The Four Horsemen

These are the four things that indicate a marriage apocalypse is on its way:

  • Criticism

    Complaints are fine. Criticism is more global — it attacks the person, not their behavior. They didn’t take out the garbage because they forgot, but because they’re a bad person.

Both my parents had, um, “high standards”.  The difference was that Dad could help you learn how to meet them, whereas Mom simply criticized, for the most part.  I can remember her complaining about how I dressed –  but it was not so much an indictment of my clothing, but of me personally — “You’re SO DRAMATIC!” was her favorite.  In particular, I remember that she criticized the dress I sewed for Homecoming my senior year — not the workmanship, which of course she might have been able to teach me how to do better — but she complained that, “You can have a dramatic color, cut or style — but not all three at once!”  Of course, this was after the dress was well under way, if not finished.  (Besides, it was the 80’s.  And frankly, I loved it and I looked awesome in it.)

I can also remember that while she was staying with me for Joe & Susan’s wedding, at one point my own mother told me to my face that she liked Susan better than me, because Susan was “nicer to her.”  (Susan is a suck-up to whoever she thinks has power in any given situation.  I’m not the only family member who has noticed this.  One guess as to why my sister likes her so much.)

Mom actually said several hurtful things to me during this visit — she also voiced the actual statement that she would not bother to attend my wedding — but the one where she said she liked Susan better than me was the worst.  At one point my husband-to-be said, “Every time you go somewhere with your mother you come back crying.”  Finally he had had enough, and he picked her up from church and had a talk with her about her behavior.  Mom tried all her usual tricks to deflect accountability:  “You don’t know what their father did to me” was the trump card, of course.

So let’s think about that for a minute:  first of all, the assumption is that everything was 100% Dad’s fault — which at this point has been accepted for so long, it practically goes without saying.

Second, this is a MOTHER saying straight out to her DAUGHTER that she likes a woman who is practically a stranger BETTER THAN SHE LIKES HER OWN FLESH AND BLOOD.  WTF?  This is unbelievably nasty.  A mother telling her daughter that she doesn’t like her as much as she likes someone else.  Because that someone else sucks up to her, and feeds her sense of superiority — that is the hallmark of the narcissist.

ETA:  I recently recounted this incident to a longtime friend, whose mother was a kind, loving, generous woman — despite having some serious marriage issues of her own.  I can remember one year she and my other best friend’s mother each sewed their daughters a popular three-tiered skirt, and this woman made one for me too, so I wouldn’t be left out, because she knew my own mother wouldn’t do it.

When I repeated to this friend the words that my mother said to me, my friend actually physically flinched.

Third, my mother then attempts to blame her current nastiness ON MY FATHER.  What he did to her all those years ago apparently forces her to make these nasty remarks 20 years later.

It would be pathetic, if it were not pathological.

The sort-of-but-not-really amusing part about this is that she also habitually criticized my father for being critical.  “The criticism game is the easiest game to play,” she would sneer.  Projection much?

In contrast, I can remember having a phone conversation with my dad when I was in college, where I told him I got a 98 on an exam and he immediately asked, “Why didn’t you get 100?”  I called him out on that one, saying that 98% was frankly pretty damned good,  and a few days later I got a note from him that I still have.  It is very faded and torn, taped back together, and full of holes from having it pinned up on bulletin boards for probably 10 years or more, but the words are precious to me.

Congratulations on the superIMG_20140917_0003 test grades!  I guess I most times just expect you to do well, as you have always had exceptional grades.  You have to know how proud I am of you and your accomplishments.  You should do well in life if you continually strive to be the best at what you do.  Everyone can improve if they want to, the main thing is to want to.  Am proud of you!… Keep up the good work!  Until later — Love you!  Miss you!  Love, Dad

  • Contempt

    “…name-calling, eye-rolling, sneering, mockery, and hostile humor. In whatever form, contempt – the worst of the four horsemen – is poisonous to a relationship because it conveys disgust. It’s virtually impossible to resolve a problem when your partner is getting the message that you’re disgusted with him or her.”

My mother referred to my father as a “bumpkin” because he came from a dinky little town in Iowa and she came from Chicago.  Another of her favorite nasty things to say about me was, “You’re so PRAGMATIC — just like your father!”  The tone of voice she used left no doubt that in her view, being either of these things was contemptible.

  • Defensiveness

    “…defensiveness is really a way of blaming your partner. You’re saying, in effect, ‘The problem isn’t me, it’s you.’ Defensiveness just escalates the conflict, which is why it’s so deadly.”

Narcissism writ large.  Blame-shifting is an art my mother was a master of.

  • Stonewalling

    Tuning out. Disengaging. This doesn’t just remove the person from the conflict, it ends up removing them, emotionally, from the relationship.

I have very little to go on to get an idea of how my parents might have tried to resolve their difficulties, although with a narcissist it usually just isn’t possible.

Two things I can remember:  one is, I can remember running to the back door to greet my father when he arrived home (side note:  I believe I was the only kid who did this) and he picked me up, hugged me and carried me into the kitchen — whereupon he and my mother started fighting about something.  I can remember tugging on Dad’s ear and whispering to him to please stop, but it didn’t work.

The second example is from when I was in kindergarten, and includes both of the last two items:  blame-shifting and stonewalling.

To make decorations in preparation for Open House, we lay on pieces of brown paper and someone drew an outline to create life-sized portraits of ourselves.  I can remember working very VERY hard to re-create the pattern of interlocking circles printed on my blue corduroy pants, and I can remember being disappointed that I didn’t have time to finish drawing it over the whole area.  (I think someone noticed and was impressed by those efforts, but because of the rest of the story, I don’t think it was anyone in my family — it was probably the teacher.)

We also had to dictate a few lines about our families to the principal’s secretary, who typed them up on cards. The descriptions were posted next to each of our portraits, for everyone to see.

Mine said something like, “My parents fight a lot and my mother prays a lot.”

I don’t remember Dad’s reaction, but I remember Mom was horrified and embarrassed, and she placed the blame on me for not knowing that I should not have said those things.  (Pretty fucked up, yes?  but business as usual for the narcissist.)

But the other big clue was the second half of my statement:  “my mother prays a lot.”

10261759_701864376564285_892702048_nI have long felt that my mom was not very good at solving her own problems, which may have engendered her desire to be coddled and taken care of.  If you suck at running your own life, your options are threefold:  to figure out better ways to do things, to live with the way things are, or to get someone else to do the work for you.  She was apparently incapable of doing the first (or, as in my father’s note, she simply didn’t want to); the second was not acceptable; the third was her way of coping with just about everything.  I believe praying falls into that third category:  trying to get god himself to do your work for you.  Talk about narcissistic!  The almighty has nothing better to do?  JFC.