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  • Mark Sutton

Fighting and the role of narcissistic vulnerability.

While conflict and fighting are natural part of relationships they can be categorised into two general types, the good fight and the bad or dysfunctional fight. The former is one which ends in greater understanding, negotiated compromise and a realistic resolution. The latter is one that is engaged with continually without resolution as each partner feels wounded by the other’s rejecting cruel behaviour.

Maggie Scarf in “Intimate Partners: Patterns in Love and Marriage” described this wounding as narcissistic wounding and stated that we are all vulnerable to such wounding depending on our degree of self-esteem. Many people lie somewhere in the middle of the spectrum but at the extremes you have a sudden drop in self-esteem to any perceived sign of disapproval or rejection and at the other end any criticism or negative stimuli have only minor effects on how they view themselves.

For those in the middle, the sense of self-esteem is somewhat uncertain but not pathologically challenged and there is a tendency of one partner to depend on the other partner to maintain their own internal balance. It is the individual’s neediness that creates these narcissistic expectations of their partner’s behaviour to keep their own bad feelings about themselves under control and there are two polarities that are taken: the attention seeking and the admiration seeking.

The first requires constant parent-like attentiveness and concern otherwise they find it impossible to like themselves,in the second the partners praise and reassurance is needed to combat the persons sense of self-criticism and failure. Both partners in the relationship are suffering from a lack of positive feelings from the self and self-absorbed in maintaining their own self-esteem. It could be said then that what is lacking in the relationship is empathy as neither are aware of the other’s needs. In fact both behave in a threatening way to each other : the admiration seeker is frequently forgetful and inattentive towards their attention seeking partner and the attention seeking partner is critical and condemning. Each then is finding the narcissistic vulnerability of the other creating the conditions for “bad fighting”.

Narcissistic wounding and vulnerability have their roots in childhood, from the parents’ internalised positive feelings of acceptance, approval and admiration and the stronger negative feelings of rejection, disapproval and depreciation.

When the intimate partner fails to provide the necessary positive supports, then the internalised, shame producing self- images cannot be defended against and anxiety and rage arises, particularly where the self-esteem of both in the relationship is fragile.

A second line of defence then arises: projective identification. In this case, rather than recognising that the negative images are a product of their own internalised thinking, it is perceived that these bad feelings are coming from the partner and behaviour ensues which ensures that this will become a self-fulfilling prophecy, creating a hostile relationship.

The key to changing the bad fight into a good fight is to acknowledge the part each is playing in creating such intolerable conditions and to negotiate a settlement, in that way the underlying issues can be resolved and the role of narcissistic vulnerabilities opened to the spotlight.

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