Photo above taken at Ruthanne’s memorial, as I listened to the pianist.
I’m sure it seems to many of my readers that I seem to be slow in learning some lessons on love, or that I’m still stuck in the same place with the same playlist, looping over and over. In some ways, yes, you are right. In other ways, no, I am learning and preparing to let go. There is progress in every one of my blog posts, even if subtle or seemingly invisible. For those of us leaving these toxic relationships it’s often normal to see our repeated mistakes over and over before we can take that last step to freedom. When talking to others in similar situations, no one seems to understand why we stay or what is holding us back from taking that final step. It’s different for everyone, but here is my story- and these are the subtle lessons I needed to learn over and over before the end. I hope it gives you hope and may you be a faster learner than myself.
Two days after arriving home from Tucson- two days after Ruthanne died- my husband drove up to Boise from Salt Lake City. He drove up with friends for the BYU vs. BSU football game. His trip had been planned for a few weeks. It was the reason he gave me for not coming up to see me after Ruthanne’s accident. He had made a commitment to friends to drive to Boise and he would be coming up anyway. Why should he visit earlier? To make sense of always crying alone I forced myself to accept this excuse and to understand his dilemma. Looking back, today as I write this, I shake my head in bewilderment. Your closest relative is dying, now dead, and your husband refuses to come by providing some excuse about traveling with friends. It’s crazy that I accepted this insanity and lack of empathy from him. I’m still amazed at all the things I excused from him over and over again just to numb the pain. I knew there was a major lack of empathy in his actions towards me, but I tried so hard to always understand. I had married him after all and I was committed to making it work, even if he was incredibly self-absorbed.
After two trips to Tucson, I had missed several days of work. I knew the station had been understanding of my absence, but I also knew they needed me to get back to work. Ruthanne had died on Wednesday and I flew home that afternoon, working both Wednesday evening and a double shift on Thursday. Just after falling asleep Thursday evening, close to 2 a.m. on Friday morning, I got a call from the morning producer: A drunk driver had driven into a house. They needed a reporter out there. I got dressed. It was raining. I was miserable. I shot video and drove it back to the station, but was asked to do live shots for all the early morning reports. I worked all night and was exhausted.
Friday morning I was sent home to sleep- finally. My husband arrived that afternoon and the football game was that night. I hadn’t even begun to grieve and I needed rest. My husband didn’t seem to understand, no matter how hard I tried to explain. I explained in texts before he arrived so he would be prepared for my exhaustion. I explained in person when he arrived, sharing that I was resting for him to gather enough energy for the party later that night. Still, he was upset that I would sleep instead of hanging out with the group. If I wasn’t working, why could I not join him? It didn’t matter how much or how hard I tried to explain my exhaustion- it was always about him and his needs. He needed me to go so he could look good. I always felt like a disappointment to him in spite of bending to his needs at every turn.
“Can you say without a doubt that the person you love has your back, at all times, no matter what? If not, walk away.”
The game was Friday night. His friends understood my aunt had just died, and one of his friends’ wives asked me about it. I was so grateful for that acknowledgement and kindness given that my husband seemed to care less. I ended up going to a football party that evening with my husband in spite of my sheer exhaustion and his utter lack of concern for my well-being.
Before my husband left to go back to Salt Lake, I woke up and cooked him breakfast. I cooked eggs and toast. I told him his eggs were ready, and when he tried them he told me he liked the yolks harder. I told him I understood, and he could cook them longer. While he was heating up his eggs I took a bite of mine.
“I hate it when you eat without me!” he yelled. I remember being startled because his anger was rarely so abrupt and clear from the beginning. Most of his angry outbursts built up like a gathering storm. Not today, not over some eggs. A year and a half ago, I might have fought back, but on this day I simply put my fork down to wait and said okay. It was humiliating.
During this moment of waiting for him to cook his eggs before I could eat I dumped some whey protein into a glass and poured some water into it. I stirred the chunky mixture with a spoon and chugged it.
His anger escalated: “Damnit, Lauren! What is your problem. Did you not hear me? You never offer me anything! You never think of me!”
I was so startled again. He knew I just cooked him breakfast. This incident seemed to be a clear misunderstanding.
“No, you don’t understand,” I said. “You don’t want this drink. It’s gross. I take it like a vitamin. It’s chunky and disgusting. You know I only make these shakes for me.”
“You need to ask me if I want some!” he shouted.
I truly believed, once again, that I could reason with him.
“I do try to always ask what you want. I asked if you wanted eggs and toast and you said yes. I cooked them for you. I just didn’t think you’d want this. It’s really gross. Believe me, if I knew, I’d have offered it. But it’s here. You can have some if you want.”
“That’s not the point!” he yelled back. “You never think of me! You never think about what I want! This is exactly what is wrong with our marriage!” he shouted.
“It does not matter to the narcissist if you are sick, in pain, grieving, pregnant or facing a terminal illness. As far as the narcissist is concerned, your purpose in life is to meet the narcissist’s needs, whether you are able to or not.”
-Gena Da Silva”
I was stunned. His lack of concern enveloped me in a wall of anger and pain. I had been shown no empathy after Ruthanne died. I had been shown no empathy for being overworked, while he didn’t even have a job. And in a moment of care and concern for him – cooking him breakfast – he could only see what I did wrong. Same old story, same lessons- again and again, on repeat, on loop. Why was I still so shocked? Why was I so stunned? Some lessons take time to finally learn.
I burst into tears. “I want Ruthanne,” I cried like a 9-year-old missing her mom.
“I want someone who cares about me and understands me.”
By now almost all of our conversations had become so absurd and dysfunctional. Rationality had gone out the door a long time ago. It went out the door when we were dating too, but I just never paid enough attention. In our marriage, dialogue was always a one-sided affair.
He stormed out of the apartment and slammed the door- again. I couldn’t handle it. I tried calling him. I wanted his reassurance. He didn’t answer. He left me crying alone, refusing to answer my calls, in the childish game of keep away that he always played. He was the victim. He was the one who was always hurt and needed nurturing. How many times did this dysfunctional dance need to occur before I saw the light?
It was November now. He found an apartment in Utah County. He never asked what city I wanted to live- he just found a place that was convenient for him. The apartment was far from any news stations, family, or friends of mine, but it suited his needs.
I was desperately looking for a job in Salt Lake City, although he hadn’t once told me he loved me, missed me, or wanted me to live with him. I was waiting for these affirmations- still. Even after nearly two years of marriage. It seemed like a big game to him. I started driving down to Salt Lake City for job interviews, or even just to meet with the news directors to chat.
He expressed anger that I didn’t live in Utah with him and he was never afraid to tell me that, but he also never once said he wanted me there. As strange as that sounds, this is how the conversations would often go:
“You could live here if you wanted to.”
“I do. I’m trying so hard to get a job. I don’t think we could survive if we were both unemployed.”
“So, you don’t trust me.”
“No, I trust you. Should I just come, then?”
“Come on, Lauren. Don’t do this to me.”
“Well, you just said you want me there. You do want me there, right? Should I come there without a job?”
“What are you doing? Why would you start a conversation like this?”
“I’m trying to help. I want to be there with you. Are you saying I should just quit? I will. ”
“Don’t jump the gun, Lauren.”
“Double Bind: a manipulative tactic without looking like you are manipulating. It’s being put in a ‘Damned if you do, damned if you don’t’ situation. And damned if you say anything about it.”
He came for Ruthanne’s funeral and memorial in Tucson. It was a few weeks after her death and I spoke. I was learning again and again that if it made him look good he would be there- or anywhere for that matter. It wasn’t about me. It was about him looking good, especially to other people. We all wear masks, but he had an immensely large wardrobe of masks.
Afterwards I wanted him to come up for Thanksgiving and he kept refusing. I told him I would be so hurt to spend the holidays alone. It would be so painful. He told me that it would be too lonely for him if he came up since I had to work half the day. He needed to be with his family in Utah instead.
“The narcissist isn’t unavailable. He’s ignoring you.”
After Thanksgiving his friend’s wife called me. We talked casually.
“So are you coming down here to live?” she asked. “If I can get a job,” I said. “Well, he was telling us that he’s trying to convince you to come down here.”
“Wait, he said he’s trying to convince me?” I said. “Yeah,” she said. “He’s telling everyone he has been trying to convince you to live in Utah again.”
We hung up and I was so confused. I started to feel like I was losing my mind. I pulled up my computer to read about managing a relationship with narcissists: Be submissive. Stroke their ego- yada yada. I get it. I knew what he wanted. I thought I had I tried so hard. But no, I guess I needed to try harder. I needed to stay composed and to try not to explain my side anymore. He should always be right. He should dominate every conversation. I’ve got to be more submissive, I told myself. I can try harder at appeasing him- if I want to stay married.
I picked up the phone. Determined to try again and prepping to be submissive and overly understanding I called him:
“I was thinking I should just move down there. I miss you so much, and I am wondering what you think?”
“Really, you’re just going to start a conversation like this?” he said.
“No, I just love you. I want you to know that. I can find a nanny job quickly. I can get work.”
“Yeah, if you want to come, you can come.”
“Okay, I’ll quit,” I said. “Can I ask you a question? Did you want to decorate or do you want me to decorate?”
“What is this?” he said. “Are you kidding me? You’re seriously going to ask me about decorating right now?”
“No, no, no,” I begged him to understand. The very thing that seemed to always get me into trouble was happening- trying to explain myself so we could understand each other and be on the same page. “I just wanted to figure out if I should start selling my stuff, or get a moving van. I’m just trying to prep for the next two weeks. I’m trying to do some planning.”
“You’re jumping the gun,” he yelled at me.
“How am I jumping the gun?” I’m getting flustered. I know I shouldn’t ask, or challenge, but how can I not? How can I not try to understand, clarify, or be allowed to share my thoughts with you about living together? I thought we were married and needed to work together on these issues.
“I don’t need this right now, Lauren. You’re upset at me.”
“Stop blaming me,” I say calmly.
“You’re acting crazy, Lauren, totally crazy. You can’t start a conversation like this and just jump to decorating!”
“[Mary] told me you’re trying to convince me to move down there! I thought you wanted me there. I was just trying to express something you had told a friend. I’m so confused.”
I’ll never forget what he said next:
“Lauren, THAT’S JUST AN EXPRESSION!”
There was a pause. I was trying to take this reply in.
“So you don’t want me there? It’s just an expression? You don’t want me to come down? You didn’t mean what you told [Mary] and all your friends about trying to convince me to move there?”
“There is no love in your voice. You’re acting ridiculous.”
“Stop blaming me, please”
“Come on, you’re not thinking of my feelings right now. Show me some kindness!” he yelled.
This insane conversation, filled with gaslighting, continued a bit longer. I finished the call and sat on my couch. I had to get out of this situation. I had to make the final cut. Why was it so hard? Why am I doing this again and again and again? Nothing ever changes, nothing ever will. Why couldn’t I just admit I made a mistake and move on?
I emailed my friend, a relationship coach named Leigha, to share the bulk of the conversation and to convince myself it was over. I needed some validation. I went to my trusty phone notes where I kept my secret journal entries and I wrote some notes to myself to sort it all out.
Once again, like clockwork, I knew it was over. Again. My divorce papers printed. I skipped the attorney. I skipped the financial requests. Just get out, Lauren. stay strong.
Christmas was around the corner. The power struggle had shifted. He refused to come up for Thanksgiving, but now he wanted to visit for Christmas because I was telling him to stay away. I had told him it was over and he needed to leave me alone. I had told him I had other plans and was working the holiday. I had told him I didn’t want to see him. As always, he pushed every boundary. It always grew worse when I set any boundaries. When I was in control he was never accepting of my requests or boundaries. He begged incessantly, blowing up my phone and refusing to take no for an answer. This pathetic begging came from a man who avoided me for days on end and who refused to live with his wife. He started crying on the phone and telling me he had no one. How could I do this to him? He asked why I’d throw what we had away. The “pity play” began again. He was telling me he loved me- and it felt so good. He was telling me he loved us. And he said he wanted to spend Christmas with me, even if I was working half the day. This was no Thanksgiving refusal because now I was in the driver’s seat. He hated it when someone else had power.
PITY PLAY, from the book The Sociopath Next Door: “After listening for almost twenty-five years to the stories my patients tell me about sociopaths who have invaded and injured their lives, when I am asked, ‘How can I tell whom not to trust?’ The answer I give usually surprises people. The natural expectation is that I will describe some sinister-sounding detail of behavior or snippet of body language or threatening use of language that is the subtle give-away. … Rather, the best clue is, of all things, the pity play. The most reliable sign, the most universal behavior of unscrupulous people is not directed at our fearfulness. It is, perversely, an appeal to our sympathy … All in all, I am sure that if the devil existed, he would want us to feel very sorry for him.” – Dr. Martha Stout
He was incessant. He called my work, begging me to leave the station so we could talk in private. I left my desk and walked to the back parking lot.
“I’m sorry you’re hurting,” I said. “But no, I’ve made my decision. You cannot come up for Christmas,” I bravely continued to stick to my boundaries.
“Stop being a bitch, Lauren,” he told me. “I coming up.”
I was silent and stunned. I guess calling your wife a bitch is a brilliant form of persuasion and respect. I calmly told him I had to get back to work. I said I would consider letting him come to visit. I told him I would talk to him later. I really just wanted to get off the phone and the only way I knew how was to appease him and to play his game. To give him some hope, even if I had no intentions of allowing him to visit. I just wanted to be left alone. I knew I didn’t want him there for Christmas, but I also wanted him to leave me alone.
The next day I wrote this in my phone notes:
I was becoming aware that I couldn’t cut off my empathy, especially when he played the victim card. I couldn’t stop feeling sorry for him. His pity play was working. It was another dysfunctional way for him to get his way, to assume control.
Manipulative people latch on to empathetic targets and exploit their innate qualities. They find people who are easy-going, gentle, and kind, who avoid conflict and seek to make others happy. The problem is: They have none of these qualities, despite pretending that they do. Instead, they feel entitled to your constant forgiveness and self-blame. If you set boundaries, you will be punished for reacting. But the problem is not your reaction: it’s their abuse. Toxic people constantly look to blame the victim.
I was exhausted from all the arguing and fighting, from trying to love him, from wanting to be done and being constantly pulled back in. Being married to a narcissist is a straight path to utter exhaustion and chaos in your life. He texted me and told me he loved me, and he was coming up for Christmas. I gave up and gave in- again. This time i didn’t say no. In retrospect I wish I had requested a restraining order to keep him away, especially since I was going to divorce him anyway. This visit was entirely pointless.
“Someone who says they love you, but will break your heart to feed their ego doesn’t really love you. They use the word love as an emotional chain to make it hard to let go. If you leave, so does the source of energy to feed their ego. Of course they’ll do anything, and say anything to keep you around. All while knowing they’ll be going back to exactly what they were doing before.”
To those who are fighting the battle of stay, go, stay, go- please know this: I know how hard it is. And they will only make it harder. You can’t move on. You still miss them and yearn for the connection you thought you once had. You crave their attention. You feel sorry for them. Oh how narcissists love those who have empathy. But please know:
“You don’t have to feel sorry for people who take advantage of your loving nature.”
Narcissists create a dependency in you when you are a loving person. Just like a drug dealer, they create that need. They idealize you, apologize, say things you’ve been waiting to hear- all to give you such a high. It’s a high full of intense bonding. But then they begin to devalue you. You’re brain, due to the rollercoaster, is now creating an even stronger bond. Only they understand this rollercoaster ride you’re on together- the ups and downs of the ride. They dose you as needed. Once bonded, they devalue you. They attack you, blame you, shame you. If you pull away, they dose you as needed. You are their toy. You are the narcissistic supply that feeds their ego. They see your pain as they pull away, they see the power they have, and they will use you until the moment you say no more. They will never change. They will continue this cycle. And until you can go completely “no contact” or “no more” just like any addiction it will never end. And just like any addiction you will end up sacrificing your life for someone who would throw you away like a used needle once you no longer serve their needs.
“Does the narcissist miss you after you’ve implemented ‘No Contact’? No. The narcissist feels anger because you are trying to set a boundary. The narcissist feels indignant that he/she cannot control you anymore. ‘No contact’ makes the narcissist feel worthless and powerless. By going ‘no Contact’ you are shifting the power to yourself.” – Gena Da Silva
Further reading recommendations: The Sociopath Next Door, by Dr. Martha Stout.
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