Today I listened to CBC radio’s Tapestry presentation on the subject of emotional labour. It’s an interesting topic and a type of work to which someone has finally given a name. Essentially, emotional labour is anything that people do that requires an emotionally invested outlay of energy. For example, we expend emotional energy keeping track of and making sure that our children go to the dentist, we listen when friends or family members need a shoulder to cry on, or we ensure there’s gas in the car. For the most part, emotional labour refers to the million little maintenance jobs (and sometimes not so little) that need to be taken care of and done on a regular basis, although much of this work can also be unexpected and/or quite time consuming. Statistically, it’s mostly women who complete these tasks, and we apparently spend a lot of time on them.
While listening to this piece, I was reminded of the amount of emotional labour one will expend if involved with a narcissist, and then I was reminded of a post I did about three or four years ago called The Seasonal Narcissist. It’s one of my more popular posts, particularly at this time year, but it only looks at the seasonal narcissist from the perspective of dealing with one on a temporary basis. It doesn’t really look at the long game at all. And it also doesn’t look at the energy that goes into having to be married to or in some sort of live-in relationship with one while Christmas, or any other holiday or special occasion, is in full swing.
Those of you who are familiar with me know that I have first-hand experience with this. Over a 20-month period, I became immersed in all the difficulties one encounters during any type of special occasion if involved with an NPD narcissist.
The emotional energy I expended around these events was enormous.
First of all, “Harry” was incredibly unpredictable in general, but if Christmas was coming up, he was much worse. I have read lots of accounts of people watching their narcissist walk out the door just before Christmas (or other special events), leaving the significant other or spouse in emotional hell and the children devastated, only to return as soon as the holiday or event is over.
This is typical behaviour.
Essentially, they don’t want anyone to enjoy the holiday or event, because they aren’t going to be the centre of attention. And if they aren’t going to be the centre of attention, then what’s the point? It’s just a bunch of work for nothing. Then there’s also the problem that watching others have fun when they’re not is just too much to bear.
So, let’s take everyone down! Let’s make everyone feel like crap! Let’s walk out! Let’s have a horrible argument! Let’s make everyone feel as wretched as possible!
Then everyone’s attention will be back where it should be. That’ll teach them!
I spent two Christmases with Harry. During the first one, we were on our honeymoon in Hawaii and within a couple of days, he became completely morose and withdrawn. I had no idea what was going on and felt confused, scared and concerned. The only time he talked was to forcefully complain about everything from what I was wearing to the food that was available. All he wanted to do was stay in the hotel room and watch tv. Otherwise, he brooded and became uncommunicative. He faked a stomach bug (I know this because he kept eating heavy meals from the room service menu) so that he didn’t have to go out. A couple of times, he claimed boredom. Of course, suggesting that he leave the room would have been met with more complaints.
Describing him as “high maintenance” would have been an understatement.
Unbeknownst to me, though, it was my very first set of indicators that the person I married wasn’t the person I married.
When we got back home, for a short time he became all sweetness and light, and apologised for his behaviour in Hawaii by claiming that he just hadn’t been feeling well. I didn’t know it then, but my expenditure of emotional energy was about to go up in a big way, because during our trip, he had been grooming me to walk on eggshells.
By the time our second (and last) Christmas came around, I was dwelling in a land of contradiction, confusion and confrontation. I had been shouted at and called every kind of name. I had been accused of betrayal, disrespect and dishonesty. I had been accused of contemplating an affair and of spending too much money. I had been accused of eating too much, of making too much noise when eating, of eating the wrong things, and of being an alcoholic. He said I was lazy, poorly educated and stupid. My clothes and hair were wrong. My furniture was wrong. Nothing was right.
And for a while, I swallowed the notion that it was me who was the problem.
My head was swimming and I was starting to feel like I might head into a depression, but I kept trying. I invested serious emotional labour into trying to fix the so-called wrongs. The list of things that I needed to be careful about became longer and longer and I tried to adhere strictly to the “rules,” but every time I thought I had them right, he changed them and pretended that they had always been that way.
Just before the holiday, I was subjected to a tongue-bashing that left me reeling, but as I see it now, it was also the beginning of my liberation.
It dawned on me that he was looking for an excuse to leave or to destroy any happiness that I might have during the holiday with family and friends. And once I made that connection, other connections that had been loitering in the background strode into the foreground.
An uneasy Christmas proceeded, but the day before New Year’s Eve, when we were supposed to go to a party together, the other shoe dropped. He announced that he was leaving and would be back later in January to pick up his things. According to him, we were done.
And that’s when I turned the tables on him. I left, and spent the night at a friend’s house.
My friend C invested some serious emotional labour of her own in helping me through that night and encouraging some flames from those awareness embers.
I began to see that I was in an emotionally abusive marriage. I began to see that no matter what I did or didn’t do, it would never be good enough. I began to see that no matter how much emotional labour I invested, it would never be enough.
Trying to maintain him, to run around trying to remove any source of annoyance or anger from his day was impossible, because there was always something else. There was no amount of love, effort, or material items that would satisfy him. He was a bottomless pit, and I was expected to keep trying to fill it until I was exhausted and no longer useful.
The beginning of the end had started. Within the next month, I had started counselling, and seven months after that, I got him out of my house.
What it finally came down to was an unadorned realisation on my part that there was nothing I could do except walk away and work at getting my life back: the seasonal narcissist is always a narcissist. It’s just that they do more manipulation when those special occasions roll around. They know that people want to have fun and want things to go well, and that makes them vulnerable and malleable, especially if children are involved.
Stay tuned for Part II.
Have you experienced a seasonal narcissist? What are your thoughts about emotional labour?