In last week’s post (see: Malignant Narcissism), I promised I’d be presenting some case examples that illustrate the damage that can be done to relationships when narcissism becomes “malignant” and other disturbances in a person’s character reach “toxic” levels. The example I’ve chosen for expanded discussion today comes from my book The Judas Syndrome (see: Chapter 1, pp. 29-41). It’s the story of “Teri and Ted,” a couple whose family was crumbling under the strain of one person’s pathological quest for stature and power.
Here’s an (edited) excerpt from the chapter:
Ted was one of the most active persons in his congregation and was regarded by many as a staunch defender of the faith. He was admired both as a leader and an organizer, and he had spurred several of his friends and acquaintances into more active involvement in the church’s activities over the years. He seemed a tireless worker for the Lord. He attended services every week, was active in Bible study, and could cite Bible chapter and verse with the best of them. Ted appeared every bit a decent, Christian man.
His reputation in the church and community was just one of the things that made Teri so self-doubting the first time she tried to confront Ted about his domineering and controlling ways. Over the years, she had increasingly come to see Ted not so much as God-fearing and God-serving, but rather ruthlessly self-serving and unyielding. And although they always toed the line, even Ted’s and Teri’s kids were becoming increasingly unnerved by him and had begun to distance themselves from him. Ted’s tirades when someone didn’t do as he thought he or she should were becoming more frequent and intense. Teri was quite worried about what things would come to if this continued, so she worked up the courage to address the issues with him.
Teri tried to approach Ted with her concerns in as nonthreatening a manner as possible. She suggested the possibility of counseling, which he seemed open to at first. He even admitted that on occasion he might have gone too far in expressing his displeasure or in meting out punishments to the children. And for a while, it would appear he was making an effort to do better. Then he would begin balking at the notion of seeking help, and when an episode occurred, would only lament that if he could only get those in his family to “do right,” and to “honor the Lord’s will,” he’d never have reason to get upset. After all, he bore the responsibility for “spiritual leadership” in his family, and he took that responsibility very seriously.
For most of their marriage, Ted appeared deeply devoted, though undoubtedly strict. But his sternness never took the form of violence. He just seemed to be fiercely dedicated to doing right and upholding noble standards for his family, wanting the best out of and for his wife and children. So even when family members bristled under the weight of his condemning demeanor and harsh dictates, they believed he was only trying to be a good man and doing his best to instill the highest respect for God’s will. It was only in recent years that his behavior was appearing more abusive than convicted. And the more Teri brought his behavior to his attention, the more verbally and emotionally abusive Ted became, going on ever more frequent tirades, and always berating her and the children for causing his distress in the first place and triggering his anger.
Eventually, Ted’s outbursts got so frequent and so intense that both Teri and the kids became truly afraid. And when he was confronted about it, all he could do was point a finger at them, claiming it was they who had actually gotten worse in their disregard for the Lord’s will. Even his initial apparent willingness to get some help had faded. Teri finally decided she’d had enough and threw down the gauntlet. And it would be the first time in her marriage that she dared to set forth her own demands. Nonetheless, she made her wishes clear to Ted: either he would receive counseling and get to the root of what she saw as his anger issues or she would leave him. In the meantime, she would make arrangements so that she and the children could live temporarily with her sister, until it was clear that Ted was making some progress in therapy and the family had some reason to hope that things were going to be different.
Once Teri took her stand, she would soon come to learn not only who Ted really was, but what can happen when someone like Ted is held to account for their issues. He became more openly intimidating than ever once Teri actually began making plans to live with her sister for a while. He would frequently question her in a style resembling a police interrogation and grill her over whether she wasn’t planning to simply end their marriage anyway. And he warned her that if she actually did separate from him, he’d be sure to leave her in dire financial straits and see to it she would never get custody of the children. When Teri called him on these intimidation tactics, he immediately fired back, blaming her outright for everything, and insisting that the wound she had inflicted on him by even suggesting the renunciation of her marriage vows was the root cause of all his pain and righteous anger. When she wouldn’t accept that notion (which she knew to be not only factually inaccurate but probably also bogus), he invited her to strike him. After all, he taunted, she had already thrust an emotional knife deep into his heart. A physical strike would pale in comparison to the damage she’d already done. At least that’s what he wanted her to believe. And when Teri, in understandable fear of the escalating rhetoric and passion Ted was displaying, walked away, he shoved her. In that moment, almost everything became clear to Teri. Ted was capable of almost anything when his will was thwarted. This shook her to her foundations, and later that day she and the children left.
Although this story is based on a single case, I can think of literally hundreds of examples of similar character. As I say in The Judas Syndrome: “There are people in this world whose main concern is being on top and in control. As long as they have their way, they’re content. But try to stand on equal ground with them, or resist acceding to their demands, and there’s bound to be trouble. I’m not talking here about people who conscientiously, and with respect for boundaries and limits, know how to take care of and assert themselves. Rather, I’m talking about those among us who pursue what they want without sufficient regard for the impact on others. Some of these folks are openly and unashamedly aggressive in their manner: they brazenly weave through traffic, always alert for the patrol car that might impede them; look forward to wrestling with demons at work; enjoy decimating their competitors in business as well as at play; and are forever determined to have the upper hand in any interpersonal encounter. But others, though just as aggressive, do their best to conceal their true nature and principal agendas. They might portray themselves as caring, dutiful, and upright or even charming and likable while using a variety of tactics to subtly run roughshod over others by playing on their conscientiousness, accepting natures, fears, or insecurities. They are the archetypal wolves in sheep’s clothing (In Sheep’s Clothing, 46) and who they really are usually comes to light only when their tactics of manipulating and controlling others begin to fail.”
Ted’s narcissism was of a highly malignant character. He was not only pathologically haughty but also pathologically disdainful of those he viewed as inferior and in need of his tutelage. He was not totally devoid of empathy, but he was highly lacking in concern for how his determination to advance his agendas impacted others. And in his empathy-deficient heart, there was also no room for any kind of “higher power.” His chief “sin” was invoking the name of the power he proclaimed to hold higher and sacred as pretext for his determination to lord himself over others. Arrogant in the extreme, and heartlessly brutal, he was never the spiritual shepherd he claimed to be, only the tyrant he did his best to obfuscate.
Malignantly narcissistic individuals can never be wrong. It’s always someone else’s fault when things aren’t working. Traditional theorists used to ascribe these qualities to a “fragile” self-concept that can’t bear the anxiety associated with being challenged, and prompting an unconscious implementation of the primitive “defense mechanisms” of denial and projection. But as I point out in Character Disturbance, most of the time, such folks are actually convinced of their greatness. This leaves no room for a humble respect for anyone or anything else. Sometimes there’s some realistic justification for the high opinion they hold of themselves. But almost always, despite whatever achievements they’ve made, their self-concept is haughtily out of bounds. And when, on top of all that, they have a distinctly aggressive streak in their character (no matter how craftily they try to conceal it), their obstinacy and pride usually won’t allow them to give ground or concede a point even when they know full well they’re in error. They’re also well aware of things, as the above story illustrates. So sometimes, when under great pressure, they’ll acknowledge their issues or maybe even the need for help. But such acknowledgments are generally short-lived and can be abandoned in an instant if they feel they’ve managed to manipulate themselves back into a position of control. There’s nothing unconsciously “defensive” about such folks. But there’s much about them that’s deliberately and unrelentingly entitled and aggressive.
Next week’s example will highlight some if the other problems a malignantly narcissistic individual can invite into a relationship.