Saturday, October 27, 2007

The narcissist’s revenge

Because a narcissist’s very existence is based on their belief in their own superiority, any criticism, complaint or challenge to that belief is a serious threat.

When someone criticizes him (or her) he assumes they are trying to change him, influence, or lead him, or trying to exert power and control over him, all of which are affronts to his sense of superiority and perfection. If his ego is wounded he loses control of his self-created, grandiose identity so that he feels humiliated and powerless.

He sees himself as above reproach and his natural reaction to anyone who does reproach him is to feel attacked which in turn provokes rage, contempt, withdrawal, or hostility and the urge to punish.

The aim of punishment, which is essentially revenge, is to teach the culprit a lesson. They must suffer for displeasing or offending the narcissist, or for not believing in his superiority. Such retaliation gives the narcissist a sense of power and pleasure.

But sometimes the narcissist’s victim gives no obvious offence and his punishment seems without motive. Sometimes the hidden motive is hostility toward a parent displaced onto a less threatening scapegoat. Or to build himself up by putting another down, to force them to see that in comparison to him they are ordinary and helpless. Or he may hate the person he depends on because relying on another contradicts his fantasy of self-reliant superiority.

And like some super novelist he makes people up, creates them in his mind to fit his own needs, so that he thinks he knows them inside out and how they should behave. So he may punish someone simply for not playing the role he assigns them, even though they have done nothing wrong except be themselves. When they do not behave how he thinks they should, when they fail to fulfil his needs and wants, he rejects or punishes them for disobeying his unspoken rules and expectations. He is capable of extreme actions (such as road rage or stalking) against those who do not conform to how thing are supposed to be.

The narcissist doesn’t want a relationship based on equality and honesty. He wants flattery and adoration, to be put on a pedestal, to get everything he expects and when he doesn’t, he may retaliate with surprising vindictiveness. His attitude is: “Give me what I want and be what I want or you will suffer.”

Sometimes punishing behaviour is nothing more than a sadistic, ego-boosting pleasure in causing pain, especially when a partner still loves him and stays with him despite his atrocious treatment. She is supposed to be so utterly devoted to him that she will endure anything. But such devotion has to be tested. How much he can hurt her is to him a measure of how important he is to her. But the partner who submits to his ill-treatment may find herself being punished for being too subservient, for being inferior, cowardly, contemptible. It’s a no-win position.

He may punish a partner for not living up to his expectations and not meeting his ideal standards. He expects that she fulfil his wishes perfectly and feels cheated and disappointed when inevitably she does not. It never occurs to him that he may expect too much. He assumes she has deliberately, even maliciously, deprived him of satisfaction and so feels justified in retaliating. Or he may want to punish her for enjoying the company of other people, for having other interests besides him, for being something he is not, or simply to demonstrated his power over her to prove to her that he can destroy her happiness at will.

He may punish her for changing in any way, losing weight, putting on weight, getting pregnant, returning to education, leaving or returning to work, because any change in his partner changes the self that she reflects back to him and threatens his sense of himself. He needs her to be a certain way so that he can see himself in a certain way.

He may even see a partner’s smallest needs or requests as insults. If she needs something that he doesn’t give, or asks him to do something he doesn’t naturally do, then she is saying he is inadequate and imperfect. Her offence may be nothing more than behaving like a normal person in a normal relationship. She may for example only try to get him to behave with no more than normal reasonableness, consideration and decency, or try to curb some excessive habit, to find herself the scapegoat for hostility and treated more like an enemy than a loved partner.

“Adrian’s” mother always cooked bacon and eggs for breakfast. She was a stay-at-home mum devoted to the care and coddling of her family, and especially her only son. When Adrian married Sue, he expected the same service from her that his mother had provided. But Sue worked long hours and spent considerable time commuting and had no intention of getting up even earlier to cook Adrian breakfast when he was quite capable of doing it for himself. Adrian felt hard done by and the lack of a cooked breakfast became for him a major grievance and sign of Sue’s failure to care for him the way she “should”. When she pointed out how unfair his expectations were he agreed with her; of course she worked as hard as he did, of course he didn’t expect her to be his servant. But like a petulant and stubborn child, his resentment grew. He began waging a campaign of guerrilla warfare against her and their marriage. He refused to share domestic chores or was so incompetent that he damaged appliances and ruined clothes and food; he spent lavishly on himself, was absent from home as much as possible and when that didn’t satisfy his need for revenge he had a series of affairs. Sue was not going to get away with treating him as though he was ordinary, as though he was no better than her.

Affairs are a narcissist’s common form of retaliation against a partner he believes does not give enough. Sometimes abandonment is her punishment. He might leave because she disappoints, although he never told her what he wanted. Sometimes he punishes by withholding what he knows his partner wants most, affection, attention, companionship, children, sex, money, his presence, whatever will cause her the most distress. Sometimes his reaction to criticism or whatever else he is punishing is so extreme that his partner never dares do it again and tiptoes around his delicate ego. Sometimes his punishments are irrational, excessive and dangerous, as any battered woman can testify.

Ultimate Self

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