When He Was Nice, I Feared Him the Most
The cat and mouse game of a narcissist
Definition of play (a game of) cat and mouse:
to engage in behavior that is like the way a cat chases a mouse or plays with a mouse before killing it — used especially to describe behavior in which someone says or does different things to deceive or control other people.
To say my (now ex) husband was charming is an understatement.
He was smooth. Seductive. When he spoke, one couldn’t help but be drawn to his allure, especially when he turned the volume on high.
When we first met, I became a vulnerable moth drawn to his fire.
Like a future addict taking their first hit of the drug that would later almost kill them.
Lured in by the belief I’d finally found “The One”, becoming quickly attached and bonded by what I thought was true love (but was instead love-bombing, the hallmark of narcissists), once I was hooked there was no getting unhooked.
As the years passed, and his constant adoration and tenderness diminished, as did his sweetness, my overwhelming love for him turned into an overwhelming fear of losing that love.
It was as if he’d promised me a feast in the beginning of our relationship, but over time offered me less and less to the point where I became ecstatic whenever he threw a few scraps my way. Starved for what he used to offer in abundance, I spent each day in desperation, longing for his attention, for him to reach out and touch me, to see me like he used to.
I woke each morning hoping he’d greet me with his smiling face, the way he looked at me like no one else existed. Then I went to bed each night praying the next day would be better, that the man I fell in love with would reappear.
He loves me. He loves me not.
Our marriage had turned into a game where I picked the petals off flowers, with a different outcome every time I played.
His “niceness” flowed less and ebbed more. His attention came in surges. No more eruptions of love and need, no more explosions. Just intermittent bursts, like flare-ups, which began to feel more and more like small rewards.
Rewards that were meagerly scattered among his punishments, which grew in abundance as the years passed.
Intermittent reinforcement is a conditioning schedule in which a reward or punishment (reinforcement) is given sporadically for the desired behavior.
His punishments weren’t loud or obvious. They were quiet. Like the silent treatment that lasted for days until I broke down and begged him to talk to me.
His punishments were strategic. As was his cruelty.
Depending on the day, sometimes the hour, there was the ever so subtle shift of his mood. A change in his eyes. A smirk upon his lips.
He became a lion, and I the scared mouse who had entered its den.
Then without warning, his charm returned.
He loved me again. He needed me. We laughed and made love and I exhaled the breath I’d been holding. I could relax, loosen up, soften. My muscles no longer tense from tiptoeing, my voice no longer strained from whispering, I let go.
Until the eye of the hurricane passed, and the storms whipped up again.
And I went back to walking through life dazed and confused, always on guard and ready for what would come next. Even though I never knew what would come next.
What would he say this time? What would he do? Was he happy? Did I make him angry?
I hung by his thread. The ground beneath me was unstable, the present moment always fluctuating. The future unforeseeable.
It was then, after years of living in a state of internal chaos, I noticed a pattern.
He was charming, loving, attentive, and nice…
When he wanted something.
I felt him coming before I saw him, creeping up behind me like a wolf stalking its prey. Then it was his tone of voice that made my body freeze, my breath catch.
The lion is most handsome when looking for food. — Rumi
His eyes were wide open. He smiled. And leaned into me.
How are you? he’d ask.
He’d inquire about my day, speak about something relevant that was going on in my life. If I was cooking, he’d say, Wow that smells really good. He’d give me a compliment or soft caress or warm hug, lingering for a moment and waiting for me to relax. I love you, he’d whisper.
A minute would pass. Then,
So, babe. I’ve been thinking…
He was thinking about setting up a home gym in his office (I want to start taking better care of myself for you), or buying another property to flip (I want to make more money for you), or bleaching his teeth and getting hair plugs (I want to look better for you), or learning another language such as Russian (I want to be able to communicate with the immigrant girls staying in one of our rentals since you’ve made me a better man).
It was all for me, he said in a voice so buttery that used to make me melt.
And later only made me scared.
Because I knew what was coming if I didn’t agree, or if I expressed a differing opinion, or if I asked follow-up questions (like just who were these girls, anyway?).
I knew if I didn’t tell him exactly what he wanted to hear, or do exactly what he wanted me to do, the switch would come.
His eyes darkened. He straightened his posture, put his shoulders back. His voice changed, deepened.
Then, he pounced.
He criticized me; said I didn’t love him. You’re never happy for me, he accused. You always have to argue. Why are you so difficult? he’d ask while clenching his teeth.
Don’t you know how lucky you are to have me?
No other man would put up with you.
I don’t know why you can’t just be on my side for once.
Then the inevitable…
You can’t tell me what to do (I didn’t). I’ll do what I want.
He’d storm off. And I prepared for the silent treatment that would follow. The punishment for not obeying, for asking questions, for being suspicious, for expressing myself.
For not balancing the balls on my nose he threw my way, for not asking How high? when he told me to jump.
For seeing him for who he really was.
And there was nothing scarier than that.
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