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  • Writer's pictureNicole Salter

The Narcissist Can't See You...and They Never Will

Throughout my narcissistically abusive marriage, I spent a lot of time thinking that I must be the problem. After all, I was the one who fell apart - yelling, crying, trying to get my husband to pay attention to my feelings - while he remained impassive, refused to discuss anything, walked away, and pretended afterward that nothing had happened (or told me I was insane). At one point, he began to say that my obsession with making him hear me out was actually narcissism. And you can't really argue with that. Can you?

Woman reading Braille
Even if there was some kind of Braille that allowed narcissists to see you, they wouldn't make the effort

Naturally, I thought my lack of emotional self control was the driving force behind the turmoil. Why couldn't I just live and let live, without challenging my husband's behaviour? The more he failed to acknowledge my feelings, the harder I tried.

Controlling partnerships create emotional dysregulation

As a child, I got both direct and indirect messages that if I would only do as I was told - all the time, perfectly, and without any disagreement - things would be just fine. My mother wouldn't abuse me, restrict me or punish me if I just went along. I was doing it all to myself. If only I'd stop daring to have needs, opinions and thoughts that were different to hers, we'd have a peaceful, harmonious home. But even when I did, the goalposts kept moving. Peace was never achieved; more would always be demanded.

You'd think I learned my lesson. As an adult, I spent many years trying to engineer my life so that no one could control me ever again. But of course, that's not the way life really works. At first, I was controlled by my own addictions, which took away the possibility of growth and advancement. And you know how the rest goes: If you have a dead-end job, you're not really your own boss; if you have a business, you're still beholden to the rules of markets and customers and suppliers and platforms and all the rest of it. We all have to submit to the dominance hierarchy to some degree, whether it's obeying unfair laws or satisfying an unreasonable client. How well we navigate these challenges is determined by the strength of our boundaries, and despite being defiant, mine were still mushy when it counted.

When it came to romance, I always partnered with men who displayed no outward signs of jealousy and control. I thought I knew all about that game and wasn't flattered or impressed when someone tried to tell me what to do. Unfortunately, I was very unwise to more subtle forms of emotional control like withholding, silence, dismissiveness, evasion, gaslighting, and the many other tactics in the narcissist's arsenal. Of course I'd grown up with them, but they had been overshadowed by more overt forms of abuse.

Unseen + unheard + uncared for = crazymaking

It turns out that, for me anyway, these ways of manipulating my behaviour within a relationship probably had more power than physical abuse would have, because they put me on such uncertain footing. Was I the one who was selfish and narcissistic? The internal uncertainty had me in a near-constant state of guilt and shame, always trying to do better. Over time, I became increasingly frustrated and dysregulated when my partner refused to listen to me. For example, I felt invisible when he

  • put on his noise-cancelling headphones when I needed to ask him a question

  • turned things back around on me instead of honestly addressing an issue (if I said something like, "Why did you do X when you said you were going to do Y?" he'd reply, "You do the exact same thing to me," and that would be the end of the discussion

  • pretended to know nothing about an event or situation that I'd told him, even in writing, was important to me

  • did whatever he wanted whenever he wanted, no matter what needed to be done for the children or the household

My nerves became so frayed it felt like I had to shout to get his attention, which of course is not a good strategy whether you're dealing with a narcissist or not. I might start out calm, but my voice would rise almost immediately when it became apparent, within the first few seconds, that he was not interested in hearing me out, that he didn't care how I felt, that he thought I wasn't worthy of consideration. He'd stare at me blankly and say, "You're crazy," and leave the room, and perhaps he was right: desperate attempts to get the attention of a person who acts like they hate you most of the time, is pretty nuts. When I emailed or texted him instead of opening my mouth, he simply didn't reply. In therapy, he lied. So, having exhausted all other means of getting my point across, I began to study narcissism and finally realized the truth: It's not just that he doesn't want to see me, he can't. I no longer want to attract his gaze, of course - it's like the Eye of Sauron - but we have children together, so on occasion there has to be some form of communication, and although it's almost exclusively initiated by him, it's clear that absolutely nothing has changed. I remain invisible.

A narcissist's reality is distorted fantasy

According to experts on narcissism, the narcissist doesn't exist in the same reality as everyone else, where there can be said to be at least some objective truth. They make up the rules, then break them at will, a perverse behaviour common to politicians. On the surface, this can seem merely hypocritical and distasteful, but it's more than that; the narcissist's defenses are so extraordinarily strong and pervasive that they literally can't see things as they are, even if they wanted to. To see you, or anyone else, as an autonomous person with separate thoughts, ideas, and desires is an existential threat to the narcissist's very being. It means the world they have so painstakingly constructed, where they are the hero of a narrative that only they can follow, might not be real. It means they might catch a glimpse of their true self.

We all want to believe we have a firm grip on reality and are capable of rational and balanced thought. The narcissist believes this, too, even when there's no supporting evidence. When people question his grandiosity, he calls them traitors. When the world doesn't reward her the way she feels she deserves, she invents conspiracies. When his girlfriend questions his plans, he calls her stupid - or crazy, or whatever will break her down the most until he can reassert his dominance. If that doesn't work, he channels his inner primary psychopath to cruelly discard her without empathy, remorse, or even a second thought.

How can they do this? Dissociation may be the answer

If you're feeling brave, head on over to Sam Vaknin's YouTube channel and watch some of his groundbreaking videos on the subject of narcissism and Cluster B personality disorders. It's not a particularly hopeful message, but it will definitely pierce the brain fog you may be experiencing if you have escaped a relationship with a narcissist. Sam discusses the phenomenon of dissociation quite a lot - a trait common to borderlines, narcissists and, of course, people with dissociative identity disorder (or multiple personality disorder, as it used to be called). Dissociation is a coping mechanism developed in childhood; it's kind of like fantasizing, except the creation is so detailed and complete that it's no longer apparent which is the real world and which is the fantasy. In his vivid descriptions, I can almost imagine reality blurring, pixelating, and finally vanishing behind a glittering mirage the narcissist constructs and inhabits to protect his fragile, vulnerable true self.

Living in his fantasy world, the narcissist simply cannot remember what is real and what isn't. He's making it up as he goes along, confabulating, filling in the memory gaps with what he thinks must be true, or needs to believe is true, about a given situation. If you're his mother, reminding him that you almost died and he didn't even drive you home from the hospital let alone visit you there, he will think, well, that doesn't line up with my truth - that I'm blameless, perfect, and always victorious - so, she must be lying. How dare she tell lies like that. I'm going to have to punish her. It doesn't matter how absurd or inaccurate his version of events is, if he even has one. He might just conclude you are persecuting him, like everyone always does.

This is the literal thought process of the narcissist, who is even more infuriated by your obstinacy because he has never actually seen you as who you are. You exist in his mind as a snapshot of who you should be, and when you fail to conform to this static, Photoshopped picture, you must obviously be the one distorting reality. The narcissist doesn't see you as you are, doesn't want to see you as you are, and will never see you as you are. As long as you do what he wants, things may go smoothly, but he still isn't seeing you; he's just interacting with that perfect mental picture of you. And while you will grow and change, the snapshot won't, which sets you up for discard when the distance between the narcissist's fantasy and your reality grows too great.

Has spending so much time with a narcissist made you reactive, hyper-vigilant, maybe even a little screamy, as it did for me? Are you still trying to get a narcissist to see you? What other strategies might work better to get your point across? Stay curious.

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