name of cartoon: "Ego and Heart"
image is © Lise Winne
(for questions regarding use of images or to contract an image for your next article
contact: LilacGroveGraphics (att) yahoo.com)
A good rule of thumb in detecting whether you are being abused or not, is if the other person is intentionally trying to hurt you through words and actions. Blaming can also be emotional abuse if most or all of what is going wrong in the relationship is being attributed to you by your partner (i.e. all your fault) or you are being blamed for their abusive behavior.
The Buddhists knew it all along: relationships are destroyed by ego ... even the relationship you have with yourself! More on this later.
It is easy to figure out why relationships are destroyed by indifference: "I don't care!" spoken too many times to your partner means that you are putting up a wall, negating their perspectives, perceptions, experiences and life-force. Their needs, love, thoughts, responses and unique qualities are no longer important to you. This means that you are no longer having a relationship with them and the rift deepens as hurt feelings multiply and the wall that you have put up to block their perspectives widen.
The faux-apology like "I'm sorry you feel that way" when they are hurt by your non-loving responses or actions would come under this category as well.
But what about abuse? Why would anyone want to abuse their loved ones in a relationship? As I have stated in this post and this post, abuse can be learned, but most often it comes from personality-disordered individuals: borderline personality disorder, narcissistic personality disorder, and antisocial personality disorder. Some addictions like alcoholism can mimic personality disorders, particularly narcissism.
I have talked a lot about Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD) in many posts in this blog. Having this disorder is a crisis in ego. The NPD wants to control and dominate others. They want followers and admirers first and foremost, over intimacy, over a connection of souls sharing the experiences of life, over building familiarity, commonality and trust.
In order to obtain admirers, masking is required. The mask of the NPD is where the NPD puts all of their pride, not in the authentic self.
Most NPDs break out into a rage if they feel they are criticized, critiqued, or indeed, if any words or actions from others they are close to are portraying autonomy, or a difference of opinion, even if it is not meant to hurt the narcissist. They take criticism and autonomy to mean that they are not valued. If people in their lives are not thinking about them on a consistent basis, they are like a plant that shrivels. If their loved ones are not admiring, praising, walking on eggshells around the narcissist and thanking them at every turn, they feel useless. If their so-called admirers aren't doing exactly what is expected, the narcissist's pattern is to retaliate and rage, then to move onto accusations and a torrent of blame-shifting, then to discard via the silent treatment and finding another person to take their place. They can alternately move onto someone else before they get to the silent treatment to send you the message that you aren't worthy of them. It is all very, very strategic abusive behavior on their part.
So why do they abuse if it will ultimately make their victims feel less admiring, less invested, less trusting, more distant, more disgusted, more resentful, more critical -- and haunt the abuser to the point where they feel they have to cover their tracks with endless excuses, more desperate erroneous blaming, diverting and lies to keep the safety of the mask on? Surely they know that once they abuse, that's the sign to their victims that the mask has come off, and all that will be left standing in its place is an abuser with very little decency and virtue.
Well, why do you think they run away so easily from responsibility and their relationships? It is because the mask is where all of their pride and self worth are invested and bundled; the authentic self behind the mask is deeply shamed and lacking in integrity. Indeed their real souls probably want integrity, so that they don't have to create so many lies and crazy-making counter defensive strategies, which can usually be undermined by more and more of their false stories being exposed, with the need for their ever-more desperate cover-ups.
But, most narcissists would rather falsify and cover up than take the relatively easier path of obtaining integrity through honest means. That's why it is a personality disorder: it is destructive to self and to others, and like an addiction, it creates an illusion of being happy and fulfilled, a life being well-lived. To a narcissist, it is easier to just go out and find another admirer or victim than to work on relationships and have integrity. This is why narcissists are known for having short term relationships that end abruptly, sometimes without discussion or reflection. The shamed self often is exposed when someone finds out the narcissist was or is abusive. They feel too entitled or lazy to work on relationships they are already involved in, so they cover up their shame by a barrage of blaming and diverting, never taking responsibility for their part in the destruction of their relationships (this is very similar to the way alcoholics and addicts act too). They lie to others about how their partners treat them (feigned victimization) so that they can preserve the mask at all costs, even if they risk getting caught, even if investing in that mask is a bad investment that will ultimately bring the narcissist to his knees.
If the ego was healthy, there would be no need to rage over others' perceptions and imperfections of oneself, or to lie about events to make themselves look better than they actually are.
Many normal people have a little bit of narcissism, but most of us don't act on it. We can be hurt by criticism, and perhaps even feel like lashing out and sulking in silence (silent treatment) for a few hours, or at most a day, but the difference is that most of us still don't react in that way because our empathetic natures are much more prevalent than our narcissistic natures. We care about what our actions will do to the people we love and the relationships we have invested in. People with normal doses of empathy have the ability to self reflect, and search within to see if the criticism is legitimate. If the criticism is legitimate, then we might want to respond or change for the better, or for the sake of the other person. Or we might express why we don't want to, and expect the other person to respect our boundaries and decisions about it. Most people don't try to hurt the other person in a relationship, or throw the relationship away (that is the territory of narcissistic behavior).
From an article on The Good Men Project, Joanna Schroeder states:
... marriages aren’t destroyed by a lack of knowledge, lack of innovation, or lack of grandeur. Marriages are destroyed by ego. And it is ego that keeps us from hearing the voice inside, which is whispering the answers we already know about how to make our marriages come alive ... Marriages aren’t healed with big things; they’re healed with small things done every day. They aren’t healed by doing new things; they’re healed by doing old things we used to do and quit doing somewhere along the way. And, if we can set aside our ego for a little while, we don’t need anyone to tell us what those things are. We already know. Beneath all of our hiding and pretending and protecting and defending and accusing and criticizing, there is a voice always whispering the answer. -- Joanna Schroeder
When a married person has an affair, or is seduced by another, and puts on a mask to his spouse that he or she is being faithful, the mask is hiding the fact that they are not faithful. When the mask comes off, there is usually a crisis. The person behind the mask is exposed as a liar and a cheater and it can be devastating to the spouse on the receiving end: "All along I thought you had integrity! All along I thought you were invested in our marriage! All along I thought you loved me! All along I thought you were honest! All along I thought you were the kind of person who would fight to keep your integrity and resist temptation!"
The trauma doesn't just happen in the spouse who found out; it is also in the person who got found out (exposure). What happens next is how to determine whether it was a lack in judgement, a lack of care and concern, or whether it is outright abusive behavior.
Does your partner admit to a failure in integrity or weakness with obvious shame? Do they try to make amends? Are they willing to attribute blame to themselves and take responsibility? Are they willing to stop the affair (i.e. to stop hurting you?). Are they willing to go to counseling with you? Do they care about how their actions effected you, your feelings, your trust, your security, your relationship?
If they don't care about what kind of effect their actions have on you, that is a red flag. That is a sign of some narcissism, i.e. "I mostly only care about what I want and you always will come after that." Be aware that alcoholics and addicts can display narcissistic or manipulative tendencies too: it is often a part of their disease -- and don't forget that sex addiction is a classified real addiction and it can mean your partner is putting their addiction before their marriage as well.
A strong indicator of your spouse abusing you by having an affair is any one of the following: putting the blame for their actions and their affair on you, excusing themselves of all responsibility, flaunting their lover in your face, expecting you to compete with their lover, continued signs of indifference to you or your feelings, expecting you to fix the marriage, expecting you to fix their desires to have affairs, expecting you not to feel, pathological lying when you have asked for the truth, blaming you for being hurt (i.e. being told "you create drama", "you're too sensitive", "you shouldn't be hurt", and blame-shifting like: "if you weren't hurt, sad and depressed all of the time, I wouldn't have an affair"), gaslighting ("you didn't see me kissing my lover; it was all in your imagination"), expecting preferential treatment because they are desired by someone else (i.e. "put your needs and feelings aside for what I want; it is your responsibility to save our marriage"). There are many more, but this is a start: in general, abuse is doing things to intentionally hurt you, destroy your self esteem, and/or blaming you for their actions.
Be aware that once abuse is part of your relationship, the frequency, duration and intensity all tend to escalate. There is often little choice but to get out.
In old age, the narcissist usually destroys the relationship they have with their own egos too. They have been abandoned or have abandoned others many times over. The elderly narcissist can be lonely and bitter. The people left aren't the healthy people with hearts who care about intimacy, ethics, compassion and justice. The healthy people have left long ago because health means living without the abuse and continued dominance of another, health means not living with falsified stories that shift and sway to an agenda, health means not being co-dependent with abusers.
Who knows why narcissists get rid of all of the good people with hearts in their lives, but I think it may be their soul's way of teaching itself a brutal lesson which is possibly karmic. There may be a good soul behind the mask of the abuser. That sounds weird to say that. How can "good person" and "abuser" be in the same sentence? Well, if it is stripped of the mask, it would have no choice but to work on the shamed self that caused all of the abuses because it couldn't stand itself otherwise. No more lies, no more spinning, no more blaming of others, no more arrogance and hypocrisy, no more expecting of others that they would never expect of themselves, means working hard on integrity, and keeping vigilant of it. The mask is used only to prolong, to obstruct the soul taking the right path, the path of authenticity.
Thus narcissists are often betrayed by the ones who are left in their world because the ones who are left are impervious to abuse; they are usually fellow narcissists willing to overlook the abuse of the elder narcissist. They look past the abuse for one reason only: to seduce and croon their way into the inner realm, waiting to swoop in to get the spoils. As soon as the elderly narcissist is weak, the fellow narcissists do what they do best: treat their aged fellow narcissist as prey: raging at the slightest protest, going back on their word, intolerant of criticisms, depriving them of a voice, abusing, discarding and exploiting with impunity.
An elderly narcissist that hasn't weakened yet will still have the ability to punish, and their grown children and elderly spouse take the brunt of it, but the narcissist's smear campaigns can be relatively ineffectual (because the family is onto them by the time they are old: the truth has a way of coming out in bits and pieces eventually). Their money and their looks are not much use to them except for providing essentials: they can't buy admiration, health and security, and they can't seduce more lovers.
The mask of the unhealthy ego which says I'm perfect and special and you are not, then, is at war with their real selves. By desperately trying to hold onto the one thing they've invested in for most of their lives at the expense of ALL relationships, the mask starts its disintegration when there are no more good people to exploit. Now it is their turn to be exploited. As their fellow crocodiles are attacking and chomping away at them, the mask is the first thing to go because it is the shield to what the crocs really want, the shamed, fearful, shivering, self, that the elder narcissist hid. The weakened elder is more and more at the mercy of their own shame, as the crocs bring it out in one layer of denial after another, expecting the weakening elder to capitulate to demands, and to cry for mercy and relief. Begging is the grand prize to all narcissists and it doesn't matter if the beggar is a fellow narcissist.
(I also recommend reading the writing that goes with the link to the picture above)