I have a friend who greatly dislikes the use of the word ‘interesting’. He sees it as loaded but empty; it is used when people mean all manner of other things much more consequential that they cannot quite bring themselves to share, or are unable to express. I must say I agree with him and in saying so: today I had an interesting day.
This morning I wordlessly gave the right of way at a difficult driving spot to my ex-husband. It is a place I drive past daily. A place where each day I decide based on traffic and the time whether I will allow passage of the other vehicle (it is a spot where they do not have right of way and in heavy traffic will never move without polite drivers making way) to go before me. Today my ex was the driver and he knew damn well that I was the other driver and that I was giving him right of way. He took this opportunity to pause willfully and smile inanely. These were not my thoughts at the time but words I put in place now, after the fact. At the time I was thinking that it is about time that in this small town that he take a gesture of polite willingness as a ‘gesture of polite willingness’ nothing more nothing less; nada más nada menos. I am thinking ‘surely by now we can co-exist in this town without malice or any deep meaning hidden in random interactions’. He milked it. He paused too long; I had to indicate twice for him to take the opportunity, he smiled ruefully and gave me that look I recognize as ‘wistful love’. How sweet. Eventually he drove on and allowed me, and the rest of the traffic, to continue driving.
My day progressed. At lunchtime when I returned to work I see his vehicle is parked very close to my office. Time for the ‘yuck’ moment, the sinking feeling, the arrival of anxiety. This man has stalked me, bullied me, controlled me, manipulated me, was seriously addicted to pornography, was abusive and only ever loved his own reflection in me. I felt stupid for having thought briefly for a moment this morning that it was okay to feel good about him, okay to remember that I loved him once. He can’t help himself. Anytime we incidentally see one another here he is at my work place lurking, leaving things behind that get handed into me, as he well knows they do, and I have to decide what to do about it. Again and again I go through the agony of weighing up what ‘normal’ people do in these situations. If I engage the usual process is the unfolding of email interaction that is laced with the taint of all the aforementioned traits and a ‘backslide’ for me into deep anxiety. Unfortunately clinical narcissists do not come with user manuals.
Today however, I did not engage. I did not allow him to have any kind of power over me. I acknowledged that he was nearby and vocalized that this was reasonable. I did not allow his proximity to terrify me. I forgot all about it until I drove home. I didn’t feel the need to inform my trusted colleagues that there was a bogey on site. If there is one thing I have learned in the past few years it is that it is up to me how I respond to his presence. I am no longer in any danger, he has no power over me, and he never will again. I have learnt what the correct salutation towards a clinical narcissist is: do not engage. Regardless of that deep hook that is still somehow there in your soul do not engage, do not give a millimeter, or yard, or ounce, or quarter, or moment, or glimpse EVER. You must be a stone wall regardless of what you feel inside. Because any slip and that hook is well and truly back in.
I have been thinking on what I have learned from my ten year relationship with a clinical narcissist lately simply because I have two beautiful women whom I love dearly in my life that have both found themselves dealing with what they both recognise as a lesser version of this type of personality. They are both very aware, to the extent they can be, of what I went through and are asking for my help. I tried very hard to make my marriage work. I did everything I could. I left three times but was committed, until I could no longer cope, to making it work. I have talked briefly recently about how bad it got, I won’t go there again in this post. Now because of these beautiful women who have to have contact, through shared custody of children, with the men they are no longer with I feel a strong desire to be able to articulate what makes it safe. It is not going to be easy but I believe it will also help me. So I will attempt to advise and write a beginners guide to boundaries and safe interaction with the clinical narcissist, the pathological liar, and the emotional manipulator who will have you second-guessing the colour of your own hair and the spelling of your own name. I pray I will find some gold for these lovely women because for me, in my particular predicament, the only safe way is, I repeat: do not engage.
words and image by errant satiety