Every time I think I’m ready to leave, that I’ve finally had enough, he does something to make me feel I’d be a fool to walk. He’s the master of surprises and this time, it was tickets to a concert he knew I was dying to go to along with a romantic dinner and drinks after.
It’s true enough that the narcissist has become the Big Bad Wolf of contemporary tales but what’s often left out of these stories is how incredibly difficult it can be to disentangle yourself from a relationship with one. (This post uses the male pronoun but feel free to switch up the gender.) The common advice is to run for the hills once you recognize precisely what you’re dealing with but that’s easier said than done, especially if the relationship is a long-term one or a marriage. The latter can be a true nightmare, especially if you are filing for divorce and the narcissist hasn’t moved on yet.
So, why is it so hard to get off the merry-go-round? Lots of reasons and, seen from another point of view, none at all.
The narcissist sows emotional confusion
The truth is that the narcissist is with you for a reason, and you can consider yourself “hand-picked,” though not necessarily in a good way. Narcissists are attracted to people they can manipulate to get their own inner needs met, and those needs have everything to do with feeling good about themselves. The prevailing theory is that for all they project great self-confidence, they are deeply wounded inside and, according to Dr. Joseph Burgo, motivated by needing to cover up deep shame at their core.
You were attractive to the narcissist because you’re pretty attractive yourself, and look good on his arm; you’re probably accomplished and interesting too. But that aside, he was attracted to you because he understood how your insecurities, along with your need for love, could be gamed to his advantage. He understood how by appearing to reveal his inner self to you, you would feel special and needed. He understood your fear of being rejected and abandoned too.
Most of all, he understood how your emotions could be used against you, making you unsure about whether to leave or stay.
Here are five tips for getting off that carousel for once and for all.
- Stay focused on what motivates him
The problem with seeing the narcissist as the Big Bad Wolf is that you expect him to behave horribly in obvious ways and that’s probably not going to happen. The truth is that he’s a master of grand gestures which Dr. Craig Malkin has identified as his tactic of stealth control. Is the person you’re with always switching up plans—changing the reservation for dinner to something he thought would be better and more fun when all you wanted was a burger around the corner or does he just stay quiet when you suggest something you’d like to do which makes you withdraw the suggestion? Are you seeing less of your friends because of plans he’s made or foisted on you? The game here is to have you fully in his orbit, without your even recognizing that you’ve been roped in.
Narcissists have ways of making you think they’re enormously thoughtful when the reality is whatever the thoughtful gesture is has nothing at all to do with you but with them. This too is emotionally confusing especially when the narcissist plies you with gifts that are too perfect for words, surprises you by rebuilding your closet, or takes care of that errand you’ve been avoiding. Stay focused on why he’s doing it, not what he’s done.
- Don’t confuse drama with passion
This is actually a big deal for many women, especially those who think that romance is all about highs and lows, and that hot make-up sex—something the narcissist is very good at, as research makes clear—is what passion is about. Drama and passion aren’t synonyms although, as Dr. Malkin explains, they may be easy to confuse for some. As he writes: “Romantic uncertainty often turns us on. It stirs up feelings like fear, anger, and jealousy, all of which enhance attraction through something psychologists call arousal.”
The narcissist understands that, by the way. It’s another way of keeping you hooked.
- Prepare for the game-playing
Don’t kid yourself about the narcissist’s ability to twist your feelings into a knot. Not only does he project his feelings on to you—what Dr. Craig Malkin calls emotional hot potato—but he’s also likely to denigrate your shows of emotion, either through outright mocking (“Not that again. Don’t you ever get tired of bringing the same old stuff up?”) or blaming you for feeling (“My God, you are so damn sensitive. I feel as though I’m walking on eggshells around you 24/7.”) Remember that narcissists need to maintain the upper hand and to win at all costs so be prepared for the fact that there will be real push-back at the moment you actually decide to walk; you need to be psychologically ready,
- Beware of intermittent reinforcement
Thanks to the work of B.F. Skinner, we know there’s no more powerful motivator than getting what you want some of the time. Yes, that’s called intermittent reinforcement. Understanding how this works is especially important if you’re still on the fence about the relationship, or you’re still liable to be sucked in by any of the tactics mentioned above. The real problem is that intermittent reinforcement plays into your hopefulness that, somehow, the good aspects of this relationship can be salvaged and that, somehow, the narcissist in your life will become as genuinely caring and empathic as you want him to be. Uh huh.
- Trust your thoughts even under fire
The chances are good is that if you feel your partner is marginalizing you or controlling you, he is and it’s not your overly active imagination or whatever else he’s attributing your feelings to. Ditto on you’re being too sensitive; you hurt because he said hurtful things to you or flat out lied. If the carousel ride is getting tiring and you’re through with being dizzy, it’s not because you’re reading in and over-reacting or anything else he may bring to the table to convince that you’re acting crazy. Remember that the narcissist hates losing and doesn’t want his flaws exposed so he will do whatever he needs to in order to explain that the failure of this relationship is on you. That’s the bottom line.
Life post-carousel may not be as dramatic but it has its perqs. That’s a true thing. Really.
Photograph by Gromovataya. Copyright free. Pixaby.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.