Here’s a theme I think we can relate to: Your partner (a male in this example, strictly for convenience’s sake)—a narcissist, or perhaps sociopath—blames you for his misery, bad moods, bad decisions, frustrations, dissatisfactions, disappointments and underfulfillment.
From his perspective, if he cheats on you—or deceives and betrays you—you will have deserved it, because you will have been responsible for the discontent that necessitated his violating behaviors.
Remember he feels entitled to have what he wants; he deserves what he wants, when he wants it; and if he’s frustrated, it must be someone’s fault.
Someone must be blamed, and you, his partner, will be his odds-on choice to own his blame.
It’s amazing how often we accept, against our better instincts, the narcissistic/sociopathic partner’s insistence that we are responsible for his infinite emptiness.
We do so for many reasons, but the one I’d like to stress is this: If we don’t accept this responsibility, his blame, we seriously risk losing the relationship.
Ongoing relationships with abusive, contemptuous partners require just this kind of Faustian contract: To preserve the relationship, however desecrated it is, I will accept your blame. For the sake of not yet losing this relationship, I will continue to entertain, if not own, your constant assertion that there is something in me—something deficient and insufficient—that explains your mistreatment and disrespect of me.
To say it somewhat differently, so long as we’re not yet ready to jettison a destructive relationship, a narrative must be constructed to explain our decision to stay. The narrative, as I suggest, often goes something like this: I am to blame—I —for my partner’s debasing attitudes and behaviors. I must be to blame, otherwise I’d leave.
The narrative is rational, but false. It’s a false narrative (in the back of our minds, we may sense its falseness), but it’s the only narrative under the circumstances that can explain, and seemingly justify, our continued tolerance of our partner’s nonsense.
A couple I spent some time with recently (clinically) illustrated this point well. The husband, Harold, was one of the most transparent narcissistic personalities I’ve ever seen. He’d recently ended an affair with a colleague (justifying the affair as a function of his right to pursue the fulfillment his spouse, Julia, wasn’t supplying).
Interestingly, about eight weeks into their courtship, Harold began offering up undisguised, alarming displays of his narcissism in general and narcissistic rage specifically. Julia was highly disturbed by each of these displays. All left her thinking, “This isn’t right. I should end this thing now, before I get deeper in. He shouldn’t be treating me like this. I shouldn’t be tolerating this.” But while recognizing these alarming warnings, she was already too deeply invested in her vision of the relationship—and Harold—to end it.
A dozen years later, not much has changed. Julia has a beautiful child and, in Harold, a spouse who’s conformed entirely to his early, advanced billing—he is demanding, often hostile and passive-aggressive, easily and constantly disappointed, blaming (of her) for the emptiness that leaves him constantly wanting, and prone to secretiveness.
Julia caters to his moods and demands in order to avoid eliciting the ugliest manifestations of his hostility (whose emergence threatens everpresently to scare and traumatize her).
But it’s no secret how Julia, with her high intelligence and striking emotional maturity, continues to justify her decision to endure what’s been Harold’s 12-year assault on her emotional safety and dignity.
She has owned the blame for his discontent, disappointments, and acting-out.
Just as soon as she’s ready to disown this falsely ascribed (and tacitly accepted) responsibility, she’ll find herself without a reason to accept the conditions of—and indignities associated with—Harold’s personality disorder.
At that point, the leverage will be hers—Harold will either have to shape up (unlikely), or she’ll be genuinely prepared to ship him out.
(This article is copyrighted (c) 2008 by Steve Becker, LCSW.)