My girlfriend sulks if we don’t have sex and it’s bringing back painful memories
Ask Roe: My mother was narcissistic. My girlfriend doesn’t respect my boundaries, either
You are in no way obliged to stay in a relationship where you feel unsafe, manipulated and pressured into sex. Photograph: iStock
I have been with my girlfriend for about eight months. I was raised by a narcissistic/borderline mother and I am still in therapy. When it comes to sex I am not the spontaneous one, my girlfriend is. We have sex about three times a week. But that is not enough for her. She gets annoyed with me and will sulk about it.
I think we need to go and see someone. She says she feels rejected. Yet to me it feels like manipulation, as I do not always feel like sex and she does not understand. Please give a bit of advice. Thank you.
It’s obviously not a coincidence that speaking about your relationship with your girlfriend has immediately led to you drawing a link to your experience with your mother. It can be difficult for people who have no experience with narcissism to understand the toll it can take on your psyche, how the emotional manipulation that is characteristic of narcissism can be so utterly destabilising.
Narcissists lack empathy, have excessive feelings of entitlement, and will exploit other people to have their needs and desires met. Narcissistic emotional abuse has recognisable patterns of idolising, devaluing and discarding; building up your trust and intimacy and dependency to create an intense and intoxicating dynamic, only to suddenly withdraw, to make you feel worthless.
This emotional withdrawal and manipulation can come out of nowhere, leaving you scrambling to make sense of this suddenly cruel and malicious treatment.
Most often, victims of narcissistic abuse end up blaming themselves, because the narcissist has crafted an effective narrative casting themselves as perfect, loving, supportive, and beyond criticism. By subtly undermining the victim’s confidence and sense of self, narcissists ensure that victims begin to blame themselves.
Her attempts to punish you by sulking, getting angry or claiming you are being cruel are unacceptable
It’s an excruciating form of emotional abuse that is compounded by the confusion of veering from feeling unconditionally loved, to feeling utterly disposable.
While narcissistic emotional abuse is deliberate, sadistic and cruel, having borderline personality disorder is not a choice or an action, but a mental-health condition. Borderline personality disorder can cause people to experience heightened emotions, so people with BPD can feel deeply hurt over minor incidents or perceived slights, and can lash out in emotion and anger.
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While again, BPD is not a choice and people who suffer from it deserve support and treatment, if your mother’s experience of it was combined with narcissistic tendencies, it would have undoubtedly created a very unstable emotional experience for you growing up, where everything you did was over-analysed and criticised; where you constantly felt unsafe as you waited for an emotional outburst to be directed at you; where your feelings and boundaries were never prioritised.
Experts who deal with narcissistic emotional abuse, such as Bobbi Parish, have shown that much like people suffering from PTSD, victims of narcissistic emotional abuse often suffer from chronic pain, fatigue and autoimmune disorders because of their long-term exposure to cortisol and adrenaline – the stress hormones that cause the ‘fight or flight’ response.
For your relationship with your mother – one of the people from whom you are meant to have received love, security and stability – to be defined by such instability, stress and conditional approval and affection must have been so difficult. I’m so glad you are in therapy and hope you are finding the process helpful.
One thing that has likely arisen in your therapy is the fact that our early relationships with our parents and formative romantic relationships can help form our ideas around attachment; our idea of what relationships should be, and how boundaries and needs can be asserted.
If you do decide to stay, you need to have a very clear conversation with your girlfriend about consent and boundaries
What many people – those who have experienced narcissistic emotional abuse and those who have not – discover is that we often unconsciously replicate dynamics we learned early in life. Not because they are healthy, but because they are familiar, and because they are the only language of love and intimacy and connection that we are fluent in – even if those dynamics hurt us.
I am not for a moment suggesting your girlfriend is a narcissist, or the same as your mother. But it is obvious there is a communication issue here that is leaving you feeling destabilised, criticised and blamed when you try to set boundaries. This is concerning on its own, and your girlfriend needs to immediately change her behaviour.
You are not obliged to have sex with her every time she wants to, and her attempts to coerce you into sex or punish you for saying no by sulking, getting angry, or claiming that you are doing something cruel by “rejecting” her are unacceptable; they would be unacceptable from anyone.
Coupled with your experiences with your mother, these manipulative behaviours are likely to be even more upsetting and are likely causing you to think about the overall dynamic in your relationship, and whether this is a problem that can be solved.
Or, whether this a problem that you want to solve. You are in no way obliged to stay in a relationship where you feel unsafe, manipulated, and pressured into sex. This is true for everyone, but during this important stage in your personal healing, it’s particularly important that you realise your boundaries matter; that you are free to leave a relationship that makes you feel bad about yourself; that you get to trust your gut and do what you need to do to feel safe.
If you do decide to stay, you need to have a very clear conversation with your girlfriend about consent and boundaries. Explain that you are not obliged to have sex with her whenever she wants, and to pressure you or punish you is coercive behaviour that you will not accept. If her self-esteem is so fragile that she cannot handle being turned down for sex once by her boyfriend who has sex with her three times a week, that is something she needs to work on herself, instead of blaming you.
If these issues of communication and boundaries are seeping into other parts of your relationship, or if you feel you could use some help navigating this conversation around sex and consent, suggest a couples counselling session or two – your therapist could facilitate or could refer you to someone helpful.
You can choose whether or not to speak openly with your girlfriend about your experience with your mother, and why feeling like your boundaries and emotions matter is particularly important.
But remember: she shouldn’t need to be given a reason to treat you with respect. You deserve that, innately, as we all do. Don’t accept less because you’ve internalised the belief that you don’t deserve better.
Roe McDermott is a writer and Fulbright scholar with an MA in sexuality studies from San Francisco State University. She is researching a PhD in gendered and sexual citizenship at the Open University and Oxford
If you have a problem or query you would like her to answer, you can submit it anonymously at irishtimes.com/dearroe