The Best We Can

I’m always reluctant to post about relationship-related things here on the blog, because I never, ever want to “throw someone under the bus” or say something hurtful. I have tried to mitigate this in various ways–blocking mutual friends, sharing with only a handful of people, and sometimes sharing only within the privacy of my journal. But I had a major breakthrough last night, and wanted to share in case it might help someone else…

I’m the kind of person who needs to make sense of things in order to heal (not sure whether this is a good thing, but it is what it is.) In an attempt to make sense of a past relationship, I have spoken to five therapists and read over forty books on narcissism and emotional abuse–not because I believe I have dated narcissists, but because most books written on the subject of relational abuse are written from that perspective (and just to clarify: all narcissists engage in abusive behaviors, but not everyone who engages in these behaviors is a narcissist. We all engage in narcissistic behaviors from time to time and to varying degrees, which is why it takes a trained professional to diagnose true narcissism. I am not defining anyone from my past as a narcissist). Still, many of these abusive behaviors have been present in my past relationships. Yet no matter how many of these behaviors I’ve been subject to, none of the books have rung completely true to me for one reason:

They all maintain that those who engage in these behaviors don’t actually have the ability to love. They consider all expressions of love as a form of emotional manipulation (called “lovebombing”) rather than an articulation of true feelings. They also say that the person participating in narcissistic behaviors is consciously and purposefully engaging in the abuse. But no matter how much lines up with what I have experienced, I just cannot see those I have loved as having never loved me or having been purposefully or consciously manipulative or abusive. Rightly or wrongly, it just doesn’t ring true for me. Plus, it forces me into a position of seeing others as the “bad guy,” and I just have no desire to see anyone this way (I’m a firm believer in something Brene Brown’s husband once said: “My life is better when I work from the assumption that everyone is doing the best they can. It keeps me out of judgment and lets me focus on what is, and not what should or could be.”)

Then, last night, I read this, from a contributor on Quora (lightly edited for better flow):

“The terms ‘Whole Object Relations’ and ‘Object Constancy’ play a major role in the roller coaster that happens in a narcissistic relationship. Whole Object Relations is the ability to see both good and bad in self or others at the same time. Object Constancy is the ability to maintain a positive emotional connection to someone when feeling hurt, angry, disappointed, etc, OR with someone not physically present. These two abilities are developed during childhood, and those with NPD do not have these functions. So the infatuation begins and they see you as the person of their dreams. Remember–they can’t see bad characteristics at this point because they’re focused on the good characteristics. They’re idealizing you. So the reason it can feel like they were putting on the performance of a lifetime pretending to fall in love is because they also thought they were falling in love. They weren’t acting or mirroring your every move, they were infatuated and obsessed. But eventually, because the nature of the disorder causes a hypersensitivity to their self image, something harmless or even imaginary will lead them to feel slighted. So one day, you forget to hit send on the ‘I love you too’ text and suddenly their feelings are crushed, ego deflated, and they’re burning with betrayal because things were going so well, and they can’t understand why you’d do this to them. They forget any good qualities they had been seeing in you, and are now convinced you’re a terrible, manipulative person who only wants to hurt them. Begin devaluation phase.”

So according to this commenter, it wasn’t that certain people had never loved me, it was that some people were incapable of maintaining their love for me. This made a lot more sense to me, so I looked up “Whole Object Relations” and “Object Constancy” and this is what I learned:

Whole Object Relations is “The ability to integrate the liked and disliked parts of a person into a single, realistic, stable picture—as opposed to alternating between seeing the person as either all-good or all-bad.

In other words, it’s the ability to see people as being both right and wrong, kind and unkind, good and bad, etc. But someone who lacks Whole Object Relations is incapable of doing this. They think in terms of extreme black or white and see everything as right OR wrong, kind OR unkind, good OR bad. There is one major problem with this type of thinking when it comes to relationships:

“If you need to see people as all good or all bad, every time someone does something that does not fit into your current bucket, you will either have to deny reality and ignore what is happening or you have to switch them into the other bucket. This means you could be seeing someone as all-good one moment and tell the person, ‘I love you’ with great sincerity and then two minutes later, when they do something you do not like, now see the person as all-bad and with equal sincerity say, ‘I hate you.'”

Object Constancy is similar and is defined as:

“The ability to maintain a positive connection to someone that you like while you are angry, hurt, frustrated, or disappointed by his or her behavior.”

Those who lack Object Constancy literally cannot love someone and be unhappy with them at the same time. If someone does something they perceive as wrong or hurtful, the loving feelings disappear.

Suddenly, so much of what I have experienced in troubled relationships makes perfect sense. I have actually been told by an ex that she “fell out of love” with her last girlfriend because her last girlfriend kept doing things my ex didn’t like. I thought that was strange at the time, but assumed there must be more to it I just didn’t understand. But she also used to tell me she she didn’t know how long she would still “feel the same way about me” if I didn’t stop doing things that hurt or upset her. I always thought this was a manipulative tactic, but now I see that it wasn’t. She was literally telling me a truth about herself–that she is incapable of maintaining feelings of love toward someone who is doing something that upsets her. So this ex was constantly pushing me to do what she wanted me to do not because she was a horrible, manipulative person, but because she needed me to be exactly what she thought a partner should be, or else she literally lost (or was at risk of losing) her feelings of love toward me. She would tell me this, over and over again, and I never could understand it. Instead, I fought it, tried to change her mind, or, eventually, just acquiesced. This set us up for a horrific cycle, because after doing the things she wanted and needed that ultimately did not feel right to me, I would inevitably rebel and hurt her all over again.

This was the missing key I needed to understand the unhealthy cycle without resentment or blame. Because although the books kept insisting that love was never present, I know I was loved. I know they were telling the truth about their feelings toward me. But now I know they were also telling me the truth about themselves all those times when they told me their feelings would change if I didn’t stop doing (or start doing) what they wanted/needed. (Or maybe it would be more accurate to say that they never loved ME, but an idealized version of me they created in their mind. But I know those feelings were 100% sincere, even if misplaced.)

I feel SO MUCH BETTER understanding this, because the idea of seeing someone I have loved as the “bad guy” just doesn’t sit well with me. But understanding that someone can be incapable of truly loving (or maintaining love for) someone due to extreme black and white thinking helps me to stay compassionate while also recognizing that the relationship was not, and never could have been, healthy. It helps me to stay in that place of love and compassion and remember that everyone–no matter how hurtful their actions may be–truly is “doing the best they can.”

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