This is Part Two of a three part article series on Coparenting with a Narcissist. Links to Parts 1 and 3 are available at the bottom of this article.
Early in the marriage I really did believe in the safety and sanctity of my family. I was devoted to homeschooling, attachment parenting, tandem nursing, and organic gardening. My favorite place to be was at home on the land with the children.
My husband and I spent a lot more time together than most of the other couples we knew because were both musicians and made our own schedule. We would fight occasionally and the discord was always terribly painful for me. But once the tension ended (usually after I apologized for my outburst of 'senseless' emotions and made a nice lunch) things would go back to normal and I'd forget and forgive. I believed my husband was a warm and loving man who cared about me very much. He wrote songs about his devotion to me and the children, and I sang back-up harmonies for all to hear.
As time went on, though, I began to notice that his was a fair-weather love that shone upon me only when I acted in ways that pleased him. When, for example, I'd cry in the middle of the night in overwhelm and hold my arms out to him for a hug, he would go upstairs, lock the bedroom door from the inside, and turn on music as loudly as he could.
Once, when I was 7 months pregnant with our first child together, we went to a folk music festival in West Virginia. I knew that things would be different once the baby came so I wanted to take advantage of some time alone as a couple. What could be more perfect than a weekend camping trip in the mountains with concerts, group jams, and funky festival vendors? My husband seemed to agree whole-heartedly when we discussed the trip before we left home.
Instead of having a wonderful time together, he ended up leaving me quite alone for hours on end, even overnight. I remember how I laid awake until the sun rose, worrying about his safety but mostly just waiting and feeling hurt that that he'd been gone so long. After all, we were supposed to be on this trip together! I was in my third trimester of pregnancy and had opted to nap when he wanted to traipse about the rugged mountain landscape in search of music and moonshine. He had promised he'd be gone for "two hours tops" and then he'd come back to the tent to check on me.
When morning began to break and there was enough light to see, I heard the sound of his guitar a short distance away. I followed the sound and when I finally saw my husband, watching in hurt confusion while he played a song with a young woman with a fiddle. They were inches from each other's faces, noses nearly touching, both staring intensely into one another's eyes. I could tell that he was drunk, and that he very attracted to the young woman.
I was the one who felt ashamed when I saw him behaving that way because I thought that if I were better; more beautiful, more talented, more charming, a better housekeeper, etc. he would love me. His gas-lighting and blaming had taken its toll on my self esteem and instead of being shocked at his disrespect and disregard, I was critical of myself for not keeping his interest.
Instances like the ones above were hard to forget and as time passed the painful memories began to build. I became depressed. I wanted to talk about my feelings with my husband, but when I'd try he'd just turn cold and rejecting. I tried to express my fears that he didn't really love me, but he'd make me feel worse if I dared to 'attack' him, and would criticize my character, call my sense of reality into question, and deny he'd ever said or done anything to make me doubt his love. At best he'd roll his eyes at me and say "Of course I love you. I've told you that I love you."
The sadder I felt, the less vibrant and energetic I became. I started to go out less because I just didn't feel like being around people. This didn't bother my husband until I started refusing to go to band rehearsals or paying concerts where my presence was integral for impressing others or making money. He'd become enraged if I skipped work, yet I was often so unhappy that I couldn't compose myself and I felt too humiliated to be social, even if I was growing increasingly lonely.
We worked together, but my husband considered himself to be the sole breadwinner and would remind me of it regularly. I gave him all of my earnings (we earned roughly the same amount of money) and he'd put it all into a bank account maintained in his name only. I'd have to ask permission to use my own income, yet he would often chastise me for demonstrating less gratitude than he felt he deserved for providing for me. I also began to notice that he was repeatedly dishonest with close friends and family members when it suited him. I would call him out on logical inconsistencies and seeming 'mistakes' but he'd wax evasive or I'd get the emotional smack down for my trouble!
I was married to a narcissist but I didn’t know it. I didn't actually know anything about personality disorders. I just thought hey--we all have flaws and everyone makes mistakes. We stick together as a family and we work it out. I really did believe in the safety of our marriage. Divorcing my husband and breaking up the family seemed to be a nightmarish impossibility.
My perception, my dream, was shattered when I found myself sitting in a marriage counseling session with my husband. He was gazing lovingly into my eyes, telling me how much he missed the real me and how worried he was about my wellbeing. I sat in the counselors’ office and speechlessly watched my husband’s flawless rendering of ‘the caring spouse’. Every inflection, every word was perfect. Believable. I wanted to believe him!
I was morbidly fascinated by the apparent sincerity of my husband's facial expressions. I silently let the scene roll by and he talked on. I listened to him answering when the counselors took turns asking him gentle questions and while I observed, dumbstruck, I was simultaneously replaying the memory of the day before.
My husband had informed me that he was going to a concert with an admiring guitar student of his to whom he’d recently become very attached. The concert was a popular college scene that promised plenty of drugs and alcohol—along with impressionable young women in short dresses. The main act was a man who my husband used to perform with, so he’d be a kind of V.I.P. with a free pass to go backstage. He’d probably also get invited to sit in on stage and play for hundreds of cheering fans. It was going to be a huge party and he’d be the guest of honor—bait irresistible to a narcissist.
When my husband informed me of his impromptu plan to leave early and spend the evening out, I told him that I wanted him to stay home to help me with the children—we had three. I'd been near crying as I asked him to stay home with us, basically begging and handing him our squiggling baby. I hadn’t been able to care for myself properly in days and I felt desperate for any relief. I needed time to take a bath! I had a mastitis and a fever—and my long hair was in rats. Mostly, though, I wanted my husband’s affection and support. Lately things had been feeling horrible at home.
My husband had taken to leaving me with the children whenever I’d behave in a manner he found unbecoming, and each time he left me behind in that punishing way it felt like abandonment. It was just horrible to think of him going off to party all night when I was so miserable! My basic needs were falling to the wayside, yet I felt truly ashamed asking for help. It's just that I was always so busy with the children and I had lately grown less effective because of depression. I needed HELP! Practical, household
help and emotional support.
Furthermore, I knew I was allowing my unbecoming feelings to show because I just couldn’t hold up a façade of any kind in that moment—and I was filled with dread in anticipation of another punishing abandonment. I felt like I just couldn’t take any more hurt, and I was despairingly exhausted in every way. I begged him not to go and broke down, wide-open crying.
But instead of coming through for me—or even entertaining a compromise—he chastised me with a look of undisguised disgust on his face. My husband admonished me with cold superiority, telling me that I was unreasonably jealous when it came to his having a healthy social life. He said that I was just too controlling, too demanding, and that I shouldn’t be so needy. It wasn’t healthy, it wasn’t normal, and he couldn’t continue to play into the unhealthy situation I was creating by staying home from the concert and giving in to me. In fact, he had to go to the concert that very night to teach me an overdue lesson in self-sufficiency…for my own good.
He then placed our baby on the paper-strewn surface of his writing desk in order to stop me from waylaying him at the front door where the car keys hung on a hook. Our little one had only just learned to sit up, so putting him on the desk and walking away from him was extremely dangerous because he could topple over any second and fall to the hardwood floor. As my husband predicted, I dove for the baby while he made an easy getaway, slamming the front door closed behind him and tearing down the driveway in into the night. He had his cell phone but he declined my calls. I guess that was part of the lesson too.
I was left crying and devastated. I felt so lonely and rejected; totally ashamed of my ratty appearance, humiliated by my emotional desperation. Hadn’t my mother taught me how to be a strong, independent woman? What the hell had I become? Wasn’t I supposed to be happy and healthy and glowing with new motherhood? Didn’t people often approach me to tell me how amazing our family was, how inspiring we were? Why didn’t I measure up the way I used to, feel as confident as I did before? Why was I so needy? What was WRONG with me?! It was no wonder my husband couldn’t stand the sight of me! I was hideous! I still carried much of the baby weight from my last pregnancy, and we all know how we’ve been taught to feel about THAT! I was deeply ashamed. I waited sleeplessly in the dark for him to come home, empty terror gnawing at my stomach, rushing to the window whenever I thought I heard the car, only to be disappointed time and time again.
So sitting in a counseling session the very next day, watching his dewy-eyed monologue about how much he cared about me, listening to him beg me to please let down my guard and allow him to help me get well again, caused a long-hidden barrier in me to shatter all of an instant. I realized with a rush of horror that there was something VERY wrong with my husband’s duplicity, that it was a weird performance for the counselor’s benefit, and that he was lying. He was lying right in my face knowing that I’d been begging him for help and that he had refused me only last night! In fact, he was RARELY to be counted on for practical help and had even told me that whenever I asked him to do something, it made him want to do the opposite because I was too demanding! I realized suddenly that I was NOT 'too demanding', I was drowning and lonely, in dire need of affection, and he was consistently rejecting my pleas for help! My idea of who he was cracked, and I couldn’t process the violent flood of realization calmly. I freaked out.
The dam broke and I jumped to my feet and wailed, “He is NOT who you think he is!” as I fled, hyperventilating, from the room. I was having one of my very first panic attacks! What I didn’t realize at the time was that my husband had been secretly corresponding by email with the counselors in an effort to convince them that I suffered from Borderline Personality Disorder. He was planning to divorce me and needed the counselors’ help to create a paper trail that justified his leaving a devoted wife and very young children in dire financial straits. I mean, who could blame him for getting away from a crazy woman? So he needed me to be crazy, and there were definitely times when I felt pretty crazy! I had almost believed I was!
My seemingly inappropriate response to my husband’s words of concern helped to convince the counselors of his having accurately diagnosed me, and after a few minutes of babbling in a fit of breathless blind panic, they decided to take me immediately to a crisis intervention center. They insisted that I either go with them, or they’d have the police escort me forcibly. I believe they gave me the ultimatum out of real concern for my safety because my husband had told them that I was suicidal.
As I walked to their car, I worried about my children. What would they think? Where would they think I had gone and how would I get breastmilk to my baby? I didn’t know how long I was going to be away from them—I was too shocked to think clearly. I looked up at my husband with one last spark of hope. Surely he would ask to come with me…or at least hug me and kiss me goodbye—promise to bring me clothes—to deliver expressed milk to the little one every day. Surely he loved me! But there he stood behind the pastors and out of their line of vision…texting and smiling. Horror clenched my heart like a dry ice knife. This was what he wanted…
Let’s bring this article back to the here and now. Extricating myself from the toxic emotional entanglement and trying to effectively co-parent with my ex-husband has been challenging. Things have started making sense in a way that they NEVER could have done if I hadn't learned more about the dynamics of narcissistic abuse. When I first stumbled upon information about narcissistic personality disorder, it was such a relief! I hope to help others like me by sharing my story.
Please read on to Part III of Coparenting with a Narcissist (linked below) where you'll find some real-life examples and coping strategies that I’ve learned while extricating myself from the abusive dynamic with the father of my sons.