In recent weeks, both within my practice and through emails from site visitors (all women), I’ve heard about several men who have tried to destroy the reputation of their ex-wives with a ruthless and quite thorough assault on their public characters. These men have told lies to friends and family members, attempted to blackmail their former spouses by threatening to spread vicious lies about them, stolen money from them, tried to turn children against their mothers, become explosively angry, even physically violent when challenged, and have uniformly laid blame for the failure of the marriage at the feet of the ex-wife. I’ve also heard from a couple of men confronting vengeful and narcissistic women in their lives, but with nowhere near the level of vindictiveness displayed by these narcissistic ex-husbands.
The viciousness can be quite subtle and sometimes invisible to those who don’t know the man well. For instance, the ex-husband of one of my clients sent a very reasonable sounding email to selected members of their church, including the pastoral counselors who’d tried to help them salvage their marriage, portraying himself as a man of God abandoned by his wife, and then directly impugning her mental sanity while planting doubts about her fitness as a mother. She is, in fact, a quite devoted and capable mother while he consistently manipulates their children with gifts to enlist sympathy on his side (but will also dump them on their mother during his custodial days whenever he happens to have a date).
Such men are loathsome and I find it almost impossible to feel any empathy for them, though of course they never come for individual treatment so I don’t actually have to try. The word I use to describe them is reptilian: they seem so cold-blooded, without any genuine feeling for other people, and their desire to inflict pain or even destroy their former spouses seems inhuman, snake-like. At the same time, I feel that I do understand their psychology and what drives them. As a follow-up to my last post, I thought I’d provide a psychological portrait of the vindictive narcissist, making use of the concepts of projection, shame according to my particular views and narcissistic defenses against it.
In that prior post, I discussed what I’ve called the “law of false attribution,” or an in-built human tendency to believe that whenever we experience pain, an outside agent (some other person) has caused us to feel it. For the vindictive narcissist, the subject pain is a profound and quite literally unbearable sense of shame. He has so thoroughly defended against this shame (the felt knowledge of internal defect) that he has no conscious awareness of it. He has constructed an idealized and false self-image as a protection against it, a kind of fortress behind which he conceals his shame, and will defend that self-image with every weapon in his arsenal. When a wife decides to leave a marriage, the narcissistic husband experiences it as a kind of attack (according to the law of false attribution): her rejection threatens to put him into contact with all the shame he can’t bear to feel, and so he must instantly turn against her. If he can’t literally destroy her, as some wounded narcissists have done, he will attempt to annihilate her character. Like the husband of my client, he will try to turn everyone they know against his ex-wife, painting himself as a martyr.
The degree of viciousness and the unrelenting pursuit of revenge point to a truly toxic level of shame. It’s so unbearable that these men must instantly respond with a counter-assault to any person threatening to stir it up. All insults or wounds to his pride will be felt as an attack and provoke the usual blaming and contemptuous defenses; but the public humiliation they experience when their wives ask for a divorce is a narcissistic injury so profound it provokes a retaliatory strike of nuclear proportions. Most people who go through divorce feel some degree of shame, some sense of failure, but the vindictive narcissist feels it a thousand-fold. That pain is felt as an attack, calling forth an all-out counter-assault meant to annihilate the threat to his fragile self-esteem.
If you’ve ever felt hurt or humiliated by someone you know and then entertained fantasies of revenge, imagining that you would show that person up or triumph over him, then you’ll understand (to a degree) what the vindictive narcissist experiences. Unlike you and me, however, he can’t tolerate such painful humiliation, not even for a second, and revenge fantasies are not enough. He experiences the continuing reality of a woman who rejected him as a continual threat, a constant assault upon his ideal self-image; as a result, his defenses remain on continual alert against it. At the least provocation — that is, whenever shame threatens to emerge — he will viciously strike out, like a snake assaulting its prey.
In comments to my post about narcissistic mothers, many site visitors have described similar assaults by their own mothers. Vindictive narcissists are not limited to vengeful ex-husbands. Since such people have almost no interest in or capacity for change, the best you can do is stay clear of them, just the way you’d avoid a snake if it happened to cross your path. Unfortunately, some narcissists can also be quite charming, having learned how to manipulate people to evoke their desire and sympathy; as children, we can’t escape our narcissistic mothers until we’re grown. When escape is impossible in life, perhaps the most you can do is set very firm limits and try not to inflict unnecessary narcissistic injuries upon them. It will only come back to haunt you.
UPDATE: May 23, 2013
Inspired by reader comments to my posts about narcissistic mothers and vindictive narcissists, I’ve released a new eBook on the Kindle platform. It’s a novella-length retelling of the classic Cinderella story, focusing on my usual themes of shame and narcissism, with a look at the tumultuous emotions behind self-injury.
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