The Problem of Being Married to a Narcissist
Do you think you’re married to a narcissist? Don’t beat yourself up for it. They can be incredibly charming.
Narcissus is a figure in Greek mythology who was incredibly beautiful. And he had the bad habit of breaking the hearts of ardent young maidens.
One of these scorned maidens was so annoyed being rebuffed by Narcissus that she prayed fervently to the Gods for revenge.
Someone had to put this cad Narcissus in his place!
The Gods decided that Narcissus should get a strong taste of his own medicine. One day Narcissus leaned over to drink from a clear lake and glimpsed his reflection.
From that day forward he was in desperate love with his own face. he could never possess the reflection he was pining for, but he could not regulate his desire for it either.
Narcissus would forever stare at his own reflection which would disperse into perfect ripples when he ardently reached for the object of his desire.
Think You Might Be Married to a Narcissist? Look For These Traits…
At the extreme, narcissism becomes Narcissistic Personality Disorder.
This is seen as a pervasive craving for admiration, a tendency to be grandiose, and an empathy deficit that renders intimate relationships problematic at best. If you suspect that you might be married to a narcissist, here is a list of traits that indicate a Narcissistic Personality Disorder. Any five of these will tend to confirm a diagnosis:
- A grandiose sense of self-importance.
- Mental preoccupation with fantasies and vain imaginings of glory, power, perfection, triumph, perfect beauty, unsurpassed intellect, etc.
- A belief that your specialness precludes unnecessary mingling with those deemed to be inferior or ordinary.
- Ongoing demand for respect, love, admiration, etc.
- A profound sense of entitlement. It’s their world… but you get to live in it.
- Ruthlessly exploitative stance in personal relationships.
- Believing that the feelings and needs of others are just too inconvenient to deal with. Distinct empathy deficit.
- Chronic thoughts of envy toward others, and /or believing that others are envious of them.
- Attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors that assume a chronic one-up “I am better than you” position.
…in Intimate Relationships
The idea that you’re married to a narcissist can be alarming and distressing. Even more upsetting is the idea that narcissism is a fixed trait, and that your partner is impervious to treatment.
However, new research is shedding light on narcissism and is gradually pointing the way to promising new ideas about treatment for its milder forms. Not all self-interest is selfish.
Because of this abundance of narcissism-related research, we are learning new things about these traits with every new study.
Consequently, there are a number of cultural beliefs about narcissism that new research is up-ending.
A recent research project attempted to perfect a valid diagnostic questionnaire to reliably indicate the presence of narcissism.
“People who are willing to admit they are more narcissistic than others probably actually are more narcissistic,” said Brad Bushman, co-author of the study. He is affiliated with Ohio State University where he is a professor of communication and psychology. Ironically, one of the best ways to determine whether or not you’re married to a narcissist is to ask them.
This single item test simply asks the client to agree on a numeric scale with the statement “I am a narcissist.” It turns out that therapists have been overthinking this issue all along. Narcissists believe that their superiority is readily apparent. Therefore they have no shame in self-identifying as narcissists.
“People who are narcissists are almost proud of the fact. You can ask them directly because they don’t see narcissism as a negative quality – they believe they are superior to other people and are fine with saying that publicly” says Burman.
…in Couples Therapy
As a culture, many of us struggle with narcissistic traits from time to time. Cultural beliefs about narcissism sometimes have more to do with what we understand as “extreme narcissists.” This small group comprises only 1-3% of the population in the US.
Many potential clients who think they are married to a narcissist reach out for help. The narcissist never does. For example, a potential client called me recently asking about her husband who was diagnosed as having a “narcissistic personality disorder.” He would drop her off right after couples counseling to go out barhopping and chasing women.
Despite the fact that he had moved out of the house, and had a well-paying job, he would periodically call her to demand money from her household account so that his carousing would not be interrupted however briefly by a temporary lack of funds.
I felt bad for this woman, as I agreed with their couples therapist, this relationship had very little upside. Extreme narcissism is profoundly difficult to treat.
Fortunately, most narcissists are not of this extreme variety, and new research is helping us to understand the much larger group of milder narcissists in new ways.
If you suspect that you’re married to a narcissist ask yourself…“how well does my partner respond to criticism? Your answer will give you a sense of where they lie on the narcissism continuum.
Narcissism as a Mental Habit
What we have learned that narcissism is a mental habit. It is a way of being in the world that emphasizes self-protection above relational concerns.
If you’re married to a Narcissist, you will see that they subordinate emotions like shame, anxiety, fear or loneliness because they fear being judged for having them.
The more they fear these emotions, the more effort they take to armor themselves from judgment with an abiding sense of their own specialness.
Milder forms of narcissism can at times also be somewhat challenging to treat.
But if these milder narcissists can learn to accept and embrace the emotions that they formerly saw as dis-empowering, they can eventually find a new, healthier center of gravity in their intimate relationships.
While it may be useful to think of degrees of narcissism as being on a continuum, there is a profound difference between pathological narcissism and its milder forms.
I don’t mean to suggest that a mild narcissist could gradually slip into the pathological shallow end of the pool, any more than I would posit that extreme narcissists could migrate effortlessly into deeper empathy and connection.
New research has taught us that mild narcissism can have a healthy and resilient protective quality. One of the reasons so many spouses find that they are married to a narcissist is because they have very attractive traits.
Are You Married to a Narcissist? How Mentally Tough is Your Partner?
Group traumas such as 9/11 and the Bosnian war have allowed researchers to more carefully unpack the nature of resilience.
And what did they find?
Survivors who believed they were above average… usually were. They had less depression, were able to be more optimistic and were less anxious about the future. It might not have been true. But it sure was useful in trauma recovery.
This research also confirmed the opposite hypothesis. Survivors who did not feel special or above average had more depression and anxiety.
Researchers report that paradoxically, these survivors often had a much more accurate interpretation of reality.
But paradoxically, this “accurate perception” tended to erode their happiness and sense of agency, something the researchers named the “sadder but wiser effect.”
We now know that narcissism is not by definition, always pathological.
While there is a spectrum of maladaptive self-involvement, a degree of healthy narcissism can be both attractive and useful.
Narcissists bounce back from life’s ups and downs because they are brimming with self-confidence.
Narcissism is also part of the human experience. We now know that it is not unusual for any of us to feel more narcissistic at certain phases of our development. For example, studies show that pregnant women and teenagers have a strong impulse toward self-preoccupation. We also feel more caught up with ourselves when we are ill, for example.
The Shallow End of the Pool for Spouses Married to a Narcissist
If a partner is closer to the self-involvement end of the spectrum than the pathological Narcissistic Personality Disorder, empathy can be taught in couples therapy. Just because you’re married to a narcissist doesn’t mean you’re going to be eternally miserable.
We all have moments of selfish preoccupation, and some of us, (often due to “family of origin” issues) frustrate our partners with our tendency to be overly self-absorbed, hyper-focused on our own issues, or habitually neglecting to think of our impact on others.
This is the treatable, approachable end of narcissism. Empathy deficits can be discussed, and bad habits can be broken.
But the other end of the spectrum, Narcissistic Personality Disorder is particularly difficult to treat and requires some deep soul searching on the part of the affected partner to weigh the costs and benefits of remaining in such a profoundly one-sided relationship.
However, Hopeful Spouse counseling with a trained science-based couples therapist can help you unpack negative encounters if you’re married to a narcissist. It can also help you to keep your sanity and establish healthy boundaries…whether you decide to stay married or not.
Promising Research says What to Do if You’re Married to a Narcissist
Hopeful Spouse Counseling can help you weaken your narcissistic partners’ defenses. Research is helping us learn how to treat the narcissist on the lower end of the spectrum.
Videos about narcissism are all the rage on Youtube.
But there is one fundamental fallacy that they all seem to share. Well, I guess it’s not a fallacy, it’s more of a problematic philosophical stance.
Let’s delve into some recent studies, and debunk the “common sense” belief that “once a narcissist, always a narcissist.”
It’s not common knowledge, and I expect massive pushback from saying this, so I will be as prudent as possible.
Recent research indicates that if narcissists (on the lower end of the spectrum) are approached rather than reproached, they can improve their emotional reciprocity. Some narcissists, when they feel secure in love, can be more lovingly committed to the relationship.
The Finkel Studies
Regular readers of this blog already know that I am a huge fan of researcher Eli Finkel from Northwestern University.
Couples therapists have been struggling with a familiar behavior pattern among narcissists; a degraded sense of love and commitment, and a tendency to pursue partners who validate their self-image (i.e.”trophy” wives), and an increased inclination toward infidelity.
Finkel’s research team asked a question that challenged the powerful assumption that narcissists were incapable of achieving a deeper sense of marital love and commitment. Finkel asked…“can we train the narcissist to respond with greater love and commitment than they ordinarily do?”
How the First Study Was Conducted
Finkel and his team had a population of 39 women and 37 men. They were all young undergraduates and had been in their current relationship for about a year and a half.
It’s fascinating to notice that the intervention used in the first study was not “talk therapy.” It was merely the use of visual cues from subliminal images that flashed so quickly that they were not noticed by their conscious minds.
The study subjects were randomly split into 2 groups. They all sat in front of computers.
The first group was flashed neutral images of a car, tree, and soccer player. The other group saw emotionally engaged images of an old man helping an old woman who was in a wheelchair, a young mother holding an infant, and a teacher helping a child with homework.
Both groups were now specifically shown the words loyal, loving, devoted, committed, and faithful on the computer screen. They were asked to self-report whether they identified with the feeling-word by pressing a button “me” or “not me.”
The first group of narcissistic subjects that were shown the neutral pictures behaved predictably…they pressed “not me” more often than not.
However, the narcissists from the second group not only pressed “me” on all 5 traits, but they also did so at nearly the rate of the non-narcissist control group. A staggering difference between the two groups. The researchers concluded that, for some reason, seeing nurturing, loving images had caused the narcissist to report feeling more emotionally connected to others.
This was simply too weird to not test further… so they did.
The Second Study…Couples Married at least 6 years
The second study by Dr. Finkels’ team involved nearly 80 couples married for an average of 6 years. After scoring the study subjects’ degree of narcissism, they asked each spouse to grade their partner on how nurturing, warm, generous, charitable, and friendly their partners were with them. All spouses also rated themselves on how committed they were to the relationship.
Some of the narcissists rated their partner high in emotionally connected traits, and some rated the partners on the low side.
Four months later, researchers followed up with all 78 couples. It was no surprise that the narcissists who were underwhelmed by their partners’ loving-kindness, continued to report a low level of commitment.
But the narcissists who reported that they did notice their partners’ loving feelings were not only measurably more committed than they were 4 months earlier, they also endorsed the sentiment “I want my marriage to last forever.”
Spouses Married to Narcissists ..Listen up! There was yet a Third Study!
Finkel’s findings were contradicting everything we thought we knew about the struggles of spouses married to low-end narcissists. They decided to mix it up a little in the third study.
The study subjects were 115 couples who had either just moved in together or had recently become engaged to be married.
This is intriguing because Pepper Schwartz did research that indicated that cohabitators were less committed than engaged or married couples.
As with the two earlier studies, the level of narcissism for all the spouses was clinically measured.
Six months later, the research team asked each couple to have a 6-minute conversation about an “important life goal.”
Hot topics like saving money, budgeting more effectively, work issues, etc. In other words, all 115 couples were asked to have an important conversation. We teach the art of having these conversations in our Couples Therapy Intensives.
But these couples were simply directed to have a difficult, goal-oriented conversation on their own for 6 minutes.
The Results of the Third Study
After the conversation, all spouses rated their partners.
- How well did they make them “feel loved and cared about?”
- How capable and effective were they in conversation?
- How much did they agree with the statement “during this conversation, I felt very committed to our relationship.”
Narcissists who reported feeling “loved and cared about” by their partner reported feeling more committed than narcissists who favorably reported on their partner’s capable and effective communication.
Are you confused yet? This is interesting, contrarian research.
At this point, Dr. Finkel and his team have shown that not only can some narcissists report feeling more committed, but the deeper commitment flowed from the perceived kindness of their partner, not submission to their selfish will.
Wait a Minute!.. Spouses Married to Narcissists Will Point Out…These are just Words!
Maybe we can trust what humble, self-possessed people say about their feelings…but who can trust what a narcissist says?
Researchers agreed. They wanted to know…“Do narcissists really experience a shift in emotional connection, or are they just play-acting?”
Psychologists Erica Hepper from the University of Surrey, and Claire Hunt, and Constantine Sedikides from the University of Southampton conducted a series of experimental interventions that also used video.
But this time, the narcissists were watching videos of domestic abuse survivors telling their life stories.
Here’s where it gets interesting… the narcissists were told to intentionally focus on what they imagine the abuse victim was feeling. The instructions were as specific as they were directive; “Imagine what she is going through; try to take her perspective in the video.”
This time the researchers weren’t taking their word for anything. Each narcissist research subject had their vitals monitored in real-time.
The narcissists who were instructed to imagine her point of view, not only spoke words of empathy, their heart rates rose..a telltale sign of empathy.
But here’s what intrigued me.
The control group of narcissists who were asked to watch as they would normally, reported no spike in empathy either verbally or physiologically.
Here’s what the narcissism experts on Youtube are not telling you.
By 2021, there have now been dozens of studies on the question of whether or not some narcissists can change. Every research study on whether or not narcissists can change underscores the same conclusion:
Non-pathological narcissists (lower on the spectrum) can be encouraged to become more empathetic and tone down their narcissistic reactions.
Limitations of the Studies
- First, I have a hard time with studies that use undergrads as study subjects, as they did in the first studies. Grad students are the lab rats of social science research.
- It’s interesting that although the researchers believe that the positive effect can last longer, they only conducted a 6-month follow-up. In other words, this research is suggestive. More, long-term research is needed.
- Thirdly, I’m curious about whether the researchers might have been dealing with a population that might have inadvertently included the neurodiverse. The intervention of imagination and focus on the battered woman’s perspective sounded like a cognitive empathy intervention.
This is where I am a bit skeptical. When working with a neurodiverse couple, the interplay between cognitive empathy and emotional empathy is ground zero.
When a neurodiverse partner is able to direct their cognitive empathy toward their partner in a “good enough” way, we know they are using an array of specific cognitive skills.
Several of these abilities seem to be elements used in this research. These include the use of visual cues, executive functioning, and an awareness of how language is shaped, influenced, and informed, by our social and cultural contexts (Decety, Norman, Berntson, & Cacioppo, 2012).
I guess I’m saying that we may need a clearer clinical distinction between the neurodiverse and the mildly narcissistic.
And I’m not persuaded that any of these studies have made that distinction. I believe it’s quite possible that a neurodiverse subject could answer a set of questions as pass quite handily as a narcissist.
But putting that debate aside, what can we reasonably conclude from these studies?
The Empathy Prompt Intervention
Dr. Craig Malkin in his important book Rethinking Narcissism presents a couples therapy intervention he calls the “Empathy Prompt.” At first blush, this looks like a softened startup, followed by a Gottman-style complaint.
Or as Dr. Malkin describes it; The Empathy Prompt Intervention has two distinct elements; describing the relationship as valued and important, and revealing your feelings on the matter at hand.
Phrases that convey importance might include; “I care about you a great deal”, or “This relationship is important to me”…” Your thoughts and opinions matter to me”, “You’re my best friend”,…etc.
Dr. Malkin is a fan of evidence-based couples therapy, and reference both the Gottman Method and EFT in his chapter on resources.
Here’s an example of an empathy prompt:
Chuck, what you think really matters to me, so when you criticize how I dress, it devastates me.”
Dr. Malkin points out, as Gottman would, the softness of your vocal tone is essential. The words and the tone must be congruent. He also points out, as an Emotionally-Focused couples therapist would, that softer, more vulnerable feelings often wait to be discovered under an exterior hard shell of anger.
But the rub is…you have to feel safe enough to use empathy prompts. And the narcissist needs to respond in such a way that indicates that they are accepting your influence and responding positively to the empathy prompts.
We may be able to help you with that.
Final Thoughts on the Challenge of Being Married to a Narcissist
Dr. Malkin points out that healthy living involves balancing what we want, with the needs of the people we care about. Malkin believes in what he calls a “healthy narcissism” that is equal parts passion and compassion.
The word “intimate” is related to the ancient Latin word intimus, which means the “innermost.”
The Late Latin form was “intimatus”, (past participle of intimate) which means to put in, (invest?) announce, (disclose?) from the Latin intimus ) innermost.
In other words, to be intimate is to invest in disclosing our innermost thoughts and feelings.
But the struggle for narcissists is that they prefer to display unrealistically grandiose notions of themselves. They are not comfortable discussing their fears and failures.
According to Malkin, Covert Narcissists (also called Vulnerable Narcissists) are so averse to displaying any weakness that they can’t let people close enough and risk being seen. Being married to a perpetually defended narcissist is hard on the soul.
That’s why Malkin sees the narcissists’ reaction to the Empathy Prompt Intervention as a defining moment, (even if it doesn’t necessarily rise to the level of a differential diagnosis).
Some narcissists will rise to the occasion and soften… and some will not.
The aggrieved partner needs to feel comfortable in their decision to either stay, and enter couples therapy, or go. That’s why a State of the Union Assessment is our first step.
Piles of research are suggesting that if some narcissists can be prompted toward a more empathetic response they can, over time, ratchet ever downward in their narcissistic behavior….but we must also remember that some never will.
Decety, J.,Norman, G. J.,Berntson, G. G., & Cacioppo, J. T. (2012). A neurobehavioral evolutionary perspective on the mechanisms underlying empathy. Progress in Neurobiology, 98 (1), 38–48.
Finkel, E. J., W.K. Campbell, L.E. Buffardi, M. Kumashiro, and C. E. Rusbult. The metamorphosis of narcissus: Communal activation promotes relationship commitment among narcissists. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 2009, vol.35 (10), pp.1271-84.
Hepper, E. G., Hart, and Constantine C. M., and Sedikides, C. Moving Narcissus: Can Narcissists Be Empathic? Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin 2014 40: 9, 1079-1091 … University of Southampton, UK.
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