Having Narcissistic Parents Makes it Difficult to Maintain Friendships
Today is Family Day in Canada. It’s a statutory holiday invented a few years ago to help strengthen the Canadian family. It sometimes seems a little artificial. Or like it should come with a trigger warning for people who don’t have strong family relationships. People who might feel even more alone and vulnerable on a day like today when so many families are getting together to go skating or or watch hockey or do whatever typical Canadian families do.
I wouldn’t actually know. My Canadian family is anything but typical. But it’s all I have. You see, at age sixty, I don’t really have many friends left. Not because they have all died, although a shocking number of them have. No, it’s because I am not good at friendships.
For many people, friendships are the lifeline.
Friendships are great. I have enjoyed many great friendships in my life. Many of them blossomed from my years as a high school English teacher. Working and collaborating with dedicated colleagues led to wonderful and supportive relationships.
Mostly at work. Some branched out into the wider world. Many of these have faded into Facebook friendships since my retirement last June. Of course the pandemic is a factor too.
But the various lockdowns, stay-at-home orders, quarantines I have experienced have simply pointed out to me that my life has not been primarily about friendships.
It’s been about family.
For others, friendships are fraught with danger.
It’s my family I Zoom with every week. My family who’s on speed dial on my phone. Family whom I’ve made solid plans to get together with once travel is allowed.
People love to talk about the oppression of families and the wonderfulness of their “chosen families.” I get this. You are not going to choose to be close to people who betray you or impose their agendas on you, right? Chosen families should be a healthy counterpoint to burdensome family relationships full of simmering tension and the toxic aftereffects of intergenerational trauma that many people experience as the reality of family life.
But in my experience, these “chosen” people can be worse than family. They can be “chosen” for unconscious reasons, and simply replicate the toxic family dynamics we grew up with.
Nevertheless, families are often hotbeds of narcissism, unconsciousness, and unhealthy power dynamics.
There was a lot of oppression in my immediate family. Two narcissistic parents do not often create a healthy, balanced family life. I grew up in a toxic environment. Part of my parents’ toxicity was moving around a lot in order to chase the “dream” of economic success. My parents lived primarily for their egos. Their social standing. Their reputations. Proof that they were “better” than their original working-class families. They chased the middle-class dream like it was the candy mountain psychedelic nirvana paradise that the sixties promised, all the while doing it without the long hair, the groovy music, or the illicit drugs.
The seventies was really their decade. The so-called “me” decade. The sixties tamed with “colonial” furniture, avocado green appliances and Danish teak sofas. Not that they could afford these things. The problem is, they started having children when they were barely twenty years old. Before my dad even got his education and start in life. Before my mom could decide if she wanted a career or not. It turns out that she really, really wanted a career. But she already had three kids. And in 1965, when you were a woman and you had three children already, you were more or less required to stay home with them and be a housewife. It wasn’t enshrined in law, but it might as well have been.
The result? Seething resentment. Blame. Scapegoating of certain children and the glorification of others.
The resentment led to neglect, screaming, hitting, complaining, shaming, and foisting off of the children to any relatives, neighbors, hired babysitter, or friends who would take them off your hands for a few hours or a few days or even a couple of months.
Anything to get away from them and the reminder of how much they ruined your life.
Add alcohol to the mix and moving far away from loving relatives, and I think you can see where this is going.
Add two more adopted kids to this confusion, both adopted for nonsensical reasons by irrational, impulsive people, then the scenario gets even worse.
Some parents never grow up, but they force their children to grow in unexpected ways.
My parents remained children for their entire lives. Children who were somehow the parents of three, four, and then five children. The last one was born and taken in when I was eighteen years old and my parents were thirty-nine.
Five children that they never actually cared for or about. For whom they did the absolute minimum. Whom they screamed at whenever any of them demanded attention. Or, in one case, spoiled and indulged when he somehow flattered their shaky sense of self-esteem.
I got out of that house as soon as I could at age nineteen and never moved back, not even for vacations. I came for day-long visits only. After staying overnight, say on Christmas, I couldn’t wait to get out again. Summers during university were spent in rented rooms in dormitories or apartments.
I became a teacher to make sure I became independent from my parents as quickly as possible. Only five years of post-secondary education required in those days. I really wanted to go to graduate school, but I didn’t feel I had the time.
I had to make money and not depend on “them” for anything. They had set themselves up as my enemies to make sure I never asked them for anything. And it worked.
Families split and then come back together in ways that friends often can’t.
So why am I so much more into family than friends? It might seem like a contradiction. A paradoxical conundrum.
Actually, it makes sense.
First of all, it is difficult to make friends with people who came from happy families when you haven’t. It’s hard to relate to someone who had such a different fundamental experience than you had.
And when you do find friends who can relate to the kind of abuse you suffered, they can be very dysfunctional people. Those friendships can go south very easily. They can break down for unconscious reasons. One person might do the work to heal from abuse, and then the other one doesn’t. And the friendship breaks down.
This happened to me again and again. One of my friends might do some inner work, and then I wouldn’t be ready to change enough for them and they would drop me in frustration. Or I would do some inner work and certain other friends would feel threatened or envious. I would try to help them and they would resent it. Or I would end up being more financially successful than some friends struggling with unmet needs and psychological damage, and these friends would resent me for having a middle-class lifestyle.
I completely understand their problem. And why they can no longer be friends with me. And I understand why I can no longer be friends with them.
But the truth remains that I don’t have a lot of close friends for this kind of reason.
Awareness and inner work are the key
What I do have is my selective but mostly nonchosen family. My best friends are, in no particular order, my husband, my daughter, my sister, one of my three younger brothers, my mother-in-law, my sister-in-law and one of my cousins.
There are others that I am close friends with, but not “best” friends with. All related by blood or marriage. And a few, less close, actual friends.
These are all people who experienced or saw up close the abuse in my family. Or experienced it within their original families. They understand the nuances. The contradictions. And they have been able to integrate them into their lives.
Maybe they have done work with a therapist. Or have self-reflected a lot and achieved some kind of self-awareness. Or had a spiritual awakening. Or all three. Maybe they experienced racism or homophobia or gender dysphoria or a disability. Maybe the pain of losing a loved one too soon.
Anything that wakes a person up and makes them realize the true nature of society’s constructed fantasy reality.
These are the only people who I can feel close to now that I am sixty years old and feel I don’t have any time to waste on people who can’t or won’t understand my particular ethos. Or who can’t or won’t achieve some level of self-awareness.
Gratitude and humility also come in as forces of healing.
Or gratitude for how lucky they were to be born into a loving, healthy family. People who do not harshly judge people who weren’t.
People who have achieved some humility in the struggles of the hostile environment we call the family, and its logical extension, what we call society.
It’s all unhealthy and toxic. If you can’t acknowledge that, I can’t be very close to you.
My husband is really my main BFF. Every day spent with him, even during a lockdown, is precious. I will never get over how lucky I am to have spent, so far, ten amazing years with this beautiful, spiritual human being. It actually never gets old. The beauty renews itself on almost a daily basis. Yesterday he thanked me for helping make him a better human being. I did the same for him.
Then we spent a joyful day laughing, talking, reading, playing music, and watching anything uplifting we could stream together.
I believe that friendships can be as good as anything I have experienced with my loving husband and extended family. I believe people when they tell me that their friendships, their chosen families, have made all the difference in their lives.
It just hasn’t worked out that way for me. But I am so grateful for what has worked out.