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The short answer is, it depends. A true narcissistic personality is utterly conscious of the ways in which they are manipulating and hurting you. And they simply don’t care. More than that, it gives them pleasure, a sense of superiority and control. It is a big part of their psychopathology. Other abusers, who don’t score highly enough on narcissistic traits to be labelled with full-blown Narcissistic Personality Disorder, may simply be repeating patterns they learned in childhood and in subsequent relationships. I say ‘simply’, but the process via which it happens is far from simple, nor is it simple to unravel and to heal.
Mostly though, people don’t fit neatly into two separate categories – pathological abuser and ‘ordinary’ abuser, for instance. Personality traits aren’t ‘either/or’, but exist on a bipolar continuum, meaning they range from mild to severe, depending on the person, and also on the circumstances or environment in which that person acts. So…looking again at whether or not abusers do what they do purposefully…I can’t make that assessment for you, but may be able to help you fathom the answer as it relates to your personal situation.
On blogs and discussion groups you’ll find professionals and lay-people alike debating this question and coming out in favour of one side or the other. So how do you tell the difference?
- Look for the lies
If your partner consistently lies, chances are they are fully aware of what they’re doing. There is one school of thought that suggests narcissistic personalities are so adept at deceiving themselves, they actually believe their own lies. I have rarely witnessed this to be the case. There’s a reliable way of finding out, however.
If you catch them in a lie, bring it to their attention in a non-accusatory way. Simply state the truth and that you are aware you’ve been lied to. Then wait for the reaction.
The abuser who is aware she is lying will immediately go for the jugular – yours! It will be swift and brutal. (If you don’t keep your wits about you, you’ll be the one who ends up apologizing.) The response you get will likely have absolutely nothing to do with the point you’ve just made but will be something pulled out of thin air to deflect from their own guilt. They will, instead, hark back to the past and throw some perceived, and entirely irrelevant misdemeanor of yours in your face. And because you care about how they feel, you will likely take the bait. It’s a trip to hell.
2. Their body language and facial expression will reveal the truth.
There’s a phenomenon I have come across countless times during my discussions with targets of emotional abuse. There is something soulless about the eyes and expression of an abuser who clearly has sadistic tendencies. Their eyes will go black. Their facial expressions will be incredibly cold. There is something ‘frozen’ and reptilian about the face that looks back at you. You’ll feel chilled to the bone and very frightened, even if he/she has never laid a hand on you. Trust this instinct.
3. Your tears and genuine emotional pain will not move them.
This hardly needs explanation. If you find yourself genuinely in pain and trying to reason with your abuser, tears in your eyes, your heart breaking … and it fails to move them … they are very aware of what they’re doing. In the words of my own abuser, ‘I knew what I was saying and doing was wrong, and it wasn’t true … but I just wanted to stick it to you.’ He felt that was a perfectly reasonable explanation. I’ll go out on a limb here and disagree with numerous ‘experts’, many of whom have never experienced this first hand, and say it’s utterly inappropriate to excuse these people on the grounds that the poor things don’t have the capacity for empathy. Oh dear, isn’t it sad? They don’t have the capacity for intimacy. They’ll never really experience real love. While that may be true, abusers in this category don’t value things like intimacy – so they aren’t suffering at all. You are. And they don’t give a hoot.
The Bottom Line
Does it really matter if they’re aware of their effect on you, or not? You can’t change them. In fact, from the point of view of ‘tough love’, leaving them to it may give them the only chance they have of facing their demons and becoming better people. It’s not your job. Not your circus. Not your monkeys. The harder you try, the more you will fail. Narcissists already think you are in their lives for one reason only, and that is to make them the centre of your universe. The harder you try, the more you are feeding them what they want – the popular terminology for what you are to them is ‘narcissistic supply’. You are being sucked dry by an emotional vampire and therapists and researchers agree that the chances of positive change are very, very small.
Do you want to waste years of your life hoping for the unattainable?