I married a narcissist so you don't have to.
“You’re the smartest person I know,” he said, twirling a curl of my hair around his finger. I doubted that. As a divisional vice-president in an international corporation, he was exposed to a great number of smart people, all smarter than I am. “Flattery will get you nowhere,” I said. But still, I was flattered. Women aren’t usually valued for their brains, especially in the dating world where looks come first.
Flattery came easy to him.
And flattery did get him somewhere. I married him.
Of course, if I had been as smart as he thought, I wouldn’t have done that.
A narcissist is charming. Gracious, flattering, attentive, appreciative, all those Cary Grant traits we admire are part of the narcissist’s package. And one more thing: they can read us like a good romance novel. For instance, he intuited that I had been told often enough that I was attractive. That wasn’t a thing I needed to hear. No, I needed to be appreciated for my intelligence. It worked.
The internet is full of information about narcissists. Had I done any research, I would have learned two key facts: Science reveals that most narcissists are men. There is no cure.
My sister recently mentioned that, soon after he and I met, my narcissist told her that he was neglected as a child. He was left to entertain himself, unattended and without guidance as to his future.
I laughed out loud, breaking the spell he had cast over her for decades.
He was an only child. His father was a farmer; any boy older than eight with a farmer dad has his summers sown up with plowing and hoeing. His mother was a teacher, so she would have seen to his education and steered him toward college. Of course, he knew that my mother had had to support our family, that my sister and I were left to entertain ourselves and plot our own futures. He matched his childhood with ours to gain her sympathy in his battle for my heart.
My narcissist should have been a soap opera actor the way his tears could stop and start. Once, he and I were with two friends when we heard about the death of a young man we had watched grow up. Three of us went into shock, trying to fathom this news. We stared at one another, asking how is such a thing possible? We made phone calls to see if it was true. We made more phone calls to see if his family needed anything. And, after a while, we understood the truth and began our mourning. Meanwhile, my narcissist had been fake bawling from the minute we heard the news.
And yet, whenever I sat weeping after a frustrating discussion about his behavior and his lack of understanding, he did not cry with me. He did not hold me, patting my back and assuring me that it would never happen again. No, he glared at me. There was no empathy for me.
The relationship wasn’t all bad. We traveled well together, switching back and forth from planned itineraries to spontaneous adventures. We had the same sense of humor, so we laughed a lot, and we formed a tone of insider jokes. Our families entwined. He was my companion.
My narcissist had an insatiable need for admiration. No matter how often I told him that he was handsome, successful, and adorable, my praise was never enough. It would never be enough because, after a while, I began taking things for granted. Of course he was good looking. Always has been, always will be. So I forgot to mention it. He needed to hear it from someone else. Coworkers were usually available.
He put me on constant alert: was he having an affair? Why was his co-worker staring at me? She called him “an enigma.” Didn’t that imply a certain improper familiarity in the workplace? But when asked, he’d reply, “she’s married,” as if married women don’t fool around.
A full-blown affair was not always necessary to pump his ego. One time, on the streets of New York, I saw a woman look behind me, startled. Then she looked at me and hurried off. Over my shoulder, he had given her his “come hither” look. (This is also known as “eye-fucking.”) When I turned around, he was grinning at his success.
So he converted me into a detective. I made notes—written or mental—of his comings and goings, called him at inappropriate times when he was out of town to gauge how quickly he wanted to hang up or whether I heard someone in the background.
One time my narcissist called from his hotel room for our nightly chat. His voice was hurried. He told me not to call back after eight, as he was going to watch a baseball game on television. Let the record show (the record being our Visa bill) that on that night, he rented a video of “Nurse Betty.”
Narcissists are not as smart as they think they are.
He believed he was special, and entitled to be with someone special. Being a writer made me special. He was impressed. He put me on a pedestal. For the first time since college, he became an avid reader of fiction, nonfiction, even the occasional book of poetry. He became my first reader. He laughed in all the right places. He never resented my need for seclusion to write. But after a few years, familiarity became contempt. The pedestal began to teeter, the wobble, then oops! I fell off. He turned mean with a vengeance: my novel wasn’t as good as—he named a friend of mine, twisting the knife.
I was no longer smart, no longer special.
His word was whatever he meant it to be at the moment. For instance, we agreed to spend Saturday shopping at the nursery for soil and plants to spruce up the lawn. Come Saturday, he drove away to visit a friend. Thus he not only broke the pact we made together, but he also disregarded our plans and my feelings. He liked being undependable; it gave him flexibility and unaccountability.
He would deny ever agreeing to the plan. Never said it! This is called passive/aggressive. When it happened often enough, I started doubting myself. Goodbye self-esteem, hello co-dependency. And so began the slow, downward spiral of our relationship.
I suggested counseling. He thought he would progress better with individual counseling. Every two weeks he met with a male psychiatrist. When, after three months, I asked how it was going, he nonchalantly admitted that we were paying $100 an hour so they could discuss college football.
We finally went to couples counseling. To a female counselor (how smart am I?). He charmed her. Whenever the conversation got close to discussing his behavior, he’d steer her away, changing the subject.
Her: Are you perhaps too familiar with a coworker?
Him: I really miss my wife when I have to travel.
Her: That’s admirable.
But he was unsuccessful when I complained about his ignoring our plans. She suggested to him that that was not healthy for our marriage; he explained to her that he had excellent judgement, so he could change our plans if he had a better idea.
After each session, we’d stop in the hallway so he could give me a big hug, proud of himself for conning our counselor. In the middle of the hug, I felt abandoned by both of them.
The downward spiral of our relationship continued, morphing from mental to physical. He left the room anytime I entered. He left town when I had guests. He was out of town the day I discovered the copy of my power-of-attorney was missing. He could open and close accounts. He could buy and sell property.
The spiral had moved from physical to financial.
Slowly, quietly, and gently I extracted myself from the relationship. It took time and planning, perhaps a bit of cunning on my part. And while I was focusing on my mental, emotional, physical, and financial welfare, he was scouting new possibilities. In fact, he was busy choosing between two of my “friends” to be his next girlfriend .
I have escaped intact, and wiser for the experience. And I’ll definitely know what to look for—and whom to avoid—the next time a man tells me I am attractive and smart.
Narcissus: In Love with Himself
This malady is named for the myth of Narcissus, a beautiful youth who, tired and thirsty from hunting, bent to drink from a clear pond. When he saw his own image, he believed he had discovered a beautiful water spirit and fell in love. Narcissus spent a great deal of time trying to cajole this spirit into loving him, but the spirit disappeared when Narcissus bent to kiss it or hold it in his arms. So intent was he on this obsession, Narcissus forgot the world. He forgot to eat or drink and thus wasted away all because he fell in love with himself. Beware you don’t waste your time and emotion on someone who has this obsession with himself.