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Rethinking a Relationship: Living With a Narcissist

People suffering from NPD often hide in plain sight.

It’s as if the topic of Narcissistic Personality Disorder were brand new, based on the attention it's getting on newsfeeds everywhere you look. But there was a time not long ago when information on this topic was lacking.

Keep in mind that NPD falls along a spectrum, as many disorders do. None of us are all or nothing. All we can judge is how our own lives are affected by spending time with someone who unwittingly suffers from it, for better or worse.

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How can you tell you are dating or are in a relationship with a narcissist? Many therapists admit that often you can’t, at least in the beginning. It’s not as if they wear a sign on their foreheads advertising it. In fact, the opposite may be true.

Those damaged sufficiently in childhood have become the ultimate survivors, finding ways to cope at almost any cost. They are wizards at drawing you in and making you care because they have to. It’s a survival tactic on their part. The repartee you can have with a person who has this disorder can often feel normal and even exciting for a good period of time. He or she can simply be clever, funny, boastful or is an expert on something. They can be as entertaining as the day is long, sweeping you off your feet with their sense of humor and stories. By the time they tell a few sad stories about their childhood, you may already be hooked, thinking you are the person who can fill in their emotional gaps. After all, you are the type of person they turn to for this kind of attention and care to begin with. They are routinely drawn to individuals who appear more stable than themselves.

John Kift, LMFT, a contributor for Psychology Today puts it this way: “Why are we even attracted to narcissists in the first place? Well, because they can be charismatic. Since they have to be the center of attention, they have been tap dancing for a very long time. They have crafted their charisma, which you thought was confidence. And getting attention from the guy on ‘stage’ who's getting all the attention makes you feel better about yourself and what's lacking inside. You don't know this. It's all happening underneath. Until you realize it's not confidence but actually insecurity.”

At one point you may realize your relationship is far from the garden variety everyone idealizes (two individuals who care so much about each other they would put the other’s interests first). So ask yourself/consider:

  • How often does your partner’s curiosity find him or her asking about your day, your friendships, your feelings or your opinions? Do they listen and then ask questions to help you through it? Ever? You can say none of this matters to you, but when looking at the long term, it’s difficult to imagine being in a supposedly intimate relationship where the other person rarely thinks of you in intimate terms apart from sex.
  • In social situations, does your partner ask questions of others and let them shine in conversation? And when others do take center stage in a conversation, does your partner look away, walk away, look bored or can’t seem to pay attention?
  • Do your disputes often have the same pattern to them, almost like a broken record? Things can be cool and nothing seems amiss. Then, out of the blue, something upsets your partner — something that appears minor or even silly in the big scheme of things but causes him serious emotional inconvenience, embarrassment, or bother, and he points the finger at you as the cause of his mood shift. It could be the smell of something he can’t abide, something left out that got in his way, something you are wearing that makes you look frumpy and suddenly you have bad taste, or his not having something on hand for his immediate needs.
  • Do you find the only truly fun and happy times you spend with your partner is when you are away from home together? Spending time with family? At a resort? With friends? Is it only when you are out of your element that he or she is on their best behavior?
  • Does your partner try new things even at the risk of failure? A new dance, a new job, a new hobby? Or do they write things off before they’ve even tried?
  • Are they a good sport, taking it on the chin when someone says something funny about them? Perhaps they laugh along, as if it's no big deal when it happens, but when it's just the two of you, he or she may unleash their anger at feeling humiliated.
  • How does this person handle anger? Do they become violent to the point of your feeling threatened, or do they have the presence of mind to calm themselves and separate themselves from you for a while? Andrea Bonoir, Ph.D., says, “We can view a narcissistic person's typical behavior patterns within relationships as existing on a spectrum, with not-particularly-kind on the mildest side, to completely toxic and unequivocally abusive on the other. While almost all narcissistic people's self-absorption has the potential to cause problems in relationships, not all will be abusive in a classic sense. When narcissism is coupled with certain additional risk factors, however, the combination can be troubling indeed.”
  • How supportive is your partner when you want to have time away with your own friends? Does he or she have close friends of their own? Do they tell you they admire how you have maintained friendships and encourage you to “get away” sometimes just for your own mental health, even offering to take over some of your responsibilities at home?

Psychology Today contributor Julie L. Hall, in her piece Is Narcissism Treatable?, refers to Gestalt therapist Elinor Greenberg, saying, “Although there are many diagnostic indicators for narcissistic personality disorder, Greenberg identifies the most salient ones as "the three S's"—being intensely status-conscious, sensitive to slights, and vulnerable to shame.”

Keep in mind that when you approach a counselor for the purposes of “saving” your relationship, that must be their goal. It’s rare a therapist will take the suspected narcissist aside and try to get to the bottom of the damage that was inflicted on them long ago, such as the pain of a parent constantly ridiculing and belittling them. That kind of therapy must be requested by the person suffering from it and has little to nothing to do with your coupledom, apart from how it plays out in your daily life. A couples’ therapist will only work with what they see and hear in their offices during your visit and try to help you find ways to deal with life in the here and now. For you, that means trying to understand and avoid the narcissist’s “triggers.”

In the end, however, you may find yourself perpetually on guard -- ever vigilant -- walking on eggshells instead of growing within a relationship. That is an exhausting prospect. Chances are also good that even though your partner exhibits NPD behavior at home, it will not surface in front of a therapist. Rather, he or she may put up the entertaining “front,” offering lip service to the “exercises” the therapist says for you to practice at home and when you try to implement those exercises, your partner will dismiss them as silly or meaningless.

Those along the NPD spectrum usually lack a sense of empathy and exhibit a disinterest in the lives of others, blaming others for their own embarrassments. They exist mostly in a vacuum, since being too curious about themselves might dredge up bad feelings they suppressed long ago, and being truly curious and learning about others may make them feel even more inadequate. If you are in the company of someone who is along a spectrum of NPD, the last thing you will want to bring up is how you notice they exhibit traits of the disorder. It will only make them angry or defensive and you might well be accused to trying to be their “shrink” or parent.

If you have a "caretaker" personality, you may be more at risk for unwittingly perpetuating and enabling a person with NPD while being repeatedly battered by their behavior and then drawn in, thinking it will disappear in time with all the love, understanding (and even the prayer) you heap on them. One of the narcissist’s biggest fears is being abandoned, which is why they often resort to over-the-top ways to draw you back and earn your confidence.

The bottom line? If you find life difficult or next to impossible living with a person suffering from this disorder, remember that life is short. Those who decide to leave a partner whose behavior fits a preponderance of traits along the NPD spectrum often decide they are better off going it alone or taking their chances on meeting someone more functional. An NPD sufferer may never change and may see no reason to get help. We all have but one time to go around, and we must choose how we want to spend that time. Staying with a person with this disorder can be compared to choosing to hug a cactus. While there may be an occasional flower, the rest is simply painful.

It’s a lovely thought, but you will not “cure” your NPD partner by being a good example and incessantly showering them with attention. Unfortunately, love does not conquer all, because what a person with this disorder calls love is already a corruption of the word. Remaining with him or her can easily make you the great enabler, inflicting damage on not just you, but on any children you may have together. Those children grow up thinking this is what a normal relationship looks like, which will probably land them in therapy eventually as well.

It's often frustrating to try to rationalize the time you've put in with a person suffering from this disorder hoping it will change. You can, however, turn your resentment and anger into compassion by considering them akin to a bird whose wings never fully formed, disabling them from flight. It’s a sobering analogy, but one worth considering to help you move on.

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