© Hibr

Life of the mind: what is wrong with you?

Everyone is desperate for a quick fix understanding of why they are being abused that enables them not to look in the mirror
December 11, 2014

A friend of mine posted something on Facebook the other day about how you know your partner has a narcissistic personality disorder when he behaves like a total bastard and then apologises a lot. Sound familiar? It’s supposed to. Everyone is desperate for a quick fix understanding of why they are being abused that enables them not to look in the mirror, not to look at what it is about themselves that allows the situation to develop.

It’s fascinating how many letters to newspaper and magazine agony aunts are about a bafflingly horrible partner. I notice this with patients, both my own and those whose cases I listen to in supervision as part of my training. That’s not to mention my own analysis. I lie there day after day talking about the outright cruelty or sadistic silence (worse!) inflicted on me by others. I imagined my analyst nodding off in his lovely orthopaedic chair, of which I was always so envious (envy—could I be a more Kleinian baby?) as I lay in chronic lower back pain on the flat couch. “And it was four o’clock in the morning when he finally came home drunk…” et cetera, ad nauseam.

I have a patient now who is hysterically cross with her husband. In our first high-pitched session I was frightened by her shouting. She catalogued his offences, apparently desperate to get me to agree that he is vile (he does sound vile). It seemed as though she had to check that her response (confusion and anger) was the right one. “Is this normal?” she wanted to know, as if something being normal makes it less hurtful.

We seem to spend our lives trying to work out what’s wrong with someone else, and it never occurs to most of us to wonder why we’re hanging round with people like this in the first place, or why we push them into fitting our template (we expect them to be horrible so we either choose someone horrible or coax them into being horrible).

My patient was upset that her husband said she looked “like a whore” in a particular dress she’d put on for a night out. We then had a whole session devoted to his other unconscionable acts. “And you feel you just have to put up with this.” I said. “No! I hate it!” she shouted. “But you do put up with it,” I said. It sounds crass, I know, but this was huge news to her.

She worried she’d provoked him. This, however, is an omnipotent fantasy—it is easier for a child to believe that she has provoked her parents by being bad and that better behaviour on her part will make them kinder, than it is to believe that she is subject to random acts of cruelty. A child can’t leave if someone is mean to them. This, I think, is why we find it so hard to leave when faced with cruelty in later life.

By believing that she has provoked her husband, my patient can carry on pretending that she is a) to blame for his deserved cruelty and b) capable of altering the situation. Essentially, she worried she looked like a whore and her husband expressed an opinion she already unconsciously held—so, yes, she hated hearing it, but put up with it, assuming his denigrating view to be the truth. What’s wrong with my husband/wife? Why does so-and-so do such-and-such? We can’t know. The only question we do stand a chance of answering, with help, is: “Why do I behave like this?” and then, “Why do I continue to behave like this?” Though, admittedly, the answer can be a long time coming.

The situations described are composite. Confidentiality has not been breached