It’s Narcissist Friday!
Those who have been in relationships with narcissists often write or speak of the difficulty of maintaining a no-contact stand. At the same time, nearly every encounter with the narcissist just brings back the pain or creates new pain. No-contact seems like the best and most obvious solution, but why is it so hard?
I tend to be someone who likes to understand an obstacle before tackling it. The more I know, the more I can plan my thinking and approach. Few things are as debilitating as an unexpected emotional gut-punch, something narcissists can be very good at. If you understand more of what is happening, you might be able to avoid those times of confusion and weakness that seem to come so easily whenever the narcissist is involved.
For normal people, relationships come with certain expectations. No matter what level of involvement the relationship needs, there is something both sides are expected to do. Acquaintances are expected to remember names, give basic greetings, be civil, engage in small talk when appropriate, etc. As the levels become more intimate, the expectations become more involved.
This is normal for us, and we rarely think about it. We invest in other people and welcome their investment in us. But this is not normal for the narcissist. The narcissist sees these expectations as opportunities. He or she does not want to invest in another person in any real way. Instead, the narcissist will find ways to get something out of the relationship while giving only that which is necessary to get what he wants.
Most people find narcissistic relationships to be very easy to get into and very difficult to get out of. For some reason, the narcissist still seems to hold the strings. They still manipulate and control, even when you are trying to end the relationship. There is always something: a crisis, finances, business, family, something that keeps bringing you together.
If you will forgive the alliteration, I want to suggest four reasons why it is particularly hard to maintain no-contact in narcissistic relationships. These will overlap, so just think of them as ways to look at the relationships from multiple perspectives.
Entanglement – First, narcissists are experts at weaving webs that hold their victims. Babies that come early in a marriage, or even before. Money that disappears or is mingled into a joint account. Houses and cars and businesses purchased with joint funds. Agreements that tie in a third party so you can’t get out without hurting another person. These things can last long after the marriage is dissolved or can make it very difficult to dissolve.
The highest form of entanglement, of course, is the parental relationship. Children are natural and captive narcissistic supply for parents. Parents build a sense of familial responsibility into their children as an investment in the parents’ future. Many victims find it very difficult to maintain no-contact with narcissistic parents because of the guilt and shame built into their minds as children. Then, if the parents don’t pull the strings directly, other siblings are used to produce the guilt.
When a man and woman have children together, no-contact is obviously difficult. Business partners, even people who attend the same church, have connections that just keep pulling them together. When a spiritual dimension is added, with its expectations of love and unity, your desire for no-contact is made out to be unkind and wrong. Narcissists are very good at creating and maintaining these entanglements for as long as they want them. When they want out, the web seems to disappear.
Encumbrance – I usually think of encumbrance as some kind of legal obligation, like a mortgage. Narcissists only invest in a relationship in ways that will pay off later. Almost everyone who has tried to break things off with a narcissist has heard the “after all I did for you” line. Whereas normal people invest in others because of love or friendship, the narcissist does so pragmatically. He or she expects to get something back. You will begin to feel like the narcissist holds promissory notes on your time and emotions.
The Bible says that love keeps no record of wrongs. The narcissist remembers everything he/she thinks you owe. Every time he did something nice for you, even when it wasn’t really that nice. Every time she felt hurt by you, even though you did nothing. They remember it all and they expect compensation. So you can’t leave the relationship until those obligations are fulfilled (and they will not be fulfilled until the narcissist is no longer interested).
Entitlement – One of the core characteristics among narcissists is their sense of entitlement. They often refer to the things they have done to earn the respect of others, but they really believe they are entitled to that respect without having done anything. Others are just supposed to notice how valuable and important and special the narcissist is. This is hard for normal people to understand and looks like that self-love we always hear about. But the narcissist believes that the image they present to others should be enough to bring attention, respect, and admiration.
You may have heard a narcissist say, “Don’t you know who I am?” Somehow that is supposed to move you to provide what the narcissist wants. The husband may demand affection, respect, or obedience simply on the basis of being the husband. There is no need to wonder why so many narcissists are connected to legalistic churches. Wives and children are supposed to obey, after all. And so are employees or subordinates of any sense. The narcissist seeks the highest position possible, partly because he believes himself entitled to the position and partly as a means of extracting respect from those who ought to be respecting him.
Exploitation – This one ties all the others together and explains why it can be so hard to maintain no-contact. Narcissists are users. They use people to get what they want, and they exploit any openings they can find that will move people to do what they want. If they must, they will build those openings in you so they can exploit them later.
Some have discovered that the baby became the tool the narcissist used to entangle. The children he never seemed to have much time for during the marriage became a focus during the divorce because he knew it would keep you emotionally connected. Narcissistic parents will entangle you with health issues, sibling issues, and financial issues. They exploit the sense of responsibility they built into you and the shame and guilt you so readily feel.
You are probably a person who believes in reciprocating in a relationship, who pays your bills and invests in your friends. All of this the narcissist knew when he/she reached out to you. And the narcissist will exploit that sense of obligation, that encumbrance. “Remember who bought that car for you!” “How can you throw away all I have done for you?” You are made to feel like you owe the narcissist something, even if it was your money that paid for the car, and the house, and much of the rest of what you lived on.
And you did admire the narcissist. There was something that attracted you, something different. You felt like he or she should be respected. You still can’t shake that feeling completely, even though you are angry and hurt. If he/she would change tomorrow, you would rejoice and welcome the relationship again. You were somehow convinced that the narcissist was entitled to honor, love, and another chance.
So, when the phone rings, you answer it again. No matter how many times you have told yourself that you won’t, you still do. And you stand at the door and try to visit. And you let the narcissist into your home. And you find yourself thinking of what might have been. All of these are normal. Normal compromises. You have been played.
But maybe, if you plan ahead, knowing that the phone will ring with the next crisis or the plea or the hopeful conversation, maybe you can understand that the power is yours. The narcissist is just doing what he/she does. You are the one who can decide not to be exploited again.
Obviously, some of the entanglements force you to stay connected. But the encumbrances are either lies or have been paid back many times and long ago. And the entitlements are ridiculous.
So my advice is not to focus on no-contact, but on no-exploitation. Avoid contact when possible. When it isn’t possible, understand the manipulation of the narcissist and decide that you will not be exploited. You can answer the phone when and if you want. You can talk with civility if you want to. You don’t owe the narcissist anything and he is not entitled to your respect or service. That has been proven over and over.