In Lockdown with a Narcissist? 5 Things Not to Do

Expert advice on how to deal at a difficult moment in time.

Posted May 21, 2020

Photograph by Edwin Hooper. Copyright free. Unsplash
Source: Photograph by Edwin Hooper. Copyright free. Unsplash

Not surprisingly, over the last two months, I’ve gotten messages and emails from readers who aren’t just dealing with life interrupted, as all of us are, but find themselves in situations they didn’t anticipate: There was the emancipated young adult who’d spent the last few years setting boundaries with her toxic mother and who ended up back in her childhood room when her father’s heart attack coincided with the shelter-in-place order. There was the wife who was about to file for divorce, ending what had been a difficult marriage for more than a decade, only to find herself stranded with her narcissistic husband. There was the fifty-year-old daughter who hadn’t spoken to her combative and self-involved mother in six years and who reached out at the start, and ended up bringing her back to her own house, creating havoc for herself, her husband, and her two kids. There was the thirty-something-year-old who was locked up with her boyfriend who was going out without a mask and meeting up with friends without social distancing despite her entreaties.

Even the rich and famous have been impacted as witness the story of actress and fashion designer Mary-Kate Olsen whose divorce from her husband remains in limbo but whose possessions remain in the Gramercy apartment she used to occupy; her motion for an emergency divorce while the New York City courts are closed except for emergencies was denied.

I happen to be weathering this particular storm on my own but I found myself wondering what I would have done if I were still with my ex. So, I turned to Craig Malkin, author of Rethinking Narcissism, for advice for dealing with those difficult, toxic, and high in narcissistic traits folks who are with us 24/7 in a shrunken world.

5 Things Not to Do

It may be the new normal but we’re all in agreement that it’s stressful under the best of circumstances. Most of us are dealing with all the losses we feel; we may miss the energy of the office, the simple pleasure of leaving the house, of seeing friends and acquaintances, a night out at the opera or a ball game. All of these losses become exacerbated when we are sharing our space with someone who doesn’t see us in the way we need to be seen.

1. Do not let yourself become isolated. Staying in touch with people who matter to you (and to whom you matter) is always important but even more important now because, as Malkin notes, “Being isolated or separated from supportive people raises anxiety and triggers depression in all of us, even within a happy family. But if you have a gaslighting partner who spends much of his or her time hurling insults at you or calling you dumb or crazy, you’ve lost a lifeline to sanity and self-esteem.” He recommends that we do what we can to stay in touch—whether that’s on the phone, messaging, email, Zoom, or anything else—to stay calm and connected.

2. Do not stay inside 24/7. Of course, you should follow the guidelines set forth by local authorities, wear a mask, and practice social distancing but you also need time outside and, even more important, alone. As Malkin notes, "In addition to making you feel isolated, sheltering in place 24 hours a day with a narcissist is going to drain your resources even under the best of circumstances. Give your nervous system a break with some air, sunlight, and movement, plus some much-needed privacy for self-care. Take a walk and also use the time to talk to either your therapist or a good friend without worrying about being overheard.”

3. Do not get caught up in game-playing or toxic interactions. Alas, not even a pandemic is going change how a narcissist behaves; yes, the old adage about the leopard not changing his spots is true. But in a confined space, when there’s nowhere to go, you may be tempted to try to answer and somehow win. Malkin advises instead that you take control by not playing: “You should be doing this anyway but using the lockdown as a time to practice is a fine idea. Do what you can to deflect instead of engaging—you can head off to the bathroom or you can simply say that you need to think about it or even walk away. Do whatever you need to give your nervous system a break. It doesn’t have to be smooth because the priority is self-preservation, not politeness. With any luck, after enough time, your partner or family member will lose interest.” Malkin’s point is that it’s no fun for a narcissist to find him or herself in an empty sandbox; you do what you need to to stay out of it.

4. Don’t mistake “good” or “better” behavior for change. Everyone’s needs change under this kind of stress, and Malkin notes, “Some narcissists may soften during lockdown because they need you more. Enjoy the improvement if you see it but, in the absence of active work (hard work in individual therapy with an expert on personality disorders), see it for what it is: temporary good behavior to placate you and keep you around.” He goes on to remind you to remain cautious: “If you want to rest your hopes on any improvement you’re seeing, bear in mind that true change emerges on the scale of years, not months, for truly entrenched problems. Feel free to be cautiously optimistic but look for at least one year of consistent caring and emotionally supportive behavior (and heartfelt, empathic apologies for mistakes!) before deciding to give things another shot."

Again, it may also just be another ploy to get you back in the sandbox, and have nothing to do with your needs and feelings at all.

5. Don’t try to fix things. Everyone feels powerless at the moment, since so much is beyond our control, and there’s a real temptation to try to regain some agency, especially if you’re in lockdown with someone who acts as if he or she holds all the cards. Malkin counsels us to hold our horses, saying that, “Eventually, we’ll all be free to leave, whether we’re college students or adult children, partners who’d like to be ex-partners, or just roommates who didn’t clear out in time. Be cordial, but as soon as trouble hits, step away and disengage; seek support and connection elsewhere. Save up all that feeling and bring it to someone who can hear it with empathy. It’ll calm your nervous system and prevent you from trying to apologize, understand, or muddle your way out of a nasty exchange—all coping strategies that block genuine self-care.”

Some of us—whether we are experiencing a pandemic or not—feel the need to step in and try to fix things and that, as Malkin points out, is actually not such a good thing: “The greatest danger for fixers is that they take on far too much responsibility in general, assuming that they need to work harder, be more sensitive, more understanding, more careful, and they tend to step up their efforts in challenging times. But we can’t fix a relationship on our own, and believing we can forecloses the grieving necessary to recognize that some people can’t or won’t do their part to repair ruptures in trust, care or love—and when they can’t, it’s time to move on.”

Regular life is on pause at the moment for all of us. The most important tip? Practice self-care.

For more on narcissism, visit Craig Malkin’s blog or see his book, Rethinking Narcissism.

Copyright © 2020 by Peg Streep

Facebook image: George Rudy/Shutterstock