“I suck at this.”

The ‘this’ Tom was referring to were the boundaries he’d attempted to put around his emotional well-being and his narcissistic husband’s emotional and financial manipulation of him over the course of their 20-year relationship.

“Every time I tell him he can’t treat me like I’m his servant, that if he’s flying private, me taking the tube is unsustainable, he turns the table and tells me how grateful I should be for my life… and how greedy I am.”

My work with Tom over the last year involved me helping him negotiate the power dynamics inherent in a marriage between two human beings who came from vastly different socio-economic classes. Central to this work was calibrating value propositions between an aristocrat who was enculturated in a world where love was bought and sold with money and a lower middle-class man who came from a family of financial scarcity where love was conditioned on personal traits that didn’t have a price tag, things like commitment, integrity, and presence of being.

Our therapy was grounded in the clinical formulation I set forth in my book Fragile Power: Why Having Everything is Never Enough. It’s a book that is based on my nearly two decades of research and experience in dealing with the power inherent in wealth and celebrity, power that from the outside appears to provide comfort and protection, but that in reality causes destruction and pain. It’s also a work that discusses in detail a phenomenon known as the narcissistic cycle of abuse. Through it, human beings who’ve failed to develop a healthy sense of self, manipulate others into destructive patterns of relating to their selves and others.

The narcissistic cycle of abuse is an emotional engagement that emanates from a narcissist’s compulsive need to be validated as special and superior. Because they have fragile egos that can’t tolerate challenges, they manipulate disagreements in their relationships in a way that makes them a victim who suffers from “injustices” of others. In this dynamic, any hope of a reconciliation based on compromise is dashed while the person who is actually the one abused is forced into making concessions.

The narcissist cycle of abuse can be broken down into four distinct phases that consist of:

  1. A narcissistic injury: An event or an interpersonal confrontation threatens the narcissist’s ego. It could be as simple as the refusing to accompany the narcissist on an outing or as complex as negotiating power dynamics in a marriage. At the heart of the injury, however, is the narcissist’s terror in having to cede power and control. In the case at hand, Tom’s husband used his wealth to control everyone in his life. If they didn’t act as he accorded, he’d simply cut them off from his largess.
  2. A lashing out: In response to the threat to their ego, the narcissist turns the table and becomes abusive. Typically, their abuse is based on a projection. In Tom’s case, his husband would accuse Tom of being greedy and only being in the relationship for money, the very traits that the husband had internalized in his mercenary upbringing.
  3. Assuming the mantel of a victim: Although the narcissist is the person who is the abuser, they are highly skilled at manipulating the emotions of others into believing it is in fact the narcissist who’s been abused. To do this, they manufacture facts, fabricate motivations, create chaos and elevate disagreements into nuclear wars. In the case at hand, whenever Tom would assert his place in his husband’s socioeconomic strata, the husband would become resentful and threaten to cut off access to the very funds that enabled him share in the husband’s comfort and abundance.
  4. A reclaiming of power: At the end of the cycle is the narcissist’s recovery of their power and their control of their relationship. In this dynamic, the narcissist is placed in a superior position, who can lord over the person they compulsively need to control. So Tom’s husband felt Tom’s financial independence as an abandonment and threaten to ‘cut off’ his funds, cancel his credit cards and divorce him to keep him in a subservient place in their relationship.

To push back against this dynamic and remain grounded in the toxic hurricane that ensued from this narcissistic cycle of abuse. I worked with Tom to create boundaries that had the following three traits:

  1. Clear: In setting boundaries with other human beings, especially human beings who wield power over us, we need to make sure they are articulated clearly. In Tom’s relationship, I taught him to shut down conversations where his husband talked over him and denied his truth. To do this Tom, would address this dynamic in the present moment, give the husband one and only one chance to self-correct and if the husband failed to comply, to terminate the conversation.
  2. Consistent: Central to the success of this plan was Tom’s consistent enforcement of the strategy. He had to enforce his boundary each and every time it arose. While exhausting and seemingly unfair, it began to bring awareness to and modified a pattern of engaging that was deeply entrenched in their relational dynamics.
  3. Enforceable: Effective boundaries need to be grounded in ‘small wins.’ Tom need to start with small and tangible features of their relationship where he could realize success consistently over time. By hyper focusing on one feature of their relational dynamics, the swirl and overwhelming nature of their power struggles could be located with pin point precision and modified.

While managing the power dynamics inherent in distinctly different socio-economic classes among romantic partners isn’t easy, if addressed intentionally with a clearly articulated clinical formulation and treatment plan, it can propel the relationship to a higher, infinitely more rewarding level of functioning. In the case at hand, while Tom and his husband were still triggered by their deeply entrenched personality presentations and their attendant reactions, we were able to soften the pernicious effect they had on the integrity of their relationship. In the process, the couple calibrated their relationship on the value of trust, vulnerability, dignity and integrity- traits they both desperately wanted to live out in their marriage, but didn’t have the tools or language to realize absent the coaching of a professional trained in the relational dynamics that ruled their relationship.

*The details of this case vignette have been altered to protect the integrity of the clients.

Dr. Paul Hokemeyer is an internationally renowned Marriage and Family Therapist who’s book Fragile Power: Why Having Everything Is Never Enough was #1 New Release on Amazon’s Popular Psychology Counseling and Couples and Family Therapy. It can be found on Amazon. He is also the Senior Clinical Fellow of Urban Recovery in New York City and a founding principal of Drayson Mews, a consulting firm based in London, New York and Beverly Hills, California.