A Therapist’s Guide to Living with a “Narcissist” – Chapter Three

Today, Sally discussed a number of situations that recently occurred with which she wanted assistance.

Sally was recently hit by another car in traffic. The situation was that she was stopped at a stoplight, in a line of traffic. She was in the middle of a long line of cars and the stoplight was flashing red.  As the cars were slowly moving up, the woman in the car behind her, the driver distracted by her cellphone, ran into Sally. There were no injuries, to either driver or cars, and Sally did not get a ticket.

Later, she related the story to Bob. He responded with, “Yeah, I know how distracted you can get with your phone.” She corrected him, explaining that she was hit, not that she hit another car and that the other driver was on her phone, distracted.  Bob’s response, “But you do get distracted when you are on your phone….I’m just saying”. This was followed by a long argument. Bob kept making the point that she is easily distracted and Sally kept pointing out that that was not the point.  After fighting about this, they separated but he eventually came to her and apologized; “I don’t understand why I must say ‘I’m sorry’ when I wasn’t the one who gets distracted. There!  I said I was sorry.” Sally went home (She was at his apartment.) and Bob complained that she is never satisfied.

A number of points to consider…

First.  As I indicated before, I am not here to and have not diagnosed Bob but from this (one sided) description of their conversation, I immediately questioned if Bob was narcissistic or just immature.  I ask this because I recall having such fights when I was a younger man (I also hear of such fights between the younger couples in my office.). When I was a younger man, I was quick to point out the weaknesses of others….thinking it made me, I don’t know….stronger, bigger, right…?

Second. Narcissists are prone to vie for control in interactions with others. Bob’s focus on Sally’s tendency to get distracted when she is on her phone can be explained as an attempt on his part to gain some kind of control in the conversation.

I asked about her response to Bob.  She indicated that during the fight, she tried to think clearly and speak slowly. She indicated, in the past, she has often gotten confused in discussions/fights with Bob. In an attempt to fight this, she deliberately tried to speak slowly so as to ensure what she was saying, answer one question at a time and ensure the clarity of her thinking. I asked about where she came up with these ideas. She indicated it is part of the routines she teaches her students when talking about good self presentation. Impressive! She said it helped her, to use this technique when talking with him or when she is in a fight or confused when talking to him.

Another situation: One Saturday morning, they were doing some house-cleaning.  Bob apparently moved a chair or couch and discovered something on the floor. She was nearby and he said, “Pick that up.” She responded with “Please..?” The following conversation ensued:

Bob: “Why do you always do that? Always challenging me?”

Sally: “Are you going to talk or treat our kids that way? When you talk to me like that, it feels rude…and I don’t like it!”

Bob: “I shouldn’t have to ask “please” over everything. That is just crazy!”

Sally: “I am not crazy.  You are just rude!”

She refused to pick the item up. He eventually picked the item up but referenced it sarcastically multiple times throughout the day.

I asked Sally why she stood up to him as she did. She explained that when things are going badly, she tends to stand up to him more, feeling she has less to lose.  She went on to say that their sex life has been in toilet. More about that later.

A third situation: It was early in the day and after a few interactions, Bob ask/exclaimed, “What is wrong with you?” Sally didn’t feel there was anything “wrong” with her but took more offense to the way he worded his statement/question.  She pointed this out to him, how the wording made her feel and how he could have worded the question, i.e., “Is there something bothering you today?”, or “You seem distracted. Is there something you want to talk about?” He again dismissed her comments.

It is common when doing therapy that I ask for a person to describe different situations they have encountered since our last appointment and then pick one they want to discuss in depth. I don’t recall which situation Sally was describing but in the process of her comments, she indicated Bob reminds her of her mother.  Big red flag!!!!  Let me explain.

Every family “teaches” you, when a child, how to view and interact with the world; how people think, what motivates them, how you are to react, how you are to think, what you are to do, what situations you are likely to encounter and how to deal with them, etc. This is what I call “a dance”. Fast-forward to adolescence and you starting to look for a boy/girlfriend. Guess who you’ll look for? You will look for someone who knows your dance….so you two can dance together. You don’t know that this is going on then but it is.  Later, when you are older, if you have been in a long term relationship and if you have wondered what motivates you to act the way you do, you may recognize this more easily.

Sally and I discussed how she chose her mother when she chose Bob. Some may call that sick or weird but if you think about it, it makes sense and you can probably see examples of it in other parts of your life. For example, when you were first married, how did you fold your bath towels? Who taught you to fold them that way? What recipes did you use? Who taught you them?  What toothpaste did you use and where did you learn to use that toothpaste? All of these examples display, in most cases, that we copy what our parents taught us. Couldn’t they have also taught you how to pick a mate?

So, if you think you are in a relationship with a narcissist, look back in your family. Is there one there? And are you responding to your narcissist the way you learned to respond to the narcissist you grew up with?

More to come.