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.
Me: Can I ask a question? A serious one that I really want to know the answer to… Why do you still want to see me? What do you feel like you get out of it?
Him: Peace. Happiness. It makes me alive n happy. Why do u wanna see me and what do u get out of it? Ur the love of my life Kristen believe it or not.
Me: You say I’m the love of your life and yet you’re so mean sometimes about petty things… and you walk out or act unkind for such small reasons. How does that cherish our time together? How does that make you happy?
Him: I haven’t done that in a while.
Me: Well like three weeks. And we’ve only seen each other like twice since the last time it did happen.
Him: Yes cuz I don’t drive and u know that, so it’s hard to come see u more than once a week. U haven’t seen me either and haven’t answered my question. I can ask u the same thing. Why didn’t you come to see me?
Me: No you missed the point. You said you hadn’t done it in a while and my point was that there were only two opportunities that we have even been together for it to happen. What do you mean I haven’t seen you either?
Him: You have seen me 3 times in the past 2 weeks not 2.
Me: I don’t think so but it doesn’t matter. Two or three doesn’t change my point overall.
Him: Yes I get the point. Yes we haven’t had opportunities for me to walk out.
Me: Okay so why do you say so many things to tell me how much you love me and want to be around me but your actions don’t match it? That’s why I wanted to know what you get out of it. That’s all I was trying to say.
Him: Yeah. Your actions don’t either sometimes.
Me: No, but I never start anything though.
Him: Yeah. Can we not argue please? I’m really tired tonight after all this training.
Me: I’m fine with that.
Him: Okay thanks.
Me: To avoid an argument you shouldn’t change the subject so we don’t get off on tangents instead of just responding to what I said.
Him: Well I have answered my question why don’t you answer now? I have already admitted my actions don’t match so what else am I avoiding?
Me: Like I asked you a question and your response was “Your actions too sometimes.” Okay, that can be discussed, but that’s not what I asked. That is an example.
Him: I have already answered your questions you asked when you asked them the first time and now you’re asking me more and more and I don’t want to answer any more of your questions cuz I’m really tired and still in the car trying to go home and shower and stuff. You asked 2 questions and I have answered them. And on the other hand you didn’t answer mine.
Me: You didn’t actually answer my question. I didn’t ask anything about admitting actions. My question is still the same because your answer didn’t fit with reality. What you said you got out of our time together didn’t make sense.
Him: Yes it’s the answer believe it or not
Me: I asked you why do you say so many things to tell me how much you love me and want to be around me but your actions don’t match it?
Him: Now I know you think I don’t love u or care about u 🙂
Me: In other words, I’m asking how can you get peace and happiness out of being with me when the reality is that your actions make it hard for either of us to have peace or happiness… why wouldn’t you avoid doing things that would put an end to those things or make me think you didn’t care? I don’t know what to think.
Him: OK I get it… lol don’t think
Me: You get what? Why are you laughing?
Him: Cuz it’s funny how u don’t think I love u that’s why
Me: I said I didn’t know what to think. There’s a difference. And no it isn’t funny…
Me: I’m dead serious when I tell you if you want people to know you love them you don’t hurt them unprovoked or make them feel unimportant.
Him: Yes, I did some f***ed up things and they weren’t right. Now I’m sorry but what I feel for you is real or else I’d be gone.
Me: Okay. Why do you still do them? Like lie and yell and say mean things? If you love me so much. That’s what I always wanted to know.
Him: Yelling and saying mean things when I’m drunk… you have done things drunk too.
Me: Please don’t change the subject. And anyway yes sometimes you do them when you’re drunk but sometimes not.
Him: I’m changing no subject.
Me: It isn’t ever right of me to retaliate but I don’t just start things.
Him: Look did I only do bad things to you? We aren’t together anymore and I think about the good times only. That’s why I sent you that song last night but I think you just don’t think I ever did anything good.
Me: Yes I do. I wouldn’t be here if you hadn’t. Who would stick around just for someone to mistreat them? It’s the fact that you also treated me well that keeps me here. So the fact that there was both makes it so confusing and that’s what I’m trying to talk to you about.
Him: Well I think I did more for you than any other girlfriend I had.
Me: Yes I believe that. That’s what your friends and some of your exes told me too. Maybe you don’t know why you did what you did. Maybe because you never trusted me and still don’t.
Him: My past that’s why. Can we stop arguing?
[I accepted this statement from him that the reasons why his actions and words didn’t match were because he had a past that led him not to trust people, and after this, he changed the subject to focus on me and asked me again what I got out of seeing him. There was no more discussion about his words and actions not matching up.]