Since beginning Shrink4Men in 2009, I’ve frequently referred to narcissists, borderlines, psychopaths, histrionics and sociopaths as children in adult bodies or emotional toddlers. That’s because they frequently think and act much younger than their physical age. In other words, they exhibit a persistent and chronic lifelong pattern of emotional and psychological immaturity.
You can’t have an adult relationship with a child nor can you have a functional adult relationship with a child in an adult’s body. Individuals with these characterological deficits simply lack the capacity to build stable adult relationships.
Sure, they might have friendships that go back 10 years or more, but consider the nature of the friendships. Typically, “friends” of narcissists and other emotional toddlers are comprised of:
- Minions — cheerleaders and flying monkeys, in other words enablers;
- Narcissistic supply — lickspittles, toadies, buttkissers and sycophants;
- Fellow bullies of a feather who terrorize the countryside together;
- Other drama llamas that feed off one another’s perpetual chaos emissions; or
- Good people who are friends with the narcissist’s or borderline’s mask/public persona, not the jerk who abuses you when no one’s watching.
These friends aren’t friends, they’re useful tools. And that’s what you are to your narcissist or psychopath — a useful tool. Until you’re not. Then you’ll be devalued, discarded and replaced.
If you’re the adult child of a narcissist or borderline, you were probably parentified as a child. You grow up fast when you have a personality disordered parent. You have to — mommy or daddy needs you to take care of them. In which case, you probably developed some codependent caretaker traits and have chosen adult partners who are just as emotionally and psychologically underdeveloped as your parent(s).
In other words, your model for adult relationships was anything but adult. You were conditioned to believe that love is doing and doing for others and sacrifice and pain. Unlike actual children with good enough parents, narcissists and psychopaths don’t grow up. She or he isn’t going to have an epiphany and change their ways. They’ll continue to take and take and take until you’ve nothing left to take. They’ll exploit and abuse you until they break you and then become angry with you and blame you for being broken. Just like a toddler who breaks a toy by playing roughly with it.
If you’re married to, dating or have a parent who is a narcissist, there are probably many occasions when it feels like you’re dealing with a 3-year old in a 53-year old’s body. Odds are that’s exactly what was happening. Ever try to reason with a 3-year old? A 12-year old? Good luck with that.
The reason it feels like you’re dealing with a toddler if your spouse, boyfriend or girlfriend, parent, sibling, etc., has narcissistic, borderline, histrionic or psychopathic traits is because these personalities are frozen in a state of arrested emotional, psychological and moral development. Here are some traits that narcissists et al have in common with actual toddlers:
Tantrums. Tantrums are multi-purpose. Narcissists and borderlines tantrum in order to get their way. They tantrum when they want attention. They tantrum when they’re bored. They tantrum because they’re enamored with the sound of their own caterwauling. They tantrum just for the pleasure of seeing you scurry, scamper and wince. They tantrum to keep their nearest and dearest on their toes.
If you’re presently determined to stay with your narcissist or borderline, for whatever reason, stop rewarding her or his tantrums. Ignore them. Leave the house. Hang up the phone. Heck, turn off your phone. Expect that he or she will escalate. Continue to ignore them. Unless she threatens to make a false 911 call or he or she becomes violent, then please, please, please get the hell away from them as fast as you can.
Unreasonable and incessant need for attention. Being in a relationship with a narcissist, borderline or psychopath eventually feels like breast feeding an angry baby crocodile with a tapeworm. They never seem to tire of feeding. Their appetite for attention is insatiable.
I lived with a narcissist for nearly 7 years. The empathy well ran dry at around year 4. I should’ve realized the end was nigh when he made one of his emotional distress signals (a heavy sigh accompanied by brow furrowing and holding his forehead in his hands as if in mortal agony) and I inwardly rolled my eyes. By that time, I’d ceased to jump in response to his nonstop attention-seeking. His laundry needed washing and his meals needed cooking, too, not to mention the work I’m actually paid to do. There are only 24 hours in a day after all.
After I didn’t immediately stop what I was doing to inquire what or who was vexing him in that particular instant, he followed up the nonverbal distress signals with, “I’m feeling really anxious.” Translation: “Stop what you’re doing, assume the position and listen to me.” My internal editor must’ve been on a coffee break because I reflexively asked, “What is it now?” Whoopsy and KABOOM!
I had nothing left to give. He’d consumed it all. I later discovered he was already actively grooming my replacement when that occurred. It’s the narcissist’s equivalent of double-dipping their chips. It’s not attention seeking, it’s attention gluttony. It calls to mind Templeton the Rat gorging himself at the fair in Charlotte’s Web.
Poorly developed problem-solving skills. If you’ve been in a relationship with a narcissist, borderline or psychopath, you probably describe yourself as afraid of conflict. Maybe you are, maybe you’re not. It’s more likely that you avoid conflict because of how your NPD/BPD does conflict. This emotional toddler creates conflict not to resolve issues, but to distract from the real issues — his or her personality and destructive behaviors.
They’re not interested in determining and doing what’s right. They just want to be right, especially when it’s blindingly obvious that they’re wrong. That’s the sweet spot right there. If she or he can get you to apologize for whatever shitty thing they did to you it’s a narcgasm. They bully, bulldoze, talk over, pout, threaten, kitchen sink, derail the conversation, bring up old conflicts. Whatever it takes.
They’re not interested in compromise or finding win-win solutions. The only win for this kind of person is if she or he gets what they want and for you to absorb the cost be it monetary, emotional or physical. They have to have all the cookies, a much bigger cookie or, at the very least, 3 more chocolate chips than you. Your suffering is what makes her or him happy, but not for very long. They want what they want whenever and where ever they want it and you’d better deliver, dammit. The volcano god/goddess requires regular sacrifices.
Need based love. A child’s love for her or his parents is born of need. Infants can’t take care of themselves and rely on their parents utterly. Children and children in adult bodies don’t have the capacity for mature love based on mutuality and reciprocity. Your narcissist doesn’t love you. Your narcissist loves you for what you can do for her or him. You’re a source of supply — attention, social status, ass kissing, physical labor, money, etc. You’re the most amazing person ever when your narcissist is getting everything he or she wants and you shield them from life’s everyday frustrations.
Narcissists, borderlines and psychopaths need their targets and enablers. They don’t love them. Periodically, when they’re not in a state of need, they expect you to leave them alone. Or, rather look at them adoringly and observe them ignoring you just like children want mom and dad to watch them do handstands in the swimming pool. They don’t want the parent to participate in their play. They want the parent to be their audience.
Poopy Diaper Face. It’s the look of emotional constipation the narcissist, borderline or psychopath gets just before she or he gets their tantrum on. Sometimes it’s more subtle like a slow simmering pout. Sometimes it’s more scary and potentially dangerous like when they turn on the Death Stare™ or the Shark Eyes™.
In other words, it’s the non-verbal signal that your emotional toddler is building up to one of his or her episodes. Why do they do this? Much like actual infants and toddlers, most narcissists, borderlines and psychopaths don’t have the ability to self-soothe, amuse themselves, reality test and problem solve. When feeling any kind of emotional or physical discomfort their reflexive behavior is to alert the nearby grown-ups to come and tend to them.
Or, if they can’t get your attention fast enough they’ll then self-soothe through self-destructive and destructive to others behaviors. Alcohol and drug abuse, overeating, overspending, cheating, raging at you to provoke an angry response, lying (creates the feeling of duper’s delight) — you know the drill.
Caring for oneself is the duty of every adult. It’s a duty to ourselves and others. When children are small and helpless, it’s a parent’s job to protect and care for them. It’s also a parent’s job to teach children how to assume increasing personal responsibility and self-care as it becomes developmentally appropriate.
It’s not your job to parent your narcissist, borderline or psychopath. If you believe it’s your responsibility ask yourself why? Why do you believe it’s your responsibility? Where did you learn that? Why are you taking that on? HINT: The answer isn’t, “Because I love her” or “Because I love him.”
Do you really want to spend the rest of your life tending to an emotional toddler who refuses to grow up? Do you want to be a parent or a partner? If you want a relationship of equals it’s time to launch your emotional toddler. It’s highly unlikely she or he will grow up. They’ll just find their next enabler, but you’ll be well rid of them. Then you can start taking care of you.
Want to Say Goodbye to Crazy? Buy it HERE.
Counseling, Consulting and Coaching with Dr. Tara J. Palmatier, PsyD
Dr. Tara J. Palmatier, PsyD provides individual services to help individuals work through their relationship issues via telephone or Skype, particularly men and women trying to break free of an abusive relationship, cope with the stress of an abusive relationship or heal from an abusive relationship. Her practice combines practical advice, support, reality testing and goal-oriented outcomes. Please visit the Services page for professional inquiries.
Excellent article, Dr. T!
Dr Tara Palmatier says
How do you know my husband so well?
Well put Dr T. Poopy diaper face! Ha! Love it! So you know my ex gf….
Amazing! Dr T, your each word has laser point precision. I lost the count, of how many times I was saying to myself “yeah …correct”, while reading your article.
This paragraph: <<>> is SPOT ON! …As if you lived with my family and made observations.
I was unable to put across this factor to others while talking about them.
Well, Dr.T – A brief about my “great” life with these out-of-planet people. I am living with 2 Extremely BP candidates – My wife and a teenaged step-daughter. My wife was a divorcee, who was then a single mom for more than 10 years. I met her in my job. She emotionally trapped me, playing all the victim cards that you are aware of as an expert in this filed, Dr. T! I felt so bad for all the “struggles”, “hardship”, “injustice” etc etc ..that she had gone through in her first relation and also at her parental home after leaving that guy.
I married this woman (“bitch” word struggles to explain her) facing all kinds of oppositions at my home, fighting against the whole world for her, taking loan for marriage etc. We both were not even from the same religion .
Then here you go! Both wife and daughters are Borderlines (But that time I didn’t know about BPD). 5 Years of hell. I can’t say a word for her daughter (“oh, he is blaming her, just because she is his “step-daughter). And, wife? Well, you know it better, Dr.T. Can you dare to say a single word, or a “no” for anything? Your first line: <>> created “Ah” feeling in me. That’s exactly the year when I got married!!!
In 2012, out of our wedlock, a baby boy was born. Using Will Smith’s dialog from Pursuit of Happyness … I can say – this was my highest form of stupidity – going for a child. As you said many times, I also thought the birth of a child will ease out the home environment. A wrong thought!
But, things went very very bad. My little son started to feel the fear, confusion, nightmares etc. He was so scared that, he felt secure only when I am around. So much so that ..he used to knock..knock the door when I have gone for bath and scream – “dad…plz dont go anywhere..leaving me”.
To cut the story short – It went on and on. My only request to her was: “At least, can you regulate 1% of your behavior when child is around? Can you be sensitive enough not to be abusive and quarrelsome, when child is around? He also learns the same behaviors by observing us”. I also urged her to be relaxed, composed and happy at home, so that the child feels relaxed, positive environment at home.
But she didn’t change even 1% of her behaviors, despite frequent requests. Her nature is such that, if she agrees, or say OK, for anything said by me, then it means she is a subordinate, following the order of boss. So, she is always like – “Who are you to tell me ? “Why should I follow/obey your words”?
I discussed the matter with her family many times. Finally, all elders in family felt that – in the best interest of child’s welfare, I should move out temporarily with my son. Their idea was to give us a emotional space. They said they will review the situation after 2-3 months and if she feels the love/need for her husband and child, they will send her to join me. But, if she still refuse to mellow-down, then only option is Mutual Consent Divorce. They said they will support me to get child’s custody in court.
So, accordingly, I walked out of house with my 2 years old son. For 1 week, she constantly fought with me like: “I should get this share of money, I owe you this much” ..etc. I gave her all that money, and fulfilled her demands, hoping that at least after that she would be quite.
But NO!. She contacted some woman NGO goons and filed police case saying – ” My husband stole all household materials and kidnapped my child and ran away, when I was not around at house. He used to harass me physically and emotionally, demanding to bring money from my parents. I tolerated all this for all these years, to keep my family intact. He is using my 2 years son for his sexual satisfaction from last 6 months and one day I saw child bleeding in anus and crying. When asked what happened, child told me – “this is what dad did to me. So, as a mom of a little helpless child, I am scared that he will further abuse my son sexually. So, plz arrest my husband, give him rigorous punishment, get me my child, as the child is not safe with my husband”.
So, that’s the bombshell, T. Interestingly, even her family was not aware that she has filed this kind of case. She planned this secretly in a fit of rage, grudge and retaliation. Even police inspector was saying he will counsel both parties and would arrange a mediation session with both families, before deciding on registering FIR. My wife fought like hell with police.. with her paid women NGO goons shouting slogans against me and police, threatening the police inspector that she will complain to higher police authorities against inspector for not accepting complaint from a woman “victim”.
My 76 years old mom and dad who are adviced by doctor against travel, took a bus from my remote town of 540 Kms away.. begged and touched the feet of my wife saying – “Plz dont send my son to jail. We will fulfil your wishes, let’s know what can we offer you. We will be even willing to give you the entire share of property that belongs to my son. But..PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE…don’t send ourson to jail.” But my wife ignored my parents’ request and went ahead with her plan.
So, the RESULT? – I was arrested. I spent 50 days in jail. Now I am fighting the criminal case with charges – “Child rape, Domestic violence on woman, Dowry harassment.
Case was filed in Ag 2014. Since then it’s such a tough life for me. But I have decided to take her head on. I will fight the case, clear my name, get the justice for my child and send her to same jail where I went.
Luckily, I had come across your website. I am also following you and Mr Paul on YouTube, and you both are awesome! Thanks for helping me keep my spirit high!
Dr.T – I will remove all the layers of masks she is wearing as you suggested. I will showcase the REAL version of her personality to the society. She has a very nicely manipulated positive persona in the public, but has such a bad/hostile private persona within the family life.
I sometime feel angry on myself for being so stupid, to be emotionally duped like this. Because, this bitch used to say the same kind of allegations about her 1st husband – “He was a womanizer, he was a sexual addict, he denied that it was his baby, when I was pregnant, his family tried killing me for Life Insurance money” – Blah ..blah. More ever, I am appalled to realize now, that her 1st Husband’s family and her family are close friends from their childhood and belonged to same religion. This lady is amazingly talented to dupe, even such a close, friendly family!
I forgot to say one more thing Dr.T. Her parents have 4 female chilren including my wife. Strangely, 3 of them are divorced. One sister is a home-patient with mental illness. Her husband left her at her parent’s house, because he was angry that they didn’t tell him about her illness at marriage time. He said, “either treat her and send, or keep her with you guys”. So, personality disorder thing seems to be a genetical factor in her family. But, she very carefully hid all these facts from me before marriage. She used to tell me that her sister’s husbands are working in foreign countries.
I tried so much to take my wife to a psychiatrist visit. But she never agreed to come and instead used to yell at me like: – “All those idiot doctors talk in your favor, becoz they have eaten your money” (actually she says “your shit”). “I am perfectly fine. You need permanent admission in mental asylum… All the bad things happening because of you, but my family is taking your side, because you have slept with my sisters”… etc etc etc. It’s a terrible phase of my life, Dr T!
Sorry, for such a long writing. But if I keep talking about her, I don’t know, where to start from, where to end.
I am from Bangalore (India). I have bought your book – “Say Goodbye to Crazy”. I am reading it, and planning to implement the strategies suggested in the book.
Thanks you so much for your work and educating us about this enigma! I feel I had learnt more and become a much better person by even random attempts of reading your blogs once in awhile, then by studying my Engineering degree.
Looking back at this havoc, I sincerely feel that the mental health education should be a part of school curriculum. Becoz, today’s children might be tomorrow’s victims, or perpetrators of these kind of disordered personalities.
Life, well led, will bring forth the beauty of a rose-garden. Life is a rich archestra of joy. But, life is also a thrilling procession of a series of unexpected events.
Hi, Mr. P. Glad you found Dr. T’s article to be insightful!
Would love to have you in the forum.
For the past couple of years my now 71 year old ‘womanbaby’ wife has kept dangling the possibility of us moving to Florida. But the thought of leaving the DC area, where she was born and raised, causes her to have a frightening melt down, complete with wracking sobs. When she’s having one of these breakdowns, she sounds like an extremely distraught child. What’s worse is that I’m not financially able to pull the plug and walk. My Social Security isn’t enough to live on and I have multiple health problems that make working quite problematic. And I’ve been in this dysfunctional marriage for almost 25 years. Sex stopped several years ago as I began to realize, thanks to S4M, that I had and was being, emotionally/verbally abused.
I’ve stopped getting in her face about the game she plays but I’m stuck in a near permanent state of despair, depression and hopelessness, which, even with therapy, I can’t find a resolution. Maybe being homeless is an option but I don’t think it’s a good ‘choice’ for anyone. So, I’ve got a roof over my head as long as I don’t rock the boat.
“If you’ve been in a relationship with a narcissist, borderline or psychopath, you probably describe yourself as afraid of conflict. ”
This is one of the shame-enducing ways we get trapped. We are told that “conflict and marriages are healthy” and “having no fights isn’t the sign of a healthy marriage; in fact it’s a sign of doom,” and we think, well, I *do* avoid conflict, our problems must be *my* fault. I need to do a better job of tolerating and welcoming conflict that is a regular part of a healthy marriage!
Oh, but not this type of conflict.