I received a large (and at times agitated) response to my post on the difference between abusive men and narcissists. In the midst of those dialogues I promised to pursue the issues further in a Part 2.
In the mean time, I wrote a post explaining my view of narcissists, to help clarify the things I’m going to write about today. The word “narcissist” means lots of different things to different people. As I explained in that post, I’m using the term in the psychological sense where it means a person who has a shattered sense of self and who therefore is completely incapable of taking responsibility for his (or her) actions. He is likely to have a grandiose sense of self to cover how much he hates himself on a deeper level.
So now here’s Part 2 of “Narcissists vs. Abusers.”
Before I dive in, I want to address a misunderstanding. Two or three of the people who responded to Part 1 felt that I was minimizing how cruel and destructive some men are. But when I say that a man is an abuser rather than a narcissist, I’m not saying he’s a drop less bad. In many ways the abuser is even worse than the true narcissist, though they can both be extremely destructive.
Okay, first point, and this one may surprise you: It doesn’t much matter whether your partner is an abuser, a narcissist, or half way in between.
Narcissism is one of a collection of mental health conditions known as “personality disorders” (a lousy term). Personality disorders don’t respond to psychotherapy or to any other emotional healing system that’s been tried so far. (There is one exception, a very intensive program called “Dialectical Behavior Therapy”; but it’s next to impossible to get someone to do that program if they don’t admit to having a behavioral problem.)
What it comes down in the simplest terms, then, is that abusive men rarely change and narcissists never do. If you spend a lot of your precious hours reading up on how to assess narcissism, and you come to the conclusion that your partner fits the bill, all you’ve really learned is that your situation is even worse than you thought. That knowledge won’t tell you anything new about what to do now.
Second point: Despite what I just said, I recognize that people aren’t going to stop being eager to understand the difference, so here are some distinguishing points:
* The true narcissist exploits other people in his life, not just his intimate partners. If you learn his history, you’ll discover multiple other people whom he has really burned. The narcissist fools a lot of people – as the abuser does – but there are at least a few people who hate his guts because of what he’s done to them. If the only people who know the truth about what the guy is really like are his past partners, he’s a straight-up abuser.
* The abuser truly believes he’s superior to his partner. His superiority is not a cover for self-hatred. He has been socialized through his childhood to look down on women he’s involved with and see them as existing beneath him, and for his benefit.
* The abuser can have significant relationships in his life in which he isn’t abusive – as long as it’s not a partner relationship or a child in the home. (Abusers can be terrible to children because they think of them as personal possessions, the same way they view their partners.) His connections to siblings, to close friends, to employers or employees, can be pretty normal. That’s part of the hell for an abused woman; she feels like, “Why does he reserve all the terrible stuff for me?”
The true narcissist, on the other hand, will bring bad dynamics to many, if not most, of their significant relationships in life. They can’t have lasting close connections with anyone without their self-centeredness becoming apparent. Emotional intimacy triggers their issues in a big way even if it’s not with a partner and even with men.
* The true narcissist can’t face up to bad things he’s done, regardless of the context. The abuser, on the other hand, often can face up and take responsibility for bad acts – but not if he did them to a partner. (Though many domestic abusers can’t own what they’ve done to children either.)
* The true narcissist does not tend to be severely violent, believe it or not. Male violence towards women comes from abusiveness, not from narcissism. (Be wary of media reports that connect male violence to narcissism; they aren’t backed up well by research.)
* As I said in Part 1, research does not find abusers to have unusually painful childhoods, though they commonly claim that they did. Narcissists, on the other hand, tend to be survivors of serious psychological abuse as a child and sometimes physical abuse as well.
I don’t believe that parents can create a narcissist by over-catering to a child, by the way. They can create someone who is immature and who expects everything done for him, but that’s very different from narcissism. If your partner was treated like a prince, so that he grew up with all kinds of grandiosity and expectations of service, that’s an abuser not a narcissist.
Third point: In practical terms, there are major similarities between abusers and narcissists. They both can be very exploitative (but with abusers that will be restricted to their partners and children), they both insist that nothing’s ever their fault, they both do a lot of lying, they both like to turn people against you, and on and on.
The reason I consider the distinction important is because communities and governments can make huge mistakes when they don’t understand the difference. But the distinction doesn’t have huge implications for the individual abused woman who is trying to figure out what to do about her own situation. The difficult choices she faces are pretty much the same either way.
Beware, though, that statistically speaking the abuser is even more dangerous than the narcissist.
A few closing thoughts:
1) When I use the term “abuser,” I’m talking about men who abuse female partners. I’m not knowledgeable about other forms of abuse, such as parents who abuse children, so I can’t speak to that.
2) Narcissism is about deep early wounds. Abusiveness, on the other hand, is about societal training, through which a man learns that he has the right to require women to serve him, and has the right to enforce that service. He enforces his exploitation by punishing the woman verbally, physically, or sexually, or by taking her rights away in other ways when she refuses to serve him in the way he demands. (Or when she just plain can’t do what he wants even when she tries.)
3) The solution to narcissism is to fight child abuse. The solution to abusiveness is to:
demand full and equal rights for women
demand that communities actually hold men accountable for their abuse of women
demand that boys be raised to be responsible and respectful members of society
As my favorite bumpersticker says, Boys Will Be Men. If we raise boys to feel that they have special license to behave badly (“boys will be boys”) and to consider themselves superior to girls, those are the men we’re going to get.
Lundy’s new suspense novel, IN CUSTODY, takes on the anti-mother bias and corruption driving the family courts today. A young journalist sets out to investigate the disappearance of a mother and her daughter, and she stumbles into a dark world of intimidation, profiteering, and legal abuse — and finds herself in danger.