Married to a Narcissist?
Married To A Narcissist?
What to do when you're in love with someone who's in love with themselves…
Married to a narcissist? Or dating a narcissist? Suspect that a family member might be a narcissist? You might be right: They're definitely out there. As I'm sure you're well aware, it's incredibly difficult to have a relationship with a selfish person. You can love them “perfectly,” but it's never enough to get the love you want and deserve back. Today, we're talking about how to tell if someone is a narcissist (and what type of narcissist — redeemable, or irredeemable), what to do and how to cope if you're married to a narcissist, codependence and narcissism, narcissistic relationship dynamics, protecting yourself from narcissists, as well as many of the questions about narcissists you might have.
These relationships are so agonizing, and I get so many questions about how to deal with narcissists. Here are just a few I've heard, that we'll be tackling on today's podcast:
- “Dr. Lisa, I think I'm married to a narcissist; what do I do?”
- “What is the narcissistic abuse cycle?”
- “What are early warning signs you're dating a narcissist?”
- “How do you tell the difference between ADHD or narcissism?”
- “How do I coparent with a narcissist?”
- “Does therapy work for narcissists?”
- And my very favorite one, “Dr. Lisa, do narcissists cry?” (The answer is yes, narcissists do cry. Primarily tears of self pity when they're not getting the respect and deference that they feel entitled to.)
Answering Your Questions About Narcissists
Because I get so many questions about narcissists, I'm devoting this entire episode of the Love, Happiness and Success Podcast to tackling them. We'll be doing a dive into the psychology of narcissism, and also how to tell the difference between different kinds of narcissists. (i.e. People who behave selfishly but who can become more loving and empathetic, vs irredeemable, toxic narcissists).
Narcissistic Relationship Dynamics
But even more importantly than talking about narcissists (who, let's be honest, enjoy it very much when we talk about them) I want to talk about YOU. To be a narcissist is one thing, but to be with a narcissist is a whole other thing. Identifying how you may be subconsciously attracting narcissists, or participating in unhealthy toxic relationship patterns with a narcissist will help YOU become empowered. Particularly if you grew up with a narcissistic parent, understanding how you might be vulnerable to engaging with narcissists is vital for you to have a healthy relationship.
In this episode, you will learn about the different types of narcissists. You’ll learn how it’s possible to be in a relationship with one and how to deal with them. Knowing these will help you navigate your relationships with grace and dignity.
Tune in to the podcast to learn how you can understand narcissists and discover strategies to cope with them when you’re in a relationship with one.
In This Episode You Will…
- Learn the different types of narcissists.
- Discover the traits of different narcissists.
- Realize that some narcissists are treatable over time.
- Identify the things you need to watch out for if you’re dating or married to a narcissist.
- Uncover the reasons why narcissists are the way they are.
- Know the different ways individual and couples therapy can (potentially) help narcissists and their partners.
- Realize that staying with a narcissist may be unhealthy.
- How to manage narcissistic relationship dynamics so that you can protect yourself.
All that and much, much more on this episode of the podcast. You can listen by scrolling down to the player at the bottom of this post, or you can listen to “Married to a Narcissist” on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, or wherever you like to listen. (And I hope you subscribe while you're listening so that we can stay connected!)
You can also cruise through the show notes below, and I do hope you check out some of the resources that I have shared in this episode.
Wishing you all the very best on your journey of growth and healing,
Married To a Narcissist: Podcast Episode Highlights
On the surface, narcissists may not make sense. They may behave outrageously but understanding how they work and what is important to them will help you make sense of how they function.
To help you get your bearings as to what's going on (and what options may be possible) it's first important to understand that here are two kinds of narcissists: wounded narcissists and malignant narcissists.
Empathizing with Wounded Narcissists
Wounded narcissists are often stuck in an adolescent stage of emotional development who do not feel good about themselves. They may include:
- Those who have very low self-esteem.
- Those who doubt themselves on various levels.
- Those whose primary fears are that they may not be loveable, be rejected, not good enough, and that they may be ridiculed.
Wounded narcissists come from a place of fragility, and genuinely struggle to love themselves. They may not get their needs in their family, or they may have been bullied in school. Such narcissists need plenty of external validation. They often feel the need to be propped up by others, and commonly have trust issues in relationships.
They are very image-conscious. “People who are in this place will often try hard to seem cool, seem smart… A lot on social media, they're posting things that are very intentionally trying to make them look good.”
If they don’t feel affirmed, they will take criticism hard. It is because they are very fragile on the inside. They don’t know how to make themselves feel good. However, despite these challenges, wounded narcissists can often heal and grow with the support of good therapy.
Helping Wounded Narcissists
With the support of a good therapist (and lots of patience and “boundaried compassion “from people who love them) wounded narcissists can feel more safe and accepting of themselves. Becoming more vulnerable and authentic creates a lot of anxiety for them, but it's also the path forward. However, before achieving this, it is significant to make them feel like talking to you is a safe space, and they can be vulnerable with you. You may ask them why they feel a certain way. Let them share what’s on their mind and listen.
Wounded narcissists should also identify what their feelings made them do.
- Did it make them spend extravagantly to look good?
- Did it make them spend an hour dressing up to impress others?
These are just some of the things you can (very gently and kindly, being careful not to make them feel criticized) talk about with a wounded narcissist. Through these kinds of questions, they become more aware of themselves, and the conversation will naturally follow from that. This could help build their confidence, too.
Additionally, low self-esteem often leads to the development of trust issues. Because of they’ve been too self-absorbed, wounded narcissists often have difficulties when their partners try to open up to them. Instead of talking about the feelings of the other person, the point of conversation shifts unto themselves. This can be exhausting because if you don’t acknowledge them. They may become unhappy with you.
Nonetheless, marriage counseling or couples therapy paired with empathy can help resolve this problem. It’s relatively easy to empathize with them but what may become challenging is that they may find it difficult to empathize with you.
Nevertheless, it is not an indication that empathy is impossible for wounded narcissists. It merely means that they still have a lot to work on themselves. A great way to do it is to engage in couples therapy or counseling.
Couples counseling can help restore a healthy boundaries in a relationship, improve communication, and give each partner insight into how they may be impacting the other. However, it's important for a fragile, wounded narcissist to work on themselves independently, in individual therapy.
In contrast with wounded narcissists, malignant narcissists are consistent with a disordered personality individual as outlined by the DSM 5. They have a profound belief that they are better than anyone else. Rules do not apply to them.
“If you really peel the onion and go back in their life, which is hard to do, you will find not even wounds, but often that they did not get their needs met, often in earliest childhood.”
You can recognize a malignant narcissist because they have a deep and persistent lack of empathy for other people. “It doesn't matter what other people might be feeling or needing because whatever's happening with them is much more important.” If you are in a relationship with a narcissist, this may result in a narcissistic abuse cycle.
Their feelings are not due to pain. Instead, it is because of their grandiose sense of self-importance, which may be contrary to their actual accomplishments. They cannot empathize with other people, and they do not often care about others’ feelings. Malignant narcissists will often reject any criticism because they believe that they are beyond reproach. Instead of recognizing their faults, they would shift the blame on others. They also often feel envious of people (at least, the ones they don't feel superior to!)
True, malignant narcissists are rare. They comprise only about 5% of the population. These people may fail to attend therapy sessions because they find nothing wrong with them. Malignant narcissists are also exploitative — they have absolutely no regard for the feelings of others. However, they do feel self-pity and depression whenever things don’t go the way they want to.
In a Relationship with a Malignant Narcissist
If you're wondering if you're married to a narcissist (or wondering what kind of narcissist you're married to) it can be helpful to think about the malignant narcissist characteristics that may have existed in your relationship (or in your partner) prior to marriage. It would be best to be aware of and spot the signs that you’re attracted narcissists, or the early red flags that you're dating a narcissist. to a malignant narcissist. Here are a few of the warning signs.
- They are highly-attractive.
- They may be superficially charming because they are witty and fun to talk to.
- Malignant narcissists want people to feel jealous of them by putting on performances whenever they share stories about themselves.
- They have a “love-bombing” experience.
- You may develop empathy for them because they talk about themselves quite frequently.
- They are quite manipulative as they can feign empathy.
- The test to know a narcissist is to make them uncomfortable and then see what happens.
“It is a terrible idea to marry anyone that you're just getting to know. It takes time to get to know people, and that is the purpose of dating.”
Married to a Narcissist
If you think you are married to a narcissist, it is essential to know what kind of narcissist you are with. If you are with a wounded narcissist, hope and healing are often possible with the right support. However, when you are with a malignant narcissist, they may be irredeemable.
“As you are figuring out your options for what to do with your life, the idea that we can get this person to change and heal, and if they talk to someone, they could have empathy and they could treat me with love and respect — that can't be one of the factors that you take into consideration.”
Significant change almost does not happen, and it can require a 10-year plan to achieve. You must also rethink leaving a child with this kind of person, or at the very least, establishing an effective coparenting strategy. There may come a time that you need to leave this toxic relationship behind. It is challenging, but you can do it with dignity.
Just remember, you have power!
“You cannot have a healthy relationship with an unhealthy person. And the corollary of this is that you can't be in a stable relationship with a narcissist or be married to a narcissist without participating in a narcissistic cycle to some degree.”
Being with a narcissist may cause you not to have your feelings met. So, it is critical to be careful and be self-aware. If you grew up in a household filled with narcissists, you might be used to having your feelings be set aside. It would cost you a lot of energy.
“If you are married to a narcissist, or in a relationship with a narcissist, it doesn't matter how good you are, or how much you do. They will not love you because they cannot love you.”
There are no easy strategies or answers for what to do if you're married to a narcissist. If you are in love with a narcissist, you have to refrain from being dependent upon their happiness. Check out “How to Stop Being Codependent” for more on that topic. You might also think about when to call it quits.
But no matter what, get some support for yourself to help you navigate this difficult life-space. Getting involved with a great therapist who can help you sort through your feelings, develop healthy boundaries, combat gaslighting, stay out of unhealthy relationship dynamics, and practice good self care is absolutely vital to YOUR long term wellness, irregardless of what you decide to do about the relationship.
Also, if you do decide to leave a narcissistic relationship, be ready for the possibility that you may need to do some work on yourself to heal. Narcissistic relationships are notoriously toxic, and when you've been with a narcissist in the past it can be challenging to feel trusting of people going forward. It's normal, but it's also real: therapy can help.
ADHD or Narcissism
People with ADHD will often show up as thoughtless and forgetful. They are also pretty self-absorbed as a long-standing partner. They may not do so well in school because of being too busy with their little world. However, ADHD is entirely treatable and is different from narcissism.
- Leaving a Toxic Relationship?
- Are You Over-Focusing on “Chemistry?” (And Ruining a Great Relationship?)
- Evidence-Based Therapy Online & In Person
I’ve shared invaluable advice on dealing with narcissists as gracefully as possible. What did you connect and relate to the most? Feel free to share your thoughts by leaving a comment down below. Also, I am well aware that this subject is VAST. I tried to present an overview of narcissism that (hopefully) speaks to you, but if you have follow up questions for me leave them in the comments section and I'll do my best to answer them. — Dr. Lisa
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Married To a Narcissist?
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Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby is the founder and clinical director of Growing Self Counseling and Coaching. She's the author of “Exaholics: Breaking Your Addiction to Your Ex Love,” and the host of The Love, Happiness & Success Podcast.
Married to a Narcissit: Podcast Transcript
Access Episode Transcript
Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby: This is Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby, and you're listening to the Love, Happiness, and Success podcast.
[Cold Cold Eyes by Slim Cessna's Auto Club plays]
You make a wish, and then they take your soul. Slim Cessna's Auto Club, everybody, with the song “Cold Cold Eyes” because it is finally time for us to have the narcissist conversation. I have had so many listeners get in touch with me with questions about narcissists, like for years. I think I've been avoiding it a little bit, to be honest with you, because it is such a huge topic and there's dark stuff in there.
But so many questions, I mean, okay, “Dr. Lisa, let's talk about narcissists.” “I'm married to a narcissist; what do I do?” “Give me more information about the narcissistic abuse cycle, Dr. Lisa,” or how about “What about loving a narcissist? What do I do if I'm in love with a narcissist?” I've had questions about codependent narcissists, understanding narcissists. A great one that came through Instagram not too long ago. Look at you. I think it was the @drlisamariebobby Instagram account, was, “How do you tell the difference between ADHD or narcissism?” Because they can look sort of similar at first blush, so great questions. Questions about being in a relationship with a narcissist, co-parenting a narcissist? Does therapy work for narcissists? And my very favorite one, “Dr. Lisa, do narcissists cry?” The answer is yes, narcissists do cry. They cry tears of self-pity, primarily. But we'll talk more about that.
So anyway, if you are one of the many who has left questions for me about narcissism, narcissism, or anything else, either on the blog at growingself.com in the comment section or through Instagram @drlisamariebobby, at growing_self on Instagram, through Facebook, we even get emails about this kind of thing sometimes. Thank you so much, first of all, for your questions. I do apologize that it's taken me as long as it has to kind of like muster up my energy to address this topic in the depth that it deserves.
As I was preparing to create this podcast for you, I really wanted it to be meaningful and helpful and quickly realized that I could very easily monologue for like nine hours about all things related to narcissist because it's just such a vast, vast topic. So I have kind of condensed it and distilled it down to the things that I feel like are probably the most important pieces of information in order to, not just understand narcissist, but kind of give you some direction if you are in love with a narcissist, if you are in a relationship with a narcissist, so you'll hopefully leave today with some general sense of what's going on and what you can do.
Also, just will say out loud that this podcast is in no way intended to like meet all the needs that you have related to this and it is far beyond the scope of a podcast to be really like healing from a relationship with a narcissist or like getting actual professional guidance about what to do if you're married to a narcissist and need to make other plans for yourself. I sometimes will get comments from listeners when I do a podcast, and I'm like, I'm sweating. I'm in a heap collapsed on my desk after like an hour and 15-minute long podcast, and then I'll get a comment about “What about this?” I'm like, “Oh,” so I just want to say ahead of time. This is probably going to be one of those, but I'm gonna do my best. I'm gonna do my best.
The very first thing that we need to do is to spend some time understanding narcissists. When you kind of look at someone from a distance, especially somebody who's a narcissist, who may actually be behaving outrageously. On a surface level, they don't make sense. But I can assure you that if you really understand how they work, and what they need, and sort of what is important to them, it really does make a lot of sense. I hope that you get some of that today.
The first thing to understand that will help you make sense of your situation if you are in a relationship with a narcissist or even married to one is that there are really two different kinds of people who show up as narcissists and they're very different. they can look kind of the same on a superficial level, but they're really not. They're quite different.
We'll talk about the first one first, and this is much more common, this is what I think of as a wounded narcissist. It's very common, and very relatable. I think that if we get real honest with ourselves. I think many people when they're not in a fabulous place in their life, maybe they're not feeling good about themselves. Oftentimes, adolescence, like young adolescents, can show up as wounded narcissists. I probably was this when I was 13, probably longer. But this is really a person who has very low self-esteem and who doubts themselves on many levels. The primary fear here is that they are not actually good enough, they are not lovable, and that they might be rejected or ridiculed, or not cared about by other people, that they won't be important, right? This is coming from a place of fragility, for many reasons. We don't have to talk about how people get there, but again like, probably 90% of all 14-year-olds fit this category.
But also a lot of other people can easily arrive into adulthood. If they didn't really get their needs met, and their families or had sometimes been bullied as kids or adolescence or been through the wringer of a couple not so great relationships, like it's easy to get here, right? I think, for me at least, easy to have empathy for people who are showing traits of narcissism that are really coming from this place.
They're not are not bad people. They can be a little exhausting because they sort of need to be propped-up because they don't feel good about themselves on the inside and it's difficult for them to like, feel confident, or secure in themselves. They really need a lot of external validation, other people telling them that they did a good job and kind of admiring them or paying compliments. Social media, you often see this kind of dynamic, especially with younger people on social media. They'll post a picture of themselves doing something cool. Then the likes and the “Yay, oh, that's amazing.” They're just like, “Yes, give me more of that.” It's like that, that affirmation is really what they're looking for. Very image-conscious.
People who are in this place will often, like, try really hard to seem cool, seem smart, seem something a lot on social media, they're posting things that are very intentionally like trying to make them look good. They can be a more serious, for real narcissists if they don't get affirmation or kind of like… If they don't feel affirmed or have a positive image of themselves reflected in your eyes, they can be vulnerable to criticism, I guess, is what I'm saying. They might take criticism hard, or they might get defensive or get mad at you. It isn't because you're doing anything wrong. It's because you probably provided them with an appropriate response or appropriate feedback and because they're so kind of fragile on the inside, they just kind of went into a crisis because they don't feel strong enough on the inside to be able to take feedback from other people, or to handle criticism very well because it's like their worst nightmare.
It's like, you're saying that they actually aren't good enough, and aren't worthy of love, and might as well just go into a cave and stay there. Not that that's what you're saying, but that's sort of how it can feel emotionally to people who are very fragile in this way. Really, it's just because they don't feel good about themselves, and they don't know how to help themselves feel better themselves. It's like they have to outsource it. Somebody else has to make them feel good about themselves is kind of the simplest way.
You might also see them trying to associate themselves with certain brands, or like if there are other things or activities that they perceive as being cool or I don't even know if people say cool anymore, I am like such a relic for 1994, but whatever. But things that other people hold in high esteem, they might try to associate themselves with that. Some of that. If they're really good at a particular game or sport, or know everything about a band that other people think is cool, it's that's sort of a way to help themselves, kind of feel better.
The good thing is that this is a kind of almost narcissism light that can be worked on. Again, it can sometimes even be a developmental stage for people who are kind of coming into their own power as adults, right? Even for people who are in their 20s, or 30s, or 40s, or beyond who need to do this work. It is possible. What it involves is really having productive conversations with someone who understands the dynamic here, that are focused on helping people talk about how they really feel about themselves, what they fear. Giving a voice sometimes I think, to the anxiety that they feel in relationships, and being able to say “I'm worried that people won't like me for me, or that I'm not good enough, or it's hard for me to trust that I won't be rejected by someone just if I am myself.”
So it's like this sort of, I think of it as being like a journey to authenticity because the first stop is somebody being able to articulate these kinds of vulnerable feelings to someone like me or like another therapist on my team here at Growing Self. It's a totally safe place and be able to say, “This is how I feel.” To be able to do some work around it makes sense why you would feel that way. A lot of people feel that way sometimes. What have these feelings led you to do in your life and in your relationships? How do you try to make yourself feel better when you feel like this?
They might say, “This is when I spend three hours trying on everything in my closet before I go out to meet people because I really want to look extra good, or I spend too much money on clothes,” maybe. Or “I have made decisions, just to try to impress other people, or I probably come across as kind of fishing for compliments.”
You know, when people start putting together all the dots and can tell me—and telling it's not that I need to know is that they're sort of—when they tell me things they're telling themselves “Yes, I guess I do that,” and talking about how it makes sense.
It's like when we sort of know what's happening, then it can turn into a conversation around really focused on helping build people up from the inside that's really deliberately focused on helping build their self-esteem and feelings of self-confidence. Being able to manage anxiety in ways that they're in charge of so that they have skills and strategies for helping themselves feel better so that they're not trying to get other people to make them feel better because that can turn into a bunch of different kinds of relational issues, as we've talked about on other podcasts.
If you haven't checked out the one I did not too long ago around having trust issues in relationships, there's overlap here. Low self-esteem is not always the same thing as trust issues but sometimes it can show up similarly. People who have really low self-esteem and have kind of narcissistic ways of dealing with that can often have very conflictual relationships with their partners or with their friends because they need other people to make them feel better.
So if their partner isn't telling them how beautiful they are, if they're not complimentary, if they're not being really affectionate, the person who struggles to feel good about themselves will worry and will not feel good about themselves. Anxiety is frequently managed through efforts to control other people when people don't know how to manage their anxiety on their own. So you kind of see that.
People who are in this space, they can show up as being kind of selfish and self-absorbed. Because they really are in a fair amount of pain, even though they try to dismiss it and deny it. They are often kind of worried about themselves and what other people think about them. If you're talking to them about, “Gosh, I had the worst day at work with Carol at work. She was just being such an unreasonable person today. I asked her to do this thing and she gave me all kinds of…” and like you're trying to share about something that happened to you. A narcissist—little baby narcissist with low self-esteem will be like, “Oh, my God, do you think I do that? I do that sometimes, don't I? Let's talk about me.” It immediately turns into a conversation about them. And now you need to say, “No, no, you don't do that. You're not like Carol, I know you're,” and they're like, “Oh, really. Tell me more.” So it's like these little small ways, but it's very self-referential, things kind of come back to them. If you're in a relationship with a person like this, you might start to feel again, a little bit exhausted because it's like you sort of need to fluff them up all the time. If you don't, they feel bad, and they might even be unhappy with you. So, but solvable problem.
Relationship With a Narcissist
Most of the time, when people do get involved in good high-quality therapy, they can work through this. And if you are in a relationship with a person who is this variety of baby narcissist, I think the good news is that it is fairly easy to have empathy for them. What can be harder is that sometimes people in this place will struggle to have empathy for you or for others because of their own pain and anxiety. I kind of think of it with the analogy of like, if somebody broke their arm—God forbid—and is in terrible pain because their arm is broken, they're going to be very aware of that. If you in that moment, want to talk about, “Let me tell you about this day that I had bla bla bla,” they're gonna have a hard time focusing on what you're saying and what you're feeling because their pain is so intense, at that moment. It is going to be distracting them.
So when you interact with people who are in this place, and they might have a hard time focusing on you, and understanding how you feel, doesn't mean that they're incapable of it. It just means that they need to do a little bit of work before they can really be in a healthy place, where they're able to really fully enter into your worldview and be able to care for you emotionally and support you.
I mean, relationships need to be balanced. Sometimes one person needs a little bit more TLC, but it does need to be balanced, that you're in a relationship and that means that sometimes you need it to be a little bit about you and how you're feeling and what you're needing. If you're in a relationship with someone who struggles to do that sometimes, because of their own pain, that is an indication that, that there's some work that needs to be done so that they can be wholeheartedly loving to others.
A great way to start with this is in marriage counseling or couples therapy, where it is a safe space for you to be able to say, “I feel like this is happening sometimes in our relationship. I feel like I can't always talk about how I'm feeling or what I needing or I can't set healthy boundaries with you because you have so much anxiety. I feel like if I ask for something different in our relationship, you take it as a lot of criticism and you get really defensive and it's like this catastrophic thing for you. So we're here in couples counseling because I love you and I want this relationship to work. We probably both need to do some changing and growing here. Maybe I need to communicate my hopes a little bit differently, so that doesn't feel wounding to you. But I also need this relationship to be a safe space for me. And I'm hoping that our work in couples counseling can help us achieve this because I'm imagining it can't be feeling great for you either.” So, that's the intention.
I will also say that because this kind of baby narcissist thing is so common, therapists see it routinely. It is something that we are aware of. So, if you come into couples counseling, and this is what's going on, it will fairly quickly become apparent and we'll be able to talk about that. High-quality couples counseling does go into; how do you both feel? How does that make sense? Where did you each come from? Might be doing some genogram work, where we're looking at both of your family of origins or early life experiences. Also be talking about the cycle between you so that when you say one thing, what happens and how does your partner feel in that moment and they're able to say, “I have a flood of anxiety. I feel like I'm being criticized. I feel like they hate me.” Like, “Okay, good to know” is slowing it all down.
Couples counseling and itself can be a very healing vehicle for baby narcissists because at the end of the day they want to love and they want to be loved by you. They want to feel better. They're on some level aware that they don't feel that great about themselves. So couples counseling that strengthens your bond and helps them feel more loved and cared for by you. Also that they have a safe space to talk about the reality of their inner experience without judgment can be very healing. It is often common for this work to involve probably individual therapy for them too and maybe even you.
But it's a good idea for any individual therapy that is sort of born from couples counseling, when appropriate, sometimes it's not, but to be done with some involvement of the individual therapist and the couple's counselor working together. Here at Growing Self, we frequently do that. And it's very aboveboard. We make sure that we have signed releases in place so that it's okay that an individual therapist can consult with a couples therapist without explicit permission. We do not do that at all because it's unethical to do that. Because sometimes, there really does need to be boundaries between what's happening in couples counseling and what's happening and individual for many reasons.
But one of the risks of a baby narcissist getting into individual therapy is that because their worldview is very much in pain and shame, and they can feel very helpless against this, it can turn into a situation where they're kind of complaining to their individual therapist about all the ways that you're being mean to them, and all they wanted was for you to just tell them, that you love them, and that you need to hear these complimentary things. You actually do need to spend $2,000 a month on new clothes because it makes you feel good about yourself. Unless an individual therapist is kind of coordinating with a couples counselor who is able to convey both sides of the story here. Particularly individual therapists who do not have a background in systemic or couples work. It cannot be productive. Let me just say that.
Because it turns into the client complaining about their partner, and it is not focused on “Yes, I have a lot of anxiety and I try to control my partner in order to manage that anxiety.” That's not the conversation. It's like, “Let me tell you about the 57 ways that my partner disappointed me this week.” So that's one reason that it's a really good idea to have coordination because it just keeps everybody honest. It keeps, I think, the work more focused and productive, which really is another reason why couples work can—I think, be more productive than individual work because it's fairly easy for people in individual therapy to hide, sometimes, they are just communicating their own worldview, which is all we as individual therapists have to work on and may not be the whole story.
More about this in our next segment because now we are going to talk about malignant narcissists. This is a really very different thing from what we were just talking about with the wounded narcissists, again can show up as being selfish and self-centered. But when you kind of crack in it's anxiety, it's maybe an anxious attachment style or even an avoidant attachment style, trust issues, low self-esteem, and those are solvable problems. Malignant narcissists are different.
Malignant narcissists and like this would be what I think of is like a real deal narcissist that is consistent with what is a personality disordered individual as outlined by the DSM-5. These people, I am not happy to say, but unlike a wounded narcissist, they really do believe that they are better than you. They are superior to you. They are more deserving of things than you are. Rules do not apply to them. If you kind of really peel the onion and go back in their life, which is hard to do, I've tried, you will find not even wounds, but often that they did not get their needs met, often in earliest childhood. So there's a reason why and we can still have empathy for them. But they don't perceive themselves as having a problem. They are more psychologically healthy than most people and we'll be happy to tell you all about that. You will recognize them because of their deep and persistent lack of empathy for other people, that it doesn't really matter what other people might be feeling or needing because whatever's happening with them is much more important. It isn't due to pain. It's due to this like, “No, I am actually more important than you are. So I should go first in line.”
I was actually once in a very long line at an airport, standing in line, the flight was delayed, there was weather, I don't know. This guy tapped me on the shoulder, and was like, “Can I get ahead of you because I have a first class ticket.” I was like, “Well, at least you asked, I guess but no.” So it's like, and I don't know what might have been going on with him. But it's sort of like that, that level of entitlement. They also have this very kind of grandiose sense of self-importance that is not connected to their actual accomplishments. I mean, if somebody's achieved amazing things, it's totally normal and expected for them to feel like, “Yes, okay, I did that.”
But some people with real malignant narcissistic personality disorder will have this grandiose sense of self-importance and will expect to be recognized as superior without it being it tied to “Yes, I actually am a neurosurgeon.” Also, people who are very accomplished can also be narcissists. So it doesn't mean that it's one thing or another. But, if somebody is inflating all this stuff that they didn't actually do, that can be an indication that you were in the presence of a narcissist.
They also have a lot of fantasies about unlimited success or perfect love can be a fantasy for a narcissist. When they finally meet the right person who's good enough for them, they're going to feel this perfect love, and everything will be all better and they just haven't met the person who can be their amazing match, yet. The people that they're dating are not good enough, they're not the one, and when they do meet, the one is all going to be different.
So also people in this space because they really believe that they are so important and wonderful. They want admiration, they want attention, they sort of expect that other people will defer to them. Other people will give things to them or do things for them because they should, because “I'm me,” right? There is this—oftentimes goes along with it a lot of callousness around other people or even like not noticing that other people have feelings at all. They will not take any sort of criticism because they are above reproach in all regards. They will blame others for things that go sideways. They often, interestingly, tend to feel quite envious of other people. So if you show up with a new car, and it's like, “Only idiots buy black cars because they get all scratched up, and let me tell you why that was terrible.” It's there's this envious sort of like thing from a narcissist, as opposed to somebody who's like,”Cool, that's awesome. You guys are doing so well. Congratulations.” They can't do that.
Also have a very difficult time giving other people credit if they have done something or, “Okay, yes, you made it through medical school because your parents paid for you to do that, and you lived in their house, and you had all these people to support you, and who's looking after your kid while you're doing all these amazing things.” It's like, there's no kind of thought that they have been able to achieve amazing things because there were a lot of people working hard to support them, and help them or if they're in a team, where people are brainstorming ideas it will be their idea that it's difficult for them to give credit to other people. If this isn't triggering sparks of recognition, and any of you or people in your orbits, either personally or professionally, first, I'm sorry because this is difficult. I mean, these are hard relationships.
They're also fairly rare. Actual serious for real, narcissistic personality disorder. I mean, I've seen research indicating that it's .5% of the population is consistent with what I'm sharing with you. There aren't these people running around all over the place, I mean .5% of the population, still a lot of people. But compared to most people that you interact with, it's unusual. I have met narcissists in my role, and in my practice that are this. But again, very infrequently because they don't show up for therapy because there's nothing wrong with them, right? That's sort of the way they perceive themselves.
And they're also oftentimes, just quite exploitative. They will use other people. They will take everything from someone else without any consideration for the other person's feelings. They do have feelings, again, but primarily self-pity. They will strongly feel feelings of sadness for being mistreated, being treated unfairly, and not being given the special pass that they really believe they are due. They feel like they're being attacked by people, and so this kind of, angry feeling, and they will feel anger. Sometimes they can feel depressed in a way when the world that they're living in is not in alignment with how they think it should be in terms of their success, and people loving them and admiring them and doors sort of magically opening and things being easy. If they're getting feedback from the world that they're not actually that fabulous, it can sort of send them into a spiral. So anyway, there's that.
Loving a Narcissist
I could go on, but it's, it's too depressing. It's hard. It's a hard personality. The time to figure out whether or not you are in a relationship with someone who is a narcissist needs to happen before you get married to them, ideally. When you're dating, or when you're first getting to know someone you're kind of talking to a new friend, or if you are applying for a position in an organization to see if you can get a read on the personalities that you're going to be working for or with because I tell you what, if you have a narcissist for a boss, I should say, it is very, very difficult. They will work people to death. It's all about making them look good. They will have highly unrealistic expectations of employees, and it can be a very toxic work environment. So, there's that aspect of this too. But it's easier, I think, sometimes to switch jobs than it is to extract yourself from a relationship with a narcissist. So ideally, you're going to be figuring out if you are in the presence of the narcissist or not soon in the relationship, and here are some ways to do this.
First of all, your self-awareness. I know I talk about this all the time, but it's true. If you have a history of being attracted to people who razzle-dazzle you, who are successful and handsome, and beautiful, and charming, and accomplished, and wealthy, and tall, and all these things, and look great on social media, and say all the right things, and if through your own personal growth work, you have determined that person has zero empathy for me that kind of putting the pieces together that you have a tendency to be attracted to narcissist or get into relationships with narcissist, that is important information for you to have from the get-go, right?
Also, I just want to say, it is very easy to be attracted to narcissists because they look so damn good. They might show up as being successful and having really interesting friends, and they either—honestly or not—come into his resources, financial resources. They are also often, as a rule, superficially charming. They are fun to talk to. They're witty. They're interesting. They make you laugh. It's not about you, or they're not making you laugh, they want people to laugh appropriately at their own witticisms, that's what's going on here. They'll sort of spin a great tale, “And let me tell you about the time I was in Montenegro and got thrown out of a bar and then this happened,” and everybody's sort of like “Wow.” But that's how they show up a lot of times. There's this performance kind of thing, and it is because they want everybody to know that they're really that special and important and they're doing all these interesting things, and that's why you should not just admire them but basically want to be them.They sort of expect that other people would feel jealous of them and so anyway, but..
This is the person that you meet at the party and if they have decided that they want you to like them, you will. Particularly if you're dating or just getting to know people, you know I mean interactions with narcissistic people, you will feel that like chemistry the butterflies like “Oh, he picked me up for the first date in a Ferrari. It was amazing,” like these things. That's why you've heard me harp on this a zillion times but that is why feelings of chemistry and butterflies are not reliable sources of information about who will make a good partner for you because you are much more likely to feel the feels with a narcissist than you are, the kind of quiet guy who's like nice and appropriate and sort of humble, I mean, that drives a Chevy. You don't feel the same things. The kind of calm quiet guy, he would be a wonderful partner, would have empathy and care about you and able to listen and be a partner and on so many different levels. Be a good parent. When you get to know him, he is actually fun to talk to and probably you would have a great time if you guys went to Montenegro together. But they don't have that leading razzle-dazzle edge so it can be easy to miss that. Or if you expect to feel that, maybe you wouldn't give more quiet people a chance.
Also, something to know about narcissists, and this is not in the DSM, but this is just sort of, what I've found over the years, and I think is kind of like the common knowledge piece of this is that there's this love bombing experience is what it's called. So in an early stage relationship with somebody who has narcissistic tendencies, they are sweeping you off your feet because they are the hero of their own movie and have this idealized romcom notion of themselves. They will be fun and charming, and like throwing pebbles at your window at 1 o'clock in the morning and like, “Get into the Ferrari we're going to Montenegro” like that kind of thing. You're like, “Wow,” I mean just all this stuff, and they're telling you how much they love you and how amazing they are—or you are. All of these things because it's like sort of hooking you in because they're really wanting to know that they make you feel all these amazing things. You are swept off your feet because they are so irresistible and you are just—would do anything for them because they do have that impact on people. Even though it feels like it's about you, it is not about you. It is about them attempting to make you feel certain things that make them feel good about themselves.
Now, you will also tip their hand many times because they will talk extensively about themselves and their own life and their own interests and their own things, kind of just going to get back to that basic expectation that, “Of course, everybody is so interested in everything that I have to say right now because I am so smart and interesting.” So they will just go on and on and not not ask you how you're feeling. They don't care. In their stories, you will hear a lot about how they are powerful and important and all these people that just weren't quite good enough for them. In their appearance, they spend, sometimes, a lot of money they don't have on the acquisition of things that sort of prop this up.
Or interestingly, and I think over the last decade, probably, there's a certain subset of narcissists who has a shooed all things commercial. They're living in this little cabin by themselves that they have lovingly built with their own two hands out of reclaimed barn wood. They are felting things from the alpaca that they raised by hand, but it's not, “It's not just any alpaca. This is a Peruvian silver alpaca. Did you know that there are only three of them in the world, and I rescued one of them from,” and it's that kind of thing. But it doesn't have to be about brands and diamonds and stuff. It can be somebody who's very pleased with their organic farm. I mean, they can take all kinds of forms and formats and not denigrate it. A lot of very nice appropriate people doing organic farming, who are into alpacas. I don't even know how we got here. Okay, I'm getting back on track.
But it's like, when you talk to them, they're sort of the hero of their own movie. They can also often feign empathy really well. They are quite manipulative and they do know what to say, so that when you start crying, they will hand you a thing, “Oh, my gosh, that must have been so hard.” They'll say the right thing sometimes, but it is not attached to a real emotion. They know that they should say that. So they're saying that because they want to be perceived as a nice person. So there's this calculation thing.
But when you talk to them, in addition to their sort of being the star of everything, they're the victim. If they talk about their lives and their experiences, sooner or later, you're going to hear about how people were mean to them.They were fired by this boss who was terrible and didn't appreciate their talent. Often, they will feel very angry at other people, and it will always be justified. They may also have stories of revenge, “And let me tell you what I did to Jerry in accounting when he bought me tuna salad instead of chicken salad. Hahaha.” They'll tell you stories where they're sort of showing you that they are capable of sometimes even ruthless behavior. So just ask questions and listen.
Testing a Narcissist
I will also tell you if you are getting to know someone, I think it is a fabulous idea to do a little bit of testing and like a real test. So, with a narcissistic person, the test is to make them uncomfortable and see what happens. So when they say, “Yes, I got up at 4:45 this morning to go paragliding. As I was soaring through the sky, I saw a peregrine falcon and we soared in tandem, and we had this mystical moment.” And you're like, “Okay. Well, so anyway, when I was at work today. Let me tell you about Jerry from accounting.” So if you do that kind of thing, and just sort of like don't notice or pay attention or something to what a narcissist is trying to tell you in that moment. They will get mad at you for not being like, “But what about the peregrine falcon? I'm pretty sure it's my totem animal.” They really want to have that amazement from you.
So withholding compliments or praise when they're trying to be the center of attention in a subtle way, taking the attention away. “Oh, that's so funny. But let me tell you about this time that I was in a hot air balloon, and then, like, whatever” and just see what they do because a real narcissist will be very upset with that.
Also, if you ask them to do something that they don't want to do, particularly if it's something that is beneath them, “Is there any way you could just stop by the store and get this for me or run this errand, or pick up my dry cleaning, get me coffee?” Whatever it is. A.) unless they're in this place of like, “Yes, I'm your hero, and I sure will get you a latte and I'm going to come back with all this other stuff too and you're gonna fall out of your chair,” like if they're not in that space. They're like, “What? Am I your coffee boy?” Like that kind of thing. If they get angry with being asked to do things that feel demeaning or beneath them, that can be an indication. Just kind of like paying attention to what happens when the person you're with is inconvenienced or annoyed, or they don't get to go in first, or they have to sit in the bad seats, or whatever. Or if you are not being appropriately gratifying.
A card-carrying narcissist will get angry and will also often try to punish people in small ways and large for not being gratifying or not treating them the way that they deserve to be treated. It's not coming from a place of anxiety, it's actual rage for you, for “How dare you?” Right? So, if you are just getting to know someone, these are wonderful strategies so that you can do some reality testing and just begin to wrap your head around “Who is this person? Could I be dating a narcissist right now?” Or “Is this person that I'm new friends with actually a narcissist because if so, I'm gonna do something else,” and decide to do something different.
But just be aware that because these people can be so charming and so amazing at the beginning, you can get into the pool with someone like this without realizing what's happened. It's only a little bit further down the line that you really get to know who people are. It takes a long time to really get to know people. That's why it is a terrible idea to marry anyone that you're just getting to know or to make all kinds of assumptions about people based on your hopes for a relationship. It takes time to get to know people, and that is the purpose of dating, is to get to know. Who is this person? What can I expect from them? How do I feel when I'm with them? Do they make me feel terrible about myself? Or like “I'm doing something wrong because I'm not laughing at their jokes and getting them all this stuff.” That's important information. So we're going to talk a little bit more about this.
Married To a Narcissist
But if you are married to a narcissist and somehow didn't understand that, that's what was happening until you got all the way in the pool. Or if you are partnered with a narcissist if you have children with a narcissist. What you can do now that you're in this situation is figure out “What type of narcissist am I with and what options do I have?” If it is a wounded narcissist, where there is some opportunity for growth and healing, that may be your first option. But if you determine that you are with an actual malignant narcissist, you're going to have to make some important decisions. I'm not going to go so far as to say that an actual real deal narcissist is totally irredeemable. I don't know. They could make positive change. But, I, personally, have never experienced significant movement when I have attempted to work with that—that's actually not true. I can think of one case, but it was like eight years of therapy, and I don't know how much actually changed.
So what I'm trying to say, I'm not saying that it can't be done. But as you are figuring out your options for what to do with your life, the idea that we can get this person to change and heal, and if they talk to someone, they could have empathy, and they could treat me with love and respect. That can't be one of the factors that you take into consideration. It's highly—again I don't want to be pessimistic. But in my opinion, it is unlikely that significant change will happen. If it does, it's like a ten year plan. I don't know if you have that much time. If you're 25 and would like to not do this for the rest of your life, it might be time to do something else.
But anyway. So what this will look like for you is, in order to figure out what this is, I would highly recommend that you connect on your own, with a licensed mental health professional, to really talk about what is happening in your life, in your relationship because every situation is unique. My sort of blanket information is not going to apply to everything that you are experiencing. What you really need is to sit down with somebody to say, “Here's what's happening. What do you think my options are here?” To get some professional support in crafting a plan for yourself.
This is also very important. I don't mean to scare anybody, but malignant narcissists can be quite dangerous, particularly if you are leaving a narcissist, particularly when there has been violence or abuse, which is not uncommon in these relationships. Also, if there are children involved, you need to be very careful because just because you leave a narcissistic spouse and what? Leave your three-year-old with that person who may be taking out a lot of rage that they have towards you on the child. So this is a very, very delicate situation, and get professional actual support to figure out what to do. Whether or not you stay, whether or not you go, it's okay. But don't just listen to this podcast or read some blog articles and think you have it all figured out because there's a lot here. So that's my official disclaimer. I don't know if that's helpful or not, but that's the truth like people will leave a question in the comment section of a blog and be like, “I'm married to somebody who's a narcissist, what do I do?” So that that is the answer is get professional help.
Narcissistic Abuse Cycle
This sort of goes into the secondary piece of this. I hope this is okay for me to say, I'm all honest with you. You cannot have a healthy relationship with an unhealthy person. The corollary of this is that you can't be in a stable relationship with a narcissist or be married to a narcissist without participating in a narcissistic cycle to some degree. If you are in a stable relationship with a narcissist. It means that you are probably being injured in the process. You are not getting your needs and rights and feelings met. You are probably working very hard to be what they need you to be so that they don't punish you either emotionally or literally. This isn't a healthy place for you.
If you—any of us—set appropriate, healthy boundaries with a narcissist or are just trying to have a human balanced relationship that also includes what you need. If you're trying to approach this in a healthy way, a card-carrying narcissist will get very, very angry with you for doing that. They will punish you until you go back to being gratifying for them. You can expect that.
This is really hard if you grew up with a narcissistic parent or if you were in a relationship previously, in a toxic relationship with a narcissist where you got used to setting aside your needs and being all about somebody else, it's very likely that you have developed a way of relating to people that is all about them. Everything you do is about what's going to make them happy, or keep them from being unhappy, or “hem them them them them. There may be some old patterns in you that support this kind of dynamic.
So the work ahead of you is not related to the narcissist necessarily. It is related to you developing a healthier, more balanced way of relating because if you have a natural inclination to take this sort of “how may I serve?” or “let me laugh at your jokes and make you feel good about yourself” in your relationships, you will find yourself trying subconsciously to be perfectly gratifying and to not talk about how you really feel or what you really want, and you will try to earn love and affection by being perfect. Any displeasure your partner has, it will be your fault and it will be your problem to fix and just assign that you need to try harder when they get mad at you for whatever it was. You're like, “Oh my god, yes. Okay, I can do better.” It's like, a lot of energy into trying to fix yourself and it sort of… But you have to understand that this whole engine runs on this basic idea of “If I could be perfect, then I will be loved. I will have empathy. I will be seen. They will care about me. If I could only earn this.” What I am saying to you is that that is not true.
If you are married to a narcissist or in a relationship with a narcissist, it doesn't matter how good you are or how much you do, they will not love you because they cannot love you. This is hard, I think to take on board because it goes back to what I was saying is that you have to figure out your options. Because if we take away, you figuring out how to be good enough to be loved, if that's no longer a path, what do you want to do with this? Right? Anyway, that is not—that is for you and your therapist to figure out, not for me.
But I will also say I have seen something else related to this. If you have this way of relating that is, sort of, you are kind of the—I mean, really there was a psychoanalyst in the room with me, they call it a narcissistic supply source, because you are being the affirming gratifying person. If you have a pattern of doing that in relationships, you are likely going to subconsciously do that in relationships with anyone whether or not they are a narcissist. So you will feel like you are in a relationship with a narcissist who just takes and takes and takes, and you can't tell them how you feel because this is your stuff, right?
So, even with the super nice guy who drives up in a Chevy and just wants to love you, you may still find yourself attempting to interact with them in this way. Of course, you will also be extremely attractive to actual narcissists. You will need to be very cautious about who you seek to serve, if that is your way of loving and being loved is through that. That kind of self-sacrifice role. So anyway, a whole another podcast topic right there.
But so to wrap things up, did I tell you this could easily be a nine-hour podcast? I was not kidding. But these is the takeaways. I mean if you're married to a narcissist, if you're in a relationship with a narcissist, this isn't gonna be a healthy relationship, and you don't need me to tell you those you're living it. But do hear that this isn't something that you can fix by yourself, you can't change it, you can't be good enough to win this person's love and have them show you love, and respect, and care about you the way you want them to. What you can do is get into therapy, couples counseling could be helpful. But, it's almost to have a witness to see what's actually happening because a couple's counselor won't be able to move this either.
But what is vital is that you get into therapy for yourself to figure out what you need to be doing on your side of the relational equation in order to be healthy. That will for better or for worse start to do is that as you get healthy, you will try to have a healthier relationship with this person. Your being healthy will create feelings of extreme discomfort in a narcissist, and they will be upset with you. So you can expect that. That is also why it's critical for you to be in therapy; is to be getting some support around this when it happens. Potentially at that point, you could take it into couples counseling. Again appropriate to do that with a wounded narcissist because they can learn and grow in a safe place, and that's a thing.
But because narcissists are certain that they're being mistreated by you, that is what they're going to be telling a couple's counselor. Just like a malignant narcissist will lie and deceive others, they will also try to lie and deceive a therapist. Experienced marriage counselors, I've seen this before, wi;; be on the alert for that. What they'll do is try to get you guys apart to get a clearer understanding of what is going on. But yes, and it can be hard to tell because, again, people who can seem quite narcissist can get into a safe growth space. Instead of when you crack into it, they're not talking about how fair, and unfair, and cruel everyone is. They're talking about how sad and anxious they feel and how they want to feel loved and more vulnerable things. So anyway.
But for all of the people who have asked questions, I hope the ultimate punch line is that there are no strategies for what to do if you're married to a narcissist. There are no easy answers. A shockingly unqualified life coach might like to tell you that they have all the answers and take their five-step program. It is not true. This is a long term process either for you to heal and become healthy after being in a relationship with a narcissist. Not just what happened in the relationship.
But healthy people will blow out of a relationship with narcissists because narcissists want them to do things that healthy people don't want to do. So there may also be things to talk about like, “How did you get into this situation? What happened earlier in your life that made this type of relationship dynamic feel familiar to you?” So there's a lot of healing. A lot of self-awareness, and this takes a long time. There are no strategies to just achieve this miraculously, there is a lot of work and deep work.
If you are currently in love with a narcissist, your happiness needs to not be dependent on anything that other person is doing or not doing because that is not under your control. I would refer you to another podcast that I did about how to stop being codependent in relationships and really just, like, figure out how to start focusing on yourself again. If you are in a relationship with someone who is either a real narcissist or maybe narcissist or has narcissistic tendencies, growth and healing is possible on their side, particularly for the wounded narcissist, but it is also a process that is going to take time. Often, years. I don't want to depress anybody but, I do want to set your expectations that it is a slow road. There is no specific advice that is going to change this and just to plan accordingly and to get involved in really effective therapy if you'd like to do that work.
ADHD or Narcissist
Oh, there was a question that came in that I really wanted to answer — “ADHD or narcissism?” People with ADHD will often show up as thoughtless, they will be forgetful, they will forget about things that are important to you, they will forget to ask you how you feel, they will seem very self-absorbed. Someone who has just ADHD and no other narcissistic tendencies will often feel very, very bad about that and really want to be the person that you would like them to be, and this has been a long standing pattern.
They've gotten in trouble at schools starting when they were six, their parents were mad at them, and they sort of internalized this narrative around not being good enough because of having untreated ADHD symptoms. While they can be inconsiderate, and thoughtless and self-absorbed, and in their own little world, it is coming from such a different place. Even in couples counseling, get them in there. This is what's going on. A mental health professional will be able to fairly easily assess the difference, and then it can make it better because ADHD is another thing that's quite treatable.
Okay, I hope this answered some of your questions. It's a discussion that has been long overdue, and this is just a drop in the bucket. There's so much more here. If you have follow up questions that you would like me to address on another podcast or maybe take a stab at on the blog. You can leave them for me in the comments section of this post. growingself.com/married-to-a-narcissist with hyphens between the words. Leave your follow up question, and I'll do my best to answer it. But there is no substitute for really getting into therapy with a trained professional to get all of your questions answered. All right, my friend. Talk to you later.
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