If you’ve been in a relationship with a narcissist or other emotionally unstable, immature personality, you’re probably well-acquainted with the hell that is a circular argument. What’s a circular argument? An argument that causes your brain to spin round in circles. Kidding aside, a circular argument is an argument in which the conclusion is used to support the premise. In this respect, it’s a backwards argument. In a rational argument, premises based on facts (not opinions and feelings) are used to support a conclusion. People who engage in circular arguments tend to do so out of ignorance or if they can’t logically defend their positions and behaviors to themselves or others.
Circular arguments are fueled by emotional reasoning (i.e., confusing feelings for facts) and perpetuated when the opposing party engages in JADE or justifying, arguing, defending and explaining. JADE is a concept that has its origins in Al-Anon literature. Justifying, arguing, defending and explaining oneself is a common mistake made by codependent, trauma bonded victims in an effort to avoid or end pointless conflicts and circular arguments with narcissistic and borderline personality disordered abusers. Of course, people who are neither codependent nor trauma bonded also justify, argue, defend and explain themselves during a conflict, but it’s different. Specifically, non-codependents will typically make their case and then leave it at that if it falls on deaf ears or if the other party becomes nasty and willfully irrational. Who’s crazier? The crazy person or the person who’s trying to win an argument with the crazy person?
JADE is typically learned behavior from childhood. Many abuse victims (not all) tend to be people pleasers and consensus builders. These are coping mechanisms developed during childhood in dysfunctional families. The faulty premises of these learned behaviors are: 1) “If I am super nice and accommodating people will be nice to me and won’t leave me;” and 2) “If I can get people to agree with me maybe I’ll be able to get what I want and need.” Basically, children of narcissists, psychopaths, borderlines, alcoholics, codependents and other dysfunctional parents learn to please others as a way to avoid abuse or stop abuse.
They learn to explain or justify basic wants and needs in the hopes of getting them met. These children also learn to justify why they feel the way they feel in an effort to be understood instead of attacked. Some children of dysfunctional families also develop the trait of over-explaining themselves in an effort to prove to their tormentors that they’re good and don’t deserve to be mistreated. Even when children are naughty, they don’t deserve to be mistreated or abused. They deserve proportionate consequences, not abuse.
When you have a misunderstanding or disagreement with an emotionally mature, stable adult, explaining your point of view and clarifying inaccurate information typically helps to resolve the conflict. Narcissists and other toxic persons typically aren’t mature, stable or reasonable. Furthermore, these individuals don’t create conflict to resolve problems, which is why clarification and mutual understanding are ineffective. More on this shortly.
The more reasoned and factual you are in response to the narcissist’s or borderline’s emotional and circular reasoning, the angrier and more abusive they become. Reason and logic don’t soothe the batshit breast. Capitulating and admitting it’s your fault (whether it’s your fault or not) is typically what’s required to bring the conflict to and end until it’s Go Time again. Reason, logic and quantifiable facts really, really, really piss these people off. More so than whatever villainy they’ve fabricated. They’ll rage harder yelling, “Ooh, you think you’re so smart! If you didn’t do anything why are you so defensive! You always have to be right! All you care about is winning — you don’t care about me! This is why I don’t trust you!” Objective reality just elicits more of their immature ego defenses to kick in — for example, projection, splitting, projective identification, all or nothing thinking, etc.
Please keep in mind that facts are meaningless to these individuals. Consequently, it doesn’t matter what the facts are, no matter how well you articulate them. The facts are whatever the narcissist says they are at any given time and are subject to change at any given time. Typically, the narcissistic abuser will keep bullying, raging, throwing a tantrum, stonewalling and making life hell until you concede that their lies and distortions are true and apologize. When you justify, argue, defend and explain yourself to someone who believes their subjective emotional experience trumps facts or perversely enjoys terrorizing and harassing you into acknowledging their lies as truth, there’s no reasonable discussion or resolution (never mind relationship) to be had.
Ultimately, when you justify, argue, defend or explain yourself to an emotional bully spoiling for a circular argument, it usually backfires and results in more pointless conflict and abuse. When a narcissist or borderline begins a circular argument, the most important thing to understand is that the stated issue is typically not the issue. The real issue is the abusive person’s personality or, to be more accurate, their personality disorder. If you’re justifying, arguing, defending or explaining yourself in an effort to resolve an issue that isn’t actually the issue of the conflict, how exactly will that help you to resolve anything?
For example, “I KNOW YOU’RE CHEATING ON ME! My father cheated on my mother! All men are cheats! You’re a cheater, too!” Let’s assume you’re not cheating, never have cheated and never would cheat. When you’re accused of something you haven’t done, it’s understandable to go on the defensive. However, if the point of the conflict isn’t really about resolving the question of your fidelity, defending yourself against allegations of infidelity is pointless. So what are these pointless arguments usually about?
1. It’s about baiting you into conflict to elicit an emotional response, which will then be distorted, twisted around and used against you. “You wouldn’t be so defensive if you weren’t guilty! I want all your passwords!”
2. It’s about allaying, albeit temporarily, fears of abandonment, losing control, feeling or appearing inferior and/or exposure. “If you’re not doing anything, why won’t you give me your passwords!?! It took you ten minutes to answer my 47th text this morning!! WHO ARE YOU FUCKING!!??!!??!!” And then, you hand over your phone. Many narcissists and borderlines attempt to monitor their partner’s every move in an effort to avoid losing the relationship. Even though I work with people everyday who live this hell, I’ve still no idea how the heck they put up with it.
3. It’s a game. They create drama to alleviate boredom and for attention. They yank on your strings and work you like a marionette. You beg, plead, grovel and declare your love and loyalty. Maybe for good measure they follow up the attack with the cold shoulder and you’re then expected to beg them to please talk to you and forgive you for their bullshit. It’s such a fun game.
4. It’s about inflicting pain. Sometimes it’s because they enjoy inflicting pain. Sometimes it’s because they’re hurting and they want you to hurt, too, even when you’re not the cause of their pain. If you’ve caught a glimpse of The Smirk when you begin to JADE, rest assured the narcissist is having a grand old time.
5. It’s about instilling feelings of fear, obligation and guilt (FOG). Fear, obligation and guilt are usually what keep people stuck in abusive relationships. It’s the glue that holds trauma bonded people together. In reality, what narcissists and borderlines ultimately want their victims to feel guilty about is no longer wanting to put up with their abuse. Think about it. In essence, you get guilt tripped for being hurt by their abuse and not wanting to be in an abusive relationship. Makes sense, right?
6. It’s about using intimidation to condition you to let the narcissist have their way. Many of my clients reflexively capitulate to whatever their wives/husbands or girlfriends/boyfriend want in an effort to avoid a tantrum, rage episode or the silent treatment. “You know how she gets and I’d like to sleep tonight. Uh-oh. She just sighed. Quick! What does she want me to do?”
7. It’s about recreating and replaying of the narcissist’s or borderline’s unresolved issues with a parent. For example, “I KNOW YOU’RE CHEATING ON ME! My father cheated on my mother! All men are cheats! You’re a cheater, too!” (By the way, this is also a classic example of a circular argument and good luck finding your way out of that one.)
8. It’s about keeping you distracted instead of focusing on the real issues in the relationship. You become so focused on avoiding another episode that you don’t stop to think about what’s actually going on and why you keep trying so hard when there haven’t been any signs of improvement. If you’re life is around preventing the next narcissistic or borderline rage episode it’s time to take personal inventory. If not, I encourage you to make plans for a heart attack, stroke or cancer.
9. It’s about keeping the spotlight on them. Many narcissists and borderlines not only have an insatiable desire for attention, they become extremely jealous and vindictive if the spotlight meanders away from them and onto someone else. Many of my clients experience an increase in pointless conflict and tantrums when something positive happens to them like earning a promotion, receiving an award or being recognized by an organization or their community. This also why many partners and family members also dread holidays and special occasions like birthdays, anniversaries, weddings, funerals or graduations.
As you can see, the resolution to a circular argument with a narcissist or borderline isn’t about finding a solution. So what’s the point of continuing to participate in it? You’re not powerless. You can opt out of this toxic loop, but you have to take your power back from your abuser. You do that when you stop playing their games and stop playing by their rules. Who’s more powerful? The person spewing crazy nonsense and bile? Or, the person who’s desperately trying to prove that they’re not a horrible person to the person who’s behaving horribly? The only thing more torturous than allowing one’s life to be controlled by emotional reasoning is allowing your day-to-day life to be determined by another person’s emotional reasoning.
Another important thing to understand is that when you JADE, you give your abuser information with which to more effectively manipulate and exploit you. When you JADE you show the narcissist, borderline or psychopath what accusations and insults are the most painful and how to refine their attacks to make them more effective. The more voluminous defenses you make, the more material you give your abuser to cherry pick and twist. It’s especially important not to do this during divorce and custody litigation.
It can be very difficult to break the JADE habit. Difficult, but it can be done. As previously noted, it’s natural to want to defend yourself when you’re accused of things you haven’t done or when your character is maligned. However, once you’ve entered the devaluation stage of a relationship with a narcissist or borderline, that’s it. They see you as the enemy who must be punished and even destroyed.
Finally, when you JADE yourself to a narcissist, it’s a role reversal. In other words, the victim explains him- or herself to their abuser while making excuses for their abuser’s abusive behavior. Do you see how backasswards that is? When you JADE, you explain to your abuser why you shouldn’t be abused and the abuser makes excuses and blames you for their abuse of you. It’s so very sadomasochistic. Please, please, please stop doing this to yourself. Instead, clearly state your case once and then leave it at that. If the narcissist doesn’t accept it and persists, walk away. That’s the power move. It’s also a good way to begin rebuilding your self-respect.
Next time you feel the compulsion to justify, argue, defend or explain ask yourself these questions:
Has explaining yourself ever resolved anything with this person? Or, has it just prolonged the conflict and dug you in even deeper?
How can a person who claims to love you also think such horrible and untrue (or grossly exaggerated) things about you? Why do you feel the need to continuously prove that you’re a good person to someone who takes pleasure in hurting you? Can you recall doing something similar in childhood with a parent or other caregiver?
If a 4-year old was shouting at you and calling you a poopyhead, would you spend 90 minutes explaining why you’re not a poopyhead? If a 40-year old accused you of being the second shooter on the grassy knoll in the JFK assassination would you tirelessly defend yourself pleading with them to believe you? Okay, so why are you giving credence to equally preposterous nonsense just because it’s coming from your narcissistic spouse, girlfriend/boyfriend or ex?
Why are you arguing with someone who’s determined to see you as the cause of everything that’s wrong in their life? Why does someone who believes you’ve wrecked their life and finds you endlessly disappointing want to stay in a relationship with you?
What would happen you you just stopped arguing? What would happen if you dropped the rope? What would happen if you stopped trying to prove your worth to this person? What would your life be like?
If you choose to drop the rope and not engage in this form of emotional manipulation, prepare to be accused of not loving the narcissist, of being an emotionless robot, of not “fighting for the relationship” (extreme eye roll with a wind-up) or of being abusive. These accusations are just more baited hooks to reel you back into the circular conflict game you can’t win. Ultimately, you win by not fighting. The real victory is choosing to live a happier and healthier life far, far away from the narcissist.
Dr. Tara J. Palmatier, PsyD helps individuals work through their relationship and codependency issues via telephone or Skype. She specializes in helping men and women trying to break free of an abusive relationship, cope with the stress of an abusive relationship or heal from an abusive relationship. She combines practical advice, emotional support and goal-oriented outcomes. Please visit the Schedule a Session page for professional inquiries.
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