Married to The Donalds, Draper and Trump
I was married to narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) for more than 25 years. Though I knew something was terribly wrong, I didn’t understand the depth of this horrible dysfunction until the abuse, gaslighting and cognitive dissonance became so overwhelming, my entire family was sucked into a black hole that would make Stephen Hawking blush.
Since my life crossed this invisible event horizon in 2009, many people have summed up virtually my entire adult life with a shrug and four words: He was an asshole. As if losing my daughter, family, home, property and community, with the tacit blessing of a patriarchal court system, was to be expected. As if I am to blame for my circumstances because I loved the wrong person in the first place. As if I somehow saw this coming and actively chose to ignore it.
Such judgments conveniently dismiss the fact that narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) sometimes produces sociopathic behavior that damages everyone in its path and far too often leads to violence, even murder, mostly perpetrated against women and children. Statistically, almost one third of female homicide victims are killed by an intimate partner. It is the second leading cause of death for pregnant women.
Nevertheless, NPD was never mentioned as a possible precursor to abuse in any resource I consulted. Most websites only provide information about what constitutes abusive behavior and what to do about it after the fact. They list astonishing statistics regarding bullying, stalking and physical violence, offer resources and strategies, but shy away from connecting it to any causation or disorder, a practice which leaves the impression that it just magically “happens” without any warning.
I think this is because we are so immersed in a culture of narcissism we don’t see it for what it is and participate unknowingly. The messages outlining the ways in which we can and should boost our individual value are everywhere. They almost always invoke something material — physical beauty, possessions, money — trophies of various kinds that prove our worth to others as well as to ourselves. We create our personal brand and justify our existence by aligning with the trappings of whatever represents what we internally crave or are socialized to accept as valuable. Kids, houses, diplomas, associations, achievements all convey a single message: See? This signifies me. I am this.
But there is a difference between confident self-esteem and toxic narcissism. Believing that one has personal value, is entitled to love and connection, respect and consideration, is vitally important to an individual’s psychological well being. Narcissism, however, crosses an invisible and poorly defined line of excess into territory which says: My version of reality, what I am entitled to automatically supercedes everyone else’s needs.
When people adopt this as a world view, dialogue stops and the war for dominance begins. Whether it takes place in a personal or public context, every struggle becomes one of darwinian survival. Those with more power, authority and money exert their influence in whatever ways they can in order to impose their desires or their version of reality, on whomever or whatever they target, to the complete exclusion of consideration, empathy or accountability for anyone else, including spouses and children. There is no compromise. This is narcissism.
As a term, however, “narcissism” has become just another popular label. It is repeatedly misused to describe everything from basic self-esteem to standing by one’s convictions. Much of the literature about it claims “everyone is a narcissist” to some extent and tries to differentiate between healthy and unhealthy versions. This contributes to the problem. When everyone is a narcissist, those who are abusive and toxic tend to disappear in the crowd.
We don’t see narcissism because we are swimming in it economically, politically and socially. It has become the American brand. As a result, sociopathic narcissists are often given a pass. Especially if their crimes are committed by those with cultural power and authority. In America, that means white guys are apt to get away with it more often than anyone else, as they tend to excuse each other’s behavior as being understandable, acceptable.
Though I saw narcissistic abuse happening to women around me, I didn’t realize it was happening to me until my husband became sociopathic and began to repeatedly invite me to kill myself for the good of our family. When I refused, he vindictively punished by rendering me homeless, penniless and suffering from debilitating CPTSD. He convinced our daughter, whom I have not seen in seven years, that I was the abuser. He lost his job, let our home go into foreclosure and sold off the possessions he didn’t give his quickly acquired girlfriend as if I was dead.
Sadly, this is not particularly unique. I’ve come to discover my story is so typical, it’s not that interesting unless viewed through the lens of a narcissistic culture, where it becomes a microcosm of the systemic breakdown happening in almost every part of American life.
NPD is an especially insidious dysfunction, though it was not included in the DSM until 1980 and remains controversial. This is partly due to its slippery definition, but also a dearth of direct study as narcissists are disinclined to participate.
NPD differs from mere narcissistic traits such as a big ego or emotional selfishness in that it is pervasive, often covert and very hard to treat. True narcissists lack the self-awareness and self-reflection necessary to actively seek diagnosis or recovery. They simply refuse to admit there is anything wrong with them. Since therapy predicates itself on the recognition that something is amiss which requires cooperative treatment, narcissists don’t seek help. As a result, they are hard to study. What cannot be quantified ends up being denied by researchers. Though this is understandable, it also allows narcissists to go unidentified and their subtle crimes ignored.
Today there is a general agreement that NPD encompasses nine characteristics: lack of empathy, grandiosity, arrogance, preoccupation with success, exploitation of others, sense of entitlement, envy, belief in being unique and a need for constant admiration or validation. I would add to this a tendency for explosive anger, childish demands, threats, ultimatums and a complete denial of accountability.
Though there is now a lot of information about NPD on the internet, neither existed when I got married in 1983. In fact, none of the therapists I saw over the course of my marriage, both men and women, ever used the term. Most seemed much less interested in what was actually happening in my marriage than why I would choose to be with such a man, how I elicited his behavior and how I might change in order to be happy with him. In the absence of agreed upon red flags like severe addiction or visible physical abuse, the problem was always presumed to be mine, or at best, ours.
I believe my experience of this therapeutic misogyny is typical in a patriarchal culture. But it’s magnified in affluent, success-driven America, where it hides in plain sight, camouflaged by conservative values and socially acceptable achievement. Regardless of how good our rigged meritocracy looks on the surface, the predatory narcissism beneath it is systematically destroying families and individual lives, as well as the government and culture at large.
We do not wish to see this rapaciousness for what it is and are far too eager to listen to handsome, powerful, authoritative, mostly white men explain away the damage they create. Because we tend to ignore or marginalize that which does not fit what we want to believe, or cannot easily identify and treat, therapists tend to focus on the only person who is in front of them. And more often than not, that person is a woman.
We blame the victims of these privileged vampires for allowing their abuse, the same way we blame women for dressing in a manner which provokes rape. Any intelligent, well-educated woman who stays in a relationship or marriage to such a man, is held responsible for her own calamity. One male therapist told me Nicole Simpson essentially committed suicide because she wrote in her journal that she was afraid her husband might kill her and did nothing to protect herself, a judgement which presumes she understood what she was dealing with, had the option to take her children and leave, or thought she would be believed by those who had the power to protect her.
Sociopathic narcissists have an uncanny ability to place doubt and confusion in the minds of their victims. This includes law enforcement and court officials. Being married to one is like living in a hall of mirrors where shapes shift so quickly, one is left constantly wondering where the truth or danger really lies. As a result, women often doubt themselves, are doubted by others and their fears dismissed.
A significant number of women who try to leave abusive relationships wind up ostracized, alienated, destitute or dead, either by their own hand or their partner’s. If their numbers were reflected in interest rates or unemployment figures, the outcry would be deafening. Yet we allow high profile, accomplished narcissists to continually dodge their responsibility because we value their brand more than their integrity.
One of the most important weapons in the narcissist’s arsenal is shame. Personal degradation, in all its forms, is highly effective at stopping a perceived attacker before any point can be made and deftly shifts the blame back to the person trying to make it. Because narcissists feel enormous internal shame, they project it quickly and easily.
A perfect example of this occurred during the 2012 presidential debates when John King asked Newt Gingrich about his ex-wife’s statement that he approached her in 1999, while having an affair, to ask that she “enter into an open marriage”. His response was to chastise the media in general for being “destructive and vicious” and for “making it harder to govern the country”. He then personally attacked the moderator by saying “I am appalled that you would begin a presidential debate with a topic like this” and went on to say the question was “despicable”. He was “astounded that CNN would use trash like that” to open a political debate.
What was truly despicable was the standing ovation Gingrich received from the highly conservative, mostly white Christian South Carolina audience. Their commitment to the republican brand trumped their bedrock values as they repeatedly supported their hero’s denial that he made the request. Not, however, that he was actually having the affair, which openly took place during the Clinton impeachment.
In her ground breaking work on shame, Brene Brown says there are three things shame needs to grow exponentially: judgment, secrecy and silence. Marianne Gingrich broke her silence to speak her secret shame and got thrown under the bus of judgment when a mob of patriarchal hypocrites closed ranks and deserted their much trumpeted moral high ground in pursuit of brand dominance. The audience admired and validated the lack of empathy, arrogance, manipulation, anger and complete denial of accountability they saw before them, in direct opposition to their stated convictions.
This kind of “do as we say, not as we do” social/political narcissism has become so acceptable, the media has adopted a codependency which exacerbates the problem. When John King was understandably defensive at Gingrich’s shift of blame and attempted to justify his question by saying it was receiving large media attention, he got a hostile finger pointing response that accused him of deflecting his responsibility by bringing it up — the very behavior Gingrich had just exhibited to thunderous applause. A subsequent polling of the white conservative men on the podium was characterized by deflection, dismissal and general agreement that the question was asked only to divert attention from topics of national interest.
The whole exchange, including the other candidate’s comments, took only five minutes, but spoke volumes about the ways in which narcissism functions within the ranks of white privileged men. These smart narcissists operate in a sphere of influence which grants them enormous power and presents few obstacles. It’s hard to keep up with or see through them. Especially when they are respected, even lauded for their talent, expertise, sparkling personalities, money and power. The idea that men cloaked in leadership and success are so disempowering is preposterous. So people reject it.
Although there are certainly narcissistic women (Ann Coulter springs to mind), they are statistically fewer in number and have far less power, money or authority than their male counterparts. Snarky, manipulative, unempathetic women are simply much less apt to accrue or keep power in our culture. Far fewer make headlines by becoming sociopathic, violent or homicidal.
Watching the 2012 debate, I was struck by its similarity to countless conversations I had with my husband over the years, not in terms of content, but tactics. I felt an instant kinship with Marianne Gingrich. Even more when her ex husband used his own daughters (from a previous marriage) to discredit and dismiss her by implying they had knowledge of what was assuredly a private conversation. Co-opting children into supporting the narcissist’s point of view is another textbook tactic which adds credibility to their concocted truth.
It probably took a long time for Ms. G to work through the bewilderment, shame and anger she experienced when it became obvious she spent 18 years supporting and defending the man she loved, only to be humiliated by his open affair and unceremoniously dumped the moment she became ill with MS, much the same way he dumped his first wife immediately following a double mastectomy. It took a lot of courage to come forward. To have her truth ridiculed and treated as if it was just another story from a scorned woman was an appalling act of bigotry, especially coming from a group that extolls tradition and the sanctity of marriage.
But that’s the way it is with narcissists. Others are always held to standards they do not have to embrace themselves. The disparity between what they ascribe to and what they actually do just isn’t a problem for them and anyone who points it out is guilty of wanting revenge or lacking compassion for those who make mistakes. By constantly shifting the focus, they avoid taking responsibility, delivering all those pesky apologies or ever having to make amends. When actually caught, they just shrug and say they’re sorry, or claim God’s forgiveness.
Unfortunately, most psychologists agree that, like pedophiles, narcissists do not change. They can’t seem to help themselves. It’s like they’re missing the chip which allows them to see other perspectives. It’s why they are completely lacking in empathy, a skill which is grounded in perspective-taking, the ability to see things from another’s point of view and be present without judgment.
Because narcissists don’t feel any internal connection with their feelings or possess the ability to take on any other perspective, they often react to distress in others with indifference or outright rejection. The best they can do is imitate what they’ve seen others say or do in a mechanical way. They are smart enough to say the appropriate thing, but there’s nothing behind it. It’s just an act they have perfected and customized for whomever they are addressing. The closer the relationship, the more experience they have at feigning a believable response — either something the other person wants to hear, or something so vile it will shut them up.
In intimate relationships, this often translates to alternatively stonewalling or direct attacks. My husband used manufactured caring, dismissal and shaming with amazing skill. He was a master at changing up his responses to my fears, situations and problems in ways that left me confused and often blaming myself, either for what happened or my reaction to it. He often brilliantly capitalized on my desire to be honest about my shortcomings by beginning with the words, “What you fail to realize is…” and finishing with some damming assignation of intention or nightmarish character flaw.
My training through verbal and psychological abuse was systematic, gradual and insidious. During the first year of my marriage, I was told that “women only cry to manipulate men”. Two bouts of serious postpartum depression were met with commands to “get my shit together” and “stop being so overly sensitive”. Complaints of any kind were routinely dismissed as “whining” or the desire to be a martyr “just like my mother”. I was judged inappropriate in his family, social and business situations because I liked to talk about religion, politics and social change, which were unacceptable topics.
It took me over 10 years to begin asking myself if this behavior was just the by-product of a dysfunctional family or begin to see that the judgments which began with, “you think, you want, you are” were outrageous disempowering projections. I just couldn’t conceive that someone who genuinely loved and cared about me would be so intentionally manipulative. I had never experienced or seen that kind of behavior. The desire was too cognitively dissonant to make any sense. As a result, whenever criticized, I dutifully chastised myself for everything from misperception to lack of awareness, insensitivity to subconscious malice.
I also loved my husband, made a commitment, had two kids and really wanted to create a strong family like the one in which I was raised. My own had given me lots of unconditional love and creative freedom. I felt safe and nurtured, if not always understood, and I wanted to honor that by sharing it with my husband and our children. I remember thinking, “How can I teach this man about unconditional love and acceptance, if I don’t stay and continue to love and accept him?”
Coming from a long line of teachers, I clearly understood that one cannot really teach or “change” another. All anyone can do is try to set up the circumstances whereby a person can choose to transform. Because I could see how emotionally bankrupt his family was and how his father’s bullying had influenced him, I felt sorry for my angry child of a husband. I resolved to create an environment that I believed would motivate him to embrace a new way of being.
Though I loved and accepted him with all my heart for as long as I could, I mistook his periods of professional safety as emotional progress, his hyper-sexuality as desire for intimacy and his crafted lies for honesty. It never occurred to me that his persona was just an elegantly crafted facade, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing. Such notions would call too much into question. I had no idea how much until I reached the event horizon.
When everything broke down, I saw my husband for what he was: A high class bully who could be incredibly fun and sadistically cruel. An abandoned little boy who was desperately afraid and pathetically self indulgent. A tortured soul with no insight. A father who’s son was more of a man.
I spent everything I had on a handsome empty suit, the most dangerous kind — a dressed down version of The Donalds, Draper and Trump. All the insanity with a lot less production value. Beware.