Shiv and Tom from Succession- Season 3
If you watched Season 3 of Succession, I'm sure you have some strong opinions about Shiv and Tom. I do too. Let's talk transactional relationships with narcissists.
Demand-Withdraw Pattern Continues
From my earlier blog post on this complicated relationship, you'll remember me describing the demand-withdraw relational pattern. Basically, when one partner makes a request or demand, the other is dismissive and withdraws. The first partner learns that their needs are not important and usually stops making requests, wanting to avoid further hurt and rejection. The withdrawing partner is in a position of power as long as the other person does not challenge the dynamic.
We see this pattern continue in season 3.
First, we witness Shiv's dismissal of Tom's needs and feelings repeatedly, painfully, when he attempts to discuss his fears around going to prison. At several different times, Tom shares information he has learned about prison and what he can expect during his time there. Each attempt at conversation and closeness is quickly shut down by Shiv. She makes it very clear that is uncomfortable with and unwilling to engage in these discussions. Shiv doesn't want to think about Tom's possible experience behind bars, perhaps because she's looking forward to the additional freedom his imprisonment will allow her. She continues to show herself to be uncaring, unempathic, and I'll just say it, emotionally stunted.
Another clear example of this pattern is Tom's efforts to bring up the idea of having a child. With nothing to look forward to, Tom broaches the subject of trying to get pregnant. Shiv quickly and tersely brushes him off at first, once again highlighting how unimportant his wants or needs are in their relationship.
Now, let's explore two new psychological concepts that were highlighted in season 3: transactional relationships and narcissism in marriages.
Their Transactional Relationship
What Tom and Shiv have is a perfect example of a (not so healthy) transactional relationship. It is not a marriage built on trust, affection, or love. Instead, a transactional union is a means to an end. It is a business arrangement. Partners enter it with clear goals and they treat the relationship as a business partnership. There are expectations and agreements of what each person provides.
Arranged marriages can be transactional, with each family looking out for their own interests be it financial, social status, or relational. And arranged marriages can be incredibly happy and successful, in part because there are incredibly clear understandings from the start.
For Tom and Shiv, the expected exchange is clear. Tom gets access to the Roy family power, and Shiv gets an acquiescing and endlessly supportive partner. This season we see them openly discuss the true nature of their marriage. Each one wants something from it, and as in all Roy relationships, each partner is trying to get the better end of the deal.
How They Could Make a Healthy Transactional Relationship
Although most people raise their eyebrows at this, a transactional relationship of this nature doesn't have to be unhealthy. People are not compelled to marry for love, in fact, the idea that we should form life partnerships based on affection is a relatively new idea in society.
To be healthy, however, a transactional relationship of this nature needs better communication and better boundaries. Both people need to have all the information prior to making the lifelong commitment to marriage (*ahem*, looking at you Shiv), there needs to be open discussion about what each partner is giving/getting, and both people need to agree to the terms of the relationship.
Tom enters this transactional marriage without knowing the rules. He certainly has his own financial and career goals in mind when marrying Shiv, but he also appears to genuinely love her, a sentiment which makes it difficult for him to negotiate in this arrangement. Further, Tom keeps getting the short end of the stick. Outside of his promotion to ATN, Tom keeps getting into worse and worse job situations, eventually becoming the company scapegoat and facing prison time.
We see Tom even out the transactions at the end of the season. He takes control of a spiraling situation, using his insider information to secure himself a good deal. Who can blame him, really? Was it cold and calculating? Sure. But his wife has done all that and more, many times over. Tom appears to realize that to get something out of this business arrangement with Shiv, he's going to have to take it, because the Roys are not known for their generosity or consideration.
What It's Like Being Married to a Narcissist
Narcissism is pervasive on this show. Narcissistic Personality Disorder is characterized by a lack of empathy for others, intense self-focus, inability to hear criticism, fragile self-esteem protected by a thin shield of grandiosity, and desperate need for admiration and power. As I type this, I have a hard time thinking of characters that don't fit this description. (Maybe Rava? She was smart enough to get out of the Roy family madness at least.)
Shiv is a classic narcissist, just as her father is. And, you guessed it, so are her brothers. This makes them a very dangerous family to get involved with. Narcissists require doting and praise, and they are not open to negative feedback or requests to change. They don't care how others feels and they don't want to fix ruptures in relationships if they were the ones at fault. Having a relationship with a narcissist means always putting them first to keep the peace. It will not include honest discussions about boundaries, needs, and feelings. They don't have the capacity or the care to do that emotional work.
In seasons 1 and 2, Tom tries to have an emotionally connected relationship with Shiv. I think he realizes, by season 3, that this is not possible. She does not know how to be authentically vulnerable, a skill that was certainly not taught by her parents and, in fact, was probably a liability to have in her abusive family. Protection is key for Shiv and her siblings, which means not letting anyone in. Once Tom sees that there is a wall he can't get past, he lets go of trying to foster emotional intimacy and instead focuses on at least achieving his career goals.
Can Narcissists Change?
Well, yes, but it's incredibly difficult and very unlikely. The main reason is that narcissists have thick walls of defenses so that they don't see their flaws. When a narcissist is helped to see their mistakes and flaws, it's destabilizing for them. Their self-esteem is actually quite fragile and having to face the reality of their cruelty is often unbearable for them. Vulnerability and self-reflection are nearly impossible for them.
A narcissistic person can change with years of therapy, but most of the time they don't ever start therapy because they don't think there's anything wrong with them. "It's everyone else that's the problem!"
However, while they don't usually seek help on their own, some narcissists are compelled into therapy by their partners. They still don't think they've done anything wrong, but often their partner has issued an ultimatum ("get help or I'm out") that forces them to face the couch.
Once in a therapist's office, the work is a steep uphill (and slow) climb. Therapists needs to be careful when helping a narcissist to see and take responsibility for their actions- if the therapist moves too fast the narcissist will feel attacked and flee, but if the therapist is too gentle or avoidant the narcissist will never be presented with the difficult truth about themselves. Best to see an expert in personality disorders for this kind of work.
Transactional Relationship with a Narcissist
If it isn't obvious already, a transactional relationship with a narcissist is generally a bad idea. This is because narcissists don't care. They don't feel compelled to consider their partner's needs or prioritize what they want, especially if it conflicts with what the narcissist wants. They don't feel bound to honor agreements or contracts, they're willing to go back on deals if it's in their favor to do so, and they don't feel badly about it at all. Narcissists have a way of justifying their actions, no matter how hurtful or wrong.
How many times have we seen Shiv brush off Tom's request for a better position in the company in return for his help or support? He gives Shiv critical information at every opportunity, consistently proving his value to her, but the favor is never reciprocated. She acts stressed or distracted when he asks what his outcome will be in each unfolding scenario, as if she doesn't have the bandwidth to consider his request but vaguely indicating she is still considering him somehow.
Effective transactional relationships require honesty, commitment, communication, and consequences. For Shiv, there are never ramifications for walking all over her partner, and since she lacks empathy and thus she has no reason to change. Their marriage is a grab for power, not a clearly understood exchange.
Want More Like This?
If you have a favorite on-screen that you'd like to be a focus of this series, let me know! I'll be writing on all couples, from the obviously healthy to the clearly destructive, and everything in between.