Am I in an Emotionally Abusive Relationship with a Narcissistic or Borderline Woman?
The following question is from a frustrated husband who feels blamed and neglected by his wife. He wants to know if his wife might have Borderline Personality Disorder or Narcissistic personality Disorder or if something else is going on.
I stumbled across your website in a search to determine what’s going in my relationship. I’ve been married for 8 years (we dated for 5 years before we got married). We have a beautiful 5-year old girl whom I love dearly.
My wife comes from an abusive family. Her dad physically, verbally and mentally abused my wife, her mom, and her siblings. My mother-in-law announced she was ending the marriage on my wife’s 21st birthday. I was there. Awkward!! From that time until we married 5 years later, my wife felt she had to take care of her mom and brother and sister and became very bitter and resentful about it.
My wife was a marketer in a large metro area when we married. After 3 years, we relocated to a smaller area in an effort to start a family. This was her idea so she could be close to her mom. We immediately became pregnant and once our daughter was born, I became the blame for everything wrong in our relationship. She chose to be a stay at home mom and absolutely loathed every minute of it. She repeatedly complained that everything was “falling on her shoulders.”
She still holds on to the bitterness and resentment of her past and wears it like a badge and allows it to interfere with our relationship. Now my wife’s back to work in the marketing field again, but not in the capacity that she desires. Her job’s stressful and when she comes home, she’s too tired for me and our daughter. I work full-time as well, but also take care of the house, cook, get our daughter ready for school and drop her off. All she really has to do is get ready for work. I do these things to alleviate some of the pressure so she won’t feel like it all falls on her shoulders.
She recently took a temporary consulting job on her days off, which she seems to enjoy. As it stands right now, she barely has time for me. I don’t appear on her radar and when I do, I’m just another item on her to do list. I encouraged her to take the consulting work because I wanted her to find something she loved in order to bring that good energy back into our marriage. I fear that it will be for naught.
When I try to talk to her about how I feel neglected, how our daughter feels neglected, how she just sits there and watches me pretty much do everything around the house and take care of our child, it always becomes my fault or she dismisses me by saying I just don’t understand how hard her job is.
I don’t have a lot of people encouraging me to stay in this marriage at this point, including my wife’s sister and brother. I love my wife and I want stability for our daughter. Last night, she did stay she would work on “us,” but I feel I’m just being placated. I’m at my wits’ end. I don’t know what to do anymore.
I’m very sorry to read you’re going through such a difficult time in your marriage. I don’t know enough about what’s going on to determine if your wife falls into the BPD/NPD spectrum.
My hunch is that she’s the oldest child and, as such, in an abusive family, she probably became the parentified child. Meaning that at an early age she felt she had to or was required by her parents to take care of/protect her mother and siblings.
It appears she was sucked back into the professional caretaker (martyr) role, that is, if she ever broke free, when her mother divorced her father. Parentified children often grow up to be professional caretakers. When children feel responsible for their parent(s) and/or sibling(s), they create an identity of self-sacrifice in the service of others, but at their own expense.
While they eventually begin to resent this role, it’s hard for them to let go of it because it’s a distraction from dealing with their own issues and feelings and also gives them a sense of control. An abusive family is a chaotic environment for a child. Learning behaviors that offer some control and protection are incredibly difficult to un-learn even when they become a problem later in the person’s life.
Professional caretakers will agree or volunteer to help others, often without being asked and when they’re already stressed to the max, because these other people (usually the same group of family members or friends) “need” them. These same people rarely return the support they receive from the professional caretaker; it’s usually a one-way street. On the flip side, professional caretakers have a difficult time accepting support from others. It conflicts with their identity of “having to carry the weight of the world on their shoulders.”
Unfortunately, it seems as if you’ve been wrongly added to the “just another person I have to take care of” list. I can only imagine how hurtful it is to seen as an “obligation” rather than a partner, lover or helpmate—especially since you seem to be doing more than your share of caring for your wife and daughter. She probably isn’t able to recognize that you’re trying to help her because, on some level, I think she’s really pissed off about being pulled back into her screwed up family dynamic and she’s stuck in the martyr/caretaker role.
Maybe she believed that once she was out of her parents’ house and married that she wouldn’t have to take care of them anymore. And what happened? On her 21st birthday, when she was technically an adult, her mom announced she was divorcing her father and was pulled back into the family drama. Never underestimate the power of a sick and dysfunctional family dynamic.
Your wife is no longer a child and neither are her siblings. Her mother is probably the main source of the guilt and continued obligation. Your wife will have to be the one to set boundaries with her family because the people on the receiving end of the professional caretaker’s ministrations rarely do. However, first she needs to recognize there’s a problem and that she’s a big part of it.
Leaving the major metro area and giving up a job she loved was her choice and definitely not your fault. She was an adult when she made that decision, not a child at the mercy of her parents. Being the parentified child is a difficult role to break out of. Unfortunately, by sacrificing her career (and now it sounds like her marriage) to “take care” of her mother and siblings, she’s in jeopardy of losing the one person who actually puts her needs first.
This isn’t unusual. Professional caretakers don’t know how to relate to a person who isn’t dependent upon them and reject help and support from others (or seem unappreciative of it) when offered because it makes them feel powerless and out of control like when they were very young.
It appears that you’ve gently tried to explain how her behavior makes you feel and the toll it’s taking on your relationship. If you feel comfortable, perhaps you might want to discuss some of these issues with her and ask if it’s something she’d be willing to work on in counseling together. Try not to bring this up in an “I’ve been analyzing you and I know what’s wrong with you” way because that will just put her on the defensive.
I’d approach it from an “I love you, but you’re not happy, neither am I, and I want both of us to recommit to our marriage to make it better.” She’ll probably try to put you off or resist at first by saying she’s too stressed, doesn’t have enough time, and/or “as if I don’t already have enough to do! Now you want me to make time for therapy?!”
I encourage you to gently, but firmly stand your ground. Remind her that you want your marriage to be a mutual source of support and comfort—that you don’t want to go to therapy to make her more stressed, but to find a way to come together again. Tell her that it hurts you to see her so angry and tense because you love her, that you know she’s made a lot of personal sacrifices for her family (mother and sibs), but she’s hurting her own family (you and your daughter) right now with her behavior. Try to do this in a non-blaming way.
I hope this is helpful. Please check back and let me know how you’re doing.
Dr Tara J. Palmatier, PsyD
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