“You’re so vain, you probably think this song is about you”- Carly Simon
Narcissistic abuse has become a hot talking point these days. If you follow social media, particularly Facebook, you may find many articles about this such as “ How to spot a narcissist” , “gas lighting” ( a manipulative technique where someone tries to tell you that you are crazy and are imagining their abuse rather than take any responsibility for it) and even “10 signs that your partner is a psychopath”. While these essays do have some meat to them and offer sound advice on self care, trusting your instincts and maintaining no contact once you end the relationship, they don’t get to the heart of the matter, which is why people get ensnarled in these relationships in the first place.
“Karen” had been in therapy with me for two years. Her husband “Jack” who was once the love of her life, had for many years now, been showing her his darker side. He often neglected her, raged at her when he was upset and seldom showed any genuine interest in Karen’s wants and needs. When she would withdraw her attention from him and begin to contemplate leaving the relationship, he would then change his tune and start following through on the many promises he made to her. This in turn, offered her some intermittent moments of hope and happiness and she would re-engage with him. Yet once she did, little by little he would switch back to his old behaviors. After a while, she would then start to withdraw again and he would then start to pursue her again. He offered her just enough of what she needed to get her hooked into riding the rollercoaster of his moods and maltreatment, yet again. This was their relational contract.
The contract didn’t start out that way though and generally speaking, in this kind of relationship, they never do. Karen told me that she and Jack were once very much in love. “We had a chemistry like no other” and “he always felt like my soulmate” she would say, which I am sure is all true. This kind of chemistry however, allowed for the classic “bait and switch” where overtime, and unbeknownst to her, she came to implicitly agree to be in a connection with him that ultimately, was all about him. Never did she imagine herself to be sounding board for his dreams and disappointments and a psychic punching bag for his rage. Always trying to fix him or "therapize" him, she lived with chronic knots in her stomach. Obsessed with how to get things back to the way they used to be, she came to therapy after her friends and family expressed concerns on how her self confidence and joie de vivre seemed lost. She agreed that it was.
So how did this implicit contract get signed?
Karen grew up in a disorganized household. Her father, who adored her, traveled for work so he wasn’t around much of the time and her mother, who was a trauma survivor herself, would often rage at Karen when she was a little girl. Karen shared with me her memory of her mother screaming at her for some unknown reason as she didn’t remember doing anything “wrong”. Her mother’s affect was so intense that Karen remembered wanting to faint in an attempt to get her to stop her and to win back her mother’s love. “I just wanted her to hold me” she said as she wept silent tears.
As a four year old, Karen did not know how to stand up for herself or even run away. Those are not skills that any small child has. Instead, she developed a belief that it was her job to take care of her mother’s emotional needs. By doing this job which was necessary for her own sense of survival, she denied her own feelings and burdens of fright, anger, loneliness and abandonment that arose during and after one of her mother’s tirades. When she was older and did try to protect herself, her actions were then met with more rage and more neglect. In many ways, her relational wings were clipped.
So how did this type of trauma manifest in Karen’s intrapsychic system? First, she developed both a panic and fainting disorder as her fight/ flight response lived in constant overdrive for many years. Second, she found herself in a string of bad relationships, until she met her husband, so she thought.
A couple of days before a session I had with Karen, I learned that a former client I treated for many years when working at a methadone clinic, had overdosed and died. He too grew up in an extremely disorganized household. He was from Medford, Ma or as many homegrown “bean towners” prefer to say: “Medfa”. A talented artist who dropped out of school because of drugs, he knew how to stand his ground and he never back down from a fight, even when he probably should have. Unlike karen, who didn’t know what to say when her husband mistreated her, my former client had just the perfect vernacular of hysterically funny and vulgar push back lines for when someone mistreated him.
He was on my mind during a session with Karen which ended up being a turning point in the therapy. She was trying to find a way to stand up for herself in anticipation of her husband’s next outburst. I began to tune out as she practiced and played with polite niceties such as “when you do that, I feel….(blah blah blah)”. Then suddenly, I got hijacked by intense countertransference and interrupted her. I said, just as my former client would have, “No, the next time he acts out, you tell him to go choke on a big fat D**k!”
Silence filled the room.
Then a spontaneous eruption of laughter between the two of us took up the space and remained there for the rest of the session.
My former client would have been very proud. Karen took his lead and said something to that nature to her husband a few day later when he started up again. It worked. Stunned by both her words and assertiveness, he apologized and told her that she was right, he did need to go back to therapy.
Whether or not Karen’s husband can earnestly engage in treatment and learn to become more relational remains to be seen. His declaration could be yet another bait and switch move where he offers her just enough of something that appeases her so that she will get back on the rollercoaster with him, because he can’t tolerate losing her. In narcissistic alliances however, the loss has little to do with the loss of the actual person. It’s more about the loss of an object that supplies the other with a drug like fix. If a person does leave the alliance, the other may quickly find another empathic partner who will take the previous one’s place.
These alliances are not always so black and white though. There often can be a continuum of relationality that some people have. He or she may both genuinely care for the other and see them as an object at the same time. This is when it gets really confusing. Depending upon where the person is on the narcissistic continuum will have much to do with whether or not this relational dynamic can change. That is why therapy is a must to survive something of this nature.
If Karen and Jack do end up entering couples counseling, which they will need to should they want to remain in the relationship, they may be in constant contract negotiations for a long time.
Yet there’s a creative genius behind Karen’s relational patterns. The four year old parts of her (frightened, angry, lonely and abandoned) that got pushed aside when dealing with her mother’s abuse for years kept desperately trying to find ways to have their story seen and heard by none other than Karen. One of their tactics was to find just the perfect partner to contract with who will help them re enact their story. They are the parts of her and of you for that matter if you can relate to Karen’s story, who signed the invisible implicit contract in the first place.
The good news is, once you see what these parts are up to, you can then take a front row seat to their show, just as Karen did. With a little curiosity and a lot of compassion that allows these injured parts to grieve and heal in their own time and space, you will be able to rip up that contract and get off the rollercoaster for good. And if you start to waffle when your partner makes desperate attempts to lure you back in, try imagining yourself saying the crass words of my former client: “Go suck on a big fat d**k”. Allow that energy to fill your body with courage. Next take a long slow deep breath, find some stillness and pause. Then, calmly look your partner in the eye and say these two words.
My new book: Finding Hope in the Crisis: A Therapist's Perspective on Love, Loss, and Courage is now available for sale on Amazon and Barnes and Noble. To learn more about it, preview the first couples or order it, click here.