Source: Conger Design/Pixabay
My client Lisa had just moved in with Jon, her boyfriend of three months. Up until the moment that they had moved in together, Jon had been sweet, charming, and very agreeable. He had pursued Lisa for months, sending her loving texts, flowers, gifts, and in general sweeping her off feet. They were together in their new apartment less than a week when Jon suddenly became more demanding. They were talking about who to invite to their housewarming party, when Lisa’s cell phone rang. Here is what happened that shocked Lisa.
Lisa: It’s my mother calling.
Jon: Don’t pick up.
Lisa: I have to. It’s my mother.
Jon: She is not more important than me, is she?
Lisa: (Ignoring him and picking up the phone) Mom, is everything okay? I’m glad to hear that. I’m in the middle of something. Can I get back to you later? Great. Love you too!
Jon: I can’t believe you did that. I told you not to pick up.
Lisa: I thought you were joking.
Jon: I’m not joking. We are living together now, and I expect you to treat me as the most important person in your life.
Lisa: You are the most important man in my life. That doesn’t mean I don’t still love my family.
Jon: (Threating) Well, don’t expect me to sit there like a dummy, if you ever pick up the phone to talk to someone else when I am in the room. I won’t stay, if you are on the phone. That is just rude!
Lisa: But it’s not just someone else. It’s my mother and she’s been sick. I will always pick up when she calls. But if it is not important, I will tell her we can speak later.
Jon: (Escalating) That’s not good enough! I need you to promise me that you will never pick up the phone in the middle of a conversation with me no matter what. I don’t care if your mother’s house is on fire.
Lisa: Don’t be silly. Of course, I will pick up and talk to her if her house is on fire. Why are you being like this? You have never talked to me like this before.
Jon: (Escalating the level of threat) If you ever pick up the phone again when I say not to, I will take it out of your hand and hang it up myself!
That was Lisa and Jon’s first real fight and it lasted over an hour. Lisa could not believe that Jon was threatening her simply to try and get his way. She tried to see it from his point-of-view and could not. Eventually they stopped arguing and had dinner. Things calmed down and they had make-up sex that night.
This was the first of many fights in which Jon saw himself as the victim of Lisa’s selfish behavior and ended up threatening her in an attempt to get his way. Needless to say, this relationship did not last. Three months later, with many tears shed by Lisa and much anger from Jon, they gave up the apartment and went their separate ways.
Lisa felt traumatized by the way their relationship had ended and by all the mean things that Jon had said to her. She had been in fights with boyfriends before, but his was the first time anyone had ever made threats or tried to control her the way Jon had. The threats had really scared her and made her feel helpless and abused. She was glad that the relationship had ended, but she wanted to understand what had gone wrong.
After reading many internet dating blog posts, a lightbulb went off! Jon fit the picture of the Exhibitionist Narcissistic men they described. She was relieved to have the information, but she still wondered: Why do Narcissists make so many threats?
If the above scenario seems familiar and you have been threatened by a Narcissist in your life, you may have wondered the same thing: Why is the person who claims to love me threatening me?
Note: I am using the term “Narcissist” in this article as shorthand for a person who qualifies for a diagnosis of Narcissistic Personality Disorder. I used a male Narcissist in the above example, but there are an equal number of women with Narcissistic Personality Disorder.
I have given this issue a great deal of thought over the years and have come up with four psychological elements that seem to predict who is likely to use threats to try and control other people and why they think that this behavior is okay. This can be written in shorthand as:
Sense of Entitlement + One-Mindedness + Lack of Emotional Empathy + Lack of a Sense of Proportion = Likely to resort to threats in order to exercise control over the other person.
Here is a more detailed explanation of what I mean:
- Sense of Entitlement
People with Narcissistic Personality Disorder often get very stuck in the present moment. They decide that they want something from you. In the background is their vast sense of entitlement that is working like an emotional and oversized engine. They literally believe that, of course, you will do whatever they ask of you.
Then comes the shock: You say “no” or you propose something different.
Narcissists suffer from “One-Mindedness.” Like a small child, they cannot grasp that different points of view can be equally valid. Therefore, the only way they can interpret your “no” is as a direct attack on them. In their mind, you are saying they are wrong. This makes you their enemy.
- Lack of Emotional Empathy
They are ill equipped to take your feelings into consideration because they lack emotional empathy. They do not feel bad when they hurt you. This leads them to use only their feelings as their guide.
- Lack of a Sense of Proportion
If you have been around people with NPD, you are likely to have noticed that when they are angry, they lose all sense of proportion. They tend to get equally enraged by something small— the way you prefer to load the dishwasher —and something much more important— that you are breaking up with them.
I know this sounds extreme and as if I am exaggerating, but if you decide to live with a Narcissist, you will find them picking terrible fights over what most people consider very trivial matters.
So where do the threats come into this?
Remember that “stuckness” I mentioned earlier? When you combine entitlement, one-mindedness, lack of empathy, with no sense of proportion; this makes a wicked and primitive brew. This moment becomes all there is. Time stops right here for the Narcissist.
They feel desperate. Right now, the fact that you are doing something other than what they want, feels like the most important thing in the world to the Narcissistic individual.
This is when they threaten you. They have lost all sense of rational perspective. They are enraged by your non-compliance. They believe you are making a statement about them by your behavior that they interpret as follows:
You are saying to them:
You are wrong! I am right! I don’t care about what you feel or want. I am simply being pigheaded and are refusing to give you what you want. You can’t make me!
They become even more enraged because they are interpreting everything that you say and do as a personal attack. They believe at a subconscious level that their self-esteem is on the line. If they do not make you give in, this means that you win, and they lose. They believe that they have to control you, because if they lose, this means that you are now better than them and have demolished their sense of self-worth.
So…to protect their self-esteem and get what they want, they devalue and threaten you. They try to scare you into agreeing with them. Often the threats are surprisingly vague. Here are some common threats that my clients report, moving from the vague to the violent.
- You’ll be sorry if you do that!
- Just you wait till you want something from me!
- Don’t think you can get away with that!
Or the more specific:
- If you leave this house tonight, I am changing the locks!
- Don’t be surprised if you come back and find all your clothes in the garbage.
- I am cancelling the party and you can celebrate your birthday alone.
Or the violent:
- (Moving towards you while shaking a finger in your face) You better stop, or I will really give you something to cry about!
- (Grabbing you by both arms hard enough to bruise you and shaking you) You listen to me! Stop that or I will stop you!
- (Smacking you across the face) I am out of patience with you. If you don’t shut up and do exactly as I say, anything that happens will be your fault!
Punchline: It is very common for people with NPD to resort to threats to get their way. The main reason that they do this is because they cannot understand anyone else’s point of view when it differs from their own, or empathize with anyone else’s agenda. They experience your refusal to agree with them or obey them as either unnecessary or a direct declaration of war against their self-esteem. They are convinced that this gives them the right to threaten you in order to take back control and make you do what they want. When they succeed in cowing you, their self-esteem rises—and yours, unfortunately, declines.
Adapted from a Quora.com post: Why do narcissists make threats? (3/10/18)