It was the question that I could not answer: Did he ever love me or not?
I would lie awake at night and wonder how he could have looked at me the way he had if he did not love me. When love is a lie, can people fake enlarged pupils and do they look at you with their lips slightly parted, as if they are dying of thirst and you are a pool of endless water? Do you look into their eyes and see yourself reflected back like rays of gold illuminating a forgotten darkness? Do you catch them staring at you like maybe you are made of magic?
Could I really have been so wrong? Could I have misread him so completely? Was it all just a game to him then, and was he just pretending?
And yet if he loved me that much, how could he have betrayed me so deeply and on so many levels, again and again. And how could he, when I confronted him, say the cold, cruel things to me about why he did it? How could he shut me out so many times as if I meant nothing and discard me to be with someone else, when all I ever wanted to do was be his girlfriend?
It was the puzzle I could never solve.
I spent hours out of evenings, that amounted first to days, and then, ultimately, weeks, turning this question over again and again in my mind. For two years, I went over detail after detail in my mind, putting it in an imaginary “yes” or a “no” column. Where does this incident go? What about this one?
I’d have myself convinced that he did love me. I’d remember things I’d discovered by accident that he’d never intended me to know that seemed to indicate that he did– text conversations he’d had with other people, pictures of him wearing my bracelet on his wedding day. Why did these things happen but for the fact that he had to have loved me? He couldn’t use them to impress me if he had not intended for me to find out about them.
Then I’d also remember the secret things he had done to betray me that he’d also never intended me to find out about, the things he’d never meant to show me because they would have tampered with the image he wanted to present to me: all the other women he’d said he loved, all the horrible things he’d said about me to them.
None of it made any sense.
During this time period, I even asked him dozens of times, waiting to hear something that would make the world he had constructed around us and called love stop feeling so crazy. His responses ranged from loving (“Of course I did. You’re the love of my life”) to enraged (“If you can’t see my love for you, then nothing I did was ever good enough for you.”) Neither of those responses and nothing he said that fell in between put the pieces in place.
Did he or didn’t he?
In all honesty, he is the only one who will ever really know whether he loved me or not. No one can read his mind, and no matter what he says, no one will ever know whether it is the truth.
So what I wanted was a way to reasonably reconcile the contradictory behaviors in a way that seemed to make sense in the way that I had experienced them.
Reading most books and articles on narcissists were no help. Almost everything I read said that narcissists were incapable of love. In other words, he meant only the acts of betrayal and the acts of love were false– meant to elicit what he could get from me. This explanation seemed incomplete and incompatible with what I’d experienced, however. It also seemed like a blanket statement, given that the literature does not even agree on what causes narcissism.
I kept searching for more answers. In Dialectical Behavioral Therapy, one of the primary underpinnings is that two contradictory ideas can be true at the same time. There had to be a way to explain how it was possible that he could engage in acts of love and acts of betrayal nearly simultaneously. Even if I didn’t like the answer, I needed to understand how that was possible in order to make sense of my past.
I continued to research to find out whether it was even possible for narcissists to love, which would indicate an experience more in line with the one I had had. I did indeed find some research to support this idea. It all stated, however, that there are limitations on that love. They can love you as long as you do not criticize them– and they perceive bringing up any of their wrongdoing, no matter how gently– as criticism. They can love you as long as you keep supplying whatever it is that brings them happiness. They can love you as long as you are happy and as long as the focus of attention is primarily on them. They can love you as long as you let them control enough aspects of your life so that they do not feel threatened.
If you do bring up how you have been hurt or do not provide them with enough attention or do anything that feels threatening, they feel wounded, as if you are the one who doesn’t love them, and can engage in horrendous acts of “revenge.” They lack something called “object constancy,” which just means that when you have an argument or you have done something they don’t like, you cease to be a consistent, trustworthy person to them on whom they can rely. You cease to be “good” in their eyes.
After reading all of this, however, my question changed. I no longer wanted to know if he loved me or not. I began to think philosophically about what love really is and who gets to define it. Is this really love? If I am not allowed to be a whole person with my own concerns and desires and still have him love me, is it love? If he felt it as love, does that make it love?
“I never lied to you about my love for you,” he said to me many times.
I believe that he believes that. And yet the strength of that love could only ever be as powerful as the worst of the things he ever did to me all those times he couldn’t pretend to be blind anymore, and, still, he did them anyway.
His inability to understand this is what so clearly illuminates him as a narcissist.