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Thursday, August 13, 2015

Everyday Examples of Narcissism and More Small Queens

If you read the online psychological literature about narcissism, you will be told that narcissists, among other things:

1. Lie effortlessly as a matter of course and often lead double lives.
2. Engage in gas-lighting where they misplace something of yours or do something and then claim not to know what you are talking about when you bring it up.
3. Put you down constantly in front of others.
4. Constantly try to control your behavior.
5. Are very grandiose in their outlook and are always pursuing wealth and power.

The problem I find with these descriptions of narcissistic behavior is that it is easy for us to conclude that our partners are not narcissists because their behavior isn't as egregious, or blatant as we imagine the above examples to be. What if the behaviors are much more insidious and subtle? The fact is that really adept narcissists are very good at subtleties. They can separate cause and effect by just enough time that an outside observer who is unfamiliar with the relationship dynamic would never connect the behaviors. This is why it is so hard to discuss the problem with family and friends - because they initially won't believe you.

So in this post, I want to give everyday examples of narcissistic behavior that are much more subtle. I will describe over the next two posts:

1. Baiting.
2. Unfair comparisons and "I'm just being honest".
3. Passive aggressive actions disguised as attempts to help you.
4. Subtle attempts at control.
5. Lying about opinions.
6. Taking credit for your initiative.
7. Projection
8. Misuse of truisms

This post will discuss the first four of these.


Imagine that you and your partner have just bought your first house and you are over the moon about taking this important first step in your life. You invite your parents over for dinner and to show them the house. Within 5 minutes of arriving, your father tells you that you'd better consider selling the house within the next five years because by then there will be all kinds of problems with it, and then proceeds to rattle off a list.  You get upset and hurt. Your reaction is greeted with surprise that you are not grateful to your father for his "helpful" advice. What everyone on the outside sees is your dad trying to help you out. But you are only one who picks up on the just barely disguised glee in his voice when he says this to you. In other words you know that he is enjoying this, but he covers it up just well enough that nobody else notices, so that you look like the over-sensitive one for reacting the way that you have. That is one example.

Another one is that you are on vacation at a really nice resort and you are having a ball. You are telling your partner about how much you are enjoying the trip, how relaxing the trip is, how good the food is etc. At the end of the trip, you partner looks you square in the eye and says "I don't think I ever want to do that kind of vacation again!", again with a certain amount of glee in their voice as they say the words. They don't acknowledge anything you said about the trip over the last several days, or that their opinion and what they want is at odds with your preferences and that this is a problem to be discussed. No, it is as if you never spoke, or what you said was of no importance.

A third example still is if you had to save hard to pay for the above vacation, and at the end of it, after a week at home, you partner says something like "I need a vacation!" or "It feels like we were never away!".

What makes the above examples baiting, is the way in which your partner obliterates you as a person in the relationship. In the first example, father has completely steamrolled over the son or daughter's pride in an accomplishment and is refusing to give them the satisfaction of their approval, turning it into a sport. In the second example a normal partner who was considerate of their partner would acknowledge that their partner really liked the vacation but would say that they did not like it so much and would want to use that difference as a jumping off point for a discussion as to how both of their needs could be met. In the above example there is no attempt to initiate a discussion - the person making the statement is simply asserting a contradictory position without offering a solution. In the third example, again the person is denigrating the experience they have just had and acting like it was nothing, without actually saying anything bad about it. A normal person would say something like "Gosh I know this was an expensive trip and you had a really great time, but I just don't feel rested, and I'm not sure what to do about it.". This is deliberate and done so that if you get upset, they can accuse you of being too sensitive or always being defensive.

Unfair Comparisons

Imagine that you have worked in your career for several years and each year you have been promoted. After five years, you feel happy and content with the salary level you have reached and you honestly feel that you make enough money to provide for the needs of your family. You now want to focus your energies on other pursuits, such as mentoring, of honing your skills or your hobbies. You tell your partner this and their reaction is to tell you that you are actually making far less than average for someone your age, with your level of education etc. When you get upset by their remark, they tell you that they are just being honest and then they accuse you of "just wanting to be with someone who always tells you what you want to hear".

Well no actually, you just want to be with someone who knows when to keep their goddamm mouth shut. If you are happy with your level of career accomplishment and you express this to your partner, there is really no appropriate response other than "I'm glad dear" or something to that effect. To denigrate that person's accomplishment by comparing them to a nebulous group of people is a violation of emotional trust. If your partner feels that the two of you are having financial problems that's another discussion entirely that they should be initiating at another time.

Another example would be that you partner is telling you about their day and they mention a gift that their co-worker got for an anniversary or other occasion and then they say "gosh their hubby is so romantic. I wonder what that is like?" or something to that effect. Never mind that you are stressed out trying to pay the never ending stream of bills or its been years since you spent any significant sum of money on something for just yourself. It is an unfair comparison because you partner doesn't really know anything about their co-worker's circumstances beyond the superficial. But also, if your partner isn't getting what they need from you it is their responsibility to tell you in a straight forward, non-hurtful manner.

Passive Aggressiveness  Disguised as Help

Imagine that you have a friend who lives thousands of miles from you. You really enjoy their company and you miss them all year. So you take a trip each year to see them. It is expensive, but not something that you cannot afford with your income level. A month before your scheduled trip you are telling your partner how much you are looking forward to seeing your friend. Your partner kind of just nods and changes the subject. Nothing more is said about it for the next couple of weeks. Then just two weeks before you are scheduled to go, and you are about to book the ticket, your partner starts talking about what an expensive trip this is and they think you are both spending too much money in general. But they don't tell you to not go. Another week goes by and they come to you and say that they think you should really consider going somewhere else for a change since you always take the same trip each year. They suggest somewhere exotic like Iceland, which just happens to be a place they have told you before that they want to visit, but they don't tell you they want to go with you. When you get upset with the fact that they are completely ignoring your need to see your friend, they get upset and tell you that "they are just trying to help you".

This is inappropriate on many levels. First, they clearly object to you taking the trip, but refuse to just come out and start a discussion about it. But their stated reason (i.e. the cost) is clearly not the real issue, since they go on to suggest something else that costs even more money. The real issue is that they just don't want you taking the trip because they can see how much you enjoy it, and they want to put a stop to it, without actually having to forbid you to take the trip. They are hoping in this situation to talk you into not taking the trip so that later when you regret not going they can point out that "it was your decision".

In most situations like this, the red flag will be that they are offering you "help" that you didn't indicate you needed and you most certainly didn't ask for.

Subtle Attempts at Control

Narcissists don't want anybody to see them as controlling. So they will rarely resort to blatant attempts to control your behavior. Instead they will make a lot of suggestions about what they think is appropriate and will make suggestions about creating conditions in your relationship which restrict your future choices, all ostensibly for good reasons.

Nowhere is this more subtle than in the financial realm. A narcissistic partner will almost always suggest that you must combine your finances with theirs. That is not to say that everyone who suggests this is a narcissist: far from it. There are a lot of good reasons for couples to combine finances, but in my experience the most healthy model is usually one in which the couple has a joint account into which money is deposited for family expenses and each person maintains their own account for personal purchases. This enables open communication about the amount of money available to pay expenses and fosters trust between the couple, without eliminating individual autonomy. A narcissist though will usually insist that everything must be joint because "you shouldn't be hiding anything from one another." But I digress.

An example of a subtle attempt at control of the finances would be as follows:

Your partner makes a lot of remarks from time to time about how they are worried about your financial future together. They worry aloud about what happens if you lose your job, they get sick, your children go to school for longer than planned - all things that are way, way off in the future, if they ever happen at all. You talk about making a budget and agree that this is a good idea. But then when you try to sit with your partner and lay out the actual budget line items and discuss them they grow impatient and tell you that "you aren't dealing with the big picture" and they refuse to continue the discussion.  Then a short time later they suggest that they want to be "tight each month". When you ask them what they mean, they say that they want to open another joint account that cannot be easily accessed and they want to transfer all the money into it, except for a very small amount each month. The idea is that there will be so little in the normal joint account that it will curb spending on "senseless things". Sounds like a good idea right?

Yes, until you start getting into the discussion of what the senseless things are. You are essentially told that all the things you partner spends money on are really essential and not something that they want to give up, but the things that you like to spend money on are frivolous. You are told that your daily trips to Tim Hortons for coffee are a waste of money and would stop under the new system. When you object and express reluctance to go along with this they question whether you really have the family's long term welfare as a priority. They say things like "Do you want us to wind up like one of those couples who is broke when they retire?" or something similar. Of course they know you don't and you eventually agree to go along with what they have suggested.

Technically, your partner in this situation is not overtly controlling you since if you opened the account, it would be a joint account that you would both have access to. However, they have stacked the deck by not giving up the things they spend money on while guaranteeing that you would have to go to the bank to buy the things that you feel you need. This places all your spending under scrutiny, but not theirs. Of course under those circumstances you would probably just stop spending on your things because its just not worth the hassle. The control comes in the form of the overall atmosphere of arbitrary scarcity and restriction that they are trying to impose in the relationship, that is so unnecessary to grown, responsible adults. They are doing it because the know that it wouldn't really affect them negatively. In fact, it will place more of the financial resources than before at their disposal, since they will feel that they now have a right to discuss what should be done with those savings.

So that is a few examples of how narcissism can manifest itself on a day to day basis in a relationship. I will cover the other four tomorrow.

Now some more pretty Small Queens that went up yesterday:

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