Some of the most destructive things that happen to us in our relationships with narcissists happen in our conversations with them.
By using our verbal interactions with them against us, they manage somehow to both convince us and others that we are at fault for what happens in the relationship, and they manage to slowly take away our voices.
How do they manage to do both?
The basic mechanism is to deny that we have a right to a point of view at all.
It goes like this.
Perhaps you have questions or concerns and you are lied to or not given a straight answer. The narcissist will inevitably use multiple methods of deflection or you are told that the topic is off-limits
Or perhaps the narcissist says something inflammatory or picks a fight with you that you’ll never be able to win. You said or did something he or she didn’t like or the narcissist even made something up out of thin air. He or she then refuses to engage in a rational discussion with you about it and nothing you say seems to matter. They have their minds made up and you are left with no way to defend yourself.
No matter who started the conversation, the narcissist doesn’t seem to care what you have to say and has no interest in coming to a mutually satisfying resolution.
Three very important things happen in these conversations:
- By using a variety of very unpleasant behaviors, narcissists punish us for either bringing up topics of conversation they don’t like or not ending conversations when they are finished discussing a topic. They make us feel high-maintenance or selfish for bringing up valid concerns.
- If we react to the way they behave in these conversations (e.g., the tactics they use to avoid engaging in a real discussion), it provides them with the ammunition they need to blame the problems in the relationships on us, further shaming us into silence and conditioning us not to speak up.
- Because our concerns are almost never addressed and we are almost never heard or validated, our self-esteem is eroded over time and our sense of humanity within the relationship begins to slip away.
For example, Shannon Thomas says in her book Healing from Hidden Abuse, “When a survivor tries to talk to a psychological abuser about their negative behaviors, a favorite maneuver of toxic people is to simply not reply… When a survivor asks why they didn’t reply, the toxic person will spin the situation and say something like, “I am not going to argue with you.” Can you see what just happened? The survivor was blamed for causing drama, or an argument, and the toxic person never addressed their behaviors.”
In just this one interaction, the narcissist has punished the partner with silence, accused the partner of being the source of issues within the relationship, and ignored the original concerns that the partner had about what the narcissist had been doing.
As the relationships go on, partners of narcissists learn to walk a line that language divides.
Conversations become the flashpoint for keeping the peace and yet adopting a pathological worldview in which we are to blame for causing problems by “talking,” yet the narcissist is not at fault for wrongdoing– or speaking up and being further shamed, threatened and abused.
How Conversations With Narcissists Unfold: An Example
The conversation below is one that my ex-boyfriend and I had over text messages during the time period when we were still in communication.
Studying exactly what these conversations look like can help to shed light on the tactics they use to try to avoid giving partners what they want in the conversations: answers, validation, acknowledgment, apologies, concessions, or promises.
Because of the different ways he responded to what I would ask, it took over two hours to have this conversation. Still, it’s a relatively benign one in which he did not end up getting angry and using insults or refusing to discuss anything. He was not completely oppositional, but the conversation was no less exhausting, for reasons I’ll discuss below.
* * * * *
Me: Can I ask a question? A serious one that I really want to know the answer to… Why do you still want to see me? What do you feel like you get out of it?
Him: Peace. Happiness. It makes me alive n happy. Why do u wanna see me and what do u get out of it? Ur the love of my life Kristen believe it or not.
Me: You say I’m the love of your life and yet you’re so mean sometimes about petty things… and you walk out or act unkind for such small reasons. How does that cherish our time together? How does that make you happy?
Him: I haven’t done that in a while.
Me: Well like three weeks. And we’ve only seen each other like twice since the last time it did happen.
Him: Yes cuz I don’t drive and u know that, so it’s hard to come see u more than once a week. U haven’t seen me either and haven’t answered my question. I can ask u the same thing. Why didn’t you come to see me?
Me: No you missed the point. You said you hadn’t done it in a while and my point was that there were only two opportunities that we have even been together for it to happen. What do you mean I haven’t seen you either?
Him: You have seen me 3 times in the past 2 weeks not 2.
Me: I don’t think so but it doesn’t matter. Two or three doesn’t change my point overall.
Him: Yes I get the point. Yes we haven’t had opportunities for me to walk out.
Me: Okay so why do you say so many things to tell me how much you love me and want to be around me but your actions don’t match it? That’s why I wanted to know what you get out of it. That’s all I was trying to say.
Him: Yeah. Your actions don’t either sometimes.
Me: No, but I never start anything though.
Him: Yeah. Can we not argue please? I’m really tired tonight after all this training.
Me: I’m fine with that.
Him: Okay thanks.
Me: To avoid an argument you shouldn’t change the subject so we don’t get off on tangents instead of just responding to what I said.
Him: Well I have answered my question why don’t you answer now? I have already admitted my actions don’t match so what else am I avoiding?
Me: Like I asked you a question and your response was “Your actions too sometimes.” Okay, that can be discussed, but that’s not what I asked. That is an example.
Him: I have already answered your questions you asked when you asked them the first time and now you’re asking me more and more and I don’t want to answer any more of your questions cuz I’m really tired and still in the car trying to go home and shower and stuff. You asked 2 questions and I have answered them. And on the other hand you didn’t answer mine. 🙂
Me: You didn’t actually answer my question. I didn’t ask anything about admitting actions. My question is still the same because your answer didn’t fit with reality. What you said you got out of our time together didn’t make sense.
Him: Yes it’s the answer believe it or not
Me: I asked you why do you say so many things to tell me how much you love me and want to be around me but your actions don’t match it?
Him: Now I know you think I don’t love u or care about u 🙂
Me: In other words, I’m asking how can you get peace and happiness out of being with me when the reality is that your actions make it hard for either of us to have peace or happiness… why wouldn’t you avoid doing things that would put an end to those things or make me think you didn’t care? I don’t know what to think.
Him: OK I get it… lol don’t think
Me: You get what? Why are you laughing?
Him: Cuz it’s funny how u don’t think I love u that’s why
Me: I said I didn’t know what to think. There’s a difference. And no it isn’t funny…
Me: I’m dead serious when I tell you if you want people to know you love them you don’t hurt them unprovoked or make them feel unimportant.
Him: Yes, I did some f***ed up things and they weren’t right. Now I’m sorry but what I feel for you is real or else I’d be gone.
Me: Okay. Why do you still do them? Like lie and yell and say mean things? If you love me so much. That’s what I always wanted to know.
Him: Yelling and saying mean things when I’m drunk… you have done things drunk too.
Me: Please don’t change the subject. And anyway yes sometimes you do them when you’re drunk but sometimes not.
Him: I’m not changing no subject.
Me: It isn’t ever right of me to retaliate but I don’t just start things.
Him: Look did I only do bad things to you? We aren’t together anymore and I think about the good times only. That’s why I sent you that song last night but I think you just don’t think I ever did anything good.
Me: Yes I do. I wouldn’t be here if you hadn’t. Who would stick around just for someone to mistreat them? It’s the fact that you also treated me well that keeps me here. So the fact that there was both makes it so confusing and that’s what I’m trying to talk to you about.
Him: Well I think I did more for you than any other girlfriend I had.
Me: Yes I believe that. That’s what your friends and some of your exes told me too. Maybe you don’t know why you did what you did. Maybe because you never trusted me and still don’t.
Him: My past that’s why. Can we stop arguing?
[I accepted this statement from him that the reasons why his actions and words didn’t match was because he had a past that led him not to trust people, and after this he changed the subject to focus on me and asked me again what I got out of seeing him. There was no more discussion about his words and actions not matching up.]
Conversations From Hell
Jackson MacKenzie describes conversations in his book Psychopath Free as one way that narcissists erode the identities of their partners by conditioning them that they are not allowed to speak about the behavior of the narcissists without grave repercussions and if they want the relationship to continue.
He calls it “word salad,” and lists the following nine warning signs that you’re in one of these dialogues. Almost all of these are present in just this one conversation I used as an example above.
1. Circular Conversations.
You feel as if you’ve resolved something in the conversation, and then a few minutes later you’re talking about it again as if the narcissist didn’t hear any of the arguments you made. They argue their own same points again and again as if they’re in their own reality where they can’t hear you or your words don’t register.
2. Bringing Up Your Past Wrongdoings and Ignoring Their Own.
If you mention any of their bad behavior, they will bring up something you have done to distract you and put you on the defensive.
3. Condescending and Patronizing Tone.
They will remain calm during the conversation, however, you will get increasingly confused and bewildered as they refuse to entertain your words or acknowledge what you’re saying. When you react, they respond as if you’re being unreasonable and use your reaction against you as an escalation.
4. Accusing You of Doing Things That They Themselves Are Doing.
As the conversation starts to escalate, the narcissist will start to project their bad behavior onto you.
5. Multiple Personas
The narcissist will use a variety of tactics and show a variety of sides. You may see anger and insults, tenderness, or they may play the victim card. All of these tactics, regardless of whether they are friendly, neutral or hostile, are all serving the interests of the narcissist, even if the narcissist is appearing conciliatory.
6. The Eternal Victim
The narcissist will often offer reasons for their behavior that lead back to horrible treatment in their own pasts.
7. You Begin Explaining Basic Human Emotions
You may find yourself having to describe how doing the things they have done hurt you and why, and the basic foundations of a relationship like respect and honesty. You think if you can communicate these things, they will stop.
The narcissist almost always blames others for the things they do or makes other excuses. They may blame alcohol, their youth, unfair or biased treatment from others, or other reasons, but they will not and cannot just own up to what they have done, express genuine remorse and correct course.
9. “What in the World Just Happened?”
You leave the conversations feeling drained and as if nothing was accomplished, or as if you accepted a mediocre answer or you are being diminished as the time goes on because you can’t seem to get anything resolved.
In the conversation above, I was so relieved to get anything from him that sounded like an answer to my question after over two hours of texting back and forth and all of the deflection in his responses, that I accepted it.
Now, looking back at the conversation, I can see how what I’d said to him just prior was leading. I had tipped him off with something to say that would pacify me. I’m not even totally sure he was providing it as a response to what I asked or just saw an opportunity to add onto what I was saying and make an empathy grab.
I was so worn out from the conversation and worried that at any moment he would explode into rage or just stop talking to me altogether, that I seized on words that felt like he was finally giving me a response to what I had asked after all that time, and I didn’t even bother digging any deeper into it as he moved the conversation onto other topics.
This was a frequent occurrence.
Then I would wonder why a few days later a conversation didn’t feel settled. Because it wasn’t.
Why Narcissists Never Give You What You Want in Conversations
H.G. Tudor, a self-aware narcissist who writes about relationships from a narcissist’s point of view, explains how narcissists think about these conversations differently than we do in his article, “Why Are the Arguments Never Resolved?”
When we as non-narcissists have these conversations about events with narcissists, we are attempting to align our narratives with them to settle on a version of reality that mirrors what we have experienced.
For example, we may wish to have the narcissist acknowledge something or apologize or stop doing something. This is what happens when two non-narcissists have conversations–they are attempting to come to an agreement.
“The victim does not know that they are in a romantic entanglement with a narcissist… Both have entirely different aims,” Tudor says.
Narcissists have no interest in coming to a resolution that benefits both people, because:
- It would be giving up superiority and control to admit a wrong.
- They can’t openly admit their cruel behavior was executed without any thoughts about how it would hurt us or even that it was intentionally done to hurt us because it doesn’t benefit them to show us their remorselessness.
- They gain narcissistic supply from our confusion and pain.
If they started the argument to gain supply– perhaps by accusing you of something that didn’t happen–when they have had enough, they will end it abruptly by a change of subject or something to that effect.
If you asked a question, such as in the conversation above, the narcissist will use deflection tactics hoping that you will end the conversation. Those tactics often won’t work because they don’t align with your reality or achieve the goals of the conversation you set out to achieve. The narcissist is not agreeing to anything you’re saying or asking, and instead, is having crazymaking verbal interactions with you.
“Even when the narcissist’s aims are achieved and he halts the manipulation, the victim still understandably believing the matter to be unresolved, keeps going. This causes the narcissist to respond to the challenge and then the narcissist sees the victim as maintaining an argument unnecessarily,” Tudor says.
Narcissists, not interested in our goals as non-narcissists within the conversation, will then find a way to end it, usually by stonewalling or even leaving.
Conversations with narcissists are like being in a maze where you try to stay on the right path toward the exit, however, the narcissist constantly drags you down one more dead end hoping you’ll get lost and give up.
Red Flags Revisited: A Look at How They Use Language to Manipulate
You can’t get what you need out of conversations with narcissists, and this fact is an overt, non-ambiguous cornerstone of how they manipulate.
This is why seven out of the first eleven Red Flags of Toxic People as also identified by Jackson Mackenzie in Psychopath Free and popularly re-distributed online are centered around the deflection techniques they use in conversations with them.
“They blatantly deny their own manipulative behavior and ignore evidence when confronted with it. They become dismissive and critical if you attempt to disprove their fabrications with facts. Instead of them actually addressing their inappropriate behavior, somehow it always becomes your fault for being ‘sensitive’ and ‘crazy.’ Toxic people condition you to believe that the problem isn’t the abuse itself, but instead your reactions to their abuse.”
2. Cannot Put Themselves in Your Shoes or Anyone Else’s For That Matter.
“You find yourself desperately trying to explain how they might feel if you were treating them this way, and they just stare at you blankly. You slowly learn not to communicate your feelings with them, because you’re usually met with silence or annoyance.”
3. Pathological Lying and Excuses.
“There is always an excuse for everything, even things that don’t require excusing. They make up lies faster than you can question them. They constantly blame others–it is never their fault. They spend more time rationalizing their behavior than improving it. Even when caught in a lie, they express no remorse or embarrassment. Oftentimes, it almost seems as if they wanted you to catch them.”
4. Focuses on Your Mistakes and Ignores Your Own.
“If they’re two hours late, don’t forget that you were once five minutes late to your first date. If you point out their inappropriate behavior, they will always be quick to turn the conversation back on you. You might begin to adopt perfectionistic qualities, very aware that any mistake can and will be used against you.”
5. You Find Yourself Explaining the Basic Elements of Human Respect to a Full-Grown Man or Woman.
“Normal people understand fundamental concepts like honesty and kindness. Psychopaths often appear to be childlike and innocent, but don’t let this mask fool you. No adult should need to be told how he or she is making other people feel.”
6. Accuses You of Feeling Emotions That They Are Intentionally Provoking.
“They call you jealous after blatantly flirting with an ex–often done over social networking for the entire world to see. They call you needy after intentionally ignoring you for days on end. They use your manufactured reactions to garner sympathy from other targets, trying to prove how ‘hysterical’ you’ve become. You probably once considered yourself to be an exceptionally easygoing person, but an encounter with a psychopath will (temporarily) turn that notion upside down.”
7. You Fear That Any Fight Could Be Your Last.
“Normal couples argue to resolve issues, but psychopaths make it clear that negative conversations will jeopardize the relationship, especially ones regarding their behavior. Any of your attempts to improve communication will typically result in the silent treatment. You apologize and forgive quickly, otherwise you know they’ll lose interest in you.”
These conversational techniques they use to avoid reaching a resolution with you provide the clues that tell you that they do not care about your feelings in the conversation. They are not empathetic to your point of view or what you need to get out of the conversation in order to feel heard or understood. Over time, they shame you into silence with their indifference to your concerns.
They should tell you exactly who you are dealing with: someone whose intentions in those conversations–and their underlying intentions overall– are not aligned with yours.