This is the ninth post in a sixteen part series on “Marriage with a Chronically Self-Centered Spouse.” In the posts six through eight we will examine four broad types of self-centeredness: (a) low relational intelligence, (b) lazy or apathetic, (c) situational explosiveness, and (d) intentional manipulation. This order is chosen to follow the Matthew 7:1-6 pattern of giving grace even in how we address level three marriage problems.
Feeling Scared, Crazy, and Stupid
When living with an intentionally-manipulative, self-centered spouse you feel scared, crazy, and stupid. It is clear that he understands what he is doing, unlike the low relational intelligence, self-centered spouse. During the times of “peace” it feels like information is harvested to be used against you during conflict.
A key trait with the intentionally manipulative spouse is the lack of remorse after being clearly wrong. The argument or incident is inevitably turned back on you, even seeming apologies are accusatory. This creates a sense of being “crazy” (giving him the upper hand in any conversation) and “scared” (his ability to rest combined with you’re being always on-edge adds to the sense of feeling crazy).
There are several danger signs of an intentionally-manipulative, self-centered spouse. The first is that he isolates you from family and friends unless he is present. A big part of manipulation is defining the world of your victim. This requires being aware of what other people are saying so he is able to counter what does not align with his agenda.
Often family and friends are vilified for not adhering to positions the self-centered spouse claims are essential. The abused spouse is shamed for wanting to associate with people who would not agree with his standards. Combining shame with isolation makes it more likely that the abused spouse will not step out of his control.
The second danger sign is set up scenarios. “You can [blank] if you want to,” but if the abused spouse takes him up on this offer, there will be hell to pay. Or it may come in the form of a question that leads on direction, but the “right” answer is the opposite.
The effect of outbursts (anger or shame) to these set up scenarios is that the abused spouse questions her judgment about everything. Questions and choices are associated as social land mines. What can you do that doesn’t require answering a question or making a choice? Isolation is reinforced by fear-based paralysis.
The third danger sign is answering questions with questions. When given time to think without being rattled, the abused spouse can put what is happening into reasonable, non-threatening questions. These moments of clarity bring flashes of hope that they will be heard because they have something worth saying. But in order to avoid the only logical response (which would require admission of abuse) the self-centered spouse counters with a question.
The return question either changes (“But you’re missing the point, what about…?”) the subject or is condemning (“How could you think…?”). The abused spouse is placed in a dangerous position at this point – rebuttal and risk being attacked, or acquiesce and surrender to his version of reality.
The fourth danger sign is the consistent tone of condescension towards those with whom he disagrees. It takes great emotional and relational strength to stand up to a tone of condescension in conversation. Imagine the strength and skill necessary to politely respond to someone asking, “Do you really think…?” or “What good will it do to…?” and giving a simplistic, caricature of what you just said.
The intentionally-manipulative, self-centered spouse will not remain in a relationship with anyone who can answer his condescending tone. To be able to answer his question is to show a level of authority, competency, and comfort which does not allow him to rule in the way he desires.
In a counseling case like this, it is important to realize that the self-centered spouse will quickly seek to undermine counseling. For this reason the initial counseling objectives have to do with protecting the abused spouse from being drawn back into isolation.
- If the abused spouse comes alone to the first appointment (most likely), then patiently do a thorough assessment of the type of abuse before inviting or alerting the spouse to counseling. Once an “outsider” has been identified, counseling is likely to be shut down.
- If a separation is needed for safety, then strongly reinforce to the abused spouse that she should expect intense pressure (anger, shaming, promises, etc…) to return to work on things. The answer to “How can we work on our marriage if we’re not in the same home?” is a manipulative question. It dodges the fact that the primary problem is abuse, not some relational dynamic. This is a form of the third danger sign that seeks to get the abused spouse to begin taking partial responsibility (which will become total) for the abuse.
- When talking with the self-centered spouse, the primary point to be emphasized is that he has created an unsafe environment for his family to live in. Even if physical abuse is present, it is not enough for him to admit this is wrong. Before any “progress” can be said to have been made, he must consistently (over a number of sessions) see that how he has handled emotions, conflicts, and relationships has been manipulative and unsafe. It is important for the counselor not to get drawn into a debate about this point or become exasperated about his failure to see this. Those responses will be used against the counselor. The counselor must maintain the posture of presenting facts that are essential to any “progress” and accept no other starting points that would not require acknowledging and addressing the manipulative patterns first.