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How to Handle a "Kind" Narcissist

It's more about quiet self-centeredness than grandiosity.

Key points

  • At first, the kind narcissist seems like a generous, attentive person.
  • Trouble arises once more is asked of them than they want to give.
  • It’s the same insidious selfishness and entitlement as regular narcissism, tucked inside a nice guy façade.
Andrea Piacquadio/Pexels
Source: Andrea Piacquadio/Pexels

The kind narcissist sees themselves as a good person. Often, they appear steady and good-natured. They are popular and well thought of. The trouble arises once more is asked of them than they want to give.

This instinct to preserve their time, autonomy, or affections is not based on what’s fair or necessary but instead on their feelings of entitlement about how much (or little) should be asked of them. This sense of entitlement differs from healthy boundaries and self-esteem because they both refuse to take anyone else into account and believe they are entitled to love, respect, and goodwill, no matter the pain and frustration caused to those around them. It’s the same insidious selfishness and entitlement as regular narcissism, tucked inside a nice guy façade.

What is a “kind narcissist”?

Kind narcissistic behavior often looks like the following: not doing one’s share of housework, insisting that their work responsibilities always take precedence over yours, resistance to spending time with people or activities that are more important to you than to them, and reluctance to spend money on things important to you while insisting on big-ticket items that they value. One glaring example of this was a friend of mine, who before her divorce had a kitchen with no working appliances and cabinet doors falling off their hinges. Her husband insisted there was no money for repairs and then spent over $100,000 on a new truck just because he wanted to.

In a work environment, this might be someone who never steps up their output or productivity, no matter how dire the need to do so, and happily allows their colleagues to take up the slack. They might be the sibling who acts concerned about the welfare of an elderly parent while resisting any real contribution to that parent’s care. If you push back on this behavior, you’ll be met with wounded eyes, defensiveness, and an accusation that “No matter what I do, you’re never happy.”

But where a kind narcissist is really exposed, unsurprisingly, is during long-term romantic partnerships. Especially after children. It’s hard to imagine a life experience better designed to put pressure on the system than having a baby. While the kind narcissist’s self-centeredness can often be masked in the beginning phases of a relationship or before there are any heavy responsibilities or tough times, eventually, the wheels come off.

Kind narcissists in relationships

Consider Jack and Meredith, who came to me after Meredith told Jack she wanted to divorce. When they came to my office, Jack looked shaken and fearful—like he’d just emerged from a car wreck. Meredith was calm and poised and radiated a cool detachment. They’d been together for eight years and had two young children.

They’d met in graduate school, and Meredith had immediately been taken by Jack’s sunny, generous demeanor. “He always seemed like the first guy to jump in and help out. I thought he’d be an amazing partner. All everyone says about Jack is how nice he is, what a great dad, that I’m so lucky to have him. But it’s for show. He does exactly what he wants to do and doesn’t lift a finger otherwise. I’m exhausted, and I’m done.”

Two weeks earlier, Jack came home after spending the day playing baseball with friends. Meredith was in the kitchen making dinner, both kids at her feet. She asked Jack to take the kids while she finished up. Jack agreed but said he wanted to change his clothes first. Fifteen minutes later, he still hadn’t emerged.

In the kitchen, Meredith was draining pasta, holding their toddlers out of the way of the boiling water, putting her body between the kids and the sink. When she turned back around, both kids were covered in marinara sauce. “I cleaned up the kids, and I knew that Jack was just in the bedroom, laying on the bed, looking at his phone, ignoring the chaos in the kitchen. And suddenly, I knew that this was never going to change. I don’t want to be in this marriage anymore.”

Jack admitted he had been lying on the bed, scrolling through his phone. “I needed a minute to unwind from my day.” He also admitted that this was a pattern. “I know I leave most everything to Meredith, and I don’t really know why. It just seems like she’s fine.” He felt it was deeply unfair how quickly Meredith turned cold: “It’s like a light switch was flipped.” He knew she’d been upset, knew she wanted him to be a better partner. And yet, now that she was prepared to leave, he was genuinely shocked.

In the many, many earlier iterations of conversations, discussions, arguments, and finally fights where Meredith would state her unhappiness and ask for change, Jack wasn’t listening—he was “turtling.” Turtling is a term that video gamers use to describe players who defend themselves by going into a fixed position to avoid conflict. In their relationship, when Meredith was upset, Jack would “turtle,” retracting into his shell until the storm had passed. Then he’d stick his head back out and resume operating as usual.

In truth, Jack didn’t really understand how upset Meredith was. Because he hadn’t been paying much attention to her at all. Jack focused on Jack.

Now that he was paying attention, he was panicking at the thought of Meredith leaving him. He turned to her and said, “I love you. I want to stay together. I’ll do anything not to lose you.”

We started to talk about how Jack could regain her trust. Meredith began to lay out what she needed to see from him. Jack started to bristle almost immediately. “I’ll do that, but what do I get in return?” he asked. “I can’t feel like you’re judging me all the time and like you get to call all the shots.” He turned to me, “A good marriage is supposed to be 50/50, right?”

This is classic kind narcissist behavior. He says all the right things and seems contrite and ready to make a change. But he can’t stop thinking about his end of the deal. Meredith realized that to get Jack to step up, she’d basically have to constantly be threatening to leave, and that’s not the partnership she wanted. She had to accept that Jack looked great from a distance but not up close.

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