Just last month, the Austrian newspaper “Der Standard“, which regularly reports in detail and with an open mind on numerous topics concerning all kinds of varieties of non-monogamy, once again published an online article in which a number of different relationship models in this context were portrayed.
Apart from many aspects I was familiar with, this time, however, the following passage made me sit up and take notice:
»Psychotherapeutic experiencee shows that most people can imagine having relationships of whatever kind with different people simultaneously. They usually just would not be willing to accept this behaviour on behalf of the person they are in a relationship with. If “my” relationship companion also desires other lovers, this constitutes a narcissistic injury. Dealing with this requires the will to pay attention and a lot of self-reflection. Therefore, choosing mono-relationships is often easier, because we know how that works.«
“Narcissistic injury”? Does this have anything to do with genuine narcissism and, accordingly, is there perhaps even a kind of pathological self-sabotage in most of us, so that truly functioning polyamorous relationships are actually already doomed to failure by our “basic psychological mindset”?
I wanted to clarify this question also for myself and in doing so I came across some interesting correlations that I do not want to withhold from you as my readers.
First of all, the German Wikipedia simply and directly explains: »Narcissistic injury refers to both a specific behaviour by which such an injury is inflicted and an experience by which it is felt. […] In this respect, the narcissistic injury has a communicative function. Specifically, this means that narcissistic injuries are attacks on the narcissism and identity of other persons. They are intended to attack their feelings of self, to shake their self-assurance and self-confidence, and to question and thus weaken their self-esteem and self-worth. Humiliation, exposure, belittlement, devaluation, degradation and ridicule are used as means of offence; fear, pain and shame are experienced, but also frustration, anger and possibly the desire for revenge.«
“Ouch!”, a part of me wants to exclaim. That doesn’t sound at all like the kind of loving (multiple) relationships I want to promote by Oligoamory:
So if additional loved ones are possibly added to an existing relationship, the already existing partners may experience an attack on their identity, a questioning of their self-worth and feel the new situation as degradation, whereby they feel fear, pain, shame, frustration, anger and possibly the desire for revenge…?
As much as one or the other of us may consider the above formulations drastic or even exaggerated, they are sadly close to reality. Because it only takes a quick visit to any multi-relationship/polyamory/non-monogamy online forum to turn up numerous posts and cries for help from desperate existing partners – and the content is very similar in all of them:
“My husband has opened up our relationship and now there is a new partner with whom I can’t get along at all…” or “Our polycule has been joined by another guy in whom my partner is now very interested and I don’t know where to turn in my jealousy, which I never thought I would ever experience to such an extreme…”
What’s going on there? Just a resurgence of old encrustations of mononormativity? Outdated possessiveness, resentment and petty-minded jealousy?
The psychologist Bärbel Wardetzki¹ explained the actual process behind this in a most exciting way in a contribution for Deutschlandfunk in 2020:
“Actually, the basic reaction is first of all a good sign: A slight like a ‘narcissistic injury’ is a completely normal human reaction. Thank God. Because it shows that we are sensitive, that we are vulnerable to certain things. Especially in loving relationships. That’s where almost everyone is confronted with slights at some point, that’s where we usually locate slights like narcissistic injuries first. That’s where they hit the hardest, wounds us the most.”
But what is it exactly that is actually “injured” – and do the other acting persons “cause” it?
On this point, Mrs Wardetzki clarifies: “When we are injured in such a manner, it concerns very often our narcissistic needs. And these are usually needs that, when fulfilled, strengthen our self-esteem. Because ‘narcissistic’ first of all means nothing more than ‘relating to the self-worth’.”
So, in contrast to my Entry 32, which is actually referring to pathological narcissism, Mrs Wardetzki explains that each of us basically possesses a natural “healthy narcissism” that is closely linked to our self and our sense of identity.
And therefore this “healthy narcissism” can be injured.
Neurobiologist Joachim Bauer² elaborates on this in the above-mentioned Deutschlandfunk contribution:
“For example, if I let a test person hear that someone else has spoken badly about her/him/it, the self-systems reacts. If I slight someone by treating her/him/it unfairly when distributing resources, then the disgust systems in the brain react. Or if someone is offended by a group excluding him or her and the impression is created: ‘You don’t belong to us any more’, then the pain systems react. The pain systems of the human brain respond not only to inflicted physical pain, but also to social exclusion and humiliation.”
In order to understand even better why such events have the power to shake us to such an extent, it is useful to know another psychological ego concept at this point, which is our so-called “grandiose self” ³.
Our “grandiose self” is formed in its healthy form in the best case during our growing up, starting with the moment of our birth. As a human child who is increasingly discovering the world, our environment will make us (hopefully) competent and so we increasingly gain the expectation that most things in life will run reasonably smoothly and – even if not – that we have gained skills to cope with nearly all life situations that come our way.
Quite soon, however (e.g. when we are part of a larger family – or at the latest from kindergarten onwards), we have to start making corrections to this self-concept: For we will meet other people who, again in terms of their grandiose selves, can advertise themselves louder, more aggressively, or merely more strategically skilful than we can to the world around us – our first “slights/injuries” will occur accordingly.
The neuroscientist Bauer adds: “We can only survive as human beings if we have a certain resilience to minor slights. And we acquire this resilience, this ability to deal with it, by having a strong inner self within us. And people acquire this strong inner self as children, especially during the time when they are growing up. When there are people around them who make the child feel: You are welcome in this world, if you make a mistake, the world won’t end, we like you the way you are”.
But is that why slights are the issue of the injured party alone? Do we simply have to realise that the expectations we have about life can be exaggerated? Do we simply have to learn to bear it when they are not met?
Psychologist Bärbel Wardetzki answers rather cautiously here: “In itself, we cannot offend another person because we do not know where his or her sore spots are. Every slight targets a sore spot, a injury of the self-worth that may have occurred a very long time ago. As a rule, people are slighted by us, although we don’t even notice it.” And she adds: “Injuries are also difficult to avoid because each side assumes that it is acting in good faith. Only in rare cases there is deliberate offending, usually there is no intention.”
The latter statement, by the way, agrees perfectly with my Entry 11, which tells about the “Black Flittermouse Man” who always wants to perform heroic deeds in everyday life – but is regularly not entirely successful in doing so.
Of course, psychology and neurobiology point out an important aspect: The more incomplete our competence strengthening has evolved in our adolescence and in our personality development, the more insecure we are likely to react in situations of distress (and thus we also experience our partners in a similar way).
A person with a poorly built self-esteem, for example, will be more likely to confuse the attributions of external and self in the case of an unilateral breach of an agreement, such a person might be quicker to think in terms of blame or self-condemnation such as: “Yeah, you can get away with it with me…” and will act more helplessly in general when it comes to actually pointing out what exactly went wrong.
At the same time, even those human relationships we enter into in our adult lives continue to be places of learning and (self-)experiencing concerning our self-awareness. And this especially with regard to such important areas as reliability and responsibility on the one hand – but also appreciation and acknowledgement of maturity on the other.
I will try to illustrate this by means of an extreme: In 2013, the psychoanalysts Richard B. Ulman and Doris Brothers demonstrated in a study* on rape victims why their horrific experience ultimately led to a quasi complete erasure of the personal “grandiose self” – which resulted in the subsequent traumatisation: For it was not only the assaultive event and the complete loss of control that contributed to this massive psychological damage, but precisely the accompanying destruction of one’s own self-construct of a safe and self-determined individual.
“Damage” in our relationships thus arises above all when participants get into situations in which they see themselves curtailed in their efficacy (influence on an event) and if they are compromised in the reflection of their inalienable intrinsic value (appreciation/acceptance).
This happens in such a way very often when the emotional contract underlying the relationship (I remind: “Implied acknowledgement and agreement – as a result of a mutually established emotional close-knit relationship – regarding the totality of voluntary yielded obligations, self-commitments and care which have been reciprocally contributed and are potentially enjoyable by all parties involved.”) is changed, especially unilaterally and/or very quickly.
For out of healthy self-interest alone, we humans usually do not react very well when something is to apply differently today than it was agreed yesterday – especially when we neither know nor can well assess the motives behind the potential change.
Consequently, a monogamous person does indeed not normally have to expect that another lover will be brought home tomorrow; and even a participant in an established multiple relationship should be able to count on the fact that the addition of another favourite person will not lead to a unilateral or arbitrary shift of previously negotiated commitments.
Nevertheless, these things can happen – or they can definitely manifest themselves in such a way from the point of view of the injured person. And the acting person, in turn, still does not need to have acted in any culpable, deliberate or even consciously hurtful way.
Is this then the (multiple) relationship death sentence, because we would have to fear that a large part of us has emerged from our individual upbringing with a somehow incomplete self-worth? A damaged self-worth, which can therefore never really be sure of itself – and thus holds an ever-ticking, highly sensitive mortification bomb ready for those close to us?
In my 63rd Entry on »Meaningful Relationships«, I wrote that “in human relationships, freedom and security form a pair of opposites in which one cannot be obtained for the sake of the other.” And I quote a fellow bLogger there who expressed: “Let go of trying to control other people’s actions; let go of fear and attachment. By doing so you may lose some people along the way, but it will most likely be the weakest contestants. You know, the ones that made you feel like you didn’t have real, meaningful relationships in the first place?”
Such “weak contestants” will hardly have ever really conceded nor confirmed our very own grandiosity.
Nor will they ever have entered into resilient emotional contracts with us, thereby signalling a willingness to regularly account for their own contributions therein – for the sake of our informed choice!
“Meaningful relationships” (as I described them in my Oligoamory-Entries 62, 63 and 64) contain the awareness of the inevitable human risk of possible slights and injuries, precisely because of the precious price of sensitivity and vulnerability among each other, by which I quoted the psychologist Wardetzki at the beginning of this Entry.
Relationships that do not contain the amount of trust and kindness to be able to explain oneself in front of each other, to show oneself as fallible and also capable of revising one’s own point of view and one’s own actions, can therefore never be truly “meaningful relationships”.
To be “grandiose” therefore also means in our loving relationships to venture out again and again like a fool in a fairy tale; not so much in the belief concerning our own invulnerability – but rather in the confidence that there we can never meet a completely bad fate.
We will probably be slighted, yes, and for our part we will most likely hurt our loved ones more than once.
But since we all know about our foolishness and therefore do not have to hide it from each other, loyalty, honesty and perseverance will always lead us back to each other.
So, to paraphrase the quote from “Der Standard”, I would say as a conclusion:
Oligo may not be easier – but it is hopefully more predictable, because now we know how that works.
¹ Publications by Bärbel Wardetzki on the topic (only German literature):
Mich kränkt so schnell keiner! Wie wir lernen, nicht alles persönlich zu nehmen. dtv, München 2005
Weiblicher Narzissmus. Der Hunger nach Anerkennung. Kösel Verlag 1991; 19. überarbeitete Auflage 2007
Nimm´s bitte nicht persönlich. Der gelassene Umgang mit Kränkungen. Kösel Verlag, München 2012
Und das soll Liebe sein? Wie es gelingt, sich aus einer narzisstischen Beziehung zu befreien. dtv premium, 2018
² Publications by Joachim Bauer on the topic (only German literature):
Selbststeuerung – Die Wiederentdeckung des freien Willens. Blessing, München 2015
Wie wir werden, wer wir sind: Die Entstehung des menschlichen Selbst durch Resonanz. Blessing, München 2019
Fühlen, was die Welt fühlt – Die Bedeutung der Empathie für das Überleben von Menschheit und Natur. Blessing, München 2020
³ In a clinical psychological context, the “Grandiose Self” is also occasionally referred to as the ” Great Self” or the “Grandiose Self-Object.”
* Ulman, Richard B.; Brothers, Doris (2013). The Shattered Self: A Psychoanalytic Study of Trauma. Taylor & Francis. p. 114.
Thanks to Austin Neill on Unsplash for the grandiose picture!