Romance Redux

Using science to understand and improve relationships.

7 Strategies for Dealing With the Narcissist in Your Life

Be honest with yourself while you see if change is possible.
Dr. Craig Malkin
This post is a response to 5 Early Warning Signs You're With a Narcissist by Craig Malkin, Ph.D.

Late last year, I wrote a piece in which I shared a perspective, based on growing research, that narcissism isn't simply a stubborn trait, but a style of coping. The seeds of that idea turned into a book—and here's a glimpse.

If you think your partner's a narcissist, you might want to try these 7 strategies:

1. Check For Abuse. Nothing I'll suggest below is likely to help if the person you love is physically or emotionally abusive. Not all narcissists, even those diagnosed with Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD), resort to abuse. But some do—and if you're on the receiving end, your first step should be to explore what makes it hard for you to leave. If you're facing abuse, it doesn't matter whether it's driven by your partner's narcissism, chronic pain, or drug addiction—the problem is the abuse, plain and simple. And the abuser is 100 percent responsible for his or her choice. Until that changes, you probably won't feel safe enough—nor should you—to take the kinds of risks I'm recommending below ...

Sergey Nivens/Shutterstock
2. Check for Denial. Most people recognize denial when they see it: The alcoholic who protests, "I just enjoy the taste of fine wine!"; the terminally ill patient who assures everyone, "It's just a cough"; and the narcissist who, despite having alienated all her friends and lost her job, proclaims, "I'm just fine!"—all are exhibiting denial. The more denial a narcissist displays, in fact, the less hopeful you should feel about change. In adolescents, it predicts some of the most ruthless, demanding forms of narcissism—adults who happily admit, "I find it easy to manipulate people." Make sure your partner can actually admit something's wrong, even if it's as simple as saying, "My life isn't where I hoped it would be." Contrary to what you might think, some narcissists do seek therapy. Which kinds? The "vulnerable" ones, riddled with shame and fear; they freely admit they have problems instead of burying them beneath near-delusional denial. And they're also more likely to stick with treatment once they start.

3. Beware the Manipulator. Across studies, narcissists who score high on measures of entitlement and exploitation (or, EE, as researchers call it) have the highest levels of aggression, a strong impulse to cheat, and even, when angered, a penchant for stealing or sabotaging property at work. In fact, EE singlehandedly accounts for most of the worst behaviors a narcissist can display. Manipulative narcissists are also more likely to score higher on measures of psychopathy and Machiavellianism. The former is a cold, callous personality linked to criminal behaviors, while the latter, as you can guess from the name, describes a cutthroat, "do whatever it takes" personality. Along with narcissism, these two traits comprise personality's dark triad. Not all narcissists are cold and manipulative. But those who are pose the greatest threat because they're so practiced at play-acting and deceit you'll have a hard time separating fact from fiction.

4. Check Their Willingness to Change. This might seem obvious, but it's crucial enough that it bears mentioning. The easiest way to test a partner's capacity to change is to seek help from a couples therapist—any therapist for that matter. Of course, even people who aren't narcissists can be leery of therapy, so a partner's willingness to take part shouldn't necessarily be considered a litmus test. But if your partner's willing to work with you, your odds at improving the relationship have probably jumped by an order of magnitude.

5. Check Your Anger. "You've always been the paranoid, jealous type," sneers your partner after you openly wonder about the amount of time he's spending with an attractive coworker. Our natural tendency, when faced with such shocking indifference to our fear of losing love, or needing more closeness and comfort, is to protect ourselves. For many people, this means donning battle armor and launching an attack: "You're the most selfish person I know! I don't know why I'm with you!" Yet, as understandable as such protective measures are, they cut us off from crucial information: Can our partners hear our sadness and fear and feel moved? If there's any way at all to reach through the detachment, it's by sharing our feelings at a more vulnerable level. Try this: "You mean so much to me; I hear you talking to her and I'm scared I'm not enough for you." Or, "Your opinion means the world to me; when I hear you talk to me that way I feel worthless in your eyes." Most partners, if they can feel anything at all, will melt when they hear comments like this. They don't just convey your pain with greater clarity; they remind your partner why the behavior hurts—because it comes from the one person who matters most.

In fact, across decades of studies, 90 percent of couples who learned to share the sadness and fear beneath their anger healed their broken bond and enjoyed closer, happier relationships. Likewise, in multiple recent studies, narcissists who focused on "communal behavior" (caring and closeness) actually scored lower over time on several measures of narcissism; those who saw their partners as communal (compared to those who didn't) even said they'd be less likely to cheat.

6. Check Your Silence. Say you come home from a hard day at work, and your boyfriend, grumbling about weekend plans being up in the air, starts lecturing you about how indecisive you are. "You sure take a long time to make decisions, don't you?" Condescending remarks like this don't always enrage us; when our self-esteem is already crumbling, they often shut us down completely. We crawl away crestfallen, or slip into hours of silence. But we have to find a voice again if we want things to get better. Research suggests that silent withdrawal is just another way of coping with feeling sad or fearful about our connection with people we love. Your best bet, as with anger, is to go beneath the impulse to shut down and share the upset: "I'm feeling so put down right now I'm afraid you've stopped caring about me altogether." Why is this so important? Though they appear to be universal ways of coping with fears about the people we love, anger and withdrawal also ramp up our partners' insecurities. The result? They fall back on their usual way of protecting themselves—like criticism or indifference—instead of hearing our pain. And if they're narcissists, that means they resort to their favorite MO, narcissism.

7. Be Honest with Yourself. If you've tried a more loving approach to sharing what hurts in your relationship, and the narcissist in your life still won't soften, you truly have done everything you can. This might be the only hope for change. Those of you who wrote in to say you already tried this and it didn't work have made a valiant effort; you may have exhausted your supply of empathy from working so hard. If so, my heart goes out to you. But staying in an unhappy relationship comes at a steep price, including to your self-esteem. Ask yourself, honestly: Are you staying because your partner's doing his best to change, or because it feels too hard to leave? Even if the people we love want to change, none of us should be expected to endure the same hurts over and over.

 

Narcissistic arrogance and hostility elicit our worst behaviors; they get beneath our skin, working away like a thousand needles. The natural response is to pull away or lash back; but if you do your best to share the pain openly, letting your loved ones see your softer feelings, you're giving them their best—and only—shot at hearing you. If they can't understand your pain then, perhaps they never will. As sad and difficult as it feels, you might need to take care of yourself by leaving. Because regardless of which habit steals their attention away from genuine love and intimacy, if our loved ones can't risk change, their problems are here to stay.

Sergey Nivens/Shutterstock
 

Need help? In the U.S., call 1-800-799-SAFE (7233) for the National Domestic Violence Hotline.

If you like my posts, let me know! Let's connect on Facebook and Twitter. And be sure to sign up for my newsletter, for more tips and advice, as well as information on my forthcoming book, about understanding and coping with narcissism in all its forms, in our friends, lovers, colleagues–and even ourselves. Harperwave and Harper UK, Spring 2015

This article previously appeared in the Huffington Post.

Craig Malkin, Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist who taught and trained at Harvard Medical School.

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