So one of the writers I’ve met through this blog, Renata, had mentioned the grey rock method and suggested I should look it up because I might find it useful when communicating with my husband.
The entry I found surprised the hell out of me. Not because of the grey rock method, but because it first listed narcissistic traits, and I saw the ghost of my husband outlined in those traits.
“A narcissist is a person who shows a disproportionate interest in themselves. They have a strong desire to be admired by others, strive for attention, and have difficulty enduring criticism or setbacks. Narcissists tend to be grandiose, suspicious, and cynical. They are commonly conceited, scheming, and controlling of others.” (from e-counseling)
I don’t think my husband is actually a narcissist. I don’t think he’d get diagnosed with a personality disorder. What I think is that he has unhealed trauma and unresolved issues from his childhood and his family that went unrecognized and untreated, and certain traits that might have been simply mild and normal to his personality were skewed into the toxic narcissistic traits I see now.
It was still unsettling to see. Where the description says ‘difficulty enduring criticism or setbacks’ I had used the terms ‘defensive’ and ‘rigid.’ He’s always been suspicious and cynical in general, but as he usually kept that in check, I’d just rolled with it as part of his personality. Scheming and controlling? Well – if I’m being honest, yes, though he usually channeled those impulses into his LARP (live-action role-playing) hobby.
Grandiosity isn’t readily apparent, except, perhaps, in the decisions he makes. He’d go after large goals – like starting a family or buying a home – when it was clear that we weren’t properly prepared for those goals, but he’d just assume that if he made the decision, he’d be able to make it work somehow.
The desire to be admired, to have attention, to be conceited – this is less straight-forward. He definitely wants to be admired and receive attention, but I don’t think this stems from arrogance, I think it stems from trauma. As a child, his biological dad walked out on his mom when he was 10 months old. When he was age 5, she remarried, and then spent the next few years trying to help her new husband get custody of his 2 children from his previous marriage.
My husband has talked about feeling ignored, overlooked and taken for granted during those years. He’s also talked about feeling trapped living in rural areas and small towns without other children around to play with. He was mercilessly bullied in middle school. Looked down on at church because his family was poor. His parents didn’t pay attention to what he said he wanted for things like birthdays and Christmas – the first toy he got that was what he actually wanted he purchased with money he’d saved up.
He hasn’t always responded to this trauma in noticeably unhealthy ways. In highschool, he was motivated to lose weight and get in shape. In the early years of our marriage, he was motivated to begin working on his education and career because he didn’t want his children to be ashamed of him.
Lately, though, he’s become very preoccupied with his image. He was mad that my therapist was worried about me. He’d never hurt me, after all. He was upset when he saw that my body language was communicating tension and fear during one of our early heated fights. He’s repeatedly expressed anger over the idea that I’m lumping him in with my sister J’s horrific ex (I wasn’t). He has, in fact, been rather fixated with his image this year as our relationship has crumbled and dissolved.
I’d observed that it seemed like he wanted to be able to perceive himself as a good person, and that the desire to perceive himself that way led him to keep certain behaviors in check that would challenge that perception.
As for attention? He got extremely angry over my use of noise canceling headphones so that I could listen to music and use it to manage my moods. Accused me of isolating myself. Was visibly upset that he’d say something to me, then have to wait until I’d paused the music and removed the headphones in order to be heard.
He’ll interrupt me when I’m in the middle of something with relatively inconsequential things – stories about work or video games, for instance – and if I don’t give him my intent, undivided attention (a difficult thing to do when interrupted in the middle of something while my thoughts are elsewhere), he’ll get visibly upset and passive-aggressively exit the conversation.
None of these traits are so strongly manifest that he’s incapable of functioning at work or social settings. They aren’t combined with overtly abusive behaviors. Instead, he is, as my mom termed it the other day “selfish.”
And this is certainly true. This is, after all, what destroyed our relationship. It was seeing that he would continue placing his comfort over my literal basic needs that ultimately made me realize I no longer had the energy – or the desire – to keep going.
When I was 16, still traumatized by my parents’ divorce and feeling abandoned by my dad, I took up man-hating as a hobby. I’d make jokes and say very unflattering things about men. It was a way of coping. One night, my sisters L and J, and my cousin L, took it upon themselves to stage an intervention. The things I’d said had really hurt the feelings of my sister L’s husband, and my cousin L’s boyfriend.
I felt terrible. I didn’t have a problem with either of them, and I certainly didn’t want to hurt their feelings, and it had never occurred to me to think of how they might feel about what I said and how I said it. From that night forward, I started reining in what I was saying, until man-hating as a coping strategy had disappeared.
So, at age 16, in relationships that involved a brother-in-law and a cousin’s boyfriend, I had so much empathy and concern for other people’s feelings that I literally changed my behavior – behavior that had stemmed from my own trauma.
This is a feat of empathy and growth that my husband has not been able to manage when it comes to me, his wife, in his late 30s.
And that is not acceptable.