Fear is a powerful motivator. Fear of breaking up, or FOBU, can keep us in a relationship that we should have left long ago. In some cases, hanging on may just be out of laziness, fear of social taboo, or simply not wanting to be alone. But, when you’re involved with a narcissistic partner, that fear can involve more than just a fear of breaking up.
Narcissists tend to break our resolve. They lay the blame upon us. What was once a vast social circle may, over the course of your relationship, have been whittled down to one or two friends, so being alone might actually seem like being alone, and not just losing your plus-one. That fear can also include a deep fear of reprisal. Because people with narcissistic personalities need to maintain the position of control in a relationship, to attain that power the narcissist emotionally destroys the person with whom he is having a relationship by creating a culture of fear and anxiety. Narcissists are abusive, and can be explosive and vengeful.
Why We Stay
Partners of narcissists often stay in the relationship believing that if they do stay, eventually their partner will “see the light” and will start acting appropriately, or things will go back to the way they had been in the beginning of the relationship, before the narcissist became bored. One cannot fix a partner, particularly not a narcissist. For someone to change their behavior, they themselves have to be able to recognize that there is something that needs changing. A narcissist will not admit that they are the problem, and so they will not change. They cannot change.
What does often happen is the opposite. A negative bond can form between the abuser and his victim wherein the victim begins to equate a lack of abuse as an act of kindness. This type of behavior can sometimes be referred to as Stockholm Syndrome. It involves a way of thinking called cognitive dissonance, in which the thinker lies to herself about the facts of the situation in order to settle the conflict that arises in her mind when the reality of a situation doesn’t match the way she wants it to be. For example, the wife of a narcissist might tell herself that it was okay, and maybe even warranted, that her culinary abilities be insulted by her husband because, after all, she made linguine instead of angel hair, which she knows is his favorite.
Perhaps she may begin to examine her career success, thinking that it is not because she has ability, but because her male boss is trying to sleep with her, as her narcissistic husband tells her it is. As a result she may change her style of dress and may stop actively participating in her work activities so as to go unnoticed so her boss won’t “misread” her signals, all of which will likely impact her performance negatively, in which case her narcissistic partner’s theory will seem as if it was true. It is not uncommon for people to make excuses or to bend the truth, so to speak, to alleviate the tension that is caused when they find themselves in a situation that is full of conflict.
A narcissist will also project his own character flaws onto you. My second ex would constantly tell me that people thought I was phony, that my friendly nature came across as saccharin, that I wasn’t fooling anyone, and that people thought I was weird. There came a point when he demanded that I take my phone calls in the bathroom so he wouldn’t have to hear my interactions because they made him “sick.” What I came to find out, after we had broken up, was that that was exactly the way everyone felt about him. Well, no one thought he was saccharin and friendly, because he wasn’t. He was cagey and didn’t reveal much about himself. His interpersonal relations were very superficial and people just thought he was phony and weird. He never knew this, though. He was under the impression that everyone thought he was just the greatest guy ever. He was tremendously successful at his job, and they wanted him to be happy, so they treated him as if they thought he was the greatest guy ever. Why should he think any differently?
Another thing he would do is insist that I had lost my grip on reality. I joke - now that he is long gone and there is no way he can hear me - that he would argue that the sky was green. He would tell me I was naive and that I had faulty logic. He would tell me that if I asked ten people on the street who was on the winning side of our argument, they would all choose his side, and anyone who didn’t was obviously as misguided as I was. And he would argue about everything. The thing was, I knew the “sky wasn’t green” and I knew people would choose my side every time, but I let him be right because it kept peace, and maybe he saw the sky as green. Who was I to say he didn’t...
And projection can go both ways. While our partners are berating us for whatever crime they have perceived we have committed, we are busy making excuses for them, trying to see it from their point of view, sympathizing with their pain, empathizing, always tiptoeing through eggshells devising ways to go around their sensitive areas.
But it doesn’t matter. Their whole surface is eggshells, so no matter where you walk, how gingerly you step, you will crack something.
Image Courtesy of Flickr, Photo by Allison Hillard
Why I Stayed
When I was with both of my exes, part of what kept me in the relationship too long was the notion that somehow, after we had broken up, he would magically become the person I’d always wanted him to be, and all the work I had done, the foundation I’d laid, the time I’d invested in him would be to the benefit of some other woman and I’d be alone. That didn’t happen in either case. In fact, within a year after we had broken up, both of them went through a series of short-term relationships. In between breakups with these other women, they both tried to get back together with me. My first ex once begged me to get back with him, complaining bitterly to me about how the girl he’d taken up with after me was destroying our apartment and bringing home strange men. My second ex had the audacity to ask me if I would help him retrieve some stuff from his ex’s apartment. (I did it because some of the stuff was mine.) As we were driving away, she drove up, and from the look on her face I realized that he was sneaking away while she was supposed to be at work! I was worried that he’d changed!
My first ex and I broke up several times during our time together. Every time, he had another woman waiting for him. Usually these breakups came out of the blue, hitting me like a ton of bricks, leaving me miserable, wondering what I had done to drive him into the arms of another woman. I wondered how I could change myself to stop him from doing it again. It took me years to realize that there was nothing in the world I could have done to have kept him from wandering away from me towards something he thought would satisfy whatever need he had, whatever hole he had that needed filling. I hadn’t caused that hole and I couldn’t fill it. Looking back with my superhero hindsight, I can understand that he kept coming back to me because I tried so hard to fill it for him.
Another part of me was terrified that my partner would leave the relationship before he came to his senses and recognized that I am not a dirty old dishrag, but instead I am an intelligent capable, deserving, loyal, beautiful strong woman who is worthy of proper treatment. This second one was, for me, the stronger fear out of the two because the thought that there seemed to be nothing I had been able to do up until that time to prove my worth to him...I thought, if he could just see that I am worthy, he’ll stop being so mean and things will get better. That time never came, though.
Why You Should Go
You cannot accept the blame for all the problems in the relationship. People who suffer from narcissistic personality disorder have huge issues, none of which stem from your existence and for all of which you are likely shouldering the responsibility. At some point, you must ask yourself what is keeping you in the relationship. Do you believe there is a problem that you can solve? Are you waiting for your partner to change?
A recurring theme when dealing with a narcissistic partner is that you cannot change them. In order for anyone to change themselves, they have to accept responsibility. Narcissists do not see flaws within themselves, at least not outwardly. They may view themselves as deeply flawed people, but they will not admit that to you or to anyone. As the old saying goes, admitting that you have a problem is the first step to overcoming that problem. A narcissist will not take that first step.
The first step to getting over the fear of breaking up is admitting to yourself that you are not the problem. Whatever baggage you may have brought into the relationship, whatever your transgressions, you do not deserve, nor does anyone, to be abused. Recognition that there is nothing you can do to satisfy or complete this person with whom you are involved is critical. You can excuse or justify his behavior all you want, but nothing will change. It will likely get worse, and when you are at your most broken, your narcissistic partner will leave you behind for something shinier and new.
First Wive's World is a community devoted to hearing your stories. Register now and share your divorce victories and hardships.
*Lead Image Courtesy of Emma Louise Schroeder's Flickr