This is the second post in a sixteen part series on “Marriage with a Chronically Self-Centered Spouse.” In the first two posts we will examine two case studies to illustrate the severity of marital strain involved in chronic cases of self-centeredness.
A Case Study
Eddie was good, but he was not nice at home. If you watched Eddie from a distance, you would see that he was successful at many (maybe most) of the things he did. If you heard Eddie speak to a group or in a private conversation, you would walk away impressed at his breadth of knowledge, quick wit, and convincing delivery.
This meant that most people who knew Eddie casually, liked Eddie. And most people who knew Eddie only knew him casually.. However, when something went wrong at home Eddie used his public popularity and success as “evidence” that he could not be the problem. This made things messy and volatile at home
Making matters worse, his quick wit and ever-confident demeanor overpowered his wife and children. Conflict that made them uncomfortable didn’t affect Eddie so he could talk circles around them. When they cried he told them they were too emotional. When they got angry he dismissed their words as irrational. He was unflappable, therefore, he won.
The same was true with counselors. On the couple of occasions his wife forced him to counseling, Eddie was talking about his “home turf.” When counselors asks questions, their information-deficiency was weakness he could use to put them on the defensive and convince himself the counselor had nothing of value to say to him.
If the counselor said Eddie was rude, harsh, or insensitive, then the counselor didn’t know him well enough to make that kind of “judgment” and was obviously just taking the side of the crying woman, as counselors always do. If the counselor tried to be neutral, then Eddie could move the conversation to his wife’s issues and then decide he was not upset enough to push counseling for those concerns.
Either way his wife was left alone. In the first case Eddie left counseling angry about how she tried to make him look awful – how could she disrespect him so, when he didn’t try to attack her. In the second case, she left thinking she was crazy and that the counselor did too.
But this wasn’t that different from most private “conversations” with Eddie. The problem was that only his wife and a few other people ever had private conversations. And the others (usually a business or ministry partner) got to leave when “Eddie was Eddie.” His wife and kids were the only ones who were stuck trying to make the irrational rational and solve the riddle with no answer.
Eddie’s primary tools were questions that created defensiveness or insecurity, subject changes that seem plausible but made the other person seem unfair, and leveraging sources of power (i.e., money, authority, success, Bible verses, etc…) to end conversations that weren’t going his way. If things weren’t tense, his comfort in these maneuvers made them hard to detect. If things were tense, he could elevate to whatever emotional height was necessary.
Why all the arguing? Why the need for “tactics” (intentional or not)? The problem is that the answer was rarely obvious. The ends of the arguments were intense, but the beginnings were awkward or benign. Something trivial didn’t go Eddie’s way and he could make the trivial seem essential or like a sign of great disrespect. Eddie made a trivial mistake, and his defense be either minimizing or blame-shifting. His wife was left to choose between speaking in an escalating argument or being silent and perpetuating the misinformation.
Eddie defined his own world. If you casually passed through Eddie’s world, it was interesting and compelling. If you lived in Eddie’s world, it was a punishing prison. Again, it was functional and many people liked Eddie, so there was no way (in his mind) that he could be as bad as the hurt, fear, and anger he saw in his wife’s eyes.
The longer the marriage continued, the more non-surface or non-functional marital communication degenerated into a competition between two interpretations of reality. Eddie saw this surface conversation as “being nice” and didn’t know why his wife didn’t appreciate it. His wife saw it as another version of being forced to live in Eddie’s false world and resented it.
Because Eddie could not (or, at least, would not) see the badness of his actions, he began to view her withdrawal as being unloving and began to criticize her for this. Soon he began to quasi-acknowledge his faults but now they were the result of her lack of love and respect for him. His self-centered tactics had reached its crescendo, he was finally admitting his failure, but even that was being turned through questions and examples back on her. Everything in Eddie’s world served Eddie’s purposes.