Why does a narcissist use intimidation? He doesn't want to lose his source of narcissistic supply (yeah, sorry, it's not love; he's just using you for NS) or have his false self-image shatter, so he manipulates you into submission with a variety of tactics. Intimidation is one of them. (Others include lying, denial, rationalization/minimization, diversion, guilt-tripping, playing the victim, projecting the blame.)
How does intimidation work? Intimidation is any behavior that causes you to fear for your safety. Your partner doesn't actually have to hit you. He can throw objects, break them, threaten to break them, hit things, yell, etc. Because you want to protect yourself and diffuse his anger, you agree to his terms. When there's no apparent reason for the rage, the target feels like she must have done something wrong; she cannot think of any other explanation. A narcissist usually selects targets with high levels of empathy or codependency, so when she sees him upset or angry, she goes into soothing mode and tries to appease him, be it through submission, silence, agreement to unfair terms, etc. He uses other forms of manipulation, including blame-shifting, that contribute to making her feel like it's her fault that he got so angry. Intimidation can also be used as a means of diverting the target's attention. The narcissist flies into a rage, for example, when he is asked questions that he doesn't want to answer. The rage, the reasons he gives you for it (which are not the real reasons), and the subsequent soothing become the focus, and he has successfully evaded your questions and made you forget that you even had them.
How do we deal effectively with intimidation? Well, the first thing is to recognize it for what it is. This is a problem that the narcissist has with himself, not with you. If you take it personally, you'll fall into the trap of getting distracted from what's really going on. You'll be manipulated into thinking you have something to do with his problem and hence can fix it, and you'll compromise yourself in trying to do so. The narcissist has a deep problem with himself. Know that the narcissist's actions don't come from a place of strength, but from desperation. His greatest fear is the truth, and if he's going into a rage, it's probably because you're getting close to it or you've already exposed him. He will intimidate if his sense of control, grandiosity, and dominance is threatened. Remembering this can help you detach, take a step back, and allow him the space to have his fit on his own. Trust in yourself. You're going to feel frustration, fear, anxiety, but don't act from it or you'll get sucked in. Ask yourself the important questions, "Was this outburst appropriate? What happened before the outburst that brought it on? Why did it bring about such a reaction?" If you're too enmeshed in the situation to answer objectively, ask other people what they think.
It's painful to talk about the intimidation tactics of narcissists because they worked well on me. If I had known about them, maybe I wouldn't have been scared into submission and into not asking so many questions about what I now know was a very fucked up situation, a situation I now know I had every right to question.
The first time I was truly scared of my boyfriend, I wrote him this email:
date: Mon, Aug 16, 2010 at 8:13 PM
i burned my hand on the toaster oven about ten minutes ago. in the
freezer, i found an old naked juice bottle that you had filled with
water and forgotten there. i wrapped up my work holding it to my hand,
and then went to watch the rain from my bedroom window. the fan's air
flowing over the ice bottle and into my body felt so good that i had
to stand there for a while. i thought of you standing there last night
after you pounded the bed with your fists, and i realized how fragile
everything is. the human body, love, our situation, your and my well
being. i want us to be very gentle with each other so that we don't
ruin the love that we have. because i want to keep loving you forever.
i don't know if you realize how much it scares me when you display
your anger that way. i felt last night like i haven't felt since i was
a child and seriously thought my life was in danger. please do what
you must: count to ten, tell me how you feel, take a break. i don't
know. but something so that you don't have to express your anger
physically. i love you, and i don't want to feel scared of you again.
I started wetting the bed that night. He didn't have the empathy to realize the negative impact his actions had on me, even though I told him, so he didn't heed my plea. It continued to get worse. I think about this moment and want to shake him. If he had just been man enough to tell me the truth instead of literally scaring the piss out of me to try to hide all of his lies, I would have been saved from so much psychological damage. But at least I know for the future to see intimidation for what it is: a cowardly tactic that comes from insecurity and fear of exposure. It gets you nowhere to be angry at the narcissist for this. You can't change him; you can't even make him see what he's doing to you. You will go crazy trying to make him see it clearly. You might try to use his tactics on him because that's the only language he seems to speak. I'm telling you, nothing will work. The best thing you can do is focus on taking care of yourself and walk away.
And if you're putting down boundaries about violence, forget about trying to be nice when you're doing it. I tried to be nice in this email, but I realize you can't ask nicely and expect to be able to sit back and have your boundary respected. Being afraid of the person I loved over and over again almost destroyed me, and I still have a long way to go to heal from it. The next time someone tries to intimidate me or cannot work through conflict non-violently, I'm going to tell him about my boundary, and if he crosses it again, I'm going to have to leave. I can't risk having any more interpersonal trauma.