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Why Emotionally Abusive Narcissistic Partners Insist They're the Victims

How narcissists rationalize calling their victims their abusers.

Note: I use the terms narcissist, narcissistic, or NPD as shorthand to describe someone who qualifies for a diagnosis of narcissistic personality disorder.

Have you ever wondered why many narcissists devalue and humiliate their partners and then claim to be the real victims? Some even accuse mates of being the "real" narcissists. Many of my clients report that during a fight, their partner will lie and mischaracterize what is going on in an attempt to seize the high ground, conveniently forgetting the many nasty things they said and did in the argument and instead fixating on the one harsh thing that their partner said in their own defense. Following are a few examples of what I mean.

Carlos. Carlos is a controlling and critical man with NPD. His wife, Brenda, has begun taking anti-anxiety medication and is thinking about starting anti-depressants. They have been married five years but their relationship, and Brenda’s mental health, are going downhill fast. Here is how Brenda described the situation:

I dread getting up in the morning. I know Carlos is going to have a list of things that I did wrong or might do wrong in the future. He orders me around as if I work for him. He gives me a list of chores he wants done over breakfast. When I come home after work, there is another list waiting for me—and more complaints. He is always telling me what I did wrong. I get nervous now whenever I know I will see or hear from him. I used to look forward to his texts and calls, now I dread them because I know that he will either have something nasty to say or more chores for me to do.

The crazy thing is that when I complain about his complaining, Carlos paints himself as my victim. He can say 12 nasty things to me and if I say one single thing in my defense or finally lose my cool and just tell him to please “f--k off and leave me alone,” he accuses me of being abusive. He will tell everyone he knows how he had to put up with my telling him to f--k off and I sound like a crazy shrew. He conveniently leaves out everything he has done to provoke me.

Will. Will has never learned how to give in gracefully. In his mind, everything is someone else’s fault. So, when Amy made plans for them to go out with another couple, he reluctantly agreed, although he was actually furious that she dared to plan anything without his permission.

On the way to dinner, he walked so fast that he actually left Amy behind. This was business as usual: Whenever he was angry at Amy, he made a habit of walking too fast for her to keep up. Leaving her behind was one of the ways he punished her for displeasing him. When Amy asked Will to slow down and walk with her, he said:

You are always picking on me. According to you, I can’t do anything right. I am going to this dinner because you wanted me to. Why isn’t that enough for you? Do you really have to criticize how I walk? I can’t believe how much crap I have to put up with from you!

Janet. My narcissistic client Janet tells me how deeply offended she is that the man with whom she has been cheating on her husband just dumped her. Janet had just told him that she was not going to leave her husband for him. He reacted badly and ended the relationship. However, in her eyes, she is his victim. Here is what she said to him in retaliation:

I don’t love you. I never loved you. I never intended to leave my husband for you. How dare you dump me! You are not even a real man. I just had sex with you because my husband is old and boring. I can’t believe you did this to me. I deserve better. I am going to get revenge on you by calling all our friends and telling them what you are doing to me. I refuse to be victimized by you!

So, what is going on? Why are these people with NPD claiming to be the real victims when any impartial observer would see that they are abusive?

Narcissistic Behavior and Shame

One way to understand narcissistic personality disorder is in terms of shame avoidance. Narcissists invent a fake persona through which they present themselves to the world as perfect and always right in order to avoid feeling shame about their defects. That's why, in these examples, the narcissists shift the blame for their bad behavior onto their partners. They need to see themselves as totally in the right.

Narcissists Lack Whole Object Relations

Narcissists need to portray themselves in this fake way because they lack whole object relations. This is the technical term for the ability to form an integrated, fairly stable, and more-or-less realistic picture of themselves and other people that contains both good and bad traits. One criterion for diagnosing someone with a personality disorder is that they lack whole object relations and can only see people in a split way: either all-good or all-bad.

Most people develop whole object relations in childhood if they are treated in a consistently positive way by caregivers and still shown love even when they make mistakes. If parents have whole object relations, their children are likely to develop this capacity. If the parents do not, they may switch between loving and hating their children. This prevents children from developing a stable sense of self. It is as if they spend their childhood looking into two different equally distorted mirror, one showing them as perfect and the other showing them as irredeemably flawed.

In the narcissist’s world, all-good equals perfect, special, omnipotent, and never wrong—and all-bad equals worthless, defective, and stupid. If you are all-good, you are entitled to be treated as special and the usual rules do not apply to you. If you are all-bad, you are entitled to nothing. You are a loser.

This extreme form of splitting creates a situation in which people with NPD cannot admit to any failings without losing their ability to see themselves as all-good and always right. Denying their flaws and shifting the blame for their mistakes is their only alternative to feeling worthless. There is no in-between point where they can have some flaws and make a few mistakes without seeing themselves as all-bad. If they cannot avoid seeing their errors or publicly being exposed as imperfect, they may fall into a shame-based, self-hating depression. In this state, they can become less functional and may even experience suicidal ideation.

The Parents of Narcissists and Victimization

Children need to feel safe, valued, loved, and taken care of by their parents. If this is not the situation, many children use splitting to maintain the sense that at least one of their caretakers is a good person. One parent becomes the designated good one and the other, the designated bad one. When the "good" parent acts mean, it is explained away as their response to being victimized by the “bad” parent.

As one of my clients said: “My mother was forced to give in to my father. She was so afraid of him that she couldn’t protect me from his beatings.” The sad reality was that this client’s mother actually shifted the blame for her mistakes onto my client so that her husband would punish him and not her.

This theme of victimization may also be acted out with siblings. One child may be the designated golden child who can do no wrong, while another child becomes the scapegoat. When the golden child hits the scapegoat, the behavior is explained away; the golden child is the real victim, protecting himself from being abused by his lesser sibling.

If you have a narcissist in your life who is abusing you, yet claims to be the real victim, it is usually because they learned early in life to feel that making a mistake, any mistake, makes them imperfect and invalidates any successes they have had. This extreme and distorted view causes them to do whatever that they can to avoid seeing themselves as the abuser. Despite all evidence to the contrary, they will twist the truth until they can find one small “fact” that they believe justifies seeing you as the abuser and them as your innocent victim.

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