“I forgave him for the debts it took us a decade to pay off. He promised me over and over that he’d never again gamble with our money. That he wouldn’t make a single financial decision without talking it through with me first. I found out about the loan he’d forged my name on by accident. The bank officer called to verify some details and dialed the home number, not his office. That’s when I learned that almost all the equity in our house was gone. It took me thirty-five years but after I hung up the phone, I called a divorce lawyer.”
I didn’t know there was a word for it when I was little but I did know, by the time I was six or seven, that one of us was right and the other of us was wrong and maybe even crazy. That’s a very scary thought when you’re a child, especially if the other person is your mother.
You’ll remember how Goldilocks wanders into the house of the three Bears and how she has trouble finding just right; she’s hungry but the porridge is too hot or too cold, the chair is too big or too small, the bed is too soft or too hard. She’s thinking only of herself until the three bears come home.
“My mother would ask me what I wanted to eat and then serve me whatever she felt like, as if I hadn’t said a word. That was true of everything: any time I expressed a wish or preference, she made it clear that what I wanted didn’t matter. They were repainting my room and she asked me what color I wanted and I said blue but also said I was fine with anything but pink. I should have known better but guess what? I came home to bubble-gum pink walls.”
Being in a relationship with someone high in narcissistic traits can be maddening, painful, and, counterintuitively enough, exciting. As Dr. Craig Malkin notes in his book, Rethinking Narcissism, it’s easy to confuse or conflate the roller-coast ride of this kind of relationship—with its dramatic ups and downs, its quick turn from love-bombing to disparagement and control—with passion.
The second most-asked question I field—the first is “Why do I keep choosing the wrong men?”—is “Why are friendships with women so difficult?”
Here’s what one woman messaged me not too long ago: “Why do I have a knack for attracting guys who look great at the beginning and then, over time, turn out to be users or narcissists? I had a toxic childhood with an abusive mom and an absentee dad. Is there a connection?”
It’s ironic but one of the most common obstacles to a daughter’s healing from a toxic childhood is her continuing effort to understand and make sense of her mother’s behavior. It’s counterintuitive but, in this case, trying to understand—which is normally a path to resolution and action—is actually part of the unloved daughter’s quest to find a way to get her mother to love her.
Normalizing toxic behavior is one of the greatest deficits an unloved daughter or son takes with her or him into adulthood.
My neighbor “Lisette” was telling me about her mother and how she’s struggled to take care of her as she ages. She finally came to the painful conclusion that her mother really needed to be in a managed care facility, and felt conflicted.