Back in Boston, I started auditing writing classes, landed a nanny job, and met some incredibly strong and interesting women who became good friends.My husband kept his word, at least temporarily, saying he’d go to couples counseling and we went. It was hard, but his willingness felt hopeful. In couples-counseling I was told that with all of the changes going on in my life I needed individual therapy, along with our couples-counseling. This advice turned out to be most helpful over the next 6 months, especially since after just a few times at couples counseling, he refused to go anymore. He said he felt it made our problems bigger.
Once I was on my own I told my therapist, a psychologist, that my husband would consistently tell me our relationship was poor, and would refuse to talk about having children, my career, or life plans until our marriage improved. I told him how hurtful it felt to be with someone that wasn’t satisfied with our love, or with me. The psychologist asked why my husband thought our relationship was bad, and that’s when I pulled out “the list”.
… “The list” was created when I asked my husband why he wasn’t satisfied with our relationship, and why he was always disappointed. I was trying hard to make it work and never felt I could get it right. He wanted me to clean more: I was trying. “Make some money!” he had yelled, so I landed the nanny job. “Why don’t you cook, Damn it!” he had shouted the first month of our marriage. I tried to cook. It wasn’t always easy when sometimes he’d throw what I made into the trash after tasting it.
We were in our apartment one night and he was telling me, again, how disappointed he was in our relationship. His exact word were: “This year has been the best year of my life with schooling, but with you it’s also been the hardest.” I told him that all I wanted in our marriage was to feel love and acceptance from him, and that I loved and accepted him—even his faults. What else did he need? I pushed him to help me understand, and he shared about his expectations I hadn’t met. The journalist in me wrote each item down—15 of them. I still have the list. Each item was something I needed to change or improve.
Now, in therapy, I was pulling the list up on my phone.
A few items caught my therapist’s attention:
“I lacked toughness”
“He was afraid to have kids with me, because he felt he was going to be Mr. Dad and Mr. Mom. He envisioned being at work, that I would call him crying, having an emotional breakdown, and he’d have to come take care of the kids.”
“He had wanted a ‘helpmeet’ in marriage, and I was not a good helpmeet.”
… the psychologist stopped me. What does he mean by helpmeet? I explained it was a biblical term, found in the Old Testament … “Yes, I know that”, he said, “But is he implying he wants you to take care of him?” Yes, I said. The Bible says: ‘It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him an help meet for him.’ He seems to see it literally.
The helpmeet thing had come up more than once in our marriage. It was a term I’d never heard him use in our three years of on-and-off-again dating, but in marriage it became common. I didn’t like it and I told him it hurt, but that didn’t keep him from continuing to use it. He’d say that he had had expectations of me being a helpmeet, since he was the man, the breadwinner, and in charge. I shared my dreams of an equal partnership. Despite my pushback I still caved in and tried to be a better ‘helpmeet’, but I was never enough.
After sharing the list, the therapist said he couldn’t be sure without knowing him, but he speculated my husband had narcissistic personality disorder.
“Narcissists can’t do reciprocal relationships,” he explained. I knew about narcissism, but this was new information to me. “There is no such thing as a partnership with a narcissist,” he said. “A marriage with them is a one-way street, and the narcissist needs to be the one in control.”
He continued: “The three things you just mentioned in your list are about being uncomfortable with emotions. He sees you as lacking toughness which seems to mean he isn’t okay that you cry, or that you feel something. It doesn’t seem like he wants to be involved in the emotions that come with raising children. And he wants a helpmeet, not an equal partner.”
He asked me to consider the answer to some questions:
Does he constantly seek your admiration without offering you the same?
Does he blame you for everything wrong in the relationship?
Does he believe he is special?
Does he ignore your emotions, or do they make him angry?
Does he always need to be in control of decisions?
Does he seem to not have empathy for what you are feeling?
Does he always need to win, and be right?
Does he always need you to agree with him?
These questions were an ah-ha moment—especially that last one. My husband would constantly say he couldn’t feel understood, unless I agreed with him.
But I was still confused, because sometimes my husband was nice. Sometimes he came across as giving. On a special occasion, he had cooked for me. He’d surprise me with gifts or with flowers, or write a thoughtful card that would make me feel special. He served in our church, and offered to help others. Hell, I had married the man. I had thought I’d seen enough goodness in him to think I wanted to spend my life with him.
but then I learned about “narcissistic-supply”. In my own words:
Narcissists can come across as kind and giving, but it’s ego-driven, and it’s about receiving a reaction from you. It helps them feel in control, and reduces their shame. Their kindness isn’t about love, it’s about control. Their kindness isn’t about making the other person feel good. It’s about making themselves feel good.
They don’t feel empathy for others. They actually have deep internal shame. They need people to think highly of them to fulfill their narcissistic supply.
They choose when to be nice. They also choose to withhold love, making you crave and appreciate it more when they give it.
I started wondering if I really married a narcissist.
But if there was a diagnosis, then couldn’t I manage it? I read that narcissism was not curable but it could be managed, right? I wanted to understand my husband. Couldn’t I now work with what I knew, the deep shame he might have, and show him love?
Towards the end of this session, I looked at my therapist and I asked: “If he is a narcissist, and it’s a personality disorder, thus he can’t cure it, doesn’t he still need love? Don’t those with personality disorders deserve love, too? Can I learn how to manage this, and learn the best way to love him?”
“I’m not sure that’s the issue to address here,” he said. “Are you saying you’re willing to sacrifice yourself and your needs to give him love? Don’t YOU need love too?”
Further reading recommendations: Book: Malignant Self Love-Sam Vaknin. Blog: No Sparkle Here
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