It begins with what I’d call the cold shoulder, the detachment, the withdrawal, a coldness. I hadn’t realized anything was wrong. I certainly hadn’t acted any differently; I was my usual loving, affectionate, generous self, just looking forward to a night cuddling on the couch in front of a good TV show after dinner. I wasn’t aware of having done anything wrong.
And still the silence, the staring off into space. Almost like he was closing me off, shutting me out. He treated me like I’d done something wrong when I knew I hadn’t.
Playing mind-reader, trying to figure out what was wrong so that peace could be restored and we could enjoy a warm evening in each others’ arms, I asked him “what’s up?”
That question opens the door, at least between normal people. (Spoiler Alert: narcissists aren’t normal.) In a normal conversation, that should lead into open, honest feelings and thoughts, shared mutually, that lead to an equally-mutually-shared resolution. (But conversations in narcissistic relationships aren’t normal, either).
In a narcissistic relationship, you almost come to dread having to ask “what’s up?”, because you know it’s going to open a long, convoluted, warped can of rotten worms.
After a few rounds of…
“No, you’re acting like something is definitely up.”
“I can’t think of anything.”
…he finally says “I think I’ve been glutenated.” (That’s the non-technical term often used for a wheat gluten exposure in someone who is immune-reactive, so they’re experiencing symptoms of the reactivity.)
I can field this one. I have the solution. It’s a single, gloriously simple solution, at that. I tell him to double up on a dose of a natural supplement he already has that reduces the inflammation involved in such a gluten reaction, and do that for the next few days. My lovelies, it actually takes a few weeks to months, but we’re a year into the relationship at this point, and I know the drill: dutifully walk on eggshells. So I lower the bar in an attempt to avoid setting him off.
No dice. He gets hostile. “You’re killing me.” (He didn’t want to spare the marginal expense of having to double up on the dosage of a supplement for a few days.) Knowing where this is going (I’ve had some practice, after all), I tell him I don’t need this right now.
It’s his turn to ask “what’s wrong?” What’s wrong is, I actually put my foot down, buddy, albeit gently, using the proper “I” statements. However, I told him I had multiple things on my mind – a busy day at work tomorrow, a heavy school load for the next 5 weeks, a severely-diabetic husband who is declining quickly and whom I’m worried about, a shitty economy (this was May, during the height of the Coronavirus stuff), not having fully recovered from yesterday’s hay fever, and now this.
The conversation went on, I forget exactly what all we talked about, but here I go, silly me, trying to teach him something again as though he was a teenager, as opposed to nearly twice that age. I like to share information with my loved ones, and in such Teaching Moments, whether it’s at work or in my personal life, I like to use analogies.
I figure that my ex and I have a symbiotic relationship – I like to help, and he needs so much of it.
But this relationship is anything but symbiotic, of course. It’s bad enough that I have to explain concepts and teach lessons that should have been learned in adolescence or by one’s 20s at most, but I also tend to get not gratitude but flack for having the audacity to try to help.
Because trying to help actually causes narcissistic injury – where you don’t see them as the perfect beings they’re trying to convince you they are. It’s almost laughable, because it’s so obvious that they’re imperfect. All humans are, of course, and they’re even more so than most.
I mentioned the analogy to him, and before I could even explain it (briefly), he orders me to “make it quick.”
That stops me in my tracks. What the actual f**k? Getting tired of his sullenness despite my efforts to give him the help and wisdom he so sorely lacked, I had actually started to call him out on his tactics a little. I asked him “who would you even say that to?”
His answer? Employers/supervisors to employees/subordinates, maybe coworkers to each other, parents to a child. I said “well I’m not any of those people to you. I’m not your employee, coworker, or child. You don’t get to say that to me.” I asked him if he’d talk to any of his other close platonic friends or supervisors that way, and he said no. I asked “Okay, why do I get treated that way? I deserve better than that.” He didn’t say anything, at least not in normal response to that. But it did reveal to me that he perceived me as a subordinate, a less-than-equal. I’m not his daughter or employee, don’t’cha know.
We talked–or, rather, I did most of the talking, because when he wasn’t saying something that cut me, he’d sit there in silence and stare at me, with cold, intense eyes that were in fact an attempt to intimidate. I tried to teach him how when you have a shitty day at work, you don’t withdraw in a relationship; you come home and actually lean on each other for support, which is part of the responsibility, but also the benefit – that’s how relationships work.
I voiced the nagging suspicion that he was actually trolling on social media, making brief, inflammatory/provocative/controversial statements on public pages/groups, because when he gets into a snit like this, that is often the reason. He trolls social media, posts his jabs, then leaves, then checks his notifications every few minutes (yes, there’s a social media addiction at work), and when someone “reacts” or replies to his post, he has to go check it to see what they said.
And if it’s something in disagreement, he has to retort, often spinning the conversation into unanticipated and downright irrational directions that, within about 5 back-and-forth lines, don’t even resemble the original topic anymore. Invariably, and surprisingly quickly, other commenters surmise that he “must be off the meds” again (he doesn’t take any–and probably should), or worse, that he should “do the world a favor and off yourself”. And, he has to have the last word.
Plenty of problems at work here. First the social media addiction in the first place. Then the compulsion to stir up drama (known as a form of “baiting”, and guys definitely do it, too, especially the narcissistic ones; it’s not just a female thang). Then the need to bicker and trash complete strangers. Then the refusal to let the conversation drop (it’s only when the others give up that he runs out of steam and forgets about it).
Hand me the mic a sec:
**Normal people don’t do this! A healthy person does not care for drama, especially the negative type!!**
And then of course, the butthurt feelings. Looking back, I’m not sure what pissed him off more: 1) the awful things people said to him, or 2) the fact that they eventually stopped feeding the conversation! Because this meant he could no longer chase the “high” that he got from baiting-and-debating others.
He ignored me at first. Didn’t say anything, I don’t think. Hadn’t acknowledged the Voicing of the Suspicion (that he’d been Fighting on Facebook–again, after I’d advised him not to, because look at how bad that made him feel about himself?). Finally, I asked a third time, wording it even more clearly, if he’d been on Facebook, making negative comments.
I almost laughed when he said “I have, but they were just for myself”. What does that even mean?? A common question that often popped up, typically staying inside my head, but occasionally making an escape out of my mouth.
We’re not getting anywhere, are we?
I told him I’ve seen how he only tilts his phone away from me when he’s on Facebook, nothing else (when he’s on something like YouTube or he’s googling something or doing something otherwise innocuous, his phone is in a neutral position, or even toward me).
Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, this is not my paranoia. My friend, with whom we’ve hung out as a group, made the same observation and it stool out as a red flag to her, too. My suspicion was ultimately confirmed, as I went to the public pages he had in his “Likes” section and scrolled through them, looking for comments. Sure enough, they were there, barely on the topic of the page’s original post, injecting negativity and pessimism and controversy. It’s incredibly dark and semi-insane.
He said something nonchalant about “catching up with people” or whatever. At least I knew it was a boldfaced lie right then.
And I called him out on that, too. I said that doesn’t fit the pattern of finger activity, which involved a lot of scrolling.
Ever the brainstormer, I offered up some solutions that covered the bases of everything we’d talked about that night (over the course of 4-6 hours, of course).
I recommended he deactivate his Facebook account for 2 weeks as sort of a “detox”, recommending that we do some healthy things together instead. He came up with an excuse that if he deactivated his Facebook account, a public page he administers would disappear, too. (As you can imagine, it’s a small, negative-niche page, with maybe 150 “Likes” and hardly any activity. Which makes the excuse pretty thin.)
I also recommended he have a polite, professional come-to-Jesus meeting with some repeat offenders at work that keep irritating him by doing some things that may be legitimately irritating. He said he didn’t have the courage to do that. I said he does, he just needs to recognize it.
I suggested reaching out to me and bonding with me, leaning on me for support, instead of withdrawing and sulking, after a shitty day at work. He said he’d never done that before, because apparently not everybody had to start somewhere or anything. I said you never know until you try, giving him the tried-and-true (and even successful!) examples (endless examples) of going gluten-free and learning to cook, earning his Masters degree, etc, that he thought he’d never do but did. I said “try, and you might be pleasantly surprised this time, too.”
I expressed my concerns that if he does not have a convo with the coworkers who keep messing up, that he’ll become uncorked someday and lose his job (he’d been written up twice already for such antics, in 2 years with the company), which is bad in the Coronavirus economy, and it’s important to prevent that from happening.
I needed some effort from him, for him to make his own connections between behavior/cause and consequences/effect (insight) and come up with his own solutions (problem-solving), but why should a narcissist actually have to do that, especially when they tend to attract people around them who will?
I remember being so frustrated that he doesn’t tend to think about that stuff, which is part of normal adulting, and that he needs prodding to find out what he feels. I talked about choices – we can’t choose what happens to us, like coworkers adding stress or irritating us, but we *can* change how we respond to/deal with that.
Gorgeous ones, that’s literally how the conversation ended. Because by then it was late enough that we both had to get to bed. I could barely remember that the same conversation started with him believing he’d gotten exposed to gluten, and getting irritated with me when I suggested he double up on one supplement for the next few days, until his symptoms had calmed down.
But narcissists can’t simply take an issue, address it directly, mutually engage in coming up with solutions, reach some sort of mutual agreement, and then proceed with the evening, mood improved. That’s for Normal People, and they’re better than we are or something.
So I went home, and his windows went dark before I was even across the street.
The conversation had simply truncated. There was no resolution. There was no mutual agreement. There was no acknowledgement of, or apology for, the hurtful comments or the lying or the dark mood, nor his allowing an external stressor (self-created, no less) impact how he treated me, an innocent one. There was no “I’ll do X, Y, and Z solutions” commitment. There was only exhaustion, confusion, powerlessness, bewilderment, unsettlement, desperation, and increasing hopelessness.
And where we would pick up tomorrow would always depend on his mood.
You and I both know there were countless conversations like this. Maybe you’ve been through something similar. And these conversations would only increase in frequency over the next 4 months…
…until I finally said “No More.”