Some of the most destructive things that happen to us in our relationships with narcissists happen in our conversations with them.
By using our verbal interactions with them against us, they manage somehow to both convince us and others that we are at fault for what happens in the relationship, and they manage to slowly take away our voices.
How do they manage to do both?
The basic mechanism is to deny that we have a right to a point of view at all.
It goes like this.
Perhaps you have questions or concerns and you are lied to or not given a straight answer. The narcissist will inevitably use multiple methods of deflection or you are told that the topic is off-limits
Or perhaps the narcissist says something inflammatory or picks a fight with you that you’ll never be able to win. You said or did something he or she didn’t like or the narcissist even made something up out of thin air. He or she then refuses to engage in a rational discussion with you about it and nothing you say seems to matter. They have their minds made up and you are left with no way to defend yourself.
No matter who started the conversation, the narcissist doesn’t seem to care what you have to say and has no interest in coming to a mutually satisfying resolution.
Three very important things happen in these conversations:
- By using a variety of very unpleasant behaviors, narcissists punish us for either bringing up topics of conversation they don’t like or not ending conversations when they are finished discussing a topic. They make us feel high-maintenance or selfish for bringing up valid concerns.
- If we react to the way they behave in these conversations (e.g., the tactics they use to avoid engaging in a real discussion), it provides them with the ammunition they need to blame the problems in the relationships on us, further shaming us into silence and conditioning us not to speak up.
- Because our concerns are almost never addressed and we are almost never heard or validated, our self-esteem is eroded over time and our sense of humanity within the relationship begins to slip away.
For example, Shannon Thomas says in her book Healing from Hidden Abuse, “When a survivor tries to talk to a psychological abuser about their negative behaviors, a favorite maneuver of toxic people is to simply not reply… When a survivor asks why they didn’t reply, the toxic person will spin the situation and say something like, “I am not going to argue with you.” Can you see what just happened? The survivor was blamed for causing drama, or an argument, and the toxic person never addressed their behaviors.”
In just this one interaction, the narcissist has punished the partner with silence, accused the partner of being the source of issues within the relationship, and ignored the original concerns that the partner had about what the narcissist had been doing.
As the relationships go on, partners of narcissists learn to walk a line that language divides.
Conversations become the flashpoint for keeping the peace and yet adopting a pathological worldview in which we are to blame for causing problems by “talking,” yet the narcissist is not at fault for wrongdoing– or speaking up and being further shamed, threatened and abused.
How Conversations With Narcissists Unfold: An Example
The conversation below is one that my ex-boyfriend and I had over text messages during the time period when we were still in communication.
Studying exactly what these conversations look like can help to shed light on the tactics they use to try to avoid giving partners what they want in the conversations: answers, validation, acknowledgment, apologies, concessions, or promises.
Because of the different ways he responded to what I would ask, it took over two hours to have this conversation. Still, it’s a relatively benign one in which he did not end up getting angry and using insults or refusing to discuss anything. He was not completely oppositional, but the conversation was no less exhausting, for reasons I’ll discuss below.