Relationship Issues- Disengaging from Manipulators
One of the most challenging things for many of my “reasonable” clients to understand is that not everyone can be reasoned with. Some unhealthy people play by their own sets of rules, and no matter how much reality they are confronted with, they manage to disregard the very real effects that the rules they play by have on others. Their genuine confusion about the what it’s like to be on the receiving end of their behaviors can make it very hard to see their level of manipulation for what it is (intentional or not).
It can be rather difficult for a kind and understanding person to learn the skill of complete disengagement that is often necessary when it comes to dealing with people who are so narcissistic that they treat another person’s needs, boundaries, or criticisms as completely irrelevant- and all with a total naiveté about the fact that they are doing so. And although it can be very hard to disengage completely when such people act as if you haven’t set a boundary or acknowledged a need in the first place, often this is the only viable option when it comes to saving your own sanity. This is especially difficult if you’re the type of person who is sensitive to abandonment or disconnection in relationship. You may believe that somehow you should be able to manage your own needs in the relationship and keep the other person happy at the same time- or at least have them get where you’re coming from. How hard it can be when the other person’s psychology does not allow them to admit the truth of your separateness or to accept the boundary that you are trying to set!
Healthy, reasonable people who are able to see another’s point of view sometimes find it hard to imagine that others are not always so uncomplicated. While some difficult people become angry when others try to set a boundary with them, criticize something they are doing, or let them know the effect they are having on others, others cope with this using denial. They simply dismiss the feedback in their own minds and go on as if nothing has happened. For people who are not wired this way, it can be very easy to get manipulated because the other person can seem so innocent on the surface…and the fact that they are completely dismissing the other person’s separateness and their effect on the other is completely out of their awareness. In a sense, the incongruence between their behaviors and their superficial presentation is ego syntonic and non-conflictual for them. They manage to live in a world in which they can mess over the other person and feel a sense of personal integrity at the same time, totally ignoring the contradiction inherent in this.
Sarah was a case in point. Her boss manipulated her for many months, always acting friendly on the surface and smooth-talking her with his superficial charm. Sarah was completely blindsided when she was let go abruptly from the company and later found out that her boss had been planning this behind her back for a number of months, without letting on at all that this was in the works. In his mind (unconsciously), he could be “best friends” with Sarah while planning to get rid of her- at the same time. He simply used denial to manage the contradiction/incongruence in his actions. Even after Sarah was fired from her job, he acted as if he hadn’t done anything wrong and continued to treat Sarah as if everything between them was just fine….even as she found herself feeling enraged and betrayed. Sarah withdrew abruptly from the relationship, but her boss continued to contact her as if they were on completely good terms….especially when he needed Sarah to help him clean up messes he had made with his mismanagement of the company. At first, Sarah complained about how hurt and caught off guard she felt at being let go. Her boss acted completely understanding with his words but seemed completely oblivious to the actual effect he had had on Sarah’s life- and was totally mystified when she didn’t want to help him out with problems at the office. Sarah eventually had to stop answering his phone calls completely to get the message across that their relationship had been changed by his behavior and the event of her being let go from her position…and even then, her old boss just didn’t seem to “get it”. It took Sarah a long time to get over feeling “guilty” or “mean” for ignoring his messages and emails.
It can be extremely confusing and maddening when someone hurts us or violates our boundaries, only to act as if they have done nothing wrong. Trying to explain one’s position to this kind of person usually elicits a lot of “yessing” behavior and superficial remorse, in which the other acts as if he understands the impact he has had or what he “has done wrong”, but in fact he goes on as if nothing has happened at all. Such people live in “pretend mode”, as if relationships are like a game in which the rules can be made up at will and the other is expected to simply play by the rules of the game, never introducing reality. “But I never meant to hurt you” doesn’t mean very much when someone repeatedly betrays his/her partner, whether it’s by cheating and acting as if nothing has happened, not paying the bills that were supposed to be paid and then acting as if the other shouldn’t be upset at all, or simply continuing with old, offending behaviors while simultaneously apologizing for those very behaviors. Sometimes actions do speak louder than words, but when the other person’s words are incongruent with behaviors that are very dismissive, it can be very hard to sort out which end the disconnect is coming from.
Do you second guess yourself in such situations? It’s hard not to! But maybe the problem is really not you…and sometimes letting go and completely disengaging is the only way to go. This may mean deleting a person’s emails, not picking up their messages, or simply ignoring their overtures when a long history with them has led you to know that engaging is just not the way to go if you’re looking for a healthy outcome.
P.S. Want to learn more about doing a psychoanalytic intensive with me??