Narcissism is one of those terms that seem to be everywhere nowadays. Any bad relationship and one party is accusing the other of this type of personality disorder. But it must be stressed, that just because someone does not agree with you or does not want to do the same things you do, this does not mean they are Narcissistic. It might just mean you are not compatible. However, if you are unlucky enough to be in a relationship with a Narcissist this means you are in a whole different ballgame.
Narcissists – I look in the mirror and what do I see?
Narcissism is primarily a disorder of personality. That means it is a stable cluster of behavioural and psychological presentations. Let’s sum it up as: “Self-delusion which is off the chart regarding personal importance’.
This means that these individuals do not believe they are God-like, they know they are God-like.
This means that the world should revolve around them as the central axis point. They are the sun; we are the planets.
This means that they are the filter through which our life should be understood.
Now most of may have had transitory moments where we think ‘yeah I’m pretty cool and the world is a better place for having me in it’ but these brief glimpses into omnipotence are quickly over-written by having to walk the dog, deal with a crappy boss, wash the dishes and clean the toilet. We quickly come down to earth with a bump.
But imagine if you never had a bump. Imagine if you were always on that plain of self-designated deity. Imagine in fact you fancied yourself a Pharaoh surrounded by slaves. What would that be like?
Well, for a start it would be pretty annoying when the slaves rebelled and didn’t do as you commanded. They would have to be reminded of their duties to the God walking amongst them, so, clearly you would have to do quite a bit of ongoing educational work, regularly reminding your minions of their roles and responsibilities to you.
Should they not conform, you might have to clarify things for them, you know, send the odd (several thousand) email/text instructions, perhaps scream about how unjust and neglected you feel, and generally cause a rumpus until they paid you the attention that was your divine right. Basically, keep on top of them to ensure your worshippers worshipped you appropriately. (If you are a parent, think thwarted 3-year-old).
The important thing though is to remember that these behaviours are features of a personality disorder. This means they are stable and relatively unchanging. Unless this individual gets some serious, professional therapy, they are never going to change. And put it this way, if you know you a God, why would you seek therapy? As, well, you are
The perfect partner for a Narcissist is someone who adores them unreservedly and buys into their Godliness. However, that individual better be willing to commit to their adoration being a one-way street forever, because the Narcissist is never going to reciprocate that attention – why would they? God does not worship man.
Covert Aggression – I win, you lose
Let’s compare the Narcissist to the Covert Aggressive (C-Agg) individual (Simmons, 1996). Now this person may or may not be Narcissistic, but their predominant features are best stated as them being incredibly devious and very, very angry.
Unlike the domestic violence (overtly aggressive) guy/gal who everyone recognises because his/her partner is covered in bruises and is constantly at A&E after tripping over tables, chairs, their own feet, covert aggressive guy (or woman) appears to have it together. Good job, social standing, slick presentation but underneath it all they are a seething ball of fury and competition. The world to them is all about social standing – where do I stand in relation to you? And how do I dominate you and make you submit to my will, so that I am forever above you?
These individuals are literally obsessed with winning, to such an extent that they cannot see whether their actions are damaging to their future well-being, because in this moment right now, I need to dominate and control and defeat. These individuals are all about control and coercion, and oft times their victims don’t even know where the attack is coming from because the C-Agg’s delivery can seem so plausible. Even those around say ‘hey what a charming chap, wouldn’t want to cross him but yeah he’s so nice.’ Or ‘well she’s so involved in everything, likes to be in charge all the time. But she’s so good at it, it’s often easier to let her do it’.
These individuals are expert at eliciting sympathy and in some ways that is their honey trap. They come with a sob story of past hurts done to them by partners, but their story telling is rehearsed and superficial. There is never any evolution in how their narrative. Unlike most of us, who when we reflect, go back and forward in time, revisiting ad nauseum old events in new ways; trying to make sense of our personal histories, C-Aggs do not do this. We are normal, they are not.
And they are devious. Unlike the Narcissist who believes they make the social rules (God remember), the C-Agg knows the social rules and manipulates them to their own ends. They will demand strict adherence to the societal norms by their victims, whilst frankly completely disregarding them themselves.
‘Why do you go out and never arrive back on time?’ whist they disappear for days at a time without missing a heart-beat.
‘Why do you never listen to me?’ whilst they play with their phone when their partner is telling them about their day.
‘Why are you so lazy and without ambition?’ whilst they sit on the sofa playing video games.
‘Why are you so without value?’ I think this one needs no comparison.
What must be borne in mind is these individuals know the rules. They are in fact expert at the rules, that’s how they can so successfully mobilise them as weapons (‘you don’t make healthy snacks for the children every day. The Social Work will take them away from you for being a bad parent”). They quite simply do not think these rules apply to them but are only there to be used as a form of control (“our children shouldn’t fail at school. Why haven’t you done all their homework with them? You are always so selfish”). They deflect all responsibility for failure to their long-suffering partner whilst similarly crying they are mis-understood and victimised (“I had to block all the bank accounts, because well, she would have left me penniless”).
The perfect partner for a C-Agg is a wo/man who is highly conscientious, has a lot of shame and guilt and really tries hard to ‘understand’. Basically, s/he is so busy understanding and self-policing their own behaviours in terms of meeting the social rules, s/he rarely stops to question how s/he is being treated.
Spot the difference
Now as you can see there is quite a bit of behavioural overlap here between the Narcissist and the C-Agg – both think the rules do not apply to them, however, there is a quite an important difference, and it is about vengeance: thwart a Narcissist and you will get a lot of obsessive whining, thwart a C-Agg and they will go out to destroy you to the last breath in their body. The Narcissist will give up when they have found a new minion; the C-Agg has made you a mortal enemy for all eternity.
The Narcissist only really needs others to glorify themselves, to feed into what they already know – that they are wonderful. But the C-Agg is colder than that, others only exist in terms of competition and dominance. Once their partner has done the unthinkable by leaving the relationship and publicly humiliating them by such a public act of defiance, all bets are off.
Any brakes that superficially held them in place to maintain the image of a ‘perfect relationship’’ have gone and they are now in full combat mode. They are out to metaphorically smash their partner’s face into the wall repeatedly. You see the only difference between the overt aggressive and covert aggressive, is that the C-Agg has too much to lose by letting rip their extreme violent tendencies – so they will resort to other levers: children, money, the legal system. And if they have sadistic tendencies, they will take distinct pleasure at knowing they are prolonging their partner’s suffering. Quite horribly, they like it.
What do you do to get away?
Well, if you have a Narcissist on your hands, your best bet is simply ignoring them. Think like parenting a toddler who is screaming they love you whilst trying to bite your arm. Their love is all about their needs demanding you love them right now and fill them up right now with what they want right now, did you hear me right noooooooooow!
So, it’s best to simply ignore them as they, just like a toddler, make 0 sense. They are in full blown tantrum mode, so if when communicating with them, you find yourself feeling like an adult trying to calmly communicate with a small child about how the world works – well yep, you are on the money – you are.
But you do not need to. That is the point. They are not going to miraculous mature without serious, specialist intervention (i.e., well beyond your scope of expertise) and you ain’t their parent. And even if you were, you’d send them to time out and not try and understand too deeply their feelings because toddlers are the mini-dictators of crazy.
However, if you have a C-Agg on your hands, you must start with a different set of premises and that is, your search for freedom has been understood as the initial volley in the opening of hostilities. Your actions have been read as a declaration of war and you have just firmly placed yourself in the enemy camp and unless you can make a totally clean break, you are likely to find yourself in a long-term war of attrition.
You must expect the unthinkable and by that, I mean a C-Agg will leave you penniless, try to degrade you to all those around you, may stalk you, and will generally give you that feeling that they are sending ‘death energy’ your way. It is no exaggeration to say you will feel their hatred, you will. So, you must mentally prepare yourself for the worst-case scenario – this person is going to commit their life to your downfall.
Now that may all sound dramatic, but remember these folks only see the world through the lens of competition and domination and you have just upped the ante in their game of life. The sooner you get to realise that being reasonable, trying to negotiate or generally following all those social rules that you have been so conscientiously adhering to, are going to result in your annihilation, the better.
And to do this first and foremost you need to get support from the collective – friends, family, the legal system because unlike the vast majority of us, these people are relentless. C-Aggs see their obsession as strength as opposed to illogical, rage. To combat it, you need to tell your story, reality test, strip back the veil of your experiences because you need to quickly understand just how abnormal your relational experiences have been, in order to prepare yourself for the long haul and source good support in reaching a collective condemnation of their blatant attempts to dominate and destroy.
You must also have faith that through opening up their behaviour to the public forum, the C-Agg will ultimately be held socially accountable for every active choice they make in ignoring the overarching principles of good social conduct. Ultimately until these individuals recognise that they are the authors of their own self-destruction and that continued public exposure will only stop when they stop, you must protect yourself by seeking the collective’s protection and prepare to take each battle to the wire.
Which is the best of the worst?
Well, here’s the thing if you are wondering this, you are seriously asking the wrong question. Neither of these categories of individuals are a whole lot of fun, and the real trick is recognising them and staying well away from them. Whether you are in a relationship with one, escaping one, or after reading this a bit freaked out you might meet one, you need to be asking yourself – how do I make sure I am not vulnerable to getting involved with someone like this?
Wo/men who get involved with these types of people have often come from pretty sketchy family backgrounds where chaos was a factor. Perhaps mental illness or addictions in one or both parents has taught them how to be ‘really caring’ (read martyrs) and they have never really learnt how to express their own wants and needs. Maybe they do not even know they have their own wants and needs. They have been so well indoctrinated into their role as family therapist/invisible presence, that they confuse ‘control of uncertainty‘ with ‘helping’. As Robin Norwood (1985) points out they are simply under the impression if they love enough, the object of their affection will change. And coming from chaos and neglect, they find a certain affinity in potential partners who can offer them a repeat performance of childhood.
So, let me tell you quite clearly with these characters nothing you do will change them – they are not even listening to you. So, all those helpful pamphlets, courses you found on the internet, and educational programmes you are trying to get them to watch, well they are a waste of time. You see the problem here is not them, it is you.
Oh, don’t get me wrong these folk are a nightmare in intimate relationships, but the issue is you got involved in the first place. And now here you are hanging on in there, hoping, trying, demanding, manipulating, educating, loving and quite frankly you need to stop and ask a few whys.
Why do they need to change at all? Why do you think they even have the capacity to change? Why continue in this relationship even though they are showing 0 interest in change? Why are you accepting behaviour that is well below par? Why are you so determined to make this work when on every possible indicator you are losing?
When you start to ask the right questions, your ponderings change from:
What is the ‘best of the worst’ to have a relationship with and how do I get out of a relationship with one of these types of individuals?
Why am I not having a relationship with myself, so I never repeat the same mistake again?
Whilst I can give you some explanation of the dynamics of the Narcissist and the Covert Aggressive, the real dynamics you need to understand are your own. And that involves bravery, therapy and grit, but with all sincerity if it means you do not go down this particular rabbit hole of relational hell, it will be well-worth your efforts.