I’m gonna tell you a story. It’s a true story, not a very nice story, but true nonetheless. A few years ago I wrote a piece about being in Sydney (you can read it here), detailing how confronting I found that city at that point in time. A couple of other things happened at that time that I didn’t go into in that post, including getting triggered by a rape scene in a theatre show I saw, and being peeped on by the man in the room next door in the backpackers we were staying in. There was something else that happened. Something else that was lost in the mess of that trip but that stands out to me now as a pivotal point in my highly abusive marriage.
Ah yes, here we go, that old chestnut! Narcissistic abuse. Why am I writing about this again? Well, today, dear reader, is World Narcissistic Abuse Awareness Day. 1 June is officially the day to be aware that this shit actually happens, and it happens to people you know.
So, what is narc abuse? Honestly, you could read every post I’ve written on this blog since meeting my ex until now to get the full arc of an emotionally abusive relationship, but tl;dr so I’ll go ahead and tell you.
In adult relationships the person with narcissistic traits (my ex wife, KL) seeks out an empathetic, codependent-type partner (me) to suck dry in an attempt to gain power and control through the latter’s admiration of them (known as supply). This relationship starts with what’s called “love-bombing”, in which the narc falls intensely for the empath and idealises them, showing them the best version of themselves. In my case, KL showered me with gifts, flowers, food, love notes, calls and texts all day, every day. She made herself vulnerable by claiming she was being treated unfairly by her ex (whom I will call IC), and feeding me sob stories of her “challenging” life with IC, painting herself as the victim. I fell hook, line and sinker.
Once we were married, her true self began to emerge, but I was already addicted. I was a goner. Shit slowly started to happen, and that old adage of the frog in a pot of water that is slowly brought to boil comes to mind. This process is called devaluation and it starts small; the odd off joke here and there, casual belittling remarks that I took “too seriously” until it grew to adultery, contempt, triangulation, and gaslighting.
This is all very well and good, and I’m sure you all understand those words, but what I’ve discovered is without a clear example, these concepts are lost on most people.
So here goes, here’s my story.
We’re in Sydney on tour. I’m not having the most excellent time, but see, I have this habit of always being upset about something, always feeling things, you know, so I try to buck up and be happy. One night KL wants to go out and get drunk. I give her my blessing and tell her to go, happy to hang out with myself, read my book, drink my tea and relax for a damn minute. Our show playwright, Z comes into the room and some point and falls asleep, and soon I’m also in snoozeville.
It’s around 1.30am when KL comes stumbling in, sozzled to the tits and horny for me. This rarely happens at this point in our relationship and to be honest, I was gagging for it, so even though I was a little apprehensive because Z was asleep in the other bed, I comply with my wife’s wishes and fuck her silly. She goes to return the favour, but I gently rebuff her, concerned we’ve crossed the line already by going at it with our friend in the room. She falls asleep in two seconds flat and it’s all sunshine and roses.
The next day, Z goes to hang out with the rest of the cast and KL and I are left alone in the room. I’m feeling all sexy and glowy from the night before and say, “hey baby, how’s about it? I reckon it’s my turn.” I think I’m being flirty and I don’t see any resistance to the idea from her. She’s not overly responsive, which I attribute to the previous night’s drinking, but she doesn’t say no. So, she services me. I use that word specifically as that is what it felt like. She dutifully makes me come, and not two minutes afterwards as I’m pulling myself together, she says (verbatim),
“You forced me to do that.”
My mouth drops open and I stare at her, aghast. “I what?” I rasp, feeling my stomach drop into my gut.
“I didn’t want to do that, but you don’t like it when I say no, and I figured I owed you from last night.”
I sat there, all the breath sucked from my body, my eyes stinging, my skin prickling and suddenly I feel sick and very, very dirty. “Are you saying I raped you?” I asked her, my stomach heaving. “Why didn’t you say no? Yes, I get upset when you say no, but I’d never force you. I feel like I’ve raped you.” I started to cry.
This seemed to shock her and she suddenly backtracked, exclaiming “no, of course not, I have issues, why would I say that, I love going down on you, I just …” But at that point I feel I want to tear my skin off my body, slough away the shame oozing out my pores, so feeling like a sordid old sleaze I excuse myself to take a shower.
In the shower I scrub at myself, feeling like the worst person in the world. Guilt, fear, shame, all of those awful feelings cascaded over me. I was certain I had her consent. Didn’t I? I went over and over what had just happened and I couldn’t understand why she would have sex with me if she didn’t want to. And then claim that she did want to! I was so confused. I later came to realise that this is gaslighting, a tactic to confuse and addle me, to keep me under control.
I start to sob and smash my head against the side of the shower. I clamp my hands over my mouth because I’m hiccuping and sobbing loudly and that embarasses me even more and I don’t want her to hear. I hear her calling my name but I yell for her to please leave me alone so I can get myself together.
Eventually, I calm down and get out of the shower, dry and dress myself, and open up the bathroom door to find her lying on the bed, foaming at the mouth. There’s a part of me that knows I’m being manipulated, but I’m learning now that this is a game, and I have to play my part. I stare at her. “What have you done?” She’s crying and foaming and gurgling, so I say I’m going to get Z who is a nurse, and she suddenly sits up, spitting the contents of her mouth into her hand and says, “I didn’t swallow them.” I understood then and there what this was. This was emotional blackmail, something she would do a further two times. So again, I played my part and I comforted her and I apologised while she convinced me that she put the pills in her mouth because she was “so hurt” by what she had accused me of doing.
And then it was forgotten. Just like that. A few days later the peeping incident happened and the last two nights of the show we were performing in was cancelled, partly because of the peeping, partly because sales were shit, and partly because the venue organisers were being difficult. I, being the eternal martyr of course, felt overwhelmingly responsible and began to disappear into myself in an attempt to dissociate.
Our last night there was the Mardi Gras parade and we were marching. I didn’t feel festive, I didn’t feel celebratory. I still felt dirty and disgusting and responsible for the tour being ruined, so my energy was low. Despite this I got dressed up, did my hair, did my face, slapped on a smile and we went to the marshalling area.
I couldn’t maintain the level of energy required to keep up that façade, however, and the mask started to slip. So my wife, the person who was supposed to hold me up when I was falling, the person who promised to hold my hand through the crap as well as the parade of life, the person who had seen first hand what kind of week I’d had in Sydney, got shitty at me because I wasn’t “having fun.” She told me I always did this, I always ruined it for her, and as much as I tried to defend myself, her anger won out. So I played my part. I conceded. I apologised and “had fun”. We marched, and she loved the attention. Every time a camera was on us she would grab me and kiss me in a show of defiant lesbian love. She held my hand and performed her role of loving wife for the public to see. I smiled and nodded and waved and danced and in doing so, unconsciously prepared myself for the shit storm of the last year and a half of our relationship to come.
I didn’t tell anyone except our therapist about this. I didn’t feel like I had the right. The irony is, deep in my heart, I felt like I deserved it because of my dismissal of KL’s ex IC and her claim of abuse. I was so invested in my ex wife’s version of this woman as a scheming, lying harpy that I failed to see the parallels in our stories, that she too had an incident that is not mine to tell, but that affected her as much as mine affected me. I will feel the sadness and embarrassment of that failure for a very long time to come.
Writing that didn’t make me feel better, I’m afraid. I’m not crying, I just feel gross. Rehashing all of that stuff isn’t cleansing for me because I know that wasn’t the first time – and it certainly won’t be the last time – she’s done something like that. However, I tell that story to illustrate what an abusive incident is, and as it was the onset of a continuing trend of behaviour, not just an isolated occurrence, it bears telling.
I understand that people with these narcissistic traits don’t actually love themselves. At their core, a narc is a mixed salad of entitlement, low self esteem, and shame. They have an idealised version of themselves that they seek out others to confirm and bolster. Underlying all of this of course, are profound feelings of inadequacy which are almost always projected onto their target. If KL was feeling unattractive, she would make underhanded comments about my age or my weight, never explicitly insulting, but barbed enough to make me start doubting myself. If she was feeling loss of control in another part of her life, she would start withholding sex, or demanding money, or claiming that I wasn’t pulling my weight.
The last year of our relationship was a blur of me working my arse off managing her career, arranging her music, writing and directing her cabaret (which she recently publicly claimed ownership of), funding that cabaret, producing that cabaret, doing all of her admin, paying some of her rent, giving her money to go to South Africa, accompanying her to night clubs in which I watched her getting hit on by various women while holding her wallet, keys and phone and generally being ignored by her and most of the other people in the club, promoting her, being available for sex on the rare occasion that she was drunk enough to be interested, and warning her about stringing along the young, 18-year-old girl that had fallen for her. Devaluing 101.
The next part, in which she ended our marriage and shacked up with the girl – who I’ll call PR and who she went on to also abuse – is called the discarding stage. PR, young, inexperienced and naive was fully ensconced in the idealisation phase and only saw KL’s ideal self, not knowing that she was caught up in the next cycle of narcissistic abuse. Of course, KL took no responsibility for this, just as she took little responsibility for her abuse of IC and again the cycle has continued onto the next woman.
This is what KL wrote to me just before our divorce application was submitted (I will add that this was not the end result of a text fight, this was in response to my refusal to print a document for her):
“Being married to you that last year sucked as you never appreciated what I could do for you, only pointed out what I couldn’t. Stop blaming others for your problems. Stop blaming just me for our failed marriage. I am safe and happy now and in a great place that I have forgiven myself for everything. I am moving forwards.”
She wrote something similar to both IC and PR after their relationships were over. I don’t think either of them refused to print a document for her, but who knows what atrocities they committed to elicit such a response (joke).
Despite what it may look like, this is not a “dump-on-my-ex-wife” post. To be honest, I feel genuinely sorry for her. Her behaviour, that message from her, her continued vicious cycling all point to someone who is deeply broken and self-hating. She doesn’t know how to fix it, how to make it right, so she keeps repeating the same thing over and over again, hoping for a different result. However, the only person that can get her off that wheel is herself.
I am a survivor. The other two women who have shared in these experiences are also survivors. We are strong, we are supportive, we still cry over what happened to us, but frankly, we’re kicking ass and taking names.
If you see anything similar to what you may be experiencing in my story, please seek help. In honour of World Narcissistic Abuse Awareness Day I end with a link to their page, and a list of warnings and red flags, edited because I’m a grammar nazi. I experienced probably about 95% of these signs. Be safe, peeps.
- They have a sense of superiority, often being highly critical, often judgemental about others.
- They have a sense of entitlement. Sometimes this comes off as confidence, but can manifest in subtle ways, like cutting through a service station rather than wait at the traffic lights, or deliberately leaving rubbish for someone else to pick up.
- They give out back-handed compliments, such as “she has a figure like yours, you know, slim but no muscle tone.”
- In a romantic relationship, the relationship moves quickly. For example they will shower you with attention, compliments or gifts, and say “I love you” very early on in the relationship.
- They will start to subtly ignore you. They may appear to lose interest/get distracted or check their phone while you’re talking.
- Their seemingly innocent words are often contradicted by their body language and tone of voice.
- Their stories don’t quite add up, and you start to see the little lies. You may even tell yourself, “I just heard them lie to their friend, it was just a little white lie. But s/he wouldn’t lie to me.”
- They have two sets of rules. Rules that apply to them, and rules that apply to everyone else. They may have unrealistic expectations of love and nurturing from others, but don’t hold themselves to the same high standards.
- They have a lack of empathy, and are unable to see things from the perspective of others.
- They have poor boundaries, and may regularly invade your privacy, go through your belongings, or expect that you can mind-read their wishes and needs.
- They may be highly sensitive to criticism, or any suggestion that they are not in the right.
- They have a “my way or the highway” attitude. They believe that they know best, and that their way of doing things is the correct way.
- Initially they can come off quite charming and charismatic, always knowing the right thing to say.
As the relationship becomes more established, you may start to see some stronger warning signs, or red flags, such as:
- You may spot bigger lies, and when you confront them, you never get a straight answer or they will turn it around and accuse you of what they’re actually doing.
- If you try to raise an issue with them, it becomes a full-blown argument. They may accuse you of causing the fight, or they may use the silent treatment as a way of punishing you for confronting them.
- Arguments feel circular and nonsensical. You’re left feeling emotionally battered and confused. There is no resolution to the issue, no sense of compromise or seeking a win/win outcome. It feels like they need to “win” regardless of the issue or what’s at stake. You’re left feeling unsupported and misunderstood.
- They may tell you something didn’t happen when you know it did, or vice versa. This is called gaslighting and it’s designed to make you doubt your own reality and judgement.
- You feel like you need to ask for permission before making plans with others. They may try to control where you go, or call and text constantly to check up on you, and interrogate you about where you’ve been/what you’ve been doing.
- You start seeing less of your family and friends. Perhaps because they openly prevent you from doing so through guilt tripping or threats of abandonment. Or, it could be more subtle, where they make such a fuss about seeing your family and friends that you start avoiding them so you don’t have to deal with the fallout. You end up feeling isolated and lonely.
- The relationship feels one-sided – like you are the one who is doing all the giving, the one who is always in the wrong, the one who is trying the hardest, changing the most or doing the most sacrificing, just to make them happy. And it still doesn’t work. Nothing is enough for them.
- You can’t feel at ease or relaxed in their presence. You feel like you’re walking on eggshells, waiting for the next time they lash out at you. You realize you feel a sense of relief when they aren’t there.
- You feel like whatever you do, it’s not enough. You’re manipulated so that your flaws and vulnerabilities are exploited and used against you at every opportunity. You begin to feel inadequate, unlovable, and like everything is all your fault.