Before I knew anything about narcissism, before I entered therapy, before I realized that nothing I could do would make my mother love me, I got married to a man who I thought was a prince among men.
I had already been in terrible relationships with abusive, selfish men and in my 27-year-old wisdom decided that any man I could live with for a year and still feel good about would be The One. I had long since given up the notion that my partner had to be handsome or buff or Mr. Personality…I had settled on sober, dependable, trustworthy, intelligent, reasonably well-educated and having a steady job that paid well as indispensable criteria, and once I found a man like that if, after a year, I had not discovered he was a wife beater or a skirt chaser or mean and punitive, he would be a viable candidate for marriage. Nobody, after all, can hide their true personality for a whole year, ya know?
Well, I was wrong…in fact, not only could he hide the reality of himself for a whole year, in later years I found a friend whose boyfriend concealed who and what he really was for four years. I probably don’t have to tell you that my marriage didn’t work out the way I wanted it to.
What brings this up today is that I realized that, after figuring out that my mother was a narcissist, I recognized that my ex-husband was one too…and this weekend I realized that my present husband shares many traits and tastes with my narcissistic ex-husband.
But this is not a bad thing. You see, during that first year, my ex (who I will call “James” here to prevent any confusion) was exactly what I was looking for: he was patient and accommodating, dependable, trustworthy, and all of those other things I was looking for in a partner. He was an engineer, so he was technically minded, he was highly intelligent, and better educated than I was. His personal interests included finance and economics and politics, and he had little quirks like keeping a logbook of all of the money he spent on fuel and maintenance of his car, recorded with the date, reason for cost, and the amount. He also regularly calculated his gas mileage from this log. He could watch TV movies back-to-back for an entire day, movies he recorded on VHS tape…and he would watch those movies with a magazine in his lap, reading articles on finance and economics while he watched TV. He liked my cooking. He was a good earner and seemed to be good with money…all things that should make a good husband.
But, interestingly enough, everything I said about James in the previous paragraph also applies to my present husband! Even that quirky little thing about recording the costs for the car…James kept a ledger book in the glove compartment, my present husband does it on his smart phone. My relationship with James lasted 13 years and my husband and I have been together for the same length of time. But with James, after a decade I was a crumbling shell of the woman I had been when we met, broken, barely functioning, suicidal. Earlier this month my husband and I celebrated our 11th anniversary and I am looking forward to another eleven and even more.
So, what is the difference? Why would I respond to these two very similar men in such a different fashion? The answer lies not in what is similar between them, but their differences. And not superficial differences but those things that go deep into a person’s character.
One of the problems we ACoNs may face is choosing friends and partners and inadvertently choosing to bring more narcissists into our lives. Narcissists are very good at mimicking normal, they are excellent at making themselves look like the answer to your dreams…until they have you hooked. And they have an almost unerring radar for finding those of us who were raised to be a scapegoat, a provider of NSupply to narcissists near and far. They find us like wolves find wounded prey animals and then they do whatever is necessary to get us into position for the kill. And we, deprived of the most basic love and nurturing during our formative years, are suckers for people who appear to fill our shamefully neglected emotional needs.
James knew I was burned by flaky men who took advantage and then took off. They got what they wanted by pretending to give me what I needed. Raised by a narcissist mother and a largely absent father, I was hypervigilant to the moods of my narcissist and learned quickly that anticipating her needs/wants and providing them before they were demanded was the best way to stave off the explosions of wrath. My mother was extremely volatile, emotionally, and had the terrifying ability to go from sweet and smiling to a full-blown screaming rage in the blink of an eye…and back to sweetly smiling just as fast. Living with her was like living in a mine field with just a few paths of safety mapped out…and one of those paths was to give her what she wanted before she demanded it.
This, of course, set the stage for my “operating condition” for the years that followed. I managed to hook up with men who, like my mother, had volatile personalities and, to prevent explosions, I employed my hypervigilance and anticipatory ways. Whatever, whoever they wanted me to be, I would be in their presence (just like in my childhood, however, the mouse would be and do whatever she wanted when the cat was away). This pattern of behaviour, however, was not conducive to the establishment and perpetuation of a healthy long-term relationship. Once the men got what they wanted from me, they abandoned me or abused me until I left them. By age 26 I had three children and had been abandoned by my last boyfriend when our child was only a few months old.
I was never a stupid person and I tried to learn from the events in my life. What I had the most trouble with was figuring out when a person was fooling me and when he was sincere. The father of my youngest child stayed with me throughout my pregnancy, supported me and was what I considered to be kind and loving. Once the baby was born, however, he began pulling away and by the time I had recovered from my Caesarean enough to return to work, he was gone. For a long time I wondered what I might have done to drive him away, but I later learned that I was the first of three women he did this too…he even married the third one but abandoned her and their baby when the child was just a few months old. Obviously, he had an issue but just as obviously, I seemed to be incapable of determining whether or not a man had an issue that would cause him to leave me—or abuse me—before getting involved with him.
James seemed like a breath of fresh air. He was a professional man, unlike my previous lovers, well-educated, well-read, well-spoken. One of the things I remember finding wondrous about him was his patience, something my mother and previous male partners seemed to have in short supply. I remember James taking me to a pharmacy to fill a prescription and I apologized in advance for the time it was going to take, for taking up his valuable time waiting around for me. He shrugged and said “No problem…why don’t you leave the baby in the car with me while you are in there, then you won’t have to deal with him as well as everything else?” I was amazed and I remember congratulating myself for finally finding a man with some patience and sensitivity. How could I have known it was just an act?
Well, forty years later, I have the answer to that question: if he seems too good to be true, he is. Real people have flaws and they show them. Nobody is perfect…oh, he can be “perfect for you,” as my husband is for me, but that means that he has flaws that you find acceptable, even endearing…imperfections that you can live with or even enjoy. A person with no faults is either faking it to impress you or s/he is a narcissist, being what will attract you until you are hooked and s/he can abandon the disguise.
James managed to last for an entire year and, against my better judgment, I married him. I say “against my better judgment” because I let my logical mind and my need for security overrule my intuition, which had seen—and dismissed—numerous red flags during the year. I had already failed at marriage and didn’t really want to marry again, but I had made the cardinal error of letting him know too much about my inner workings…he knew just how emotionally insecure I was and how badly I wanted a house of my own so I could feel secure (somehow I had equated the two…I believed when I had my own house, I would no longer feel as if the rug was about to be yanked out from beneath me). When I balked at his blandishments about marriage and he finally took on board that I was afraid to get married again, lest I fail at it another time, he bribed me with the promise of a house of my own. And that was the tipping point.
Superficially, James and my present husband are very much alike, but when you analyse them, what shakes out is that my present husband is the genuine article…he is, in real life, what James pretended to be for the year before I married him. My criteria were fine…what I wanted in a husband was not unusual or unhealthy…for the last eleven years I have had a husband who fits that criteria very well. They even share some quirky behaviours, like the log book for the car and where James watched TV with a magazine in his lap, my present husband has his tablet and is reading on-line articles about politics, economics, and finance while watching movies he has recorded on the PVR. The difference between James and my present husband is that I gave James enough information in our early days for him to figure out what kind of man I wanted and he recreated himself to appear to be that man; my husband was himself from the beginning and over time it became obvious that he really is what James pretended to be.
For the longest time I wondered what I did to cause James to change from the loving, patient, attentive man I agreed to marry into the monster I ended up with. For more than ten years I turned myself inside out, trying to find the magic key to unlocking the door behind which was hidden the wonderful man I married. I took the blame for his change, believing it was something I did or said that caused him to turn into a cruel, manipulative, short-tempered, selfish, inhumane excuse for a human being. I believed if I could discover what it was I did or said that caused him to change, I could have the man I married back. It was not until I discovered narcissism that I began to understand that the monster was the real man, the loving partner I thought I married was the fake.
It was an epiphany and the implications were huge. It wasn’t my fault…he wasn’t a monster because of something I did or said…or didn’t do or say…he was a monster because that was the real man, the man behind the mask of kindness and patience and love. Where I was at fault was in letting him know early on what I needed or wanted in a partner so that he could create himself to be that person. In seeking to evoke his empathy with my sad tale of childhood abuse and bad luck in adult love relationships, I gave him a detailed blueprint of what he needed to pretend to be in order to win me. And, in my tales of a life of woe, I confirmed to him that I was a well-trained scapegoat, a well-skilled provider of N-supply, a person who would subordinate the very essence of herself to obtain even the merest crumbs of approval and affection. I was as irresistible to a narcissist as a wounded hare to a fox, and he was determined to not only have me, but to bind me to him through marriage so that I couldn’t just pick up and walk away when his abuse became too much.
In my epiphany, I further discovered that I was a willing accomplice in my victimization: I told him everything he needed to know to entrap me. I let him know what hurt me, I reacted to probes into my feelings so he knew what my triggers were. I ignored the red flags that popped up regularly, even when my conscious mind knew better…I ignored them because they got in the way of what I wanted. If I acknowledged them, I would have to end the relationship and start all over again with a new man and a new set of unknowns. The idea of going it alone, with no man and without wanting a man in my life, never occurred to me.
It took ten years for me to really wake up and see what had really been going on. Even then, I knew nothing about narcissism, but I knew I had married a male version of my mother and that was a bad thing. My fear of my mother coupled with her hostility and indifference to my feelings led me to contemplate suicide for the first time when I was nine, and to my first attempt when I was seventeen. James and his cruel indifference led me to the same brink. And when I finally put them together, thanks to a heavy hint from an insightful therapist, I was horrified: I had married the male counterpart to my mother and had been trying to resolve my issues with her by trying to find ways to make my marriage work. I had taken on all of the blame and responsibility for the flaws in the relationship, believing I was somehow provoking his gaslighting, triangulating, and fault-finding. And as long as I believed that, I was trapped in the web, a willing but unwitting prisoner.
My present husband, on the surface, is much like my ex. The difference is simply that James was pretending to be what I wanted in a man, my present husband actually is. And at the time I married James, I had neither the knowledge nor the self-confidence to actually see that James was pretending and because I lacked those abilities, I set up a hurdle for him to leap, reasoning that if he could succeed, then he would be a good husband. In theory there is nothing wrong with that, but in practice I made a critical error: the hurdle I created had nothing to do with reality. I could have set up “he can knit potholders” as the hurdle and gotten just as accurate a result.
We who were raised by narcissists are especially vulnerable to them…they can pick us out of a crowd like a cutting horse can cut a calf out of a herd. And we respond to them because we have been conditioned to do so…they fit seamlessly into our “comfort zone,” especially if we haven’t done any real work to redefine that comfort zone. And while we can design little rat mazes for them to run through to prove to us they aren’t going to hurt us, if our little mazes aren’t based on reality, it isn’t going to work. And even if the mazes are based on reality, if we allow ourselves to dismiss those red flags, if we explain them away, then we still end up at the end of a narcissist’s specimen pin.
Coming from a narcissistic upbringing makes us vulnerable to choosing these kinds of partners…and friends, too. We need to learn to put what we want to see in people secondary to what we really, uncomfortably, observe. When we can start acknowledging those red flags and not dismissing them, when we can put the fairy tale relationship we carry in our heads away and stop trying to fit the most recent lover or friend into the role, we begin to make progress. Key to this is to stop trying to find reasons to find a person acceptable…to give up the idea that we can or should remake a person to fit our ideals…and simply accept or reject a person based on whether or not they already fit into our own personal scheme of things.
And that brings me back to my husbands…obviously my criteria and my tastes have held constant and what I wanted was neither unreasonable nor unhealthy. My mistake was in ignoring the red flags and not allowing myself to recognize that James really didn’t fit my needs, he was just pretending to. My present husband, though, fits the criteria admirably: he is, for real, what James merely pretended to be for a year.
In retrospect, it turns out it was not all that difficult to do. If you start with a realistic and healthy set of expectations in a partner, pay attention to the red flags in the people you meet, avoid the temptation to try to change people to fit into your criteria, and have sufficient patience, your odds of successfully avoiding the relationship trap set for you by your narcissistic upbringing are excellent.