“How is it possible that I made excuses for how he treated me for years? Ten years to be exact. Am I just stupid? What’s wrong with me that I allowed him to use me like his personal doormat and I just sucked it up? I am angrier with myself than I am with him. Does that make sense?”
This is a message I got from Eliza, 39, a few weeks ago and, unfortunately, it’s hardly the first; in fact, I have received lots of them. One of the hardest things to accept about a failed relationship with someone high in narcissistic traits or control is how you normalized, rationalized, or made excuses for what really was abusive and manipulative behavior, whether it went on for months or years. No matter the actual length of it, all agree that it was way too long.
Manipulation, abusive behavior, and the imbalance of power
All of these relationships share a basic commonality: an imbalance of power. Put simply, one partner is more emotionally invested in not just the relationship but in the person, and that makes her or him vulnerable to manipulation. (From here on, I’ll be using the male pronoun for the narcissist or controller to avoid a pronoun pile-up but feel free to switch up genders if you like; women manipulate too.) Of course, she doesn’t see that but her commitment—as well as her fear of losing the connection—lead her to accept his behaviors and, even worse, not even register them as toxic or manipulative.
Her partner high in narcissistic traits or control has a personal script to which she’s not privy; not only is he less invested in the relationship but he wants specific things from it, all of which have to do with him and his needs, and little to do with her. One of the things worth noting generally is that these individuals act as though they are in the relationship on a superficial level but, in truth, they actually don’t want intimate or dyadic connections. The attention they pay is closely tied to what benefits them in the moment, and has little to do with you or your needs. In fact, as Katya recounted, one of his goals might be making you forget you had any needs or wants of your own:
“I didn’t recognize the love bombing at first; I was swept off my feet. I also didn’t know how he took control over me, first in small ways and then bigger ones. My sister saw it and warned me but I didn’t listen. I didn’t see it but it was as though he had a giant eraser and I started disappearing. It was never what I wanted but what ‘we’ wanted. But the ‘we’ didn’t include me. It was all about him.”
Looking at those 5 behaviors
All of these are manipulative and abusive, and they are all easy to miss especially if you desperately want the relationship to work. These observations are drawn from interviews and research for my book, Daughter Detox: Recovering from an Unloving Mother and Reclaiming Your Life, as well as Dr. Craig Malkin’s excellent resource, Rethinking Narcissism.
- Exerting stealth control
This is drawn from Dr. Malkin’s book and basically describes a process by which the narcissist slowly begins to control you in subtle ways; they don’t like looking needy but they need to be in charge so there’s a tactic for that. It usually begins small such as changing the glass of rosé you ordered to a cocktail because you “deserve the best” or insisting that you return the dress you bought for another he picked out because “I know what makes you shine.” These may, in moment, seem like gallantry or caring but they are actually not. They usually escalate as in “surprising” you with a change of plans after you’ve already agreed on the restaurant or the movie, “upping the ante” by booking an expensive getaway when you’d planned to hang out with friends in their backyard, “preempting” plans you’ve made with something better that he says you deserve.
It doesn’t take long for him to disappear you and your wants entirely if you don’t pay attention.
- Belittling others
One way of guaranteeing that you are totally under his control is make sure that other people exert little or no influence over your thoughts; isolating you and making you ever more dependent upon him puts you where he wants you. This tactic of manipulation may start small and quiet—commenting that your best friend really uses you in a not nice way or suggesting that something a friend said was meant to be hurtful—and may increase your own insecurities. Eventually, what he says about others will be louder and more direct—that someone you’re close to has been bad-mouthing you, for example, and that he’s upset by it—and you’ll pay attention to how he’s so quick to defend you rather than wonder why he needs to put people down. Eventually, it will come down to a choice: Between him and the others.
- Playing emotional hot potato
Again, this insight is drawn from Dr. Malkin’s Rethinking Narcissism and I think the metaphor works better than the word projection because it underscores why the narcissist does it. The narcissist doesn’t want to own or acknowledge his emotions so the best way of deflecting attention from his behavior is to ascribe it to you. So he’s standing there, clearly furious—his arms are tight across his chest, his jaw muscles are working, his eyes narrowed, and he’s flushed—but he’s telling you that it’s your anger that is the real problem. The chances are good that his ranting and berating you will make you angry and that will leave you emotionally confused. You don’t want to fight but is he right? Are you the problem?
That leads us right into the next tactic….
Let’s say that there’s an issue in your relationship you feel is getting to be a problem and you decide that you need to discuss it, even though you know he’s really sensitive to criticism. So you figure out what you want to say because you really, really want the relationship to work and succeed. So you begin calmly but, somehow, it escalates and you hear him say, “Well, maybe I’d be more mindful of your needs if you weren’t so sensitive or needy” or “Has it ever occurred to you that I lose my temper because you’re a 24/7 nag who’s never satisfied?” or “It’s always the same old tattoo and you always start up with stuff when I’m dead tired and had a hard day.” That’s a blame-shift and it’s meant to make you feel guilty and suddenly you are thinking that maybe he’s right and you’re too needy, or that you should have paid more attention to him instead of thinking about yourself. And guess what? It works because seconds later you are apologizing to him.
This permits him to take zero responsibility and has the added benefit of robbing you of any sense of agency.
- Curating and gaslighting
All of these tactics combine to create the giant eraser my reader Katya mentioned but certainly the most powerful tool the narcissist or controller has at his disposal is his ability to curate the supposed truth of what happened between you by using gaslighting. Again, the person with the power controls the tool and he will not just be preying on your insecurities and your desire to make the relationship work but will capitalize on how you have normalized and accepted all the other tactics, each of which chips away at your sense of self.
Please seek counsel if you start to see that relationship you’re in falls into these patterns. They are subtle but they are forms of abuse nonetheless.
Malkin, Craig. Rethinking Narcissism: The Secret to Recognizing and Coping with Narcissists. New York: Harper Perennial, 2016.
Photograph by Sergio Souza. Copyright free. Unsplash.com