Invisible, Part 2

Debbie and Jim continued therapy. While some sessions were focused on Annie’s disordered eating, a large portion of the rest of the sessions were dedicated to Debbie and Jim’s relationship, specifically, Jim’s narcissism and Debbie’s response to such. The following is nearly a complete session, followed by analysis and recommendations for Debbie.

One evening, in between sessions, I unexpectedly met Jim and Debbie at a local pizza restaurant. In this particular restaurant, a small room was set aside for parties and a long table ran the length of the room. On the wall behind the head of the table was the phrase “El Presidente” in large Mexican script.

On the occasion at hand, Jim was seated at the head of the table. Debbie, the girls and extended family sat around the table. I was following a waitress past the room to another table when Jim spotted me.  Debbie was standing by Jim and in the process of handing him a gift-wrapped box (it appeared to be Jim’s birthday). Suddenly, Jim yelled, loudly, “Edward, I’m the president…and this (gesturing to Debbie) is my staff!” I quickly looked at Debbie. She looked embarrassed and then quickly smiled, to her family and then to the rest of the restaurant, as Jim’s loud comment brought the restaurant to a quiet standstill. I briefly smiled, waved and moved on to my table.

About a week later, Debbie and Jim came in for a session. As is my habit, I asked them, “What have you two created between yourselves since our last appointment?”

Debbie quickly looked at Jim and then down to the floor. After a minute, Jim broke the silence.

“Well, I guess I will start…since no one else will. Debbie has been angry with me since we saw you at the restaurant.” Jim rolled his eyes. “She’s been ranting non-stop, wanting me to apologize for saying hello to you! Can you believe that?  I have no idea what she is so mad about but Lord, doc, anything you could do to get her over her fit would be much appreciated.”

“What do you think Debbie is mad about, Jim?” I asked.

“I have no idea.” Said Jim.

“No idea at all?” I pushed.

“No! She gets like this every so often.” Jim shrugged.

“Does Annie ever act like this?” I inquired.

“Yeah, now that you mention it….maybe it’s a period thing (Jim chuckled.). Annie is old enough to be having periods now.” Jim seemed pleased with his ‘insight’.

“Did you ask Debbie what she is mad about?” I inquired.

“Yeah, a number of times actually.” Jim defended.

“And what did she say?”

“I don’t know….she keep going on and on about me ‘always doing that’ or some such baloney. I don’t know what she is talking about. She gets like this!” Jim rolled his eyes again. “How do you think Annie is doing?” he asked, moving the topic.

“Let’s stay with you and Debbie for now Jim. I want you to ask her, right now.” I directed Jim.

“Here….in here? Look, like I said, I have done that a number of times at home and I’ve told you, she makes no sense. She just gets angrier and angrier at me.” Jim refused.

“No Jim, this is important. I want you to ask her again. I know, she could get angry again at you but I’ll be here for you. You ask and I’ll watch. Maybe I can understand her and explain it to you.” I pushed. I looked at Debbie as I spoke. She had no expression on her face but met my gaze.

Jim rolled his eyes again. “Ok”, looking at the floor, “what are you so mad about?” Jim asked.

“Stop” I interjected. “Jim, you were looking at the floor.”

“So….I was talking to her.” Jim said.

“No, you were talking to the floor.” I insisted.

“Oh, for crying out loud! Ok, (Jim now looking at Debbie). What are you so mad about?”

“About you, about how you treated me at the restaurant!” Debbie said with a fairly loud voice. I was impressed with her firmness.

Jim shook his head from side to side and looked at me. “You see doc, she doesn’t make any sense. I don’t understand her. Are all women like this?”

“She made sense to me. I heard why she is angry with you.” I countered.

“What…..what is she mad about because I didn’t hear anything.” Jim refused.

“Ask her again Jim.” I pushed.

“You said you were going to explain it to me.” He resisted.

“I did but I think you can do this yourself Jim” I pushed again. “Ask her again and listen real hard this time.”

“I am not a child! … What are you angry about (Jim said to Debbie, looking at her with considerable frustration in his face)?”

“You Jim, I am angry with YOU! In the restaurant, you called me your ‘staff”!” Debbie said, now almost yelling. Again, I was impressed.

“What are you talking about?” Jim bit back, now engaged with Debbie.

“You. I am talking about you, in the restaurant, you called me your staff…in the restaurant….in front of about, and I don’t know, 50 people. Everyone was looking at me! I felt like a fool. I felt like a…servant.” Debbie, again, almost yelling.

“I don’t know what you are talking about. I remember saying hello to him (motioning to me) but that was all. You are just too sensitive. You are crazy.” Jim answered, now also loud.

“No Jim, she is not…not crazy and yes, you did call her your staff. You said, in front of the all the people in the restaurant, “Edward, I am the president and here is my staff” pointing to Debbie.” I affirmed.

“I did not.” Jim refused.

“You did.” I stood firm, looking at Jim in the eye. Neither of us looked away for a minute.

“I did not. Jesus, what is this. Can’t I say hello to someone without it being a big deal?” Jim said continuing to claim ignorance.

“Yes you can but in this case, you didn’t do that. You didn’t say ‘Hi Edward”, you said, “Edward, I am the president and here is my staff!”

“So what!  What…was I supposed to ignore you? Jim looked at me with an expression of ignorance and indignation on his face.

“Does that mean you remember saying this Jim? I pushed.

“Ok, fine, next time I will ignore you in public!” Jim pouted.

“Does that mean you remember saying this Jim?” I pushed again.

“This is crazy. No! (Turning to Debbie) You are crazy! You have blown this whole thing out of proportion. I work my ass off for you and this is how you repay me!” Jim now fully in defense mode.

Debbie, looking pale and worried, looked at me.

“Jim, Debbie is not crazy. What she said you said, you said. I was there, I heard you.” I affirmed.

“What, now you are on her side? I thought this was to be about Annie and how she is going crazy.” Jim continued to defend himself almost wildly now.

“Jim, Annie is not crazy, Debbie is not crazy and I am not on her side. I am on both your sides. But you did say that. I heard it. Not only did I hear it, I felt embarrassed for Debbie. What you said was embarrassing… belittling.” I continued.

Debbie began to cry.

“Jim, ask Debbie why she is crying.” I urged.

Jim gave a great sigh. “…What is the matter? Jim said with contempt.

“No, Jim…Ask her why she is crying, nicely. I pushed.

“I did” Jim demanded.

“No, you didn’t. You insinuated she was crazy by your sigh and then you spoke down to her. Ask her why she is crying, nicely.” I insisted.

“Why are you crying!” he demanded.

“Again Jim, no! As……” Debbie cut me off.

“I am crying because he is right and that is the first time I feel supported.” Debbie was clear, despite her tears.

“WHAT! I support you every day. Who gets to say home all day….going to your book club, having lunch with your girlfriends? Who is that? It is not me but it is because of me that you can do that!” Jim was yelling now.

Debbie shrank in her chair.

“Jim, I want you to stop yelling. I understand you are mad but you don’t need to yell. What Debbie is saying is important. You need to hear her. Now, did you say, “Edward, I am the president and this is my staff?” I pushed.

“Yes…..godammit, I said that! What is your point?” Jim said loud but not yelling.

“So, when you said you didn’t say that, that was not true. You knew you said it but were…not admitting to it…. right?” I continued to push, knowing he was at his breaking point.

“What is the point of all this? So what if I said it? She was the one that took it wrong. Like I have been telling you, if you would listen to me for once, she is always too sensitive about things. She gets a stick up her ass and then goes crazy….and I then have to apologize! This is crap.” Jim sat back; very angry.

“No Jim, this is not crap. This is your marriage and in this case, this is a problem that is your fault.” Jim looked at me with an expression of surprise. He snorted and rolled his eyes.

“Jim (I continued), what you said to Debbie in the restaurant was insulting, belittling. You may not see that but you need to see it….because you are insulting and belittling at times. Not all the time…but some times. And…. you love your wife and girls and work hard to provide for them. But….you are belittling at times. I know, because I felt embarrassed at what you said. I was there. You were talking to me.”

“What, I can’t even talk now?” Jim continued to fight.

“No, that is not my point and this is part of your problem; you can’t admit when you are wrong.” I pressed.

“This is crazy (Jim shot back). Did she get to you? She has, hasn’t she? She’s convinced you that I am the problem; that I am the cause of Annie’s problems. The truth is that it is her that is the cause of Annie’s problems. She (gesturing to Debbie) is always getting obsessive about shit around the house. Annie sees this and is now starting to act just like her.”

“You are a jackass!” Debbie said. I was shocked but certainly could appreciate her observation.

“Debbie, I think it would help Jim if you could expound on your comment.” I suggested, wanted to laugh.

“I’m obsessive because you want things around the house to be perfect. Do you remember telling me how you thought there was a ring around the collar of your dress shirt a couple weeks ago? Do you know how embarrassed I felt about that? Not so much because there was a ring but because I see how you work your ass off for us and I don’t feel I measure up in return as your wife. DO YOU KNOW THAT!? Do you know that!? Yes, I am obsessive about things being clean and perfect….but that is to please you! And then you say crap like that, “here is my staff”. Fuck you Jim!! FUCK YOU! Debbie yelled.

I was shocked beyond words not only because Debbie had never talked like this before, but, more importantly, she was really confronting Jim and I didn’t think she knew how he would respond.  What if he decided to leave her? This was her biggest fear, based on her comments in our prior session.

“No name calling.” I quipped, wanting to do something to stop this run-away train.

Debbie looked at me, embarrassed.

“Jim, I think what Debbie is saying is the truth; not the fuck you part but from watching you two, I see and hear what she is saying. You want everything to be just so and Debbie has been running around trying to do that. Before kids, you two were able to do that with no apparent problems. But now, with kids, this can’t be done. The girls, or at least Annie is picking it up and exhibiting it. I’m surprised the girls haven’t been exhibiting problems before now.  You two both have created this problem. It is not all Debbie’s fault. It is not all your fault.  Between now and our next appointment, I want both of you to watch yourselves. Jim, I want you to look at all the things you expect from Debbie. Debbie, I want you to look at all the different things you try to do or make perfect for Jim. Ok?” I concluded.

“Ok (said Jim) but before we stop, I have a question. What is the big deal now about my coffee?” Jim retrenched.

“What do you mean?” I asked, looking quickly at Debbie and back to Jim.

“It used to be I always had a cup of coffee waiting for me when I went into the bathroom in the mornings. Now, she doesn’t bring it. What is the deal?” Jim pressed.

“Jim, I want you to ask Debbie this”, I directed Jim.

Jim looked at Debbie with an expectant look. “What is the problem?” Jim asked with sarcasm.

“No Jim.” I said. “That was sarcastic….and you know it. Ask her with respect. After all, she has been bringing you a cup of coffee for quite some time now.”

“…and I am working my ass off for her for quite some time!” Jim forced.

“There are two ways to look at this Jim. You are working your ass off to allow her to stay home and take care of the girls and your home or she is staying home taking care of the kids and your house so you can work. Which is it?” I pressed.

“What is your point?” Jim was still stuck.

“I don’t want to get you your coffee any more in the mornings….or at least for a while.” Debbie interrupted. Again, with admiration and surprise, I thought, ‘Who is this woman?’

“Jim (Debbie continued), I love you and have done almost anything for you in the past but at times I have felt like a slave and I don’t want that anymore. And more importantly, I think Annie is starting to feel that same way….like she has to please you…with good grades, with everything.”

“Here we go again….It is my entire fault” Jim dug in.

“No, Jim that is not what I am saying. You get your own coffee at work. I want you to get your own coffee at home.” Debbie concluded.

“Fine!” Jim sulked.


This is narcissism! Or, at least, one face of it.

I did not get far with Jim in this (one) session…and that is the nature of working with narcissists and what spouses experience when they begin trying to make changes at home. Persistence (when confronting inappropriate behavior, making a request, clarifying a point you are making, etc.) is critical and is a good reason to consider engaging the aid of therapist; to support you over time in this process.

Note the different ways Jim avoids, denies and outright lies about what he said. First, he says he has no idea what Debbie says she is mad about. Next, he balks at the idea of engaging her in a conversation in the session. Then he tries to talk to her when looking at the floor. Later, he changes the topic to focus on what he is supposed to do when we meet in public. Then he claims to not understand what Debbie is saying. Ultimately, he denies what he said when confronted directly. This is classic narcissism! To be successful in confronting a narcissist, you must be able to see such tactics and be able to respond to them calmly but firmly.

Note the comment, “I am not a child.” This is important in understanding what is going on inside the narcissist (but not a piece of information to use when confronting him, at least in the beginning). Internally, the narcissist feels powerless, insecure and afraid. He defends himself by projecting the exact opposite in public. This is why his defenses are so strong.

Also be aware, typically, an outside person’s opinion may have more weight or authority when confronting the narcissist on their inappropriate behavior. Many times during the session, I confronted Jim and he denied…and I re-confronted…and eventually, he admitted what he’d done. If you try this at home, he probably won’t confess his wrong-doing; because you are his spouse (Haven’t you ever doubted your spouse’s opinion because you didn’t think they knew what they were talking about?). Because of this, it is critical that you remain calm when addressing him, persist in your point and not get emotional or “give-up” the struggle to make your point.

He may never confess…to you; and later, confess to a therapist. Still, don’t give-up in the fight. Why? By showing him you are not going to back down and remain calm and not be derailed or confused, you are showing him strength and determination. Most spouses, by the time they end up in my office, have a history of starting to confront him for inappropriate behavior but when encountering denials, avoidance, etc., they give up the fight. By then, he knows you are someone who will give up and in most cases, when in a fight, he is just waiting for you to do that (give up).

Further, showing this determination and strength is important because you will need this to face your future. Narcissists are hard to live with! Most who live with one assume a subservient role.

This is another important point to notice in this dialogue. If you get the “feel” of Debbie’s position in the relationship during the session, she bounces between being quiet (but aware of what Jim was doing), to being assertive, then aggressive (“You jackass!” I don’t approve of name calling but that was well placed!), then tearful, then assertive and clever. The jury is still out on this couple – I don’t know if they will stay married. Whether they stay together or not, Debbie is going to need strength and determination.

Jim gives a wonderful example of “gas-lighting” in the session. When confronted about the comment, he denies, changes the subject, tells Debbie she is crazy, etc. It is only when I address him directly and oppose his views of his behavior does he admit to being rude and then in a fit of anger.

Which brings me to my last point, are you strong enough to resist Jim’s emotional sabotage? At the end of the session, Debbie says she is not going to bring him coffee, citing that he gets his own coffee at work and thus, he can get his own coffee at home. Jim agrees but pouts, “Fine!” Can you resist the impulse, so prevalent in women, to take care of the other person? In many spots in the session, Jim gets emotional. Can you resist being bullied by this?