#2 Things I shouldn’t have tolerated, in no particular order
You’ve thought about the perfect gift for weeks, you’re a pro at looking after him now, after all it has been a long relationship, so you know exactly what he likes, dislikes, loves and enjoys. The fact that he’s a narcissist means that he’s also trained you to intuit his every need and desire almost before he feels them. He’s butchered and bullied you into fulfilling these needs in order to avoid the assault that comes otherwise. So you know what you’ve got him is the perfect gift. Perhaps you’ve overspent too, had to use credit or skimp on the food shop, but it will be worth it because he’ll be happy and there will be peace for a day.
There’s really no telling what sort of mood he’s going to wake up in on the day. Being on eggshells is so natural to you that you don’t even realise that’s what you’re doing – waiting with bated breath, watching the way he moves, looking for that telltale tightness in his jaw and the way he sets his shoulders. Maybe the mood starts out great, you let him lie in, make him a fancy birthday breakfast.
You warn the kids to be on their best behaviour. Don’t make him angry, not today, lets all do our best.
He is all smiles and sleepy warmth when he wakes. He rolls out of bed and leaves it unmade, leaves his clothes strewn across the bedroom floor but he thanks you for the food, so all is well.
You don’t see the subtle changes you were waiting for when he opens his gift, even though you are hyper aware. You hear it in his voice though, the strained fake pleased edge to it. No ‘thank you’ this time. The kids grow quickly bored after the presents are opened and scamper off, you watch his eyes dart after them, you know he’s resentful because he wasn’t finished being the centre of attention. You busy yourself with tidying, desperate to avoid the confrontation you sense is brewing. Perhaps if you keep in motion, keep him distracted then he won’t let his temper flower. You dare not ask him what’s wrong, that way leads to danger so you chat away in your sweetest, calmest, most loving tones about something else, anything else. Perhaps you can soothe away the broiling darkness brewing behind his eyes. Perhaps this time it won’t escalate?
You don’t ask, but he tells you anyway. “It just doesn’t feel special anymore, does it? People don’t make the effort, my birthdays are just rubbish. Then the kids ruin it when they misbehave. It’s just not what I expected.”
People. His pseudonym for you. People don’t make the effort anymore. People try to piss him off all the time. People always making him out to be the bad guy. People deliberately ruining his life and making him miserable. You are people. People is you. When he uses that word, you know you’re in danger.
He’s ungrateful and rude, stropping and selfish. All the effort it took you, all the means that you stretched lay sharp like thorns but only in your own mind. These things don’t bother him at all.
Perhaps you voice that resentment, calmly, but he blows up anyway because he can’t take criticism of any kind. He hurls several insults your way and storms off to the bedroom like a spoiled brat leaving you with the mess and the guilt and the urgency of time because you know his family are going to visit and they can’t find you both at odds and with him stropping in the bedroom on his birthday.
Perhaps you don’t voice the resentment, instead you stuff it down with the rest of your feelings to avoid the confrontation, to stop him blowing up and to save your own delicate ego from the crushing blow of his insults. In this instance you’ve already learned that your feelings aren’t valid. Not ever.
The rest of the day is more of the same. You play happy families for guests but the tension is ever present, simmering just below the surface, perhaps it’s all in your head because he’s as calm as anything, relaxed and reclined. You run around like a skittering mouse serving endless drinks and food and clearing up, managing the kids encouraging them to perform like monkeys one moment and then ferrying them quickly away the next when they threaten to cause another scene with their emotional existence.
That’s his birthday. His special occasions that you will always ‘ruin’ for him no matter how hard you work or what you buy or how you treat him. Nothing will ever be good enough. You will never be good enough. But you are trained to try harder each and every time, conditioned to try to please him, destined to always fail. And you will always be punished for it.
The narcissist can’t stand not being the centre of attention. Someone else’s special day automatically becomes a day to ruin just for having the sheer cheek of taking the spotlight.
Let’s start with him completely ‘forgetting’ it was your birthday. You talked about it just before falling asleep the previous night, had plans and are already on your way to the train station when you finally cave and tell him why you are pissed off. He’d been asking you all morning what was wrong, why you were in a mood. Honestly you were just on edge. He hadn’t wished you a happy birthday, hadn’t said a single thing about it while you went about the process of getting up and ready. No card, present. Nothing. After talking about it for days, weeks. So, you were on your way to the train station for your birthday day out and after yet more of his nagging about your mood you look at him and say, “what’s the date today?”
You can’t say that there is a dawning realisation on his face, it’s just blank. You wonder if he knew all along and it was just a game, another way to diminish your sense of importance in this relationship. You’ll never know. Anyway, he is quiet for a minute and you feel hot behind the eyes, burning spots in the tops of your cheeks and raw unadulterated anger pulsing through your wrists.
“Great, I bet you hate me now.” He says. Notice that this isn’t an apology or an oh-shit-my-bad response. This is a great narcissist tactic for reversing the situation, they quickly flip to being the victim of your emotion even though your response is perfectly valid. But suddenly you find yourself reassuring them, telling them that you do love and care for them, they just made a mistake, and the real problem is completely lost in the jumble while you provide them with excuses.
In this case a very minor discussion goes back and forth afterwards, you can’t convey your upset because you don’t do big emotional scenes out in public – you don’t do them indoors really either but you might have been more vocal if you’d been at home. The focus is now squarely on him needing reassurance that he isn’t the worst boyfriend in the world and your ragged feelings lay shredded in the wind, forgotten by him, stuffed down by you into the shit pit of his abuse.
So that’s one way the narc can spoil a birthday, the whole event simply being ‘forgotten’. Next, I want to tell you another story about being ignored.
You have a very sad reminder set on your iPhone calendar, at the end of March. You wanted to remind yourself that he didn’t get you anything for your birthday last year, with a stern note to yourself not to buy him anything this year. It’s your most pathetic reminder ever. Even more pathetic is that you ignore it and you make all the effort for his birthday again this year. He knew you were upset, you reason, you had expressed your disappointment at not even getting a card that year surely he wasn’t going to do that again? Worse still, if you did follow through and get him nothing this year then you would have to endure the fallout of that decision. He was disappointed enough when you made the effort, imagine the reaction if you do nothing? There might be fists through the walls again, broken furniture. Or worse.
So you ignore the angry little note you left yourself the year before and you do all that you can to make his birthday special and you are so certain that he’s going to do the same and make you feel special this year for a change.
What do we think happens next?
You have to nip out to buy your own birthday cake because the kids are excitedly expecting cake, but there is no cake. No gift. No card. No acknowledgment other than a chirpy happy birthday first thing in the morning, with that challenging twinkle in his eyes daring you to ask for a gift that doesn’t exist. You know you aren’t allowed to get angry or you might ruin his day. Ruining his day triggers his rage, you can’t do that. You struggle to express your disappointment for fear of triggering a blow up but you can’t hide the devastation. You feel small and pathetic; stupid for not listening to yourself, angry that he did this to you again, shameful – just because.
All of this, it seeps out no matter how rigid you smile. When he sees the smile slip, when he catches a whiff of disappointment he shrugs one shoulder and curls his lip, “you didn’t tell me what you wanted.” He says by way of explanation. You remember the year you told him exactly what you wanted, then he told you no he wouldn’t get that, he wanted to surprise you because that’s what birthdays are about and you ended up with a cheap card shop mug. You think about reminding him of that but his black beetle eyes are warning you. His shoulders are tight and forward, his jaw working beneath the skin. Your gaze darts down and you see his fingers curled ready for a fist. You say nothing.
Perhaps your birthday falls just before his payday, and it’s not until you say something that he tells you he had plans to get you something after that, but now he won’t because you’ve been a bitch trying to make him feel about it. How dare you be appropriately annoyed and disappointed with a person who only allows others to worship him.
It’s also possible he does his old bait and switch when you point out how upset you are, “now I’m the bad guy, the worst boyfriend ever, maybe I should just go kill myself, I’m such a waste of space,” and suddenly you’re reassuring him again. “You’re not a bad guy, you just made a mistake, you do nice things for me sometimes. You’re not the worst boyfriend, I love you . Don’t be dramatic, don’t kill yourself, you’re wonderful I’m so lucky to have you in my life.” Alternatively he might start throwing insults and sickening accusations at you, pointing out all the things you’ve done wrong lately or in the distant past. A lot of this never actually happened or could be a projection of some of the nasty things he’s done to you. In the confusion and the shouting and the bullying, your brain is scampering to keep up and desperate to protect you, so you don’t think to stop and say: hang on, what is this bullshit? Instead you are now the villain. And as the villain, you are suddenly defending yourself when you have done nothing wrong. Either way you have been played and now the real problem lays unresolved and will be repeated.
There are so many layers to these circle arguments that never get resolved. They seem to loop endlessly around to how you have betrayed him instead of him simply making the effort to show you some respect and human decency and get you a simple birthday card. Or give you a simple apology.
The most insidious part is the negotiation. When he suggests that he might be ‘nicer’ to you if you do something more for him – my expert advice here if you ever encounter this is to run for the fucking hills and never look back. Getting stuck in that loop leaves behind a husk of a human being who used to be you. Maybe he’ll get you a birthday present next year if you…….. I’ll leave that to the imagination.
The fact is, he had a whole year to plan financially for one birthday. There are eleven paydays between the last and the next during which he could have got you something, planned or saved. He knows you just as well as you know him, he doesn’t need a list to think of something you would like, even if it’s just a box of chocolates or a gift voucher. He sees you day in and day out slaving over the home, the children, your job, the finances, the organising, the huge overwhelming mental load that comes with being a mother, a partner, a woman. A real partner would want to show appreciation for that. A real partner would see that you deserve something. He doesn’t want to hear any of that, and he won’t ever admit that you deserve better, he has no intention of changing his ways. So he bullies and he belittles and he denies and he shouts and he screams and he punches and he slaps and he pulls hair and he stamps and he slams and he snaps and he breaks. He’s does everything he can to hurt and confuse you so your brain can’t catch up, so you start to think it’s your own fault, so you stay in the loop thinking if you just try harder next time he might be kinder.
© Emma Stead
More from this series….