Editor’s note: Lovefraud received the following article from a woman who posts as Willow888.
I recently started to work through the awful morass of feelings that follow an interaction with a disordered person. These people are such deceptive and expert manipulators they can apparently draw in even the healthiest of partners, partly because their behavior is beyond normal imagining and experience. Just as we’re taught to drive a car defensively, to suppose that every other driver is asleep at the wheel, we could still get taken unawares by a driver who aims at us head on, deliberately. That we wouldn’t necessarily be ready for. Information about toxic relationships often mentions typical victims as having codependent tendencies, but given that so many of us wrongly assume that pretty much anyone we meet who seems normal comes from the same emotional planet as we do… feels empathy, doesn’t mean to deceive and harm others, is “doing their best”… and that we all have needs and desires, which at some point in our lives might be going unmet, we can all be vulnerable sometime, somewhere. But I can only speak for myself and it does take two to tango, so what about my side of it?
Looking around me and at myself, I wonder if partners in an unhealthy dance are often drawn to each other by a subconscious pull of the same root pain, lying still unresolved in the Shadowland of their psyches. Like dark magnetic stuff pulling us together, maybe this is partly why these encounters can be so hard to resist even if our intuition is calling out to us to run, fast… If our Shadow hasn’t yet been drawn fully into the light, it will call and call again to be worked out. So what does my Shadow contain and why and how was it drawn to this other’s?
I come from a very dysfunctional family, with unhealthy narcissism and codependence running around the house like escaped, but unmentionable tigers. Abandoned too in a way, I was the one who was expected to take care of myself, to put my feelings and needs aside in order to adapt and be sensitive to the more demanding needs of others. Silenced if I questioned and fed weird distortions of the truth to keep me silent. Behavior that seemed so unloving, or downright abusive was, I was told, an expression of love, deep, very deep down. Everyone was doing their best and it was my job to be understanding and empathic of others’ feelings, needs and struggles. If I failed at this, I was accused of being the overly demanding one. Not a great garden in which to grow a healthy ability to take care of myself, to trust my inner sense of truth, my intuition. I was being trained to invalidate it.
Big surprise – the partners who drew me the strongest seemed to offer … well, nothing actually, but I was sure that “potentially” there was, deep down, a great love story to be found there. It was as though each time someone came along offering a basket that was quite, quite empty, if not clearly containing some pretty nasty stuff, I saw it as potentially full of wonderful things, if only I would sacrifice myself enough to the basket-bearer to get them to let me in. As programmed, I was pretty good at seeming terribly strong and self-sufficient, needing nobody to take care of me, and of course, since I didn’t feel allowed to ask, hardly anyone ever did. The men I was with made good use of both my weakness and my strength. On the outside I seemed powerful, accomplished in my work as an artist, determined, responsible and doggedly persevering. The destructive effects of my programming were hidden from others, expressed inward through depression and self-destructive behavior, such as in my “choice” of partners.
But over the years I worked on all this, became more aware, learned to say no to empty or nasty baskets and embarked on a path of re-learning who I was, letting go of the constant outward perseverance and struggle that also now made no sense, and finding some quieter happiness on my own. Maybe I’d continue on my own but that would be ok. Then along came the masked one, seeming to offer a tangibly fuller basket than any I’d ever dreamed of. At last! Perhaps a lovely reward for all the work I’d done on myself and arriving at just the right time! Given my barren past experiences I could be perhaps forgiven for being so easily blindsided by someone who appeared to be so different. And in our culture, so littered with dysfunction and unawareness, it’s not hard to see how even healthier people than myself can be taken in by figures so expert at presenting an ideal, albeit completely false front.
But, as with so many stories like this that I’ve read, I did, right at the start, see and hear warning signs, felt something not quite right. My intuition, at first, was absolutely on the game, saying nope, stop, turn around, this is actually a burning building you’re looking at, do not enter!!! After some correspondence, phone conversations, a first meeting, and receipt of a huge bunch of roses, I even told the masked one that I would not come any closer to him because of things he’d said; “I’ve been with many wonderful women but they were never quite right … If you can reason at all about love then you’re not ready for it” blah blah blah. He sounded immature and unconscious. I added that I was sorry and disappointed but that he should look elsewhere. But I was disappointed, even for the loss of our initial dialogue about other things such as art, infused with his apparent intelligence, cultivation, sensibility, his discerning – or was it just flattering – appreciation of my work… I missed it and wrote once more to thank him for the conversations, and to apologize again for not being able to go any further.
Deadly deed that was. He replied, expressing pain and anger at having his character so severely judged, told me how sad it was that past experience had made me so defensive… He was hurt. Voila! That was it. As content as I was in my solitude, there were still yearnings for a kind of companionship I’d never known that the dialogue had reawakened. And maybe more importantly, he’d already got a good read on my character and knew how to trigger my empathy, sympathy and tendency to second-guess myself. So I opened myself to the whole dreadful thing right there, leaving my intuition behind like a discarded toy.
Staying in the dance
This done and eventually “deciding” to trust him, to see him in the light he wanted to be seen, to believe his fake creation, I became effectively a sleepwalker. He’d been so entirely right; in order to be ready for his kind of “love,” I had to be brain-dead. Any other odd stuff that came, contradictions, doubts causing further alarms, were twisted not only by him, but by me as well, into a somehow positive shape so that I could stay in the dance. Still, I tried hard, I thought, not to relinquish all ground gained in my long road to a healthier self, speaking up when he started to show less considerate behavior. But his seeming ability to discuss things in an open way only strengthened my growing conviction that here was a most extraordinary man. Ah, but what I didn’t even notice at the time was that it was me who wound up apologizing, promising to change something about my behavior, asking his patience for my slowness in trusting him completely. (Where are the emoticons for cringing and head shaking?)
Given my background, the only reason I was so thrilled with these talks was that he was willing to have them at all. I’d never before known a man capable of actually participating, non-violently, in such discussions. Even after all my learning, my standards were still so very low, my self-esteem still so ready to abdicate itself at the offering of a few crumbs. This abuse was so subtle; it went right over my sleepwalker’s head. Masked one must have had a good laugh at my earnest efforts to send him packing at first, to then guard some self-respect and boundaries along the way, and the ease with which he could manipulate me into backing down to offer him my neck instead. It wasn’t until his real, destructive drives in the tango became too blatant to be blind to, that I woke up. But by then the heartbreaking, shattering damage had already been done. I had met him on my way to becoming more whole, but I surely left in pieces. I suspect this was his ultimate goal, conscious or not, from beginning to end.
I could go on and on about the various twists and turns of the sick maze but all that really matters is one thing. Over and above all the famous red flags I now know to look for in predators like these, I must remember to never, EVER, shut down my intuition again. All the rest of my sleepwalking came from that one simple act. In betraying my wisest self, I allowed him to vamp on in and do his horrible thing. Why do so many other stories about this kind of interaction sound so like mine? It seems our intuition is the first thing to fall in almost every case, but we too help enormously to knock it down.
Here then, for me, are some of the whys and wherefores of these dangerous entanglements where one fragile psyche destroys outwards in a desperate grasp at power, while the other struggles to have enough power to self-protect and self-respect. The fragility in both comes from damage done long ago. If both partners could become aware of this in time, the encounter could possibly be a chance at healing and resolution for both. It’s an invitation to transformative growth, sitting there in the guise of a dreadful interaction. But if awareness comes, it’s usually only to the “victim,” forced to it by the devastation they are very consciously feeling, as opposed to the aggressor who seems to feel nothing at all. The predator’s main defense against feeling pain is to remain cut off and divorced from their or anyone else’s emotions and so fiercely fixed are they in this that awareness is unlikely ever to cross their threshold.
I did figure out some of what had been going on in this terrible tango before reaching the point of completely abandoning it – and of recognizing it as a scam. I tried to express, explain, point out how working through this destructive stage could be a doorway to something healthy, creative, wonderful. But my masked one’s answer told me I was just wasting my time. He said that there is at the core of us all a fort intérieur that will defend itself to the death against change. Yes indeed; a fort is a locked stronghold, with an army ready to attack all comers that might threaten it. Clearly this was true for him, but if we all had one of these for a core self, none of us would ever be able to make choices about our actions, learn, grow or evolve in our lives.
Descriptions of NPD, APD, etc., speak of extreme rigidity; behavior and personality fused – or you could say, confused – personalities defined by behavior composed almost entirely of defense mechanisms. Lost or buried is any core self, experienced as distinct from its actions and so able to conceive of choices and change. These people act as they do because they need to, they must. Thus behavior is bewildering, attempts at negotiation futile, discussions confusing, appeals to them to question reacted to as criticism; they must protect their position at any cost, a cost they are well defended from feeling, let alone any empathy for others that pay it instead.
The only happy ending
Perhaps this too is one reason why this type of interaction is so unbelievably hard to recover from for us others involved. Being human isn’t a polite tea party. Having all suffered somewhere along the line, we come to the exchange with our own scars, but we leave with them torn open, as well as the terrible burden of the masked one’s denied Shadow projected onto us. (Recalls Peter Pan, the boy who’d lost his shadow and couldn’t grow up.) I can only be happy that I didn’t allow this dance to go on for very long. Short as it was, though, I have never experienced an aftermath as painful.
We have also, through this experience, maybe caught a glimpse of that door to powerful growth if only both partners were open to it, but are forced to realize that all of the pain and any road to better awareness have to be travelled solo. We know now, too, that we were alone in the entire story. A creative dance a deux with this person isn’t possible and never was. This isn’t a Hollywood movie where they suddenly wake up, ignited by epiphanies that transform them into mature, loving human beings and they come running to meet us like that scene in Gone With the Wind; he’s fought his war and now can come home. Neither is our attempt to understand both sides of the dance to excuse or condone their behavior, nor yet to flagellate ourselves, but to learn and grow through it. It’ll be the only happy ending we can redeem from the tale. So here I am now, blogging away, to examine how I was an accomplice in all this. It does help, writing out loud, and maybe it’ll help someone else along the way…