"Only she who does not choose is the loser in the end."
---- Adrienne Rich
Greetings from a Gorgeous Morning in Madison, Wisconsin.
I hope this finds you and yours well and safe and relaxed and awake.
I'm home from an extraordinary year-long hiatus, and opening up (virtual) shop as we move into the fraught, delicate, and powerful weeks ahead.
As I do, of course, I'm thinking of you and what the coming weeks will require of you and of all of us.
Several years ago, I wrote The Five Step Exit: The Skills You Need to Leave a Narcissist. Psychopath, or Other Toxic Partner & Recover Your Happiness Now, a book for people exiting toxic relationships. The book encourages people to stage an exit, moving from "contemplation" to "preparation," to "execution" to "improvisation" to "recovery." Although I wrote the book with a focus on individual people in specific toxic relationships, as a sociologist I know that this progression applies more broadly: to toxic relationships that groups of people have with broader oppressive forces.
As we enter the final days of an incredibly tense election cycle in the US, it may be helpful to you to apply what you know about toxic partnerships (and other abusive relationships) and the process of getting out of them to your framework for understanding our situation. After four years of the general population suffering the effects of the current administration's gas-lighting, exploitation, contempt, abuse, incompetence, instability, narcissism, and corruption, it appears that many (though not all) have decided to break up with it. We know from history, social science, and personal experience that accomplishing this is vital, difficult, and dangerous.
One of the painful paradoxes of ending relationships with people who have strong narcissistic and anti-social traits is this: despite the toxic person signalling for long periods of time, in all manner of ways, their contempt for their exploited and ridiculed partner, they are not delighted when their victim decides to relieve them of their alleged suffering with such an "inferior" person. Instead, of course, they become unhinged. If the person has strong anti-social traits, they experience not only outrage and humiliation, but also a strong punitive impulse. When the current occupant of the Oval Office says that to lose the election to "the worst candidate in history" would require he leave the country, he's telegraphing this interpretation of the break-up: "How dare you reject me and choose to elevate someone (I regard as) inferior to me?" In refusing to commit to a peaceful transfer of power, he both delivers a bully's threat and foreshadows what may come. Like many anti-social people, he's saying, "I will reject your rejection, and will make you pay for even considering thinking independently about your own best interests."
We know that the most dangerous time for someone leaving an abusive relationship is when the abuser realizes that the partner really intends to end the relationship. After the abuser's entreaties to stay ("suburban women, please like me"), the projections and threats (too numerous to list), the promises to do better ("there will be a vaccine before Christmas"), and the attempted charm ("come to the rally! it's perfectly safe!), and a host of other anti-social tactics fail to convince the source of "narcissistic supply" to give it another go, the anti-social person sets out to destroy them.
When this is elevated to an institutional level, sociologists would tell you that people in charge of institutions write laws and rules and policies to benefit themselves (for example, policies that allow a president to resign and be pardoned by the elevated former VP who replaces them), and that people benefiting from institutional power do not give it up easily or enthusiastically. Often, indeed, they don't give it up voluntarily or without committing acts of sabotage. And this is true when the people involved aren't flagrantly anti-social ---- or anti-social and suffering from dementia ---- or anti-social, suffering from dementia, and taking steroids.
Essentially, what happens when people in power in powerful institutions are ousted from those positions of power looks a lot like what happens when an anti-social or narcissistic partner (or parent or sibling or boss...) learns that their long-suffering victim has decided to heed the call of freedom and self-respect and exit a toxic relationship. At an institutional or national level, however, the effects are amplified, just as the abuses of power have been amplified across the last four years.
So, what does this mean for you, and for us?
1. If you're in the US, and have the right to vote, it means you have the opportunity to signify whether you endorse or oppose the abuses to which the country, you, and your loved ones have been subjected the past four years. If you haven't voted yet, it's too late to send your ballot through the mail and expect that it will be counted, but it is not too late to vote early or to deliver your absentee ballot to a polling place or a drop box, or to vote in person on Tuesday. Some states allow same-day registration and some do not --- know what is true for yours. Many places have special arrangements in place for people who want to vote on election day but for whatever reason do not feel safe to stand in line or enter the polling site (where I am, "curbside voting" is a thing, and assistance is available to people with a range of disabilities that might interfere with conventional ways of casting a ballot). I encourage you to vote not from a place of fear, but from a place of strength and vision, similar to the strength and vision every survivor of abuse leaving a toxic relationship leans into when they draw the final line.
2. In The Five Step Exit, I advise folks leaving toxic relationships to plan for a Worst Case Scenario (WCS). This applies to our political situation in this moment, just as it applies to anyone exiting any other toxic relationship. The goal isn't to be (more) scared, but to be more prepared. The US has become increasingly destabilized in the past year. While that instability may ultimately lay the groundwork for beneficial growth and change, it has been painful, confusing, and exhausting, and we likely have not seen the worst of it yet. Partners in toxic relationships often decide to get out when a dynamic has reached a critical moment of fear and instability. A miscalculation they often make is to believe that the act of getting out will end the drama and discord immediately --- just when it's about to get worse, because of the punitive and vindictive impulses of a rejected narcissist or sociopath. In the US, we have a long window between election day and inauguration day, and in that space, we could see deepening crises ---- social upheaval, civil unrest, a worsening pandemic and weakened or disrupted infrastructure, manufactured threats with manufactured martial responses, and a host of other unprecedented developments. When an unstable antisocial person with extraordinary power feels fragile, offended, threatened, wounded, diminished, and rejected, their ability to create fear, chaos, and disorder is considerable. Preparing for a WCS, as much as you can, will reduce your anxiety and increase your capacity to respond to extraordinary circumstances.
3. Trust that when it comes time to improvise, you have transferable skills. You would not have survived this long without resilience, intelligence, strength, and capacity. If you've gotten through a toxic relationship, if you've gotten through eight months of a horribly mis-managed pandemic response, if you've gotten through the last four years under a disordered administration that did not come to power through the popular vote, you have transferable skills. You are also likely exhausted. Make sure not only to trust your transferable skills but to lean into community: you need them and they need you. Nobody gets out of a toxic relationship without the support of a crew.
4. Recognize self-care not as an act of indulgence but as a gift to your community.
5. Envision and plan for a better world ahead. We will need to recover from the last four years. We can better succeed at that if we start now, rather than after four more years of living in a chaotic, crazy-making, dangerous, exploitative relationship.
The coming election, in which I hope we will vote out the people who have endangered us all, is neither the first step nor the last step in re-stabilizing democracy, healing the environment, ending the pandemic, or creating domestic or international social justice. It's an utterly necessary step, however. Let's take it together and be prepared to support each other through the coming weeks; whatever the outcome of the election, whatever its aftermath, we will need each other more than ever.
If you need additional support in the coming days and weeks, drop me a line. My virtual office is open.
With love and solidarity,
Amber Ault, Ph.D., MSW