Social Distancing: Isolation with the Narcissist

Uploaded 3/27/2020, approx. 11 minute read

My name is Sam Vaknin, and yes, I am the author of Malignant Self-Love, Narcissism Revisited.

Can't help it. Try it.

Perhaps the only thing worse than catching COVID-19 is having to spend time in social isolation with a narcissist. It's the equivalent of a hostage situation, and it provokes the panoply of psychological reactions which are typical to victims in hostage-taking situations.

They teach this in the FBI Academy and in various police academies throughout the world, hostage negotiators.

So the first time a hostage situation had been described was in Stockholm, hence the Stockholm Syndrome, later transformed and discombobulated into the Trauma Bonding Syndrome.

The Stockholm Syndrome is when the hostage bonds and gets attached to the kidnapper because the kidnapper is perceived as the only source of power and the only source of benevolence or malice.

It is up to the hostage to convert the kidnapper to her cause. It's up to her to coopt the kidnapper so that he prefers to be benevolent rather than malevolent.

And so the kidnapper and the hostage bond in what is known as trauma bonding.

Trauma bonding is a dynamic that occurs in social isolation with the narcissist. The spouse or mate or intimate partner of the narcissist tries to be on his good side, tries to cater to his knees, walks on eggshells as she tries to not provoke him, to not enrage him, to not irritate him.

And of course, God forbid, to not contradict him or disagree with him, point out his weaknesses, his frailties, his mistakes, his defeats, his failures, you know what I mean.

So there is this intricate dance macabre between victim and perpetrator, abuser and abused, prey and predator, narcissist and his spouse or intimate partner, whereby one of them becomes more and more submissive as time passes and the other one leverages this submissiveness to exert control in a conspicuous and ostentatious manner.

And so it's all about control, really.

In a state of isolation, the victim is cut off from all support networks, friends, family, domestic violence shelters, law enforcement agencies, it's all gone out the window, neighbors, no one is there to save the victim should anything untoward, unseemly or even dangerous happen.

And so the victim is left to her own devices and at the complete mercy of the narcissist.

This is a new situation, because even in extreme cases of narcissistic abuse in normal environments, non pandemic environments, the victim always has options. She can always adopt coping strategies, she can always revert or refer to outsiders for help. She can go to the court and get protective orders, she can run away to a domestic violence shelter, she can call a hotline.

In a situation where both of them are cooked together in a confined space in each other's hair.

Of course, the narcissist also spies on his spouse or intimate partners. What is she doing? Who is she calling? Which websites is she surfing? What secret messages she's sending?

In such an intense environment, in such a pressure cooker setting, the narcissist becomes unusually paranoid. He begins to develop paranoid and persecutory ideation.

And so he begins to regard his spouse or intimate partner as a potential enemy, as a persecutory object, as we call it.

And he begins to construct defenses. He begins to spy on her, he begins to limit her movements, he begins to follow her around, he begins to pop in and make sure that she doesn't do anything to compromise his safety, perhaps, or worse, his life.

Paranoia is an inevitable outcome of such confinement. And we see it also in other settings, such as hospitals or prisons or in the army.

And so the narcissist develops paranoia.

And there is a process called displacement of control. When we cannot control our external environment, when we're at the mercy of a dictatorship, or worse, at the mercy of a pandemic, a pandemic is indiscriminate, it recognises no authority, rule of law, borders, reasoning, mores, conventions, whatever, a pandemic kills.

So you're at the complete mercy of a pandemic. You are with zero control, utter loss of control.

Narcissists cannot countenance that. Narcissism is about control, actually.

And so the narcissist displaces his control. He cannot control the virus, true enough, but he can control his spouse. He can control his intimate partner. So he switches, he shifts his need for control towards the person he cohabits with.

And from that moment, he micromanages this person. He controls this person to the minutest details. It is his way of reasserting control over his life.

We see such displacement of control in other mental health disorders, for example, eating disorders. And eating disorder is a displacement of control. The patient usually has no control over other aspects of her life, of the dimensions of her existence. So what she does, she controls her weight and food intake. That's her way of displacing control.

Alcoholism is a similar psychodynamic. It's all about displacing control.

So narcissistic abuse is amplified and enhanced by the need to displace control.

The narcissist, for the first time, perhaps in his life, in a pandemic, feels utterly helpless. His very omnipotence, his very grandiosity is all powerful and all-knowing being. They are challenged by the virus. The virus is his mortal enemy because the virus exposes the narcissist as a mere infinite being, not godlike by any means. The virus enters his lungs. He dies absolutely like everyone else. It's the great equalizer. It's an equal opportunity pandemic.

And the narcissist is never equal. He's never common. He's never like anyone else or everyone else. It's humiliating. It's destabilizing. It can push the narcissist to the verge of psychosis.

And many narcissists in such situations display psychotic micro-episodes.

So narcissists need to control. He takes it out, all of it, out on his spouse and intimate path.

At the same time that the narcissist is in such dire need of reasserting control and reconstructing or buttressing his grandiosity by reasserting control at the same time, he doesn't have narcissistic supply. It's very difficult to obtain narcissistic supply when you're in social isolation. There's only that much you can do over the internet. You can make YouTube videos every day. Hint, hint. You can post on Instagram three times a day instead of once. You can correspond and chat with a few people. That's more or less it.

But the narcissist obtains narcissistic supply within a pathological narcissistic space within his neighborhood, in his workplace. He needs human interactions.

Ironically, the narcissist is pro-social. He works with other people because he is critically dependent on input from other people, on feedback from other people for the regulation of his inner landscape of his inner psychodynamic processes. He has no ego, so he has no ego functions. He outsources his ego functions to other people.

And in the absence of these people, he disintegrates. He goes through a process called decompensation and he acts out. He loses it.

To cut a long story short, he flips. He becomes technically at least insane and he takes it out on his spouse and intimate partner. He cannot obtain supply from the outside. He rages at her. He punishes her for the situation. He has to punish someone. He has to, he's never responsible. He has alloplastic defenses. He always blames the world, someone else, for his defeats, failures, mistakes, mishaps.

And of course, the pandemic is not his fault really. In this case, it's not wrong. It's really the universe that is out to get him. And his spouse and intimate partner is an extension of the universe. She stands in for the universe. She represents the universe. She is the reification of the injustice done to the narcissist as a victim of an impersonal, equalizing pandemic.

And so he punishes her as a very strong punitive component in his relationship to his spouse.

And this is one aspect of myriad, myriad manifestations of aggression.

As when a narcissist is frustrated, like all of us by the way, 1939, there was a psychologist by the name of Dolot and he suggested the frustration, frustration, aggression hypothesis.

As a way we are frustrated, very often we become aggressive. The narcissist is no exception. The narcissist gets frustrated because he cannot obtain supply, because he's not in control, because he's not all powerful, because his brandyosity is challenged, because he feels like everyone else. So he's very frustrated.

And because his partner, his spouse, his mate cannot resolve these issues. Don't forget the narcissist psychologically is a child and his intimate partner or spouse is his parent. He parentifies his significant other. He parentifies his intimate partner.

And like every child, he expects his parent to solve the situation, to resolve, to propose something, to kind of make it go away. And when his partner fails to do so, there is a childish response equivalent to a tantrum, if you wish.

There is enormous disillusionment, a breakdown of the idealization and idolization of the intimate partner. It's like a child being disappointed in his mother.

This is coupled with objecting constancy. In other words, if the mother, the mother is transformed via a dynamic called splitting, defense mechanism called splitting, the mother, as represented by the spouse or the partner, is transformed from an all good mother to an all bad mother. She suddenly evil, persecutory, frustrating, how to get him, hateful, vengeful. He suddenly sees her all black, all wrong.

And so it's a sequence. He loses control. He loses supply. He expects his, unconsciously, he expects his spouse or intimate partner to solve it. She fails, she fails, she's bad. She's bad, she should be punished.

Aggression. And aggression can wear many faults. It could be sexual aggression. He could suddenly demand sex endlessly, or on the contrary, withhold sex. It could be physical aggression, beating, violence, literally. It could be verbal aggression, which is the most common form of psychological aggression, perniciously and in subtle ways undermining the sanity and the functioning of his spouse, for example, via constant gas lighting. It could be silent treatment. It could be even overt threats. You just wait until this is over. I'll show you.

So the narcissist creates a toxic brew, a toxic environment. And this is the only thing that grows exponentially, not the pandemic.

Gradually, it becomes impossible to survive in such an environment. And the victim needs to adopt a strategy that I call background noise strategy. It is counterproductive to adopt any of the classical strategies because they will only enhance the narcissist's frustration.

If you mirror the narcissist, it will render him violent. If you go gray rock, the narcissist will perceive it as intentional frustration and will become even more aggressive. If you provide too much narcissistic supply, it will enhance his paranoia. If you're becoming too solicitous, too complimentary, if you flatter him too much, he will begin to suspect that you're trying to manipulate him. It will enhance his persecutory ideation.

So the only technique in such a situation is background noise. Background noise simply means that you are there for the narcissist. You cater to his wishes and his demands, but you do so in a way that renders you a non-entity. He asks you a question, you answer only that question. You don't initiate, you don't diverge. He demands something you provided. He doesn't talk to you, you don't talk to him. He never initiated. You're there like some kind of white background noise. Younoise.

You respond fully. You don't disengage. You don't challenge. You don't disagree. You don't criticize. You don't provide advice. You don't volunteer. You don't initiate. You don't exist. You deny your own existence.

You go into suspended animation. You become a non-entity, but a responsive non-entity, kind of a smartphone app if you wish.

Smartphone apps don't initiate. They don't attack you. They have pushed technology, but up to a limit. You can change the settings. You can control them.

So you should be the same as a victim. You should be there for the narcissist, but not too much. You should respond, but with imbalance. You should take care of needs, but without initiating. You should not nag, definitely. Stay away. Keep out of sight.

Remember, the narcissist has no object constancy. Out of sight, out of his mind. Out of mind. Out of mind, you will not become a target of aggression.

Where the physical space is confined, where there are children which necessitate contact, play background noise. There's no other technique that works. Everything else will provoke the less savory aspects of narcissism and of narcissistic abuse.

Mind you, even this advice, even this technique, has a limited shelf life. Should social isolation continue for much longer, narcissistic abuse will be transformed into very ugly manifestations.

I'm very afraid of an epidemic of domestic violence in the physical sense. I'm very afraid of the effects that this might have on children. I'm very, very worried about what's happening because for the first time that I'm aware of, victims have been told, instructed, coerced and forced to share a living space with their abusers and all their options have been taken away.

And none of the strategies, we, all of us, including me, have developed. None of these strategies are irrelevant. The victim cannot go no contact. She should not go gray rock. She should not mirror. She should not provide supply. She should not definitely withhold supply.

None of these techniques work. The only technique available is background noise. And again, it is limited in time. Sooner or later, the narcissist will target his spouse or intimate partner simply because he has no one else to interact with. Not because she had done something, but because she's.

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