For people in abusive relationships, sheltering in place with a narcissist or borderline is a whole new circle of hell in an already toxic situation. Many clients stay for the kids. They’re afraid to leave the children in the narcissistic or borderline parent’s care without being there to act as a buffer. Some clients stay due to lack of financial resources. While others are trapped by their own codependency, FOG (fear, obligation, guilt) and trauma bonds.
Whatever the reason, COVID-19 presents new challenges in an already challenging (to put it mildly) relationship. Quarantining with an entitled, self-absorbed, argumentative person with a low frustration threshold (on a good day), is a horror show. It doesn’t matter if the narcissist or borderline is a spouse, boyfriend/girlfriend, parent, grandparent or roommate — it’s toxic.
For many clients, going to work is a sanctuary-like break. Going to the gym, business travel, visiting family and friends or going to the movies provides much needed relief. Lay offs and working from home means these relationship respites are now gone. So what do you do?
Sheltering in place with a narcissist or borderline.
Many of the following suggestions are standard best practices for relationships with narcissists, borderlines and histrionics. Others are applicable only if you can’t physically remove yourself (i.e., leave the house) during a rage episode or other forms of emotional harassment. For example, many NPDs/BPDs pick fights or relentlessly demand that you “discuss the relationship” at bedtime. Discussing the relationship translates to you enthusiastically listening to a litany of relationship grievances, blame, shame and their endless victim narrative. Especially if you are the one who wakes up for work in the morning!
Under ordinary circumstances, I’d advise clients to leave the home and stay at a hotel (if not a financial hardship) in the bedtime relationship feeding frenzy example. I’d also encourage clients to develop and enforce general boundaries. Developing and enforcing boundaries can put you in danger if you can’t physically leave the home, however. We’re not living under ordinary circumstances for the foreseeable future, so adaptations are necessary.
Pick your battles.
This is standard best practices — during and post-divorce. Resist the provocations to have pointless circular arguments over trivialities. You know, the usual. Don’t JADE (justify, argue, defend, explain), however. All that accomplishes is prolonging the conflict of the hour.
Sequester yourself in the home office, den, garage or workshop. All the better if the door has a lock. Take the kids for a social distancing walk (weather permitting). Interrupt the verbal diarrhea and tell them you have a work from home conference call. Distract them with a shiny object. For example, if the narcissist has another target of blame/hate, bring that person up. Better to misdirect their ever present animosity at “that bitch next door” than you or the kids. While it isn’t a particularly noble act, “that lucky bitch next door” isn’t in the direct line of fire.
Give them some small “wins.”
Ordinarily, I strongly advise against this. I recommend this tactic only when you’ve a separation date or if you’re sheltering in place with a narcissist or borderline. It’s generally a bad idea to humor, validate or appease their distortions, double standards and lies. If you do, they use previous acceptance of blame to support ever new distortions, double standards and lies. Also, small wins can help you avoid false allegations of abuse and police involvement. Male victims of abuse are most at risk for false allegations and arrest when they start enforcing boundaries. Which is why it’s important to be able to leave the home and go elsewhere.
Choose small wins that will cause the least amount of grief for you later on. For example, don’t admit to “always” or “never” being or doing something or not being or not doing something. Rather, admit to making small mistakes (that you didn’t make). Or, not remembering information (that they didn’t tell you in the first place). It’s difficult to keep off the slippery blame slope into a full apology for your entire existence. This is when misdirection of blame or a work call you forgot to tell them about is handy.
Know your happy place and go there.
This is when being able to disassociate and/or having a rich imagination is useful. Daydreaming isn’t necessarily a frivolous pastime. Read, craft, woodwork, garden, cook, paint, chop firewood, auto repair, gaming — whatever you enjoy — do it. That is, until the narcissist or borderline sees you enjoying yourself and decides that’s enough of that!
If that happens, encourage her or him to do whatever it is they waste time on that typically bothers you. Like spending hours on Instagram, reality TV, binge watching Grey’s Anatomy for the hundredth time, Classic ESPN (is that still a thing?) or spending hours on the phone with their bestie. They may eventually figure out what it is you’re doing, but it may buy you some peace for a time.
Take on more than your share of household and kid responsibilities.
Ordinarily, I advise against doing this. Extraordinary times call for swallowing some BS. If she wants to seclude herself in the craft room, Candy Crush or Instagram all day about her heroic sacrifices — just let her do it. Household cleaning, organizing, DIY projects, renovations and childcare keep you busy. If your narcissistic or borderline spouse is the type who claims to “do everything” (while doing very little), they’ll bask in sitting back to watch you worker bee for them.
Again, this will likely also be temporary. When they figure out this is a tactic to avoid dealing with them, they’ll complain about it. They’ll still expect you to continue doing the majority of the household and childcare work, but they’ll let you know you’re doing it all wrong, how you should be doing it and that you should be doing even more of it. Don’t take the bait. Ask them to physically demonstrate the proper way, thus requiring they do some work, and that might shut them up for a bit longer.
Don’t take the bait regarding “emotional labor.”
If the narcissist or borderline is a stay at home, this may be an opportunity for them to whinge about their supposed emotional labor. Emotional labor is a term that’s been recently misapplied to mean women/mothers do everything. And men who do chores and childcare don’t do it right, have to be asked to do it, need to magically know without being asked and never sufficiently recognize, appreciate or ass kiss their wives backbreaking emotional labor of, for instance, braiding their daughter’s hair. At least, that’s my take away from Gemma Hartley’s book-spawning Harper’s Bazaar whine-fest.
Apologies for beating a dead nag, but don’t take the bait. Roll your eyes inside your head. Practice silent primal screaming. Agree without agreeing. For example, “Yes, keeping the house in good order and taking care of the kids is hard work.” Don’t mention that you consider the NPD/BPD to be one of the kids you’re taking care of.
Keep a sense of humor and perspective.
Sheltering in place with a narcissist or borderline won’t last forever. It’ll feel like forever, but it won’t be forever! Imagine — if you’re one of the fortunate with a job to return to — how much you’ll need to be at work once this is over. Meanwhile, do Skype dinners with extended family and friends. This could provide relief if the narcissistic or borderline spouse plays perfect partner in public.
Use this as a time for self-reflection and soul searching.
- Is this the person you want to spend the rest of your life with?
- Do you want to spend the rest of your life walking on eggshells?
- Are you living your best life?
- What are you afraid of?
- Are your fears realistic?
- What’s keeping you stuck? Is it codependency, unresolved childhood issues, fear of the unknown, inertia or something else?
- Are you modeling self-respect and a healthy adult relationship for your kids?
- If you’ve been trying to “fix” your partner all these years, how’s that working out thus far?
Do your homework and develop a safe exit strategy.
If you’re unhappy with your answers to the previous questions, what can you realistically do about it? Not can’t do about it; can do about it. You may not like the obvious options, e.g., divorce and shared custody, but you do have options. If, like some of my clients, you find yourself wishing for an early death or happy accident, WTF? Divorcing a narcissist or borderline is usually a shitshow, but you have a pulse at the end of it.
From there, you have the option to work on your issues, make healthier choices and free yourself from the old dysfunction and painful hopelessness. I’m not saying it’s easy, but from personal and professional experience, it’s a heck of a lot easier than spending the rest of your life in an abusive relationship with someone who’ll never appreciate or recognize your efforts and self-imposed martyrdom.
Not sheltering in place with a narcissist or borderline.
Aren’t you the lucky! Seriously. I’m not being hyperbolic. No matter how frustrated, angry at the isolation, lack of leadership/administrative competence and afraid (health and money) you feel during the Coronavirus shutdown, imagine having to go through this with your narcissist or borderline ex.
Yeah, things can always be worse.
Now, feel the relief and gratitude wash over you like gently lapping, crystal blue Caribbean waves with your favorite cocktail in hand. Feels good, right? I’m smiling just thinking about it.
If you have a friend or family member sheltering in place with Crazy, reach out to them. Check in with them. Commiserate and offer some diversions. Like playing online Scrabble or helping them imagine a healthier future once the Family Courts open up again.
Meanwhile stay safe and healthy, everyone! And stop hoarding toilet paper, dammit!
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 or send an email to email@example.com.
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