Greetings Mr. Joycon, I hope you haven't developed drift!
I have a girlfriend. Hooray for me! She has a narcissistic father and is not on speaking terms with him. I recently listened to the Gamers With Lives episode where you mention your own narcissistic parent. I want to be as supportive as possible, so I'm looking for general advice on what I can do to help her. We've had a few deep conversations, but she doesn't talk about her childhood much. We've been seeing each other for about six months but have known each other about a year.
Thank you in advance for the help!
Thank you for writing in, being thoughtful, and engaging with this part of your partner's life. The journey you are joining her on is not an easy one, but it is critical that you always remember that this is her journey—and it is going to be a lifelong one.
My first recommendation is to build your foundational understanding. Adult Children of Emotionally Immature Parents is a useful book for anyone on this journey as it breaks down the many types of narcissistic and emotionally immature parents as well as the developmental responses of their children. If your girlfriend hasn't read it, I would recommend it to her, but only when she has the available bandwidth to engage with it. Personally, I preferred the audiobook version because reading about this topic can be challenging, and something about listening to it made it more manageable.
As you read or listen, do not forget your role. It's not your place to try to convince her to implement anything; your sole responsibility it to support your girlfriend's needs in regards to her family. I'm going to explain in more detail what that means. Keep in mind, my suggestions here are only a starting point and your girlfriend has the final word on what will help her most.
Your girlfriend is living in a world bombarded with messages about what "normal" family relationships look like. They are everywhere and create a painful dissonance between her lived experience with her father—and her family, because it wasn't just him—and the societal archetype of those relationships. This pain is amplified when other people weigh in on her choices and boundaries. Your girlfriend is currently "no contact" with her father, but she's likely getting messages from family members, extended family, outsiders, and even her own internal voice telling her that this makes her a bad daughter. It doesn't; she's not. In fact, she's being a great parent to herself. But the painful voices remain.
One day, it might be a clueless coworker who innocently asks about Father's Day; another day, a family-friend who has only heard twisted, one-sided versions of the narcissist's truth. Even well-intentioned inquiries can highlight the conflict and provoke feelings of guilt, depression, and anger. She may get overwhelmed at times, but she is navigating an abusive relationship and needs absolute power and authority to set her own terms. As a partner, your aim is to support her recovery and healing, not to manage it. Take your cues from her, especially at those times when you might have strong feelings of your own about her choices.
As your support becomes visible, be ready for others to try and drag you into the family drama. Narcissists do not accept boundaries and will not think twice about manipulating you to get what they want. Her father might turn on a surprising amount of charm in hopes you'll take his side. The other parent or siblings might reach out as an ambassador. Do not be surprised by odd and unpredictable attempts to negate your girlfriend's boundaries—especially early on. Decide your own boundaries now and match them as much as you can to your girlfriend's overall efforts.
My partner set up boundaries very early with my parents. She refused to pass along messages or be put in the middle of even minor conflicts. By doing this, she reinforced to them that I am my own person and kept a united front between us that centered on my needs and my healing. It is not easy to do, but this kind of support will deepen the trust in your relationship and reaffirm to your partner that you've got her back.
You may not yet realize how critical it is that your support is unwavering. You see, most children received unconditional love and support from even problematic parents, but a child of a narcissist did not, and may not deeply understand the concept. Adult children of narcissists tend to be hard on themselves and struggle to think of themselves as worthy of love and support. As you love your partner, validate her, and respect and honor her wishes within the bounds of a healthy, adult relationship, you provide her the framework to begin to build an understanding of unconditional love and support. At times, you may need to overly communicate, doubly affirm, and reiterate a healthy relationship. It's critical that you do this as a partner and not as a proxy parent. You should navigate this together, but following her lead.
At times, you may trigger anxiety or other trauma responses in your girlfriend. The experiences associated with having a narcissistic parent will often leave the child prone to anxiety throughout their life. If she grew up thinking there could be an outburst or punishment thrust on her at any moment for any reason, it is going to affect her to this day. If your partner knows some of her triggers, try and work together to determine how you can best help in those moments, and also how you can reduce the times you inadvertently provoke those traumas.
When I was growing up, every question was a test with a right and a wrong answer. The wrong answer gave my narcissistic parent an opportunity to spin out of control. Now that I'm an adult, I'll freeze up when my partner simply asks what I'd like for dinner. When my partner sees me freeze, she knows to remind me that it isn't a test. I've been with my partner for a decade now, and this is still a learning-edge for both of us; so, don't get frustrated if you encounter some road bumps.
I actually have a lot more I could share about my experience, including things that helped me navigate my own trauma, re-author my personal history, and assert my own agency. Most of it falls more along the lines of things that could help your girlfriend directly, so if she would like to discuss with someone who has lived it, too, I'd be happy for her to reach out to me.
Remember, this is her journey and you are playing support. Give her space to open up about her childhood when she wants to and respect when she needs to be internal. Good luck to both of you!
As always, you can send your quandaries to [email protected]. I look forward to hearing from you!