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Early on in a relationship (and sometimes quite deep into the relationship) we may not realize we are being threatened, especially if it is a deeply religious relationship. Wives want to be submissive. We want to honor our husbands. So when we are ordered to do something, we don’t necessarily find it threatening. And if it doesn’t turn out quite the way we intended, we are often confused about why our husbands get so incredibly upset and then start with the ultimatums because we “didn’t obey fast enough or just plain enough.” (Note: I am referring to the husband as the narcissist here, but there are men who are abused by narcissistic wives. Please feel free to adjust the pronouns to fit your situation.)
So what do you do when you finally realize what is going on and your narcissist threatens you? First, you do not react strongly or fight back. You must keep things calm. You can speak the truth calmly, but do not expect a healthy or understanding response back. And you must set healthy boundaries for yourself so you will remain safe while trying to diffuse the situation. Finally, you must decide how to navigate the relationship going forward in a way that you can be emotionally healthy, whether that means getting outside help or even ending the relationship.
It took me a loooong time to get to the place that I could handle this well. And it did cost me my marriage of 31 years, but it allowed me to be emotionally healthy for the first time in my life. I had amazing church leaders, counselors, lawyers (as well as the whole court system really–right down to the bailiff who told me I was doing an amazing job), friends and neighbors who supported me every step of the way. Honestly, just about everybody I worked with was incredibly supportive. Even the people who were working with me to set up my new life, and they didn’t even know the details–they just knew that all of a sudden I was starting life over. Let’s take a look at what I learned and what that looks like in more detail.
Do Not React Strongly or Fight Back When a Narcissist Threatens You
For years, I would let whatever he told me get under my skin. Often, I would apologize and swear to myself (and him) that I would be better. But I never measured up. And eventually I realized I never would.
For the time I spent trying to live up to my narcissistic ex-husband’s ideals, I lost every bit of autonomy I had. I was so busy trying to be everything for him that there was none of me left.
After 20+ years of that, I realized I was never going to measure up, no matter how good I was. And I started to realize how much I had given up. Unfortunately, my next reaction was to overreact to everything. I did not work out well.
He would say something just to counter whatever I had said. I would get upset and tell him he was wrong because______. Then he would come right back at me as to how wrong I was or that my motives were wrong or that “there was something really wrong with me.”
I would get so angry that he got to the point of dismissing literally everything I said or did. I could have said the sky was blue and he would tell me I needed counseling because the sky was actually green. It was maddening to me. I kept trying to convince him of what I was saying that made so much sense but he just couldn’t get. As he escalated, I would escalate right back. This went on for a few years.
I couldn’t figure out why I couldn’t explain things to him in a way that he would understand what I was trying to communicate. It actually took me several more years and an excellent counselor to realize that the gaslighting and word salad was a construct to wear me down and control me.
The reacting and trying to convince him didn’t work. Because he wasn’t fighting for our marriage. He was fighting for control. And he probably already knew the truth. But it didn’t fit his narrative. And that is why coming back at your narcissist will never work.
*Note: For the best resources on understanding, dealing with, and healing narcissism, click here!
Keep Things Calm With a Narcissist Throughout the Exchange
After a year of counseling on healthy ways to communicate through chaos, I learned to answer calmly, even when my ex-narcissist would continue to poke and prod for a reaction. He would actually get really frustrated that he could no longer manipulate me so easily into an argument.
The rule was “just the facts.” So, when he would say something provocative, I would counter it with a very level voice and a factual statement. I didn’t engage at all on gray areas. He would generally throw something even more provocative at me. And I would repeat the fact, again calmly and with a level tone. If this happened I third time, I would tell him that our conversation was going nowhere and I was going to disengage. Then I would generally leave the room or area so he couldn’t continue to come at me.
I can’t even tell you how angry this made him. But it kept my head level. And it helped me to clear my very fuzzy head after years of gaslighting.
But probably the best benefit of all was that I realized the level of damage that had been done to me over the years. I now knew I could heal and didn’t have to be trapped on that never-ending merry-go-round. And I knew that things were never going to be healthy between us as this new dance continued and he grew angrier at my healing and inability to be controlled anymore.
One of the most instrumental things for me and a great way for you to recognize when a narcissist threatens you (at least on the marital front) was the book, The Emotionally Destructive Marriage by Leslie Vernick. It taught me the difference between a difficult marriage and a destructive marriage. Then it showed me how to proceed depending on which was the case for me. That is when my healing began in earnest. Check it out here!
Speak the Truth Calmly to a Narcissist
I touched on this a little bit above when I was talking about how I worked through conflict when my narcissist was being combative with me.
When your narcissist threatens you, you need to speak the truth calmly to him. Will it have a positive result with him? Probably not. He isn’t trying to resolve things with you. But it will strengthen you emotionally as you learn to handle the conflict that is constantly being thrown at you. And it will help you to keep a clear head.
Speaking the truth calmly to a narcissist isn’t for their benefit–it’s for yours! It will improve your clarity, your memory, your decision-making skills, and your emotional health.
In The Emotionally Destructive Marriage, Leslie Vernick talks about CORE values. This speaks directly to speaking the truth calmly. Here’s what the letters stand for:
C – I will be committed to truth, both internally in my own heart and mind and externally. I refuse to pretend.
O – I will be open to the Holy Spirit and wise others, teaching me, maturing me, and guiding me into his way of living my life.
R – I will be responsible for my own responses to destructive behavior and commit to being respectful without dishonoring myself.
E – I will be empathic and compassionate toward others without enabling people to continue to abuse and disrespect me.
These responses all require a healthy calm response, no matter what the narcissist throws at you. When you start successfully putting them into practice, you’ll be amazed at how much better you feel! Just realize that you won’t instantly be good at it. It took me months of solid practice/failure/retry before I felt solid. Also know that sometimes we all fail! Just get back up and know you will do better next time!
Set Healthy Boundaries for Yourself When Dealing With a Narcissist’s Threats
Healthy boundaries are critical if you are feel your narcissist threatens you.
First, trust your instinct. I excused away the threatening behavior as he didn’t realize what he was doing, he didn’t mean harm, or I was just misunderstanding things. I couldn’t imagine that someone that had sworn to love me and take care of me could intentionally do those things.
You need to understand that they don’t think like we do. Narcissists know what they are doing because that is how they get what they want. (For more on this, check out my article here.) Generally speaking, if you haven’t made them mad yet, they aren’t intentionally trying to destroy you. They can’t even see you. They only see what they are trying to obtain: admiration, praise and control.
And that is why you need boundaries. Because in their mind, there is no line where they end and you begin, you exist exclusively to give them their narcissistic supply (the constant supply of admiration, praise, and control that is needed by the narcissist). Recognize that you will never win an argument with them.
And for that reason, you need to put a limit on how they approach you. You will have to communicate to them clearly what those boundaries are and how you will enforce them. And then you will need to stick to what you said. If you can give all of this to your narcissist in writing, it will be much easier to hold him to them. You can refernece back to that email, text, or letter. Otherwise, you will be constantly battling with him over what you did/didn’t say. He will insist you never said any of it unless you have something to prove back to him that you did indeed set those boundaries.
The Best Resource for Setting and Keeping Boundaries
The number one book for setting and keeping healthy boundaries is Boundaries by Henry Cloud and John Townsend. It was a lifesaver for me in knowing what was appropriate for the sake of my emotional health after a lifetime of no boundaries.
Admittedly, it was difficult at first to set and keep those boundaries. I honestly felt like I was doing something wrong because I was so fully available to everyone all the time, to the point that there was none of me left. But over time, I was amazed at what a positive difference it made in my lfe. I am still available to my friends and loved ones. But in a much healthier way. And everyone has been supportive and positive about it. Except for the narcissists who were no longer getting their unlimited supply.
Decide How To Navigate a Relationship With a Threatening Narcissist
Now that we have talked about my experience and a couple of the best tools I used to get myself to a safe place, let’s talk about how to decide how to navigate your relationships when your narcissists threatens you.
First, what do those threats look like? Are you feeling physically threatened? If so, you need to get yourself to safety immediately. Call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 800-799-7233 or check them out online at thehotline.org.
If you are not in immediate danger, then you need to navigate exactly how to work through your relationship with your narcissist. But do realize that the more you push against the abuse of a narcissist, the angrier they will get over time. If you do come to the place where you think you may have pushed to the point they may harm you, call the number above!
After well over a year of counseling, it was pretty clear to my counselor that my then-husband was not going to heal willingly. We could make some process when we cornered him with evidence of what was going on and he couldn’t lie about it, deny it or gaslight me. So at this point it was up to me to decide whether I wanted to spend my whole life holding his feet to the fire with no repentance in his heart. It was all about how much he could get away with before getting caught. And I was exhausted.
The choice my counselor made clear to me was that I either needed to learn how to navigate through the constant narcissism or I would need to leave and start a new life. This was an agonizingly hard decision. But for the sake of my health (and the kids that were not yet grown and still living in the home) it was obvious what I needed to do. And so my decision was made to begin a new healthy life at the age of 50.
I have heard repeatedly that the best revenge is to live a good life. Honestly, I don’t have much of a heart for revenge. I just want to live a good life without the fear of what’s around the corner if I say or do something that somebody doesn’t like. That doesn’t mean I am not sensitive to those around me–it just means I am not fearful of severe consequences of not pleasing everybody all the time, which is impossible to do.
I am greatly blessed now. I lead a support group for divorced/divorcing people who are still hurting and in the midst of a soul-crushing process. It is such a blessing to me that I can bring light to their world. And I am glad that God has given me a light in the dark path I walked by allowing me to help others.
My kids and I no longer walk on eggshells. We are far from perfect. And that is okay. We can now love life and work through difficulties (and even failures) without fear, abuse, and intimidation.
Here is a great worksheet to help you work through the process:
If you are hurting, I prayed for you today, even though I don’t know your name. And I hope that you and your loved ones can find the peace that my family has found. Just know that when a narcissist threatens you, regardless of the relationship, you have options. You are not as trapped as you may feel right now. Feel free to leave a comment below (or chat with me privately here). Love and hugs to you. ♥