and then I’ve been the one to work even harder to pull us out and get us ahead.
I’ve also allowed myself to be used sexually. Due to lack of affection, I’m hardly ever “in the mood”, but I saw no problem in at least allowing myself to engage in intimacy, even getting into it enough to enjoy it (thus I’m not just going through the motions like a robot), in an earnest attempt to share a moment of closeness.
I’m starting to see a problem now, because those moments are the closest thing to romance or affection we ever share, and it satisfies him more than it does me. Meanwhile, my own needs for non-sexual closeness go completely unmet.
My narcissist fails to consider my needs and stresses. Even after 14.5 years of loathing traffic, especially at the peak of rush-hour, my partner thinks nothing of suggesting we go grocery shopping at 5.30pm on the way home from work. It’s great and convenient that he’s thinking far ahead enough to combine trips and all, but I do not appreciate having to make extra trips while simply attempting to navigate the stream of brake-lights that is the reality of bumper-to-bumper traffic, and I certainly do not appreciate having these requests sprung on me at the office buzzer, when all I want is to get home and relax.
He goes so far as to keep cooking the same meal over and over again, dry and bland, on high heat, because:
- he’s too lazy to learn a new recipe,
- he’s too lazy to think of different things to eat,
- he just wants to cook up something fast and get it done so he can plop in front of the TV for the rest of the night, a routine he criticized his parents for engaging in.
My narcissist is lazy and figures I’ll do everything for him. Dishes have sat in the sink all weekend while I was away. Cat boxes would get emptied half the time if I wasn’t there to complain. The apartment often smells of rotting trash, containing last night’s meat wrappers. He doesn’t vacuum for a month, until I start sneezing; by then, it’s too late.
I used to step in and take care of these things when it went too far, but I’ve learned to stop stepping in to save the day, because I have found that the more I step in to do, the less he does, and the cycle continues, until we reach the point where I’m doing absolutely everything. Everything he does, he does not for himself or me, but because he’s trying to dodge the eventual nagging and bitching that I periodically have to resort to. I feel like I’m his goddamned mother.
My narcissist doesn’t, as a rule, say thank you or give any other acknowledgement that I’ve done something nice for him. Hardly any appreciation gets expressed. Thank-you notes for Christmas gifts would be nil if I didn’t step in to write them. A clean kitchen goes un-praised.
I used to think his vision issue impeded his ability to see that I wiped up the counter-tops and put all the spice containers away. Nope, he can see that just fine. I know this because I finally told him, “hey, I cleaned your cooking area” and he said approvingly, “I see that!”, a rare moment of enthusiasm from him. But it doesn’t count if I had to be the one to bring it up.
My narcissist is withdrawn, and locked up like a stone. He has an active mind, more than 99% of which he keeps to himself. He lives in sort of a world of secrets, secret thoughts and fantasies. I can’t begin to predict what they might be, but I know they’re there. I know this because he suddenly came to me and said he had narrowed his choice of camera down to three possible models and was weighing the pros and cons.
Me: Why a camera?
Him: Oh, because I’m getting into photography.
Me: Really?? That’s great! (Finally, an interest something besides the idiot box!) How long have you been thinking about photography?
Him: Oh, the last 6-12 months.
Me: Wait, what? (And this is the first I’m hearing about this? And you’ve been considering a large purchase?) How are we going to afford this?
Him: Oh, your mom gave me an early birthday present.
Me: And I had no idea.
Now, I like to think of myself as a reasonably perceptive and intelligent person. But when someone drops a load on you like that, that’s too much. Even then, I knew there was something about that whole situation that was not exactly normal.
That’s just one example. There are smaller examples, and these happen daily.
Almost always, we leave the office together and soon after we get into the truck, I’m the first one to express any interest in the other: “how was your afternoon?” The most frequent answer I get to any of these questions is “uneventful”, followed by complete silence, with no intention to say anything more.
Sometimes I get, “busy” or frequently, a complaint: “I got my ass kicked” (as if that’s a bad thing when you’re self-employed!) If he’s feeling particularly conversational, he might add, “paperwork, paperwork, paperwork” or something similar.
My narcissist is negative. This is one of the lesser-known traits of narcissism. Up until today, I mistook this as a dysthymia, a constant, chronic depression from which there is no lift or relief.
This consists of a constant withdrawal, lack of social activity, inability to relate or interact, poor sleep, abnormal appetite, cravings for sugar and starch, and precious few (too few) interests in–or enjoyment from–anything at all. This trait pattern can actually be a manifestation of narcissism.
The truth is, the narcissist’s self-esteem is actually shot, so they draw on those around them like vampires, attempting to fulfill their internal void. Hint: this doesn’t work.
While my narcissist dishes criticism of others out wholesale (luckily I am usually spared, although God only knows what goes through his head, that he might say if I weren’t such an otherwise vocal and strong-willed woman), he has incredible difficulty taking even the most constructive of critique himself. He just goes silent, and I get the completely Silent Treatment for at least several hours, if not a day or two.
What slam-dunked this for me, though, is that my narcissist is excessively passive and completely, 100% lacks initiative. Again, the only initiative he actually takes is just enough not to get bitched at. I feel like I perpetually have to shove a virtual cow-prod up his ass just to get him to do anything. I find myself saying, “Let’s do (x)” or “we need to do (y)” or “please (z)” several times a day.
These are nothing grandiose; they are things that should be automatic for a man in his 40s who has been with someone for 14 years. The phrase that has come to my head since the beginning of time is, “bump on a log”. He has heard the expression and he despises it, but maybe that’s because it hits too close to home? It’s particularly unattractive. What lady wants a man who just sits there and doesn’t act? No wonder I’m so chronically stressed out.
Nearly every act my narcissist carries out is tinged with said condition – the failure to bring me my food on the way when he brings his own; the “did you feed the cats?” before we leave, despite the fact that he was the one up at 7am; the zero-fanfare “I’m going to bed” (I finally rid him of his tendency to say “bye” instead of “goodnight”); the constant control of the TV remote; the wordless insistence that he be in charge of all the bills and bank accounts, despite my vocal insistence to be included in these areas; and the list goes on.
I do not fit the stereotypical image of a “narcissistic extension”, either. (That’s the person or people a narcissist uses or sucks off of.) I’m not a battered, dazed person. I’m not meek or timid. I didn’t have a narcissistic parent.
In fact, I’m rather strong, vocal, and have a healthy support system, to a point. I’m not overweight or unattractive. I reckon I could do better. But I do have a crappy self-esteem. Still. After all these years.
Maybe that’s why I remain in the relationship. That, and I’m financially stuck and probably could not live on my own.
What I am is tired. I’m tired of giving, trying to please, expending energy, doing extra work, nagging, prodding, initiating, and complaining. I’m tired of not being considered or acknowledged or thanked or hugged nearly enough. I’m tired of taking second place to Star Trek or How It’s Made. (At least it’s not sports, but hell, it might as well be.)
I do feel empty and unfulfilled. I used to mistake it for a mild period of depression. It’s not–it’s a normal reaction to fucked-up situation. I mean, think about it: your life partner fails to acknowledge you in nearly every single way–unless, of course s/he wants something (or wants to avoid something).
I’m hoping against hope that there is true recovery for a narcissist. And not just a cover story or the appearance of recovery with no real change underneath, either. I’m talking about a real, genuine transformation.
Time will tell.