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A commenter recently asked an obvious question of another: “Why do you think that person is your friend?” That rang a bell in me. There are times, when reading the stories people send me, that I ask something similar in my heart.
Why do you think that person is your friend?
Why would you keep putting yourself through this?
Why did you think that person loved you?
Why don’t you just walk away?
Outside the situation, things seem so much more clear. We read a story, and the details are so contrary to anything that makes sense to us. The narcissists are so cruel, so persistent, and so obvious that we want to grab the writer and help him or her run away.
But it isn’t that easy inside the relationship. We know this because of our own situations. We can look at others with logic and reason, but our own circumstances seem different. They are filled with emotions and complications.
So let me take a bit to work through what happens in a friendship. I suspect that friendship seems like the easiest narcissistic relationship to deal with—from the outside. Those who grow up with narcissistic parents feel that they are stuck forever. Those who are married to narcissists have to do a lot to get out of the relationship. Those who encounter narcissists at work or otherwise professionally don’t usually have the power to remove the person from their lives. But we all think the person with a narcissistic friend should be able to just walk away.
Very few people go through life interviewing strangers to see if they would make good friends. Friends are rarely chosen methodically or even carefully. Instead, friends come to us through circumstances, coincidences, or common interests. We inherit them, they come with the job, or we suddenly discover them by our side. Before we know it, the person has spent enough time with us and we have shared enough of ourselves that we think of him as a friend.
And few of us have ever really considered a definition of friendship. We think we know it when we see it; but, when a friend turns against us, we are surprised and wonder if he was really a friend. Even then we don’t take the time to sort out what we mean by a friend.
So without a careful way of choosing friends and without a helpful definition of a friend, we go through life gathering people into our circles. We think of them as comrades, co-workers, acquaintances, colleagues, and associates. Someplace along the line a few of them become something more—friends. We assume they value the relationship in the same way we do. We would miss them if they were gone if for no other reason than that they have become a part of our lives.
We acknowledge that there are different kinds or levels of friendship, but we still don’t think about it much. A friend on Facebook is different from a friend from school days or a friend we confide in, but the overlap we allow is amazing. We live in a culture where friends we have never met except online know more about us than friends who have walked with us through many trials in person. Our culture speaks of “friends with benefits” or “friends in business” or “friends online” without regard to the conflicts inherent in the terms.
All of this is a way of saying that we have not been taught to be careful about whom we call or consider a friend.
So, when the narcissist comes along, we don’t have a guard up because we don’t think about guarding ourselves. I have written often about the narcissist super-power, that amazing ability to manipulate what others think of them. The narcissist might not even need a super-power to become a friend, but it gives her the ability to jump quickly past any fuzzy barriers we might have and get right into our hearts.
I suspect that the real reason it is hard for those in narcissistic friendships to end the relationship is that they can’t fully understand how they got into the relationship in the first place. They might know the details, but they don’t understand the feelings. All the red flags were there, the things others mention are true and should have been obvious from the start, but some kind of fog or deception took place.
Remember how narcissists work. They look for people who are open. Those who are lonely, sad, angry, frustrated, or afraid. They manage to share a common cause or life circumstance. Then they begin to tell you secrets (which may not be true) about themselves and get you to tell your secrets to them. Pretty soon, they know much more about you than others and they know how to manipulate you. You find yourself giving them your time, energy, even money—when you don’t want to.
So why not just walk away? It seems obvious that this is one narcissistic relationship that could end easily. Yet, it isn’t all that easy. The narcissist knows too much. By the time the victim realizes that the relationship is toxic, the hooks are firmly in place. The narcissist knows how to threaten, how to plead, how to place guilt and shame, and all kinds of other manipulative methods.
Yes, you should walk away from a narcissistic friend. Yes, you are being used. Yes, you will be hurt again. No, it will not get better.
It is possible to get out. Set boundaries and maintain them. Say no and mean it. Don’t believe the lies, no matter how sweet they sound or how they tweak your heart. Don’t blame yourself for being deceived.
And, for the rest of us, remember that the narcissist has to work harder to rule over a friend who can walk away. Much harder than a boss or a parent or a spouse. The narcissist must convince the victim that he is a lover and necessary in the victim’s life. A narcissist knows how to do this very well.
Dr. David Orrison has been a pastor for over 30 years and is now the Executive Director of "Grace for the Heart," a ministry dedicated to proclaiming the sufficiency of Jesus Christ for all aspects of the Christian life. Dave has served in the Evangelical Free Church and in the United Presbyterian Church, and he holds a Ph.D. in Theology from Trinity Seminary. Dave has unique insights into the struggles of what he calls “performance spirituality,” as he has worked extensively with people who are unsure of their relationship with Jesus because of the burden of legalism and the hopelessness of a “works-based Christian walk.” David has lived in Loveland, CO for 25 years and is happily married to Alice. They have eight sons. David blogs on a regular basis at http://graceformyheart.wordpress.com.
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