Looking back, it’s my hopefulness that irritates me most. I kept thinking that he’d see the light, get what was wrecking our relationship, understand that I couldn’t live with his constant manipulation. He’d placate me with promises but I don’t believe he ever intended to behave any differently. Actually, I think he liked jerking me around.
As I can personally attest, it’s not always easy to recognize that the person you’re with is high in narcissistic traits. (I’m using the masculine nouns and pronouns because there are more men at the end of the spectrum but feel free to switch up the gender.) Not everyone is the “Look at Me!” type, full of grandiosity, constantly needing to be the center of attention, and wholly self-referential. The narcissist in your life may be soft-spoken, even a bit shy, but the tip-off to who he really is isn’t so much as what he does but what he doesn’t do.
I didn’t realize it while I was in it but he manipulated me in every discussion I tried to have about the problems in our relationship. He’d either refuse to talk about it outright—by stonewalling or saying something like ‘Not that again. Do we have to cover the same ground over and over? It’s always the same tattoo”—or he’d turn the tables on me, saying I was unhappy because I made myself unhappy. Or he’d deny there was a problem at all. It took me a while to realize that he never took responsibility for anything. He blamed other people for doing things to him, including me. It was mind-bending.
What the person high in narcissistic traits doesn’t do constitutes a pattern of its own and, in many ways, makes him easier to identify. Once you’ve focused on what he isn’t doing, you can see that what motivates him isn’t the need to connect to you in any meaningful way—which is, of course, what you’ve been hoping for all along—but a very private and specific agenda which is making sure that his vision of himself stays protected and invulnerable.
So, if he’s not doing any of the following nine things—which people who actually want real connections do all the time—you need to wise up pronto.
1.Own his feelings
Dr. Craig Malkin calls this playing “emotional hot potato” because it’s a common pattern –ascribing whatever he’s feeling in the moment to you which is a form of projection. This becomes a manipulative tactic as well, especially if the narcissist in your life also uses stonewalling and can be emotionally very confusing. (I am speaking from experience here.) Let’s say that you want to talk through a problem and you begin calmly, stating what the problem is. He reacts defensively and he’s clearly getting angry—you can tell by the way he’s folding his arms over his chest, how his jaw muscles are working, and how the furrow between his eyes deepens—and says he doesn’t want to talk about the issue. You start to feel angry and frustrated but you try again and he cuts you off. You ask him why he’s getting so angry and he responds by saying he’s not angry but you are. Yes, that’s the hot potato moment but the fact is that you are angry and getting angrier by the minute. Escalation is built into this and now you’re screaming at him and he looks at you and says, “I’m tired of your anger” and leaves the room.
The truth is that you’ve been played but the likelihood is that you don’t know it. The narcissist is expert at making you feel unsure.
2. Stop playing games
And it’s not just about emotional hot potato either. People high in narcissistic traits want to be in relationships but only on their terms and they thrive on feeling that they have power and control over their partners, as studies show, and feel autonomous. So, no, playing games isn’t coming off the menu any time soon.
3. Care about emotional consequences
It’s widely known that people high in narcissistic traits have impaired empathy but the better way of thinking about it is that they—unlike most people—don’t care about the emotional fallout from their behaviors. Most of us care about being well-thought of and we also like thinking of ourselves as people who don’t hurt others deliberately; we’re more likely to fall into the trap of becoming inveterate pleasers to avoid upsetting others than we are to engage outright war. None of that is true of the narcissist. If he has to burn every bridge to win and feel good about himself, he’ll grab the kerosene. This is especially important to remember if you are divorcing a narcissist.
4. Stop one-upmanship
This is closely allied to #2 and #3 but being indefatigable is also a hallmark of the narcissist. As Dr. Joseph Burgo notes in his book The Narcissist You Know, the narcissist is highly vindictive. Burgo believes that what motivates the narcissist is his need to cover unconscious shame and whenever that shame starts rising into awareness, he feels under siege and reacts to deflect the feeling and to wreak revenge. There is no “off” button as those who’ve been unlucky enough to be the target of the gossip and slurs a narcissist will avail himself of.
5. Tell the truth
The irony is that the narcissist only recognizes one brand of truth (his own) and it doesn’t really matter whether his version of events is utterly contradicted by facts or even a paper trail. He’s sticking to his guns because you are the liar.
Since the narcissist never takes responsibility for his acts, words, or feelings, what’s there to apologize for? He only did what he had to do in response to other people’s actions, after all.
7. Make peace
Not happening for a number of reasons. First and foremost is his need to feel superior to others and to be in control; he likes the rough-and-tumble of conflict and discord because it makes him feel powerful. Second, because he sees himself as merely reactive to slights and provocations by others, he’s not going to yield and look like a weakling. Third, he’s happy with scorched earth if that’s what’s needed to feel like a winner. This is why divorcing a narcissist is an utter nightmare—don’t count on him to negotiate or meet you in middle—and why co-parenting is an extended one.
8. Let you go
Not until you’re replaced. The narcissist needs you as a planet circling his sun to feel good about himself so he’s not going to go no contact until he’s geared up and found someone new. He’ll keep on engaging—sending you texts, writing you emails, leaving you voice mail—just to try to keep you in his orbit so he can feel good about himself and winning.
Barring an out-of-body experience or major epiphany of near Biblical proportions, not likely.
For many people, it’s easier to blame ourselves for the stalling or outright failure of an important relationship. But sometimes, you have to look what’s not happening in a meaningful way. Is this one of those moments?
Photograph by Yoann Boyer. Copyright free. Unsplash.com
Malkin, Craig. Rethinking Narcissism: The Secret to Recognizing and Coping with Narcissists. New York: Harper Perennial, 2016.
Burgo, Joseph. The Narcissist You Know: Defending Yourself Against Extreme Narcissists in an All-About-Me Age. New York: Touchstone, 2016.
Campbell, W. Keith, Craig A. Fogler, and Eli J. Finkel. “Does Self-Love Lead to Love for Others? A Story of Narcissistic Game Playing, “Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (2002), vol. 83, no. 2, 340-354.