Should I Poke the Bear? 

“An abuser can seem emotionally needy. You can get caught in a trap of catering to him, trying to fill a bottomless pit. But he’s not so much needy as entitled, so no matter how much you give him, it will never be enough. He will just keep coming up with more demands because he believes his needs are your responsibility, until you feel drained down to nothing.”—Lundy Bancroft Why Does He Do That?: Inside the Minds of Angry and Controlling Men

When I was still living with my narcissist, I didn’t have to ask myself “Should I poke the bear?” I robotically operated on a system whose primary command was “Don’t Poke the Bear!” Don’t bother the bear with logic or reasons or responsibilities. Just take care of it yourself. It’s easier that way. 

I picked up almost everything he put down. I put hard lines around infinitesimally small things and told myself those were important boundaries. I would not take out the trash, but I would pay 100% of the bills using 100% of my money; take the kids to school, therapy, and other appointments without his help; clean; cook; work full time to his part time; etc etc. As long as I didn’t take out the trash, I was standing up for myself. In my mind, I wasn’t being a doormat. 

The narcissist and I still share two areas of joint responsibility: our children and selling the marital home. Last week I took a day off work to take care of two responsibilities that were his by court order. I was really mad at myself for falling back into that habit of picking up what he put down. 

With every piece of junk I removed from the back yard, I filled up with quite rage. All of this was his mess! He created the mess. He let it sit there and fester for more than a year. He was court ordered to clean it up. And here I was again, doing exactly what his rage had trained me to do, cleaning up his mess. Literally. 

It was a long day with long stretches of time to think. I realized that this time there was a difference. Before I had picked up this responsibility, I really thought it through. It wasn’t a knee jerk reaction brought about by fear of his rage. It was a show of good faith. I was upholding the agreement, to cooperate in the sale of the home, which I entered upon signing the divorce decree. It wasn’t about poking the bear at all. 

Later, I realized that I’d been subconsciously asking myself “Should I poke the bear?” for a few weeks now. Instead of just repurchasing an important thing he didn’t send back with the kids, I asked him to return it. Instead of letting it go when he won’t discuss an important decision for our kids, I pressed the point. Instead of blindly taking things upon myself, I have been asking myself “Do you have the time, money, or legal authority to do this on your own?” If the answer is no, then I pick up my stick and go poke the bear. 

5 thoughts on “Should I Poke the Bear? 

  1. That is such a useful phrase and description, I shall borrow it! I discovered that my ex was on holiday abroad on the date on which our house sale was due to complete ( and house needed to be empty). I panicked (blatant sabotage on his part) but was advised to tell him to put his stuff in storage or I would- at his expense. He decided to do it himself, and with a quizzical expression said ‘would you have time to get me a few quotes, I’m rather busy?’!! Without hesitation I said no, probably for the very first time! This was in the middle of the day when he was home and I had rushed back in my lunch 1/2 hour from work.


  2. Thank you for sharing this. I am ALWAYS picking up after my husband and the chaos he creates. All the while he does not take blame for the mess he makes. Responsibility means nothing to him.


    1. Thank you for reading it! That all sounds unfortunately and incredibly familiar. Even divorced, I still get some residual chaos, but it is so much better than living in the thick of it. I hope you find a safe way out.


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