What is a circular conversation?
Let me start by saying these aren't conversations. They are verbal competitions and even warfare. Narcissists don't use conversations to find understanding and compromise. They use them to win. These conversations are extremely planned and manipulated. There is absolutely no such thing as spontaneity. There is no place for this to be relaxed and natural chatting. No, it is war!
I know in our household, in order for my husband to actually have a conversation with someone, it was like we had to go through some big ordeal. It was as though he was announcing to the world, in a very robot-like way, "We are now having a conversation." Everything else had to stop. Everything had to be put down. Life ceased to exist....because NOW WE ARE HAVING A CONVERSATION. After making such an announcement, he would then sit quietly with his eyes closed for a couple of minutes, making everyone wait to hear his "great" words. It was almost like a ritual. I felt like the trumpets were going to come out of the sky, play a fanfare, and announce that the KING was about to speak. It was ridiculous and left everyone on edge. No one felt safe before a word was even uttered.
Then you never knew what the actual topic was going to be. It could be absolutely anything, from teeny tiny small to gigantically huge. One thing was always for certain though, he had been offended, and we were going to hear about it. These "conversations" feel more like monologues from a dictator, and they last just as long. Everyone else usually kept their mouths shut. Why? Because over time we had all learned one of our rights: "You have the right to remain silent. Anything you say can and will be used against you."
I have heard these circular conversations referred to as gaslighting, word salad, and verbal vomit. I prefer to call them conversations from hell. It is the most painful place I have ever experienced. I have never felt so alone and destitute as I have when trapped in one of these. And I do mean trapped. There seems to be no way out. Nothing you say will change the course. Nothing you say will turn it in a positive direction. The narcissist will unceasingly turn everything around and around, spinning forever in a bottomless pit of negativity.
You find yourself defending everything you have ever done, said, or even thought. You are defending a look you had or the way you breathed. Guards are up and active. Spontaneity does not exist. Reciprocity does not exist. There is no natural give and take because with a narcissist there is no give. Staying relaxed is nearly impossible. In the conversation, you feel like you just can't seem to keep with the topic at hand because it changes so fast. One minute you are talking about your frustration that he isn't helping with the yard work and the next thing you know you are defending why you didn't cook dinner last night. It doesn't matter that he said he wasn't hungry. It is simply ammunition against you.
8 signs of a circular conversation
1. You find yourself teaching an adult about basic communication skills and basic human emotions. You are actually trying to teach them how to talk nicely to people, something we all learned in kindergarten. “Now Johnny, we mustn’t talk that way to others.” Healthy adults just do not need to be taught the golden rule. But narcissistic people seem to have missed those lessons. When I found myself explaining to my husband, a full grown man and father of two boys, how his tone of voice influences people’s feelings, I realized we had a real problem. The fact of the matter is that any full-grown adult knows how to treat other people. They know how to be kind and good, but simply choose not to.
2. You find yourself thinking, “If I could just find the right words, then he would stop treating me this way.” Or, “The right words will help him to understand why what he is doing is hurting me, and he will stop.” I absolutely wore my brain out with this one! There simply is not an angle left that I didn’t try. “Maybe these words, this approach, this tone of voice, this perspective, etc.” It was endless effort and extremely taxing on both my head and my heart. To top it all off, it never did any good! All it did was keep all the responsibility on my own shoulders. I used to think, “If I am not able to find the right words, then I cannot be mad at him for not getting it.” What!! Since when did I become the counselor? I am telling you now that it is NOT your job to help them understand. I am not saying don’t make any effort when someone has hurt your feelings. But I am saying there is a point where it no longer becomes your responsibility to keep explaining it to someone who doesn’t get it and clearly doesn’t want to.
3. These conversations are antagonistic and combative. I reached a point where I would say to my friend, “I don’t even know how to have a normal conversation with my husband.” You see, narcissistic people don’t see conversations as a time of connection and reciprocity. Actually, in their eyes, there is no such thing as conversation. It is verbal competition instead. Most of the time, they seem to want communication to be difficult and a problem. They don’t want to understand. They want only to maintain their position of superiority. In order to truly understand and sympathize with someone, you must allow a moment or two to be about the other person. Narcissistic people absolutely cannot do this. Not even for a tiny moment can life be about someone else. When they can keep the conversation confusing and difficult, it can stay centered around them. Then they have a “duty” to explain and educate the other person, which maintains their superiority and arrogance.
4. There is no resolution in these conversations. You know that place, when you have been in a heated discussion with a loved one, where you feel reconciliation? This is a moment where both parties feel sorry for the pain they have caused. Both feel humbleness, honesty, and compassion. In this moment, you feel very open and connected with each other. Well, this place does NOT exist with a narcissistic person! You will NEVER get there!! It does not matter whether you are in the original heated discussion or in the 100th discussion after it trying to get resolution. These discussions can last 5 minutes or 5 hours. It simply does not matter. You will not be able to find a peaceful and compassionate ending. For more detail on the lack of reconciliation, read my article No Reconciliation Ever.
5. They use the topic switcheroo. If a narcissistic person does not like the direction of the current discussion, I guarantee you they will switch it around. Here’s an example: We were at the counselor together trying to find some middle ground in order to save our marriage. Here is how the discussion went:
Him: I have asked you to tell me what I am doing wrong in our marriage, and you won’t tell me.
Me: I have told you many times why I am frustrated. I am done telling you.
Him: I have asked you to tell me right when it is happening. I think the problem really is that you say, “Yes,” and yet you DO no.
Me: What does that mean?
Him: You told me that you will point things out as they happen and yet you don’t do that.
Me: I have pointed them out at the time, and that didn’t work. So I tried an hour later, that didn’t work, I tried the next day, that didn’t work. I have tried everything I know to try, so now I am done trying.
Him (arrogantly): So you said yes and you are doing no. You do that with lots of things.
Me: Now what are you talking about?
Him: I’m talking about the windows in the house. You still haven’t gotten those done, but you said you would.
What! You've got to be kidding me! Two years earlier, we had talked about replacing the windows in the house. I had gotten some estimates, but it went no further than that. For two years, nothing else had been said about it by either one of us until that day at the counselor. Now all of a sudden it is all my fault?
6. They play the eternal victim. This victim role is perpetual and ever-lasting. Some of their favorite phrases are:
I had a tough childhood.
My dad/mom treated me badly.
I have a low self-esteem because of my childhood.
Nobody likes me. Everybody is against me. “Poor me” is the attitude.
These become excuses and crutches. They play the victim card so everyone will feel badly for them and let them off the hook. Then they don’t have to “fix” anything and can go merrily on their way treating people however they choose. This victim roles prevents them from ever having to be accountable for themselves.
One time, I was trying to explain to my husband how his quickness to be offended hurt those around him. I told him that he gets so quickly offended over things that shouldn’t even be offensive in the first place. He asked for an example. So I reminded him about a time when I had asked our son to help him empty the dishwasher. This offended him so badly that he stormed out of the room and closed himself in the guest bedroom for 45 minutes. When I finally went up to talk to him, he told me that the incident had communicated to him that I thought he was an idiot, incapable of emptying the dishwasher by himself. I asked him why that thought would even cross his mind. He did not remember this incident but explained how he could see himself reacting that way. He added, “You know how much I struggle with feeling worthless. I was treated very poorly by my dad, you know.” This repeatedly becomes an excuse, a justification, and a hindrance all at once. The attitude is, you have to get off my back because I struggle with self-esteem and your words are damaging me more. You need to feel sorry for me because I was treated so badly as a child. I don’t have to fix this or get any better because it really isn’t my fault.
7. You walk away thinking, “What in the world just happened?” These conversations are like no other. Your head is left spinning. You will feel as though you have used every ounce of energy you have and yet accomplished absolutely nothing. You replay this conversation over and over for hours or even days, obsessing over things you should have said or could have said better. You now have a million arguments laid out in your head, left unaddressed in the actual conversation because it was spinning too fast.
8. They give you the silent treatment. I am not referring to the silent treatment that might last for days on end. I am not talking about casually ignoring someone. This silent treatment is extremely direct and purposeful. It is a little hard to describe, so bear with me. When he has become offended by something I have said, done, not said, or not done, it is immediately crystal clear. Not because of what he says, but because of his body language and lack of words. He has this way of existing in space that communicates complete disdain for the other person. He stares at absolutely nothing, in a very contemplative manner. This silence can last for a few minutes or for quite a while. It creates a tension that cannot be described in words. The grip of that tension is felt mentally, emotionally, and even physically. Getting out of this entrapment proves to be incredibly difficult and staying takes an incredible toll on your body, mind, heart and soul.
If you find yourself really feeling like something is consistently wrong in conversation with a specific person, listen to your instincts. These circular conversations can take many different shapes for different people. But many of the overall characteristics are the same. One thing is always for sure, the one on the receiving end of the conversation from hell is left feeling emotionally drained and completely hopeless. Learn to cut these conversations off before they can even get started. No one should ever be forced to sit through them. You have a right to walk away!