Welcome to my two-part article series on compartmentalization as it relates to narcissism in relationships. This article, Part 1, will describe the psychological mechanism of compartmentalization and how narcissists use it to juggle multiple relationships and situations without having his/her worlds collide. I believe that an understanding of this narcissistic tactic is vital to our recovery because, as you’ll see, it explains everything – and I mean everything – that we experience. Once we “get it” about compartmentalization, then – and only then – can we truly begin to connect all of the suspicious dots within our relationship in a meaningful way.
Invariably, online definitions describe compartmentalization as a defense mechanism that a person uses to keep certain beliefs and relationships separated from one another so that they don’t conflict. For those who are particularly good at it, like narcissists and sociopaths, it means being able to get away with just about anything including keeping one lover from ever finding out about another or from lies ever becoming truly tangled. Compartmentalization is what narcissists do before, during, and after a Discard. Compartmentalizing is how the narcissist keeps partners (or only certain partners) from ever meeting his friends and family members. Compartmentalization is the perfect explanation for how the narcissist can just leave you without giving a fuck…why your history with a narcissist means absolutely nothing…why he appears to simply vanish during a silent treatment and why he’s so adept using the Cell Phone Game to keep you at arms length even when you think you are “together”.
Imagine the narcissist’s twisted head as being like a building that contains a whole bunch of empty rooms – or compartments – to which he is the only key holder. Over time, the narcissist fills these compartments, each with a single scenario from his life and each scenario having little or no knowledge about the existence of the other compartments. By carefully keeping tabs on the contents of each compartment and by controlling all levels of communications and interaction, the narcissist keeps the potential for conflict and confrontation to a bare minimum as he moves from one to the other. The biggest benefit, of course, to compartmentalization is that the narcissist can behave one way while visiting one compartment and behave completely differently when visiting another. And since the narcissist is a pretender extraordinaire and master chameleon, the fact that he’s has to basically lie through his teeth during each visit isn’t even an issue. In fact, that’s the easiest part of the strategy!
In another article series on this site called A Sociopath Exposes the Narcissist, I use actual pieces of blog posts written by a very popular online sociopath to prove my point about how a narcissist thinks. To prove my point about compartmentalizing, I’ll use yet another blurb from that same blog:
For me, my Game Theory is not only one fashion of handling life, it’s also the concept of compartmentalization. As many people have commented, trying to keep everything in order (in regards to the lies, half-truths, manipulations, “games,” etc.) would be exceedingly difficult (for a sociopath/narcissist). And it would be, if the sociopath’s mind operated as a normal person’s. Everything in my mind is organized sort of like folders (compartments) and folder groups that you might find in, say, Windows Explorer; everything has its place. When a situation presents itself or I am with a certain friend or friend(s), I simply “open” up that folder and behave accordingly. When one’s mind is organized in such a way that no thought co-mingles with others, you don’t have the problem of “remembering all of the lies,” because you have everything you need neatly stored away, waiting to be accessed at the right time. This same concept of compartmentalization applies in all walks of (my) life, whether it be love, friendships, work, etc. Another benefit to compartmentalizing is that it enables oneself to keep track of “friend circles”, thus ensuring that none of these circles cross in any way; this can allow for you to more easily adapt to any number of given situations per friend circle. For example, for each different personality, I just find another lover (in addition to or instead of one you may already have). I find myself involved in many different circles, but almost as a ghost; I can walk in and out of these circles almost unnoticed and never be missed.
To imagine life as a narcissist, we must imagine ourselves moving in and out of these compartments whenever it served a beneficial purpose. A narcissist might have separate compartments for you, his other girlfriend(s), his work relationships, his family life, his guy friends, his time at the gym or in the band or at the bar or home alone at his apartment. Then, when it’s convenient, he just moves in and out of the little rooms like a snake, carefully closing the door behind him when he arrives and also locking it tight when he leaves. He might be giving you the silent treatment while hanging out in the compartment next door and you won’t even know it. Or he can be having a regular sex life with three different women who all think that they’re his only girlfriend. When a person is a pathological liar and has no empathy, sympathy, guilt, or remorse, compartmentalization is the way to go!
The fact that a narcissist is capable of having a long-term relationship with one person while carrying on a similar affair with one (or more) other persons is a constant source of angst for all of us. And I believe it’s not the cheating itself that is the biggest issue but rather the narcissist’s lack of conscience/emotion that appears to go with it. How does he do it without feeling a single thing? When confronted with an affair, my ex was able to fake remorse for only a day or two before he threw up his hands in exasperation and screamed “Get over it! I just didn’t think it was any big deal!” Excuse me? No big deal? This way of thinking, of course, isn’t normal because even an asshole knows that cheating is hurtful. But the narcissist, in his non-emphatic way of thinking, doesn’t see it that way. So, as hurtful as my ex’s response was to me, he was actually telling the truth but at the time, I sure didn’t see it that way either and it caused me great distress.