One theory is that fragile or covert type narcs may have arrested emotional development which usually occurs at some point in early childhood. Their entire emotional range is literally that of a child. A small, helpless, frightened child. Like a child, a narc will test boundaries at different points in the early parts of a relationship. We have to figure out what we can get away with. This is an extremely important point! I’ll illustrate a bit with my own past relationships.
My ex wasn’t able to to ‘teach me’ to behave – she attempted to confront and control and then after I didn’t respond favorably over time, she gave up. Now, when I say confront and control I don’t mean this in a negative light. She had needs that I was not meeting – she directly challenged me with those needs, which just wasn’t the best option at the time. She did all that she could – and she threw her heart into it, but I just didn’t respond to her choice of methods. Things became bitter, cold, and lonely for both of us. And then it collapsed altogether.
My current SO made very clear very early on what was and was not okay – bad behavior is not tolerated, and she held me accountable every time. Yes, it makes her ‘the parent’ in some ways, but in all honesty, my mother was the central figure in my narc-forming internalized child-hood crisis. My emotional development arrested at the age of 7ish. Having a partner that can help me continue to grow and mature by playing the motherly role may sound somewhat nuts, but the fact that I am typing this now is proof that I have some degree of awareness over my disease and a desire to heal. It’s not something I had before this… And it’s only now just sinking in.
Just remember – the narc morphs into what the relationship will allow him to be. He will drop the mask a little at a time to test your responses. If you don’t put your foot down quickly enough to establish a level of equality, the mask may drop completely and then you end up with the nightmare narc… but what are these masks all about?
I can only speak from my own experiences, but – I am Mr. Wonderful when you first meet me. IF I want to meet you that is. When I turn on Mr. Wonderful, that’s what you get… But let’s say we’ve known each other for a while and been together for a while. It’s hard being Mr. Wonderful all the time – there’s no way to sustain the illusion. So I drop the Mr. Wonderful mask and put on the Mr. Really Really Good mask. I might wear that around for a while to see how you react. Then I might go to Mr. Just Okay for a while and test the boundaries again. Eventually you get to Mr. Mask – which is the full on Narc in his worst possible form. You’ll never find the real person in there – he doesn’t exist.
So let’s say I’m wearing my Mr. Just Okay mask. And it’s mostly sustainable. It’s the least amount of effort I need to put into the relationship in order to maintain my source of narcissistic supply. I probably tried to work with the next mask down, but it created problems that interfered with my supply, so I ratcheted the illusion back up a notch, but I also modified it a bit. Now it’s Mr. Just Okay, Uniquely Designed Just for You. Let’s call this Mr. Just Okay version 2.0.
Over time, if I get bored or start to drift, the mask may slip. It may slip more and more depending on a LOT of factors. What it reveals is a nasty, spoiled little brat that thinks the world owes him fealty! By this point, the non is already having their vital essence leached away by the Narc – the Narc just turns the hose up to full blast.
Again – the Narc is probing, looking for weaknesses and trying to figure out what he or she can get away with. How much or how little do they have to do in order to maintain their supply – and is it worth it to them to do so… If they have to work hard for it, they’ll usually just move on. If they have it easy – they’ll suck you dry and then move on. Somewhere, in that middle ground, there is a place where some narcs can be made to behave properly… but it takes a certain type of non to carry this out effectively. Most people will fail.
Example. Home Maintenance:
With the ex, I was a couch potato. NOTHING got done. She tried to get me to do stuff with her, and then just did stuff herself. Eventually she gave up entirely because it was too hard to do alone – and I was always critical of anything she tried to do. But this was a relational dynamic that played out and then died away. Impact to me – yay, I don’t have to do stuff I don’t want to do… For her – it’s just another nail in the coffin. For both of us – it meant the house was also in poor shape – just like the relationship.
My SO on the other hand had a different approach. When I sat my ass on the couch she kindly and gently, and without assaulting my false self, explained to me that she had different expectations. So I’ve settled into Mr. Pretty Good but Somewhat Unreliable. I treat her well, I try to respect her wishes… I just don’t always do all of the things I say I’m going to do – but I do enough. Again – the least amount in order to maintain narcissistic supply (though I actually try to push myself to rise to her expectations when I can). And there is an aspect of the relationship that gives me something else as well, a sense of self and a sense of purpose. Its a confused sense, but it’s there and it took a long time to build (we’ve been together for six years now).