The Narcissist’s Stocking Stuffer: A Coupledom Alert

Holidays Coming: How many days to Thanksgiving? To Hanukkah? To Christmas? To Kwanzaa? To New Year’s Eve? Enough to create a big fat Coupledom mess. What are the holidays known for in my profession? Opportunity for families to become combustible, leaving memories scorched with flames. Why? Holidays provide fertile ground for narcissistic orgies rich in ultimatums, perceived rejections and ample distorted projections.

Tradition Or Narcissism? The hallmark of unhealthy narcissism is the characteristic inability to walk in someone else’s moccasins, i.e. stuck like cement in your own experience, unable to imagine another’s and bewildered, hurt or enraged at the suggestion that you do so. A good mistletoe example of this occurs when a newly created family is formed of someone’s grown up child, their spouse, perhaps a newborn or two and some in-laws. For twenty-five years, give or take a decade, “everyone” has gone to Mom’s and Dad’s to decorate the tree on Christmas Eve. This is what is termed a family tradition. When that tradition needs to morph a bit to accommodate the needs of new members, geography, expanded parameters of all kinds, the response of family members reveals whether this is a precious tradition, mortal and malleable, or a rigid demand that tests “loyalty and love?”

Two Thanksgivings? Impossible: The divorced or blended family can add its own mix of narcissistic spice to the holiday brew when offspring are rebuked or guilted into feeling that where they hang their stocking shows the truth of their devotion! Really? And as Thanksgiving occurs only on the last Thursday in November, there is even a greater opportunity for betrayal as your options are narrowed down. Who ever heard of celebrating two Thanksgivings, one on Thursday and one on Friday or Saturday? I have. Can you eat that much turkey and sweet potato casserole? Not well, but you can serve a prime rib and potato au gratin, can’t you? Yes you can. Two Thanksgivings? Impossible? Not really. It’s not as if you were asking for two moons to fill our planet’s celestial sky. It is just two meals on two different days. NO!

The “How Could You?” Highway: Despite my irreverent tone (I admit to harboring mixed feelings about a “tradition” that functions as a ball and chain) I take this topic quite seriously. As a clinician I bear witness to the havoc that holidays have bestowed on decent folk who view the upcoming festivities with dread, knowing that one side of the family or another is going to be bent out of shape by whatever decision doesn’t conform to their expectation. The narcissistic mandate to gratify what might be a rigid and subjective notion of holiday loyalty comes disguised as love, bonding, or respect for tradition, one’s elders or family ties. There are all kinds of garbs put on to pose as a caring family. But the telltale sign of defective empathy and imagination is rigidity. My way. Our way. Or the How Could You? Highway. “How could you want to do anything that displeases us or doesn’t match our vision?”

Seasonal Deja Vu: There are many variations on the holiday family drama. Children of divorce, no matter their age, often approach the season with a form of post traumatic stress disorder, reliving the agonies of tense drop-offs and pick-ups, experiencing a sense of sadness or apprehension, grief, loneliness or anxiety. And often, the antagonisms that made their childhood holidays fraught with displeasure still exist. For the Coupledom that they have formed, attention needs to be paid to sorting out past pains from present joys and possible continuing obstacles. (Please see my previous post “ Holiday Mayhem For The Coupledom”.) Are the parents still alienated enough that the adult children are trapped with concerns of appearing to choose sides? Is the pressure of pleasing families in far-flung geographic locales, one set of in-laws here, another elsewhere, difficulties compounded by transporting infants in pouches, squirmy toddlers and diaper bags through crowded airports, putting a strain on your relationship? Who can we satisfy? Who will we hurt or anger? (See also Triangle Traps.) “Are we turning on each other because we feel helpless and afraid?”

Boundaries, The Stocking Stuffer of Choice: The Coupledom that faces these challenges has an opportunity to develop two critical life skills that will enhance their Coupledom enormously: boundary creation and unification of their Coupledom identity. Boundaries and Coupledom identity (not fusion, rather two independent but deeply linked individuals) form a solid and secure place to go when forces outside the marriage threaten to weaken it. Couples can find themselves at odds with each other about how to approach the holidays because of confusion of loyalty, fears of rejection and an incomplete or partially formed image of their relationship, never truly examined, or fleshed out with sufficient consensus to provide a reliable template. Now is the time. And with a more complete portrait of who we are as a couple, boundaries will naturally emerge out of that newly formulated identity. Those boundaries represent a map for how we as a couple approach the rest of our families and friends. We are the team that, most important of all, listens to each other, and then together decides the game plan and consequently stuffs the stockings of our beloved or not so beloved extended family members with the gift of our boundaries, knowing who we are, what we are, and what we can offer to them.

Words Words Words, Only Words? I know, this sounds like a lot of therapy jargon and abstraction. But how do we actually do this? Any way you want. Draw pictures of the optimal image of your Coupledom. Send each other emails, write letters, dream apart and together, look for models around you. But most of all, have the conversation face to face over time. And…

Beliefs That Are Relics Of The Past: …check into your “beliefs.” This is a key element in understanding yourself. What we believe is expected of us or is “right” is often an archaic relic of a child’s mind or messages received very young. Haul those beliefs out, “Am I good or bad if I do this or that?” “If I do comply or don’t comply?” “If I or we do it differently?” “Is it unloving to not gratify?” What are your shoulds and are they really appropriate for the grown-up you now are and the adult life you are forming? Both members of the Coupledom need to do this work, together and apart, and bring it into the conversation.

A Couples’ Discovery: And if you stumble or just can’t find a road map here, please call in an expert, one of those therapists who know how to facilitate a couples’ discovery of self, partner, the worlds you come from and the world that you are attempting to create today. From this exploration emerges a new entity with dignity intact, boundaries agreed upon and directions in place. Most of all, keep it pliable, not grounded in cement with updated versions of equally rigid traditions, demands and visions, a system that can morph as the times require, responsive to question and modification. Keep it pliable, and guess what, wherever the narcissistic challenge in your Coupledom life, you will be ready for it. Happy Holidays.

©Jill Edelman, M.S.W., L.C.S.W. 2011


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