I chose the word overcoming because I just realized the extent to which I’ve been marginalized by my ex narc. Marginalized is also a strong word, and I have included it quite deliberately, because when you read the definition, “the process whereby someone is pushed to the edge of a group and accorded less importance”, it is clear to me that my role in my family has been systematically marginalized by my narc.
I realized this last night when I had a typical argument with my middle son. I told him that he had to do something he didn’t want to do, and his immediate response was to accuse me of wrongdoing. As soon as he let loose with his accusation I began questioning myself. Had I done something wrong? Should he not have to do what I’ve asked because I did something wrong? The work I have done in therapy and EMDR has cleared my thinking enough that I can sometimes stop and think about what is happening, and that’s what I did last night. I came to the conclusion that while what he was accusing me of was true, it was irrelevant, and he still needed to comply. When I stated this, he accused me of playing favoritism, since I had not asked his brother to do the same thing.
It was the second accusation that led to my typical response, which is to say “I’m not going to fight about this right now”, then retreat to my bedroom. I immediately pulled out my laptop and started writing. This is a very important issue for me to address, because throughout my marriage I’ve been remarkably unsuccessful in implementing rules and boundaries with my boys. Now that I am essentially a single mom I thought this would get better. It hasn’t.
What went wrong? It’s really quite simple: I tried to parent with a narcissist. It can not be done. It will never happen. There is nothing I can do to change this; there is no way I will ever get their dad to be a responsible parent. His boys, just like everyone else in his life, are pawns, used to get him what he wants, when he wants it. When they aren’t providing something for him, he is done parenting. It really is that simple.
During the 25 years I tried to co-parent, I lived in a constant state of confusion. Attempts I made to provide structure were roadblocked every step of the way. There was that little voice in the back of my head though saying “this isn’t right; you have a problem here”, but I didn’t understand what they problem was, let alone how to fix it.
By the time I had our 3rd son I was a total mess. I was physically sick, and I came to blame any parenting problems we had on that. I was too sick to be a good mother, so any problems the boys had, or I had with them, were obviously my fault. They were, and are, basically really good boys, so there weren’t many examples of my failures, but there were enough to keep me doubting my every move.
As the boys grew, so did the problems. They wouldn’t do homework, they wouldn’t do chores, they wouldn’t do things I had asked of them. It was odd though, because they were always really polite, and in public everyone complimented me on what good boys they were.
I would try to problem solve with their dad, which now I find hysterical. Our problem solving consisted of him saying yes to anything I said, then doing the exact opposite. When I questioned him, he’d say we had never discussed that issue, and he had never agreed to what I had proposed. It was all so confusing, and I was so far ensconced in my self-loathing that I backed off.
As the years went on his disdain of me became increasingly transparent. He would put down everything I said and did, although always in such a way that it appeared he was simply stating an opinion. For example, even though I was terribly ill and on several medications, he made it a regular habit to tell the boys that medicine is bad for them, that it will actually cause them to be sick if they take it. If I tried to enforce a rule, or generate pleasant conversation, he’d roll his eyes, making sure everyone saw it. If I asked him to run an errand or do some housework (which he Never Did) he made sure everyone saw how much I asked of him; what a put-upon husband and father he was. If there was a way to put me down in front of the boys, especially a way that could be defended as quite innocent, he took it. He always made sure though, to say thank you after each meal. Good manners = Good Person, right?
It was clear to me that I was essentially a single mother. The dad would coach a sport, and occasionally cook dinner, but that was where his role ended. Which made it even more maddening when, after having accepted that I was going to go it alone, I still made little progress getting them to do the things I’d asked them to do. Why, if I kept him out of it, was I still struggling so much getting them to do homework, or chores? This question has haunted me. Literally Haunted me. I’m on the phone every other day with my sister asking “what did I do wrong in the situation?”. More often than not she’d say I don’t know, I’d have done the same thing.
Last night’s argument made it all clear. My boys had been taught by the Master how to “manage” me. They learned that when their objective was to not do what I was asking, the first step was to Put Me on the Defensive. Accuse me of something. Tell me why I have no right to ask this of them; explain what I did wrong, and why my behavior gave them license to do what they wanted. This usually worked. I would immediately retreat into my cesspool of self-loathing and decide that it was true, I had no right to ask anything of them. After all, I was an unemployed, sick, middle aged woman, who brought nothing but a burden to the table; how dare I ask for anything.
On the few occasions this didn’t work they’d resort to step 2: Agree to what I have requested, then “forget” to do it. If I dared remind them and repeat the request, we’d go back through the steps.
What a sick pattern. No wonder I’ve hated myself all these years. I went into this marriage thinking I was entering a partnership, assuming I’d be coparenting, sharing the load, problem solving together, and instead I was the family scapegoat. And not in the “it’s always the mom’s fault”, in a truely pathological way. And I stayed and stayed, believing it was all my fault, that one day I would get things right and everything would be better.
Here’s what my boys saw: An overworked dad, and a sick, demanding mom who did nothing but nag, nag, nag. Of course dad “forgot” things; he was working hard. Of course dad didn’t want to address issues; I was being obsessive and ridiculous. Of course dad didn’t want to talk at the dinner table, because I was a senseless blubbering idiot, making them talk about trivialities. Dad was God, he was a coach, he didn’t make them eat vegetables when he cooked, and he never, ever demanded anything of them. I, on the other hand, being the demanding bitch I so clearly was, was inconsequential and meant to be ignored when not being put down.
We are now approaching the end of year 2 with him gone, and much has changed in my relationship with the boys. They do treat me with more respect, they are kinder and more thoughtful, and they seem to understand how bad things were when he was with us. Our house is calmer and happier, and everyone can see it. For the most part I am in command, and we get things done. For the most part they do what I ask and treat me with respect and love.
Until the moment that I ask them to do something they Really Don’t Want to Do. In those moments, the steps come out. Immediately. There is no thought process behind it; it is learned behavior, from a lifetime of watching their dad do it to me, and taking their side when they did it to me.
When I figured all of this out last night I decided I’d have a sit down with them and explain why they needed to do what I’ve asked them to do. I had a list of the ways I am important to our family. I had another list of the things I had done when I was their age, which is much more extensive than anything I’ve ever asked of them. I was going to set them straight, and put an end to these manipulations and lies.
By the morning I realized how ludicrous that is. I can not force away bad behavior they learned from a life time of watching really bad interactions between their parents. I can not talk them into respecting me. I can not force them to stop trying to manipulate me, or lie to me.
I can’t do these things because they are not the problem. Unfortunately, I am the problem. We are all victims of a covert narcissist. A really good one.
They are doing what they’ve been taught, and what I’ve reinforced over the years. They have come by this behavior quite innocently and honestly, and writing lists of why I am important won’t change that. The only thing that I can change is me. The only way to stop this pattern is for Me to stop this pattern. And the only way I’ll be able to stop this pattern is to learn that I am important, and necessary, and good, and capable, and Not A Burden.
So, I am writing a list for me. I’m writing a list of all of the things I do that add to our lives. I’m writing a list of all of the ways our family would be hurt if I wasn’t here. I’m writing a list of my good traits and abilities, and the reasons I am of value and deserve my place on this planet.
I’m going to write a second list too. The second list will be the things I don’t have to apologize for. I don’t have to apologize for being a stay-at-home mother. I don’t have to apologize for not producing an income (even though I did swallow my pride several years back and apply for disability which, last I checked, was income). I don’t have to apologize for asking them to do chores I am not able to do. I don’t have to apologize for anything, except for staying with their dad as long as I did. Even that, I don’t have to offer to them; again, a notation on my list, not theirs.
So, I will attempt to Overcome Parenting with A Narcissist. It won’t be easy, and it certainly won’t be fun. It is necessary though.
With that said, I have to go. I have some massive lists to compile!