Finding Sisu in Suffering
Enduring with tenacity through narcissistic abuse.
Posted Aug 22, 2020
This is part 3 of the Growing Through Pain profile series.
Narcissistic relationships present the most silent – and secret – forms of abuse. Instead of physical signs of abuse, such as bruises or black eyes, psychological abuse is hidden. However, an attack on someone’s mind is just as scarring as a broken bone and it demands healing and recognizance. Vera House, a nonprofit foundation in Syracuse, NY, states that verbal and emotional abuse is just as harmful as physical abuse; “the only difference is the abuser’s choice of weapon” (Emotional & Verbal Abuse brochure).
The Ananias Foundation succinctly defines abuse as the mistreatment of something that results in harm (2018). Examples of psychological abuse go beyond name-calling to include stalking, harassment through text messaging, emails, and social media, implied or specific threats, intimidation, isolation, infantilization, gaslighting, control, and even chronic lying and denial (Pietrangelo, 2018). Psychological abuse occurs in all relationships from personal to professional and is blind to gender, race, sexual identity, age, income, education, occupation, social status, religion, etc.
Women tend to be the so-called “face” of domestic violence despite a very small statistical difference in the gender of psychological abuse victims. Per the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, 48.4% of women and 48.8% of men experience at least one psychologically aggressive behavior from their intimate partner. When it comes to coercive control, the statistics are equal: 4 out of 10 of both men and women experience this. A study by the CDC stated that “we need to recognize that intimate partner violence is a people problem, not a women’s problem” (Hoff, 2010).
There is a shroud of silence that prevents abused men from speaking out and receiving help, which in turn prevents healing. Men are seen as the perpetrators of domestic violence, not the recipients, and therefore cannot be victims (Sheesley, 2019). Being a man does not protect someone from being a victim.
Eric is a victim of narcissistic psychological abuse who is actively working on his personal healing and rebuilding his relationships with his children. Sadly, this was only able to take place after his narcissistic wife died. Growing up in the 1960s and 1970s, Eric had formed a conviction that men never abandon their children or families. “I must have expressed that to Vanessa at one point,” he says, and like a true narcissist, she used that to her advantage.
Eric met Vanessa on a blind date when she was visiting her cousins, who were Eric’s neighbors. Despite the considerable geographical distance between them, they embarked on a relationship. She “was very beautiful, sexually demanding, challenged me with phrases such as ‘you can’t afford me.’ I should have recognized these as warning signs.” Vanessa lived several states over and made Eric feel incredibly guilty for not flying out to visit her more than once or twice a month; she never attempted to visit him. Within a year, Vanessa decided they should get married: she and Eric had only physically been together in person less than a month.
After their first child was born, more of Vanessa’s narcissistic traits were exposed. The baby merely cemented Eric’s inability to escape the marriage and reinforced Vanessa’s control. The family began eating out up to four times a week (“Vanessa was too preoccupied with the baby to cook”) and slept alone in the master bedroom so she could be “undisturbed.” Eric recalls that the baby was colicky, “so I would sleep next to the bassinet, every night, in the guest room.” Vanessa also refused to change the baby when the child would vomit, “and most days I would race the six blocks home at lunchtime to clean up and change the baby because throw-up made Vanessa sick to her stomach.” This inability and unwillingness to recognize the needs of others, especially a helpless child, show the disturbing non-empathy of a narcissist.
Vanessa’s spending habits were out of control to appear superior to others. Insisting on having the best of everything, believing to be above others, and having a sense of entitlement are hallmarks of a narcissistic personality. She demanded Eric purchase a $10,000 fur coat for her because winters where they lived were cold; their children were dressed in designer clothes from France; credit cards were maxed out; and their homes were selected based on proximity to local celebrities.
When Eric would broach the subject of slowing down on shopping, Vanessa reacted with rage and threats. “She screamed at me to figure it out. She said she would petition for divorce and would tell the judge I abused her.” The history of psychological abuse led Eric to believe her and, out of fear of losing his children, he stopped criticizing his wife and agreed to move money around to cover the expenses. At one point, they fell behind on their mortgage payments and Eric wanted to sell the house; again, Vanessa became enraged, refused to move, and wouldn’t relocate until the Sheriff served eviction papers. Over the years, Eric rebuilt his businesses, but Vanessa continued spending as quickly as the money was made.
“Vanessa could do no wrong and was never wrong. She knew everything, and I was stupid.” He realizes now that by not fighting back, he was enabling Vanessa. “I don’t think anybody could have stopped her destructive, selfish impulses.” Eric suffered a heart attack in 1997, and in 2010, underwent a coronary bypass. During his cardio rehab, Vanessa complained that it took him away from the house “too often,” and Eric quit after just 12 sessions. By that time, he knew the marriage was “not salvageable. However, I saw no benefit in divorcing Vanessa. If I did, she would make our children’s lives miserable and give them no peace.”
It is only now, after the recent death of his wife, that Eric feels able to seek out counseling and begin the healing process. His children also recognize the narcissistic traits in their mother and are working on repairing their relationship with Eric. He draws comfort from the Finnish term for fortitude, sisu, which describes stoic determination, grit, bravery, and resilience. Eric’s sisu is what kept him alive all these years.
Eric is a clear example of how men suffer in silence in psychologically abusive relationships. However, there is hope. Many organizations and resources exist to provide help, counseling, and healing. For more information, check out the following resources:
- Domestic Violence Resource Network, funded by the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services
- National Center on Domestic Violence, Trauma & Mental Health
- National Resource Center on Domestic Violence
- National Domestic Violence Hotline
Ananias Foundation. (2018). Retrieved from https://www.ananiasfoundation.org/domestic-violence-statistics/
Hoff, B. H. (2010). National study: more men than women victims of partner abuse. Center for Disease Control. Retrieved from http://www.saveservices.org/2012/02/cdc-study-more-men-than-women-victims-of-partner-abuse/
NCADV. (2015). Facts about domestic violence and psychological abuse. Retrieved from www.ncadv.org
Pietrangelo, A. (2018). How to recognize the signs of mental and emotional abuse. Healthline. Retrieved from https://www.healthline.com/health/signs-of-mental-abuse
Sheeley, J. (2019). Afraid to come forward: Why men don’t report domestic violence. BTSADV: The National Voice of Domestic Violence. Retrieved from https://breakthesilencedv.org/afraid-to-come-forward-why-men-dont-report-domestic-violence/
Vera House. (n.d.). Emotional & verbal abuse: You do not deserve to be abused. [brochure]. Retrieved from https://www.healthline.com/health/signs-of-mental-abuse