In an early post about winners and losers, I discussed how underlying feelings of shame often lie behind hyper-competitive and triumphant behavior. One of the less obvious ways this shows up is in relationships and marriage. Some people — usually those who tend to display other kinds of narcissistic behavior, as well — link up with partners because they believe such a bond will make them ideal. Just as some men and women want to be admired for their looks, or how much money they have or the size of their house, others want to be envied for their relationship. They look to an ideal marriage to cure underlying shame and to disprove how they feel about themselves. If I’m married to X and we have this amazing marriage, then I can;t be a total loser.
You can identify such people by the way they often make you feel. This is the couple who always draws attention to their incredible relationship — the romantic dinner they just had, the way they’re soul-mates who were meant for each other, or the fabulous vacation and all the amazing things they did together. One of them might talk a lot about how wonderful the other one is, and the thoughtful, sensitive things he or she is always doing. They will rarely mention any fights they may have had, any dissatisfaction or ongoing problems in their marriage. If you’re at all insecure or uncertain about your own relationship, the way they talk can plant seeds of doubt, make you question the worth of yourself and your own partner. I’ve been around people like this who, in the absence of the other, would make mention of their fabulous sex life. If these people happen to be especially good-looking and/or wealthy, the humiliating effect of such behavior can be toxic for listeners.
You, as audience, are meant to feel envious. While they are winners — obviously! — you must be a loser. Via the frequent display of their superior lifestyle and enviable relationship, they project their own feelings of shame into those who must witness that superiority. As with most forms narcissism, this one eventually breaks down, however. Because they’re based on idealization (of both self and other), such relationships are inherently unstable. The narcissistic gratification provided by the marriage sooner or later begins to feel less satisfying, not enough; as the defense mechanism begins to fail, the relationship becomes more real and shame threatens to return; to escape that shame, one or both partners may begin to look outside the relationship for a new narcissistic feed.
When the narcissistic couple separates, one of the more profound (unconscious) issues for them is: who will be the winner and who the loser? In fantasy, they had fused into a kind of perfect union; when they fall apart, it tends to be along polar lines: who’s up and who’s down? This particular dynamic often plays a major role in the acrimonious divorce, where a couple fights over ever little issue. Each conflict, no matter how trivial, stirs up anxieties about “losing”, letting the other one triumph over you, and feeling all the shame that has been warded off. It sometimes motivates people to attempt turning their children against the ex-wife or husband, to “win” the allegiance of those kids and to “defeat” the other parent. If both partners engage in this game, those poor kids get stuck in the middle between two people attempting to force shame back and forth between one another. You’re the loser! No, you are! I am not, I’m a winner! Ugh.
You’ve probably known divorced people like this, the ones who feel compelled to run the ex-spouse down to each and every one of their friends. Often, they may have some grounds — an affair, for instance — but the incredible energy they expend in trying to destroy the reputation of the ex betrays the unbearable shame felt at being the “loser”. Or they may go in the opposite direction and try to prove to everyone how amazing their life is now, following the divorce. They might form a new “ideal” relationship quickly, just to prove they are not the loser who has been dumped, to eradicate any possible sense of humiliation. Until they can stabilize, usually re-establishing their narcissistic defenses in one way or another, the shame and sense of “failure” can be excruciating.
Now that I’ve decided to use video on my site, I thought I’d close this post with a film clip that my colleague Marla Estes brought to my attention a while back. It’s from Woody Allen’s 1992 film, Husbands and Wives. In this scene, recently separated Sally (Judy Davis) arrives at a man’s apartment for their first date. Only moments before, she learned that her husband has already moved in with someone else. While her distress is fueled by so many additional factors — the hurt and sense of betrayal — when I watch her unravel, I see a woman drowning in shame and trying desperately not to feel like a loser.