Stop Walking on Eggshells

When someone in your life has borderline or narcissistic personality disorder

"My Wife Makes Me Feel Like a Zombie"

Where do you go after you've radically accepted?

My last blog post on Radical Acceptance caused someone to write:

Dear Randi:

I have been struggling with the roller coaster for 32 years. I go from trying to connect to trying to survive, to realizing (very recently) that I've become an emotional zombie where she's concerned. It breaks my heart to realize that I have the same emotional response when she says something wonderful about me and then betrays that love. I've realized that I just don't have it in me anymore, and I don't want the "zombie plague" to spread any further.

But before I fully throw in the towel, I figured I should take a look at this "radical acceptance" I keep reading about but have been afraid to look at too closely. I got into this mess because I believed I was strong enough to be OK myself while I tried to help her be OK. What I discovered is that I not only couldn't help her be OK, but I was spiraling downward myself (familiar story?).
[Oh my yes.]

Radical acceptance sounds as though it requires something like that. Or maybe the ability to respond to the loving behaviors and simply let the malicious behaviors go into the "I accept this" bin. I don't know that I'm strong enough to hold myself together in that scenario without spiraling downward again.

If you relate to your spouse as you would to a child or to someone who can't regulate their emotions (which is pretty much what we're dealing with), it doesn't seem much like a marriage at all, but rather one partner taking on the role of caregiver or parent, with a lifelong commitment to that role. I can't imagine doing that. Is that a shortcoming in me? Do I not love enough? Do I not care enough?

See All Stories In

"I Hate You, Don't Leave Me!"

Understanding borderline personality disorder.

Find a Therapist

Search for a mental health professional near you.

Sincerely,

"John"

Dear John:

You're confusing a few ideas here. Let's just talk first about radical acceptance. You have partly accepted the situation. That is the start. As to what you DO and where you GO from there is a different subject. To summarize your situation:

  • Your marriage is making you feel like a zombie and you are spiraling downward to numbness and nothingness.
  • You know you don't want to be a caretaker, but have have an equal marriage in which you get supported too.
  • You think you know after 30-plus years you cannot change your wife--but you have not exactly accepted this radically (see magical thinking, below).

What radical acceptance means is not that you accept your zombie life like this, but you accept that your wife probably has a personality disorder. What you haven't accepted is that you can't change it or fix it with your love and caring. You didn't CAUSE it, you can't CONTROL it, and you can't CURE it.

Now, you have insight into something that scares me: the relationship is so unsatisfactory you are numbing yourself out to surviving it. Think about that: zombies are dead people who have been animated. Some people use drugs and alcohol to get that numb: you have been able to do it all by yourself.

You are experiencing something called cognitive dissonance. Take a look from the net from the good folks at Changing Minds, quoting Festinger (1957), Festinger and Carlsmith (1959):

Cognitive dissonance is the feeling of uncomfortable tension which comes from holding two conflicting thoughts in the mind at the same time [in this case, the fact you place a high value on your marriage commitment, but you realize this value could turn you into a "living zombie"].

Dissonance increases with:

  • The importance of the subject to us. 
  • How strongly the dissonant thoughts conflict.
  • Our inability to rationalize and explain away the conflict.

Dissonance is often strong when we believe something about ourselves and then do something against that belief. If I believe I am good but do something bad, then the discomfort I feel as a result is cognitive dissonance.

Cognitive dissonance is a very powerful motivator which will often lead us to change one or other of the conflicting belief or action. The discomfort often feels like a tension between the two opposing thoughts. To release the tension we can take one of three actions:

  • Change our behavior. 
  • Justify our behavior by changing the conflicting cognition.
  • Justify our behavior by adding new cognitions.

     

    Dissonance is most powerful when it is about our self-image. Feelings of foolishness, immorality and so on (including internal projections during decision-making) are dissonance in action.

    If an action has been completed and cannot be undone, then the after-the-fact dissonance compels us to change our beliefs. If beliefs are moved, then the dissonance appears during decision-making, forcing us to take actions we would not have taken before.

    Cognitive dissonance appears in virtually all evaluations and decisions and is the central mechanism by which we experience new differences in the world. When we see other people behave differently to our images of them, when we hold any conflicting thoughts, we experience dissonance.

    Dissonance increases with the importance and impact of the decision, along with the difficulty of reversing it. Discomfort about making the wrong choice of car is bigger than when choosing a lamp.

    So. On the one hand, you seem to value your commitment to the marriage, however unhappy it makes you. But on the other hand, you know it is eating you alive and what you're tolerating isn't right. You believe in kindness and acceptance to people. But you also realize you need kindness and acceptance given TOWARD you too, that you want a give and take relationship.

    Time to work on yourself. You have a clear picture of your needs and wants. Now you must figure out what is a need and what is a want, and how you are going to resolve that dissonance. That will probably involve going back to your childhood and looking at what you learned marriage and relationships are all about. Did yu ever have a role model of a healthy, giving relationship between two truly intimate people?

    That kind of thinking is part of getting UNSTUCK...read the chapter on that power tool in The Essential Family Guide to Borderline Personality Disorder.  Only when you fully resolve the dissonance and doing the work on being stuck can you make the right choices for you and your children, if any.

Randi Kreger is the co-author of Stop Walking on Eggshells.

more...

Subscribe to Stop Walking on Eggshells

Current Issue

Dreams of Glory

Daydreaming: How the best ideas emerge from the ether.