I am the least difficult of men
All I want is boundless love.
I expect that it will be said of me that I am not a psychiatrist or a psychologist. Of my two masters degrees, one certifies me to craft elegant narratives like the one you are reading, and the other allows me to catalog it and place it on a shelf. There is an easy rebuttal in place when a person like me goes around diagnosing someone with personality disorders, especially when that person is someone I was romantically involved with. The obvious ones are that I’m bitter and angry, and while I deny the former, I think the latter is, at times, a healthy response to poor treatment. Others, especially friends of mine, will give me a pass because I was hurt, deeply, to the point of requiring professional and pharmaceutical intervention. In the interest of protecting the guilty, the innocent, and the integrity of the DSM-5, I have coined the word polypath. (Portmanteau: polyamorous sociopath).
Sociopaths, especially of the narcissist variety (the personality-disordered ones, not just the flagrantly self-absorbed) are usually charming and highly sexual, charismatic, attractive, and fun. They are also selfish and completely incapable of feeling empathy or compassion for another human being. Yet, because they are charmers, they are very talented at pretending they can. And they are also very talented at sniffing out easy targets. Solid, decent people who are talented and smart, and who are also at a point in their lives where they are vulnerable, such as having recently gone through a break-up, divorce, job loss, sexual assault, or other trauma, are easy targets. I was an easy target for my narcissist. I quickly shared with him all of my secrets, insecurities, dark places, and vulnerabilities, and while he used those to love me for a while, eventually he used this knowledge against me in the worst way possible.
Narcissists are also, generally, non-monogamous. While most support literature for victims of narcissists states that narcissists are always cheaters and conduct their multiple sexual relationships in secret, for those in the poly camp, this isn’t accurate or the sinisterness of it doesn’t resonate. However, I think it’s important to note that for the narcs who openly identify as polyamorous, they are able to adopt the earnest vocabulary, ethics, and norms of the community. But be warned: when you hand these tools to a narcissist and quickly they become weapons, and a shelter for what can amount to emotional abuse, especially if the narc is involved with a poly newbie who is navigating a new emotional landscape and is looking to her narcissistic partner for guidance and reassurance. In many instances, the rhetoric of polyamory, while positive and respectful for those who are capable of conducting loving and ethical relationships, easily shifts blame to the victim, who is often found beating herself up for being insecure, jealous, or for asking for boundaries that her narcissist doesn’t feel he should have to honor.
The poly newb has probably read The Ethical Slut and Opening Up a hundred times and thinks she is entering this type of relationship with eyes open, not expecting it to be easy, but also expecting to have her feelings heard, her difficulties respected, and her requests for reassurance answered. Because there is a lot of shame being seen as jealous or insecure, a narcissist may begin to devalue his partner by accusing her of jealousy or insecurity, which the victim will take total blame for and try to correct, even if the narcissist is secretly engineering feelings of jealousy and insecurity by suggesting that he and his other partner have been critiquing the other’s behavior, dress, or something said. Narcissists love it when chicks fight over him, and are very adept at creating such drama by dropping little hints that the stability of their relationship may be under threat if the victim does not stop being so damn insecure.
Here, a handy little list of red flags and things to be aware of if your first endeavor into polyamory makes you feel uneasy, off-kilter, or straight-up anxious and scared.
Healthy poly folks do not use poly as an excuse to “trade up.” If you find yourself involved with someone who has never successfully managed multiple relationships, or who overlaps relationships and drops the old one when the new bright ‘n shiny comes around, that’s classic narcissist behavior.
Check the intensity of the relationship early on! If you are being courted, charmed, complimented, and told you are so special after only knowing each other for a short time, this is what the experts call “love-bombing.” We all want to feel loved and special, but too much too soon, with a shocking intensity that only grows hotter after you begin having sex, is Phase One of the Classic Narcissist Idealize-Devalue-Discard relationship cycle. They will put you on a pedestal, spend all their time on you, and then, once you’ve committed, they start letting you know that you’re not as special as they originally thought, and then line up their new victim. If he’s calling himself poly, he may keep the two of you around simultaneously for a while, but while subtlety letting the original partner know that the new one is more special, more deserving, or other ways of playing one against the other.
Another red flag: I’d be careful of any poly person who cannot come up with at least one ex with whom he maintains friendly relations. If he has a string of exes who will have nothing to do with him, and who kept the friends, and who does not feel welcome within their poly/kink community, run.
Compromises are necessary in any relationship. Be extremely wary of anyone who says that he hates making compromises, or that he’s poly because no one should have to miss out on something or someone they want because their partner is insecure. That’s just bad relationship skills, period.
Someone who treats polyamory like an affliction that can’t be helped, and who uses that as an excuse to make insensitive comments (my narcissist actually said to me once that he needed to fuck any other woman but me that day and then snickered at me and told me ‘I didn’t understand’ when I told him that hurt my feelings) is probably not a very loving, kind person, especially if he chooses to date someone who does not have much poly relationship experience and then forces his will on his partner with the underlying message that your concerns don’t count because “you don’t understand.”
While it is often the case that the ethical thing to do is end the relationship if one partner is not on board with an open relationship, expecting the newbie partner to do all the changing and not being supported or heard if they’re feeling uncomfortable or insecure, with the assumption that the more poly partner is always right, under threat of getting dumped if feelings do not change quickly is pretty dang abusive, if you ask me. If you’re not willing to meet in the middle, then why are you dating this person in the first place?
If you are being accused of hurting his other partner by asking for boundaries, with no visible concern for your feelings: narcissist! Skilled poly folks know how to make sure everyone feels heard. Unless you’re being a total asshole, you’re likely being manipulated and guilted by a narcissist. He’s probably playing his other partner the same way, or will be soon enough.
If he uses the occasion of introducing his two partners to play one against the other, (I was informed that the two of them were criticizing me together after our meeting) that is manipulation and devaluing, and not trying to make everyone feel comfortable.
My narcissist accused me of going on dates with other men to “get back at him for being poly.” He even told me I was “using other men as a weapon against him.” What kind of projection horseshit was that? If your partner is making a big deal about you NOT being poly and expecting you to be play by a different set of rules: ugh. Barf. You’re being manipulated. Sorry.
A narcissist does not negotiate terms and boundaries in good faith. One person making all the rules does not a healthy relationship make! If you are being told that your feelings make sense or are wrong or not rooted in logic and therefore do not need to be honored, that is not ethical. That is being treated like shit. If you are being guilt-tripped for asking for boundaries, or told you have no right to ask for them, that’s a huge problem.
Be wary when a partner uses poly tropes such as “letting a relationship be what it is” as an excuse to unilaterally downgrade or change the rules on the other partner. True, you should let relationships be what they are, and enjoy people who come into your lives on whatever terms suit everyone. If you’ve been clear from the beginning that you want a long-term relationship, and suddenly you’re being told that you’re now just a fuck buddy or that you’re asking for too much or that the things you’ve asked for in the relationship are all of a sudden too much, with a feeling that you’re being shamed for wanting what you want from your partner, THE NARCISSIST IS DEVALUING YOU! If he’s got you hooked and addicted, you may be willing to accept the reduced terms of the relationship just for the sex/proximity, but holy shit, you deserve better than crumbs. Surround yourself with people who value you. That’s not love. That’s abuse.
Narcissists are creepy. They are basically incapable of feeling empathy towards others. If your partner is curiously unaffected emotionally by a break-up, they are disordered and you are so better off without them. My narcissist jumped from a long-term relationship with my predecessor to me to a new one without so much as a blink of an eye. Identifying as poly justifies the overlapping time lines with each of us, but if he was capable of empathy or of maintaing a healthy, respectful relationship, he wouldn’t have easily abandoned each of us, right?
I had a dream very recently that I asked my narcissistic ex if he felt empathy and in the dream he told me no, he does not. I told him I couldn’t be with someone who did not feel empathy towards others. I like to believe that was my subconscious letting him go.
Fortunately, I have plenty of positive poly role models in my life. Most people are empathic and compassionate and make a good effort to make their relationships positive and ethical, even if it means ending them. I feel very sad that my first entry into openness was with someone who made it his job to hurt me.
You have the right to ask for the type of relationship you want, and for the things you need, such as reassurance. This isn’t exclusive to open relationships, either. No matter what kind of relationship you’re in, you should feel safe. If you’re feeling anxious or scared of your partner, that’s a problem! Ask for help! You deserve love and respect!
UPDATE 9/29: Wow, I’m astonished at how popular this essay has gotten. If you’re struggling with recovery from a relationship with someone with NPD, please see my list of resources: http://modaviau.com/narcissistic-abuse-resources/
ANOTHER UPDATE: Hi! If you have found this essay helpful, might you consider purchasing a copy of my novel, Every Anxious Wave? My novel has nothing to do with narcissistic abuse, but you might find it a fun read. It’s about time travel and indie rock and love and regret. Here’s a link. Thanks!