The 1st time I had dinner at my ex’s home I was surprised. My ex bragged about his father constantly. According to him, his father was his idol. He was a perfect father, husband, employee and Deacon. He was always on the go, leaving at 7AM for work, stopping home for a 15 minute dinner and “meeting” with his wife (the mom), then off to the church for his volunteer work. He was personable, loved by all, man of the year, husband and father of the year. His wife (mom) was head over heals in love with him, and would do anything for him. His children adored him and followed his every command. He was loving but firm. He taught my ex everything he knew about being a father, about home maintenance, about being a spouse. He was who my ex aspired to be. I couldn’t wait to meet him – the man my ex wanted to be; the one he modeled his behavior after.
Imagine my surprise when I finally met his dad. This event is one of the many memories I lack. I don’t remember what happened during that meal. I don’t remember who was there, what we ate, what we talked about. I remember nothing at all about it after I stepped from the kitchen to the porch. As I have come to learn, these times of which I have no memory hold important keys that I need to access. At some point I’ll need to remember this dinner to piece together the next 25 years of my life and to get past it.
For now, what I can say is this: My ex’s dad is the ultimate narcissist. The examples of his narcissism are endless. He spent his entire life doing exactly what he wanted to do, exactly when he wanted to do it, exactly the way he wanted it done. I can say without a doubt that his dad is a total asshole, out only for himself, always seeking new ways to prove to the world how great his is, regardless of the price his family will pay. And pay his family did. In addition to the abandonment they must have felt when he had no time for any of them, I can’t imagine the pain at watching him take all of that time and give it to their church. How would that feel, for a child, to see that their father had an endless supply of time and energy for extra curricular activities, as long as they didn’t include you. Ouch. Come to think of it, my kids and I know this feeling!
While I don’t remember that dinner, I remember all of the dinners that were to come over the next 25 years. I remember every minute of every meal; every tortuous minute. In an interesting twist, my illness kept me from many of these meals, and I am grateful. The stress I felt during those meals was palpable. Actually, those meals remind me of my childhood meals in which someone, usually me, was in “the dog house”. Everyone was on edge; in both places. I suppose that this was so familiar to me I automatically felt at home.
Here’s how my ex’s family meals went. To begin, they only happened on holidays or birthdays. There were no “hey, let’s get together because we’re family and love each other” meals. All meals were obligatory. Holiday’s were split, so that in-laws would have time with their families, but birthdays were sporadically celebrated and not optional. The 1st thing I noticed at the family gatherings was that the mom was single handedly handling the Entire Meal. In return, she asked one thing, and one thing only, of the dad: that he bring chairs up from the basement to put around the table that she had so carefully set. Each meal was served at 1:00 on the dot, and I made it a point to arrive no later then 12:30 to help the mom get the meal on the table. Every time I arrived I found the same thing happening: mom was harried in the kitchen and, when I asked what I could do to help the answer was always the same: “Get him [dad] to bring the chairs up from the basement.” It was his one and only job, and he never Just Did It. He didn’t do it until I, or another in-law, showed up and said “hey, let’s go get those chairs”, at which point he would pretend that he had “forgotten” and was actually a willing assistant to his wife.
For years I bought it, from him and my ex. They simply “forgot”. They forgot the 1 chore they had after we had completed all other tasks household tasks. They “forgot” to stop at the market for milk; they “forgot” that we had been home all day with several young children and needed gas put in the car, or the toilet to be plunged. They simply “forgot”.
I am not proud of how long it took me to figure out what was happening. There is no “forgetting” from a narcissist. There is nothing less then calculated moves made to keep us off balance; to make us question our own motives, our love for them. In “forgetting” simple things, like bringing the chairs up for elaborate dinner prepared alone, the wife is told, in no uncertain terms, where she ranks on his list of priorities. Last. The wife & the children are always last. Which would be fine, if it were presented as such. Instead, the Covert Narc pretends that they are innocent; their forgetfulness is quite innocent, simply a response to the stress you have created in their life. If you complain about it, you are adding insult to injury. Not only have you added to their stress by requesting them to Do Something, you then have the audacity to complain when they “forget” to do it. What is wrong with us? How did we turn into such unpleasant, demanding, ungrateful nags?
In the beginning I bought his act. I bought that his dad, as he, was overworked, under recognized and hugely imposed upon, and I personally went and got the chairs. As the years went on I came to understand that this was his one and only job and that he needed to do it, so I made him go get the chairs. I didn’t understand why this was important, but I knew on some level that it was. My ex would give me sideways glances, as if to say “give him a break”, because of course he was the “Father of the Year” and therefore excused from any responsibility. What bullshit.
It wasn’t until at least 5 years in that I started watching the Father of the Year at each meal and questioning his behavior. After everyone listened to his poignant grace, he sat back and shoveled food in his mouth. He never spoke, unless the conversation happened to turn to Him. I sat through entire meals and watched him interact Not One Bit, with anyone at the table. He didn’t even ask for items to be passed to him; things just were. He was present, in that he ate the same food as the rest of us, but he might as well not have been there. He had nothing to add to the family.
It’s only been in the past 7 or 8 years that I’ve understood how disturbing this is. Here was the “head of the family”, shoveling food into his mouth while giving us all the same message: we did not matter. He didn’t care what was happening in our lives, he didn’t care what was happening in his wife’s life, he didn’t care about his grandchildren, let alone his own children. I can count on 1 hand the number of times he asked someone about their lives, because he Just Didn’t. My ex covered for him, saying “he just lacks social skills” or, when I no longer accepted that, “it’s nosy to ask people about themselves”. And I bought it. He didn’t want to overstep boundaries; he didn’t want to pry, he didn’t want to make people feel as if he was grilling them.
Such Bullshit! He just didn’t care. He didn’t care about anyone at that table except himself. The only time he talked was when someone brought up something about him. It was all he could be bothered talking about. Himself. He is now in mid-stage Alzheimers and still the same; he still doesn’t care about anyone but himself.
As it turns out, the worshiping of a narcissistic parent is a clear sign of a covert narc. My ex did become his father. He sat through meal after meal after meal with nothing to say. He buried his head in his plate and made us all uncomfortable. He didn’t care about any of our days, our activities, our successes or struggles. He shoveled food in his mouth and seemed to thrive on the silence, probably because I would go out of my way to end it. I would bring up subject after subject, trying to start conversation. If I brought up a conversation topic that centered on him, he’d join in. Otherwise, he was the blob at the head of the table shoveling food in his mouth. I will grant him, he did always thank me for dinner, at least on the nights I stayed at the table, which were less and less as the years went on. It was a show for the boys though. It was his way of saying “pay no attention to the selfish prick who just sat here making everyone uncomfortable, because he is saying thank you for his meal”. The boys bought it, and for the longest time I bought it.
Here is the truth: People who care question. The one’s who love you ask about your day. What did you do, who did you see, how did feel are perfectly reasonable questions to ask of the people you love. It isn’t nosy, it isn’t rude, and not asking is not demonstrative of a lack of social skills. It is evidence of a lack of caring. Take this lack of interaction for what it is: proof that you are dealing with a covert narc. Don’t buy into the excuses. See it for what it is: irrefutable proof that you are eating with a narc.
Next up: Passive Aggressive – it’s not You!