Margie was devastated when her mother passed away. Her mom was diagnosed with cancer one month and then gone by the next. She had a close relationship with her mom and frequently leaned on her for support in her marriage, parenting her kids, and balancing family and work. The loss left a huge hole in her heart that she tried to grieve but couldn’t.
The day of her mom’s funeral, her husband complained about being sick and asked Margie to go to the pharmacy for him. His “sickness” prevented him from helping her get the kids ready, straighten up the house, and answer phone calls from relatives. The one day she wanted to spend celebrating her mom was overshadowed by his neediness and refusal to assist her. When friends would express remorse for Margie’s loss, her husband would interrupt and talk about how much he was going to miss her. She tried to get away from her husband but she would find her and talk about how bad he was feeling. There was no show of empathy for her.
Years later, during a counseling session, Margie’s therapist pointed out that she had not yet grieved her mother. Within months of losing her mom, her husband got a job change and moved the family from Margie’s childhood neighborhood. Margie was thrust into doing all the arrangements for the move, finding a new place, transferring school records, and establishing their new residence. After that, there was one thing after another that keep Margie from taking the time to grieve. Worse yet, every time she tried, her husband would make things about him. It wasn’t until counseling that Margie realized just how narcissistic he was.
While the narcissism alone was difficult to manage, Margie had not realized how he had prevented her from grieving. Looking back over their marriage, there were other times when Margie had significant emotional responses such as joy, anger, excitement, fear, contentment, and sadness but she never felt the freedom to express herself. As a result, she shut down emotionally and appeared in therapy with a flat affect. How does this happen?
The Narcissism Mask. At the heart of every narcissist is deep-rooted insecurity. Their grandiosity, superiority, arrogance, and selfishness make up the mask the narcissist puts on to hide their pain or fear. This mask makes the narcissist look perfect, charming, engaging, and even entertaining. But it is a façade and they will do whatever it takes to protect it including lying, deceiving, manipulating, and taking advantage of others. However, their insecurity prevents them from caring for their mask alone. Therefore, they need help from others to keep the mask in place. The only help they want is daily attention, affirmation, adoration, and affection. This feeds their ego, protects the insecurity, and solidifies the mask.
The Narcissistic Threat. Any event, circumstance, trauma, or even abuse that could detract the narcissist from getting their feeding is a threat. When their spouse has arranged a gathering of their friends, the narcissist will often throw temper tantrums just before leaving. Knowing they will not be the center of attention at the event, they draw attention to themselves prior to the event. Even though the narcissist has a wonderful time at the event and finds ways to absorb attention, they still repeat this pattern the next time. This is especially true when the event is about their spouses such as a funeral, awards ceremony, or office function.
The Narcissistic Cycle. Any attempts to call the narcissist’s attention towards their selfish behavior will be met with quick abuse such as a verbal assault of name calling – “You’re a …”, a threat of abandonment – “Fine, you can go without me”, or the silent treatment – “I’m not going to say anything.” When their spouse fights back, the narcissist becomes the victim and guilts the spouse into apologizing, acquiescing, and accepting responsibility for the narcissist’s behavior. This is sometimes repeated numerous times before an event. It is an abusive pattern designed to remind the spouse that no matter what happens during the event, it is still all about the narcissist.
The Result. The spouse shuts down. After numerous cycles before, during, and after an event, the spouse concludes that it is better to not express any emotion or even tell their spouse about achievements or successes. Because the narcissist treats all events with the same resistance, drama, and abuse cycle, the spouse stops engaging. This is where the marriage begins to fall apart as the spouse becomes a shell of their former selves. The narcissist has successfully molded a mask for the spouse to wear so they too can share in the façade. Having someone join them in mask wearing is comforting at first but ultimately becomes a new source of jealousy. And so it all begins again with another cycle.
Margie finally got it. She started seeing the cycle, ignoring his threats, calling out his abuse, and refusing to accept his responsibility. More importantly, she began the grieving process of her mom’s death, from the move out of her childhood neighborhood, and from the realization that her husband was narcissistic. It took some time to process all of this but as she did, she got stronger and stronger. Eventually, her strength became unattractive to her husband who moved onto a new relationship and then filed for divorce.