Not long before my ex and I broke up, we were reading Jon Ronson’s “Psychopath Test” together.
The book provides a checklist of psychopathic traits, including a grandiose sense of self, a lack of empathy, a parasitic lifestyle, pathological lying, glib and superficial charm and a lack of remorse.
He looked up from the pages in realization. “Wow, I think I might be a psychopath,” he exclaimed. It seemed like an outrageous statement to make, but he wasn’t joking. He wasn’t too far off, either. Later, he would describe himself as a narcissist.
As well as the above traits, narcissists have a complete disregard for the thoughts and feelings of others, and this enables them to manipulate the people around them. Their self-important and egotistical behaviors are coping mechanisms, often used to avoid feeling shame or vulnerability. They seek out codependent people who can feed their need for admiration, and many of them proceed to wreak havoc on those people’s lives through psychological, physical and financial abuse. Around 8% of men and 5% of women are narcissists, and their abuse is estimated to affect 158 million people in the U.S. alone.
My narcissist had come into my life several years earlier, with a confidence that pulled me into his orbit. I was seduced by it, mainly because it was something I’d never had. I saw him as somehow better, stronger and more resilient than I was, and this was only the start of our differences. He was abrasive with a hot temper, while I was nonconfrontational, almost to the point of being a doormat. At the time, I thought this made us a good match.
In the beginning, he was “helping” me work on my confidence and assertiveness. He would instruct me to recite affirmations in the mirror and tell me how I should change how I thought about myself and acted around other people. This seemed like an attempt to build me up, but in reality, he was asserting power over me by making me feel inferior. In doing so, he laid the foundation for what was to come.
Eventually, he became unhappy with even the smallest things I did. The way I looked at him, talked to him or touched him would often be wrong. I’d become hyperaware that there were consequences for every misstep. He would be particularly angry with me if I disagreed with him in public, as he perceived this as a way of tarnishing his image or reputation.
One night, we engaged in political chatter with another couple over dinner, and over the course of the evening, the three of us questioned some of his views in a light, friendly debate. When we got home, he berated me for “ganging up on him” and “embarrassing” him. Occurrences like this caused me to become even more passive than I already was, walking on eggshells to make sure I didn’t upset or shame him.
He had an insatiable need to look good in every way, using arrogance to prop up an ego that was always one small dose of reality away from falling apart. His main weakness was the word “no,” which he couldn’t bear to hear even in response to small requests or offers. This, he admitted, was a trigger of his, so I did my best to avoid it.
“If I ever questioned his behavior, he lashed out and made me feel as if I was “crazy.” This led me to question myself instead. I doubted my judgment, my worth and even my own sanity.”
Any success he had was solely the result of his own excellence, but he always placed blame for failure or mistakes on someone else. This attitude often caused friction with other people outside the relationship. When he upset my friends or family, I would talk it out with them while he wasn’t around. I took on the role of peacekeeper, constantly putting out fires he’d lit with other people by making excuses for his callous behavior. I explained away every mistake he made, just as he had to me. Foolishly, I believed that they just needed to understand him the same way I did.
Then, the gaslighting started. He would insist that he’d said or done things that I had no memory of, or deny saying things that I was sure I’d heard. If I ever questioned his behavior, he lashed out and made me feel as if I was “crazy.” This led me to question myself instead. I doubted my judgment, my worth and even my own sanity.
This didn’t happen all at once. It was a slow drip-feed that took place subtly in the background of our seemingly happy relationship. I put up with the lows because the highs were so high, and this often meant holding out for long periods without feeling loved or valued. When you’re starved of affection, you’ll do anything for the tiniest crumb.
I was constantly making myself smaller in order to make him feel bigger, tiptoeing around his fragile ego to make sure it stayed intact. I was the breadwinner, while his income was sporadic, with just a little money coming in every few months. This meant that I paid for everything, and I had to do so as subtly as possible. If I ever acknowledged his lack of contribution, it would trigger an argument. So I quietly took care of everything. I thought that this was an act of love.
The end became clear when I reached a breaking point, telling him that I couldn’t bear how he was mistreating me any longer. When I asked if he was willing to do better, he declined. He didn’t see why he should have to.
“Then you should leave,” I said.
Shortly thereafter, he gave clarity to my suspicions. He had, as it turned out, been cheating for most of the relationship. In fact, he said that he’d never believed in monogamy in the first place. He’d agreed to a monogamous, committed relationship with me but never believed that the rules applied to him.
“I only hid it because you felt it was wrong,” he explained. He couldn’t understand why any of this was “such a big deal” to me.
When I asked why he didn’t break things off before, he plainly told me that he’d only stayed because doing so enabled his lifestyle — he was living off my income. “I was abusing you, manipulating you and taking advantage of you,” he said. “If we’d stayed together, I would have continued to do that.”
His matter-of-factness stunned me. None of this happened by accident. This wasn’t a good relationship that went bad. This was a systematic erosion of my self-worth, carefully conducted for his benefit. I was devastated, not by the loss of the relationship, but by the reality of the five years we’d spent together.
“This wasn’t a good relationship that went bad. This was a systematic erosion of my self-worth, carefully conducted for his benefit.”
I found it difficult to disentangle myself, still naively craving some form of understanding or validation from him. In search of that unattainable goal, I maintained contact for a short while. During that time, he flitted between apologetic and adamant. First, he would admit his faults, apologize and show a flash of vulnerability. Sometimes, that came with surprising self-awareness. In one such moment, he plainly explained that he’d learned how to manipulate women from his father.
Once I was lulled into listening, he would attack me, insisting that I was only getting what I deserved. During these bouts of anger, he would insist that I was the one who was abusive, telling me I needed therapy. Just as he had when we were together, he convinced me that there was something wrong with me. Even in separation, the cycle of abuse had continued. The only way to stop it was to put up roadblocks at every avenue of communication.
From there, the first step was understanding that everything he’d done was an act of self-preservation. It wasn’t that I’d deserved or asked to be treated that way, but that he would have done the same to anyone who’d let him. The second was addressing my own issue — a lack of self-worth. If I’d valued myself first, perhaps I could have avoided being ensnared by him in the first place. Going forward, that’s my main priority.
To anyone else who finds themselves in the clutches of a relationship with a narcissist, my advice is to prioritize your own healing over theirs. Know that you can’t “fix” anyone, no matter how much you love them.
To those who are helplessly watching this kind of abuse happen from afar, say something. Approach with caution, though. Directly telling someone to leave can push them away from you and into the arms of their abuser, so start by building their confidence instead. Narcissists work by constantly chipping away at their victim’s self-esteem, and by helping them to repair that, you can give them the power they need to escape.
“You always play the victim,” my narcissist goaded once as I began to cut him off. “You run away when it gets hard.” Turns out that running was the best thing that I could have done, and, in the year since we were together, I’ve never looked back.
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