manipulation

Are You in an Emotionally Abusive Relationship? Tips to Help You Understand What Implicit Contract you May Have Signed.

“You’re so vain, you probably think this song is about you”- Carly Simon

 

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Narcissistic abuse has become a hot talking point these days.


 If you follow social media, particularly Facebook, you may find many articles about this such as “ How to spot a narcissist” , “gas lighting” ( a manipulative technique where someone tries to tell you that you are crazy and are imagining their abuse rather than take any responsibility for it) and even “10 signs that your partner is a psychopath”.  While these essays do have some meat to them and offer sound advice on self care, trusting your instincts and maintaining no contact once you end the relationship, they don’t get to the heart of the matter, which is why people get ensnarled in these relationships in the first place.

“Karen” had been in therapy with me for two years. Her husband “Jack” who was once the love of her life, had for many years now, been showing her his darker side. He often neglected her, raged at her when he was upset and seldom showed any genuine interest in Karen’s wants and needs. When she would withdraw her attention from him and begin to contemplate leaving the relationship, he would then change his tune and start following through on the many promises he made to her. This in turn, offered her some intermittent moments of hope and happiness and she would re-engage with him. Yet once she did, little by little he would switch back to his old behaviors. After a while, she would then start to withdraw again and he would then start to pursue her again.  He offered her just enough of what she needed to get her hooked into riding the rollercoaster of his moods and maltreatment, yet again.  This was their relational contract.  

The contract didn’t start out that way though and generally speaking, in this kind of relationship, they never do.  Karen told me that she and Jack were once very much in love. “We had a chemistry like no other” and “he always felt like my soulmate” she would say, which I am sure is all true. This kind of chemistry however, allowed for the classic “bait and switch” where overtime, and unbeknownst to her, she came to implicitly agree to be in a connection with him that ultimately, was all about him.  Never did she imagine herself to be sounding board for his dreams and disappointments and a psychic punching bag for his rage.  Always trying to fix him or "therapize" him, she lived with chronic knots in her stomach.  Obsessed with how to get things back to the way they used to be, she came to therapy after her friends and family expressed concerns on how her self confidence and joie de vivre seemed lost.  She agreed that it was.

So how did this implicit contract get signed?

Karen grew up in a disorganized household.  Her father, who adored her, traveled for work so he wasn’t around much of the time and her mother, who was a trauma survivor herself, would often rage at Karen when she was a little girl. Karen shared with me her memory of her mother screaming at her for some unknown reason as she didn’t remember doing anything “wrong”.  Her mother’s affect was so intense that Karen remembered wanting to faint in an attempt to get her to stop her and to win back her mother’s love.  “I just wanted her to hold me” she said as she wept silent tears.

As a four year old, Karen did not know how to stand up for herself or even run away. Those are not skills that any small child has. Instead, she developed a belief that it was her job to take care of her mother’s emotional needs. By doing this job which was necessary for her own sense of survival, she denied her own feelings and burdens of fright, anger, loneliness and abandonment that arose during and after one of her mother’s tirades. When she was older and did try to protect herself, her actions were then met with more rage and more neglect.  In many ways, her relational wings were clipped.

So how did this type of trauma manifest in Karen’s intrapsychic system? First, she developed both a panic and fainting disorder as her fight/ flight response lived in constant overdrive for many years.  Second, she found herself in a string of bad relationships, until she met her husband, so she thought.

A couple of days before a session I had with Karen, I learned that a former client I treated for many years when working at a methadone clinic, had overdosed and died. He too grew up in an extremely disorganized household. He was from Medford, Ma or as many homegrown “bean towners” prefer to say: “Medfa”.  A talented artist who dropped out of school because of drugs, he knew how to stand his ground and he never back down from a fight, even when he probably should have.  Unlike karen, who didn’t know what to say when her husband mistreated her,  my former client had just the perfect vernacular of hysterically funny and vulgar push back lines for when someone mistreated him.

He was on my mind during a session with Karen which ended up being a turning point in the therapy. She was trying to find a way to stand up for herself in anticipation of her husband’s next outburst.  I began to tune out as she practiced and played with polite niceties such as “when you do that, I feel….(blah blah blah)”.  Then suddenly, I got hijacked by intense countertransference and interrupted her. I said, just as my former client would have, “No, the next time he acts out, you tell him to go choke on a big fat D**k!”

Silence filled the room.  

Then a spontaneous eruption of laughter between the two of us took up the space and remained there for the rest of the session.

My former client would have been very proud. Karen took his lead and said something to that nature to her husband a few day later when he started up again.  It worked.  Stunned by both her words and assertiveness, he apologized and told her that she was right, he did need to go back to therapy.

Whether or not Karen’s husband can earnestly engage in treatment and learn to become more relational remains to be seen. His declaration could be yet another bait and switch move where he offers her just enough of something that appeases her so that she will get back on the rollercoaster with him, because he can’t tolerate losing her. In narcissistic alliances however, the loss has little to do with the loss of the actual person. It’s more about the loss of an object that supplies the other with a drug like fix.  If a person does leave the alliance, the other may quickly find another empathic partner who will take the previous one’s place.

These alliances are not always so black and white though.  There often can be a continuum of relationality that some people have.  He or she may both genuinely care for the other and see them as an object at the same time.  This is when it gets really confusing. Depending upon where the person is on the narcissistic continuum will have much to do with whether or not this relational dynamic can change. That is why therapy is a must to survive something of this nature.

If Karen and Jack do end up entering couples counseling, which they will need to should they want to remain in the relationship, they may be in constant contract negotiations for a long time.

Yet there’s a creative genius behind Karen’s relational patterns. The four year old parts of her (frightened, angry, lonely and abandoned)  that got pushed aside when dealing with her mother’s abuse for years kept desperately trying to find ways to have their story seen and heard by none other than Karen.  One of their tactics was to find just the perfect partner to contract with who will help them re enact their story.  They are the parts of her and of you for that matter if you can relate to Karen’s story, who signed the invisible implicit contract in the first place.

The good news is, once you see what these parts are up to, you can then take a front row seat to their show, just as Karen did.  With a little curiosity and a lot of compassion that allows these injured parts to grieve and heal in their own time and space, you will be able to rip up that contract and get off the rollercoaster for good.  And if you start to waffle when your partner makes desperate attempts to lure you back in, try imagining yourself saying the crass words of my former client: “Go suck on a big fat d**k”. Allow that energy to fill your body with courage. Next take a long slow deep breath, find some stillness and pause. Then, calmly look your partner in the eye and say these two words.

Good bye.

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Disfunction Wrapped in a Sentimental Bow: How to Recognize the Many Faces of Manipulation.

“Don’t fear the reaper.  You’ll be able to fly"-Blue Oyster Cult

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There’s a story that has been circulating on Facebook for a few years now.  The headline reads “He told her he was leaving and  she asked him for just one thing.”  The story goes on to say something like (and this is paraphrased) “ Mary and John have been married for 20 years.  They have a 15 year old son. John fell in love with another woman, named Janet and asked Mary for a divorce.”  Mary said, “Ok I will grant  you that wish provided you do one thing for me.  For the next thirty days, I would like you to carry me down the stairs and through the door like you did when we were first married.”  John agreed.

 The first few days of this exercise felt awkward to him.  He began to notice that she had lost some weight and seemed frail.  By the fourth week, the feelings of love he once had for his wife came back to him and he ran over  to see Janet to tell her that he did still love his wife and no longer wanted a divorce.  He then ran back home to his wife Mary, only to find her dead in their bed.  Unbeknownst to him, Mary was dying of cancer  The author of the story claims that Mary kept her terminal illness  a secret  to both protect her family from the pain of knowing she was dying and her son from the scar of a divorce.

 After Mary dies, John weeps with regret and everyone else weeps for her loss.”

 There’s a lot that can be said about this story.  

It is a bit of a tear jerker upon first read. Yet, let’s try to ask and answer the following question before we break out the kleenex. Is the author of this story trying to recapture the fairytale Mary once had with her husband John 20 some odd years ago or expressing a sentimentally gift wrapped revenge fantasy because John chose to leave?   For arguments sake and good dialectics, let’s say it’s both and start with the fairytale.

 Fairytales and myths predominate our culture and with good reason. They are both poignant and fun.   Little Red Riding Hood, Cinderella, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and Santa Clause, fill our imaginations with adventure, hope, fear, love and in some cases, can offer us guidance on how to live our lives.  The story of Santa Claus may be perhaps one of the best fables for couples who want to understand the secret for a successful relationships .

 Why might that be, you ask?

Parents who are attuned to their children’s needs, delight in surprising them with gifts.  Couples who are attuned with each other delight in doing the same.  And though not everyone celebrates Christmas, the theme is universal. Healthy happy couples choose to make the fairy tale real once the honeymoon phase ends. When there are mis attunements between them, they see that as an opportunity to get curious and turn the inevitable empathic failures into a deeper connection. This is how they make Santa real, time and time again.  This is how they create and recreate the magic, even when the demands of work, family and life take over.  Though there’s never a 100% guarantee that making it and keeping it real will last till death do us part, it is the best strategy for getting their, if that’s what both parties want and continue to want.

 

What I most wonder about in the story of Mary and John is their capacity to reinvent themselves after the fairy tale ended?

Were they able to walk down the stairs hand in hand and through the door together as equals and carry each other at different times when needed?  The author doesn’t say. As a psychotherapist, I am going to venture out and say, probably not and they are also not alone in that matter. What we do know from the story is that he found someone else and she is dying and doesn’t tell him.  We also know that she wants to relive some elements of the fairytale with him before she passes.  Who could blame her? Yet the specific tactics the author endows Mary with to help her get what she wants disempowers her. I can’t help but wonder if those same tactics took place in the marriage, reflecting part of the reason their marriage fell apart?

The first tactic is guilt.  

Guilt is a powerful motivator, one that can never be underestimated.  She guilts John into carrying her down the stairs each day because he’s leaving her. He did love her once and probably feels bad for hurting her by asking her for a divorce.

 

The second tactic is manipulation via secrecy.  

Perhaps there was something noble about keeping her illness a secret to  protect her family from the pain of her impending death and her son from the scar of a divorce.   On the flip side, this choice was really rather cruel. Most families would want to know this  so they could prepare for the loss. It is also arguable that Mary had darker motives, choosing to seduce John through guilt and manipulation only to then abandon him with her death.  The proverb “revenge is dish best served cold” might be applicable here. 

Wouldn’t it have been nice if the author endowed both Mary and John with courage?

What if we changed the ending to  have Mary say the following when John tells her he wants to leave? “John, I know we lost our way, and I don’t really know why.  I do know that we are both responsible for it and that we never talked about our growing distance.  I regret that and I hope you do too.  I am dying. What I would really like from you is to be here for me during my final days. Do you think you could do that for me?”

 Feel the difference?

 This would allow them to end their marriage with love. And while I can appreciate that many would like to change the story entirely to have Mary and John stay together and work things out, the author did not write that story.

Endings are sad.  But they are not always bad.  

The longing and ache one feels in their soul to live an authentic life is just as powerful a motivator as guilt, though guilt can actually feel more authentic to some. In my clinical practice, I often see people who are polarized between the two. “Should I stay or should I go?”,  becomes the focus in therapy until this polarization dissolves. If one has the bravery ,will and inner hope to get to the heart of the matter, then it will.

 

There’s a lyric from the Semisonic song “Closing time” that says: “every new beginning starts from some other beginning’s end.  Yet I prefer the Blue Oyster Cult to close out this story to honor both the phenomena of endings and the gift of disillusionment.

 

Don’t fear the reaper. You’ll be able to fly.


 

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