Kathy woke-up startled to hear her phone ring so at 5 am. She was in her second semester of college and was busy with school and work. It was her narcissistic dad calling her, which he hadn’t done since she left home, so she was immediately on high alert.
He skipped any niceties and immediately started with what a terrible daughter she was. He explained that her mother was sick and it was all her fault. He gave no details about her mom’s illness and when Kathy tried to inquire, he abruptly hung up the phone. She tried calling him back but he refused to answer.
Kathy went into panic mode. It was winter time and despite a huge snowstorm, she risked being on the road, called in sick to work, skipped her classes, and headed home. Her mom was surprised to see her knowing nothing of the early morning call from her dad.
It turned out her mom was diagnosed with Crohn’s Disease. The doctor had given strict instructions for her to rest, change her diet, take some medication, and reduce the stress in her life. Since they caught it in the early stages, the changes were not that significant.
As they pieced the panicked phone call together, they realized what upset her dad. Mom was no longer able to do many of the things around the house and her dad, instead of picking up the slack, wanted Kathy to do the work. Kathy was furious at her dad but also knew that her mom needed some help, so she stayed.
Kathy instinctively knew that she was going to receive many early morning vague phone calls from her dad going forward. So she decided to equip herself with knowledge as to why and how a narcissist treats their chronically ill spouse. Here is what she found.
- Narcissists aren’t caretakers. In order for the narcissistic ego to thrive, it requires constant feeding of attention, affirmation, affection, and appreciation. While they are pros at obtaining these from family, friends, and co-workers, there is no reciprocity. Their lack of empathy limits their ability to see that others might need some caring. Expecting this is like asking a snake not to bit you when you are hurt.
- Narcissists avoid responsibility. While some narcissists are responsible at work, being this way at home is an entirely different proposal. In this case, if Kathy’s dad accepted any responsibility that would mean he might be held accountable for her mom’s high level of stress. He might then have to apologize, change, and stop blaming her. This is too much for his ego, so he passed his responsibility to other family members.
- Narcissists aren’t servants. At the core of caretaking is the heart of a servant. Since part of the definition of narcissism includes a superiority attitude and internal belief structure, an indentured servant is not part of that make-up. They physically, emotionally, and mentally cannot lower themselves to that place.
- Narcissists protect their image. To many narcissists, a sick spouse is not the image of the perfect family that they have created. Part of their superiority comes from defining themselves as better than the average person; they are special and unique and can only be around like people. A person who is sick is beneath the average person and therefore is not someone they can associate. This is why many narcissists abandon their spouse at the first sign of any type of long-term illness.
- Do you see a pattern? Even when their spouse is in need of additional attention and care, the narcissist cannot remove their ego in order to provide support. They might guilt-trip other family members into helping, hire expensive services, pick this time to have an affair, and sometimes prematurely hospitalize or institutionalize their spouse. It is, after all, all about the narcissist.
- Spouse feels abandoned. Most spouses of narcissists are already accustomed to the unequal balance of caretaking. But one of the reasons spouses stay is that they hold onto the hope that when things get really bad, the narcissist will step-up to the plate. After all, the narcissist likes to rescue other people outside the family so why won’t they do it for their spouse? So when this core belief is shattered, the spouse feels a deep level of abandonment, increased insecurity, and intense anxiety about the future.
- Spouse blames self. Some narcissists pick this time to escalate the verbal assaults on their spouse or go completely silent as a way of expressing their anger over having to deal with a sick spouse. This negative talk or isolation is absorbed by the spouse as being ultimately their fault for getting sick in the first place. The narcissist even reinforces this idea by claiming that the spouse’s improper management of stress is causing their sickness and none of this is the narcissist’s fault.
- Spouse believes the lie. Not too long after accepting full responsibility for the illness, the spouse is hit with another lie. The narcissist will start discounting doctors, minimizing the effects of the illness, and parading others around with similar illnesses in an effort to shame their spouse into believing that the sickness is only a mental manifestation of the spouse’s weakness. This is like pouring salt onto an open wound. Any rebuttal from the spouse is met with anger.
- Spouse becomes sicker. All of this additional weight from the narcissist is too much for a sick spouse to bear so they become even worse, not better. Some die all too early because of the increased stress and anxiety. Many studies have shown that a positive outlook and environment can reduce the physical effects of long-term illness allowing some go into remission or even completely recover.
Kathy could no longer watch from the sidelines as her mom deteriorated so she contacted her siblings and they worked out a plan for her mom to leave and stay with each of them. In a matter of months, her mom’s health greatly improved as she was cared for well by her children.