I am reading a lot more dialogue around narcissism and intimate relationships. I work with many types of clients and my work with couples on narcissism is some of the most challenging work that I do.
I find I must strike a balance between engaging the narcissistic individual and putting them in a self-preservation mode. Once they feel threatened, they often react to manipulate the therapist through grandiosity and entitlement. The second challenge is the delicate balance of confronting and exposing the emotional responses of the narcissist’s partner. The partner's responses tend to reinforce the narcissist's behavior.
Folks with the narcissistic personality traits tend to play by different rules of engagement. Within the relationship, the narcissist does not leave much room for their partner to negotiate or to call the narcissistic behavior into question. The person with narcissistic traits lacks the skill of compromise required for negotiation and fair communication. This triggers many emotional responses from their partner.
Here are some of those emotional responses:
Powerlessness: The feeling of weariness and of being in a “no win” situation is common for those who are in a relationship with a narcissist. For example, Belinda has been in a relationship with Victor for several months. Victor fell in love with Belinda’s confidence and ability to confront anyone regardless of the situation. Yet, Victor finds himself worn down and weary when he tries to express disagreement with Belinda. Belinda keeps Victor awake all night if he does not acquiesce to her opinion; she thinks her opinion is sacrosanct. Victor learns to stop expressing his own opinion because he feels his voice will not be heard.
Provocation and resentment:
Why can't I just speak up? This question often haunts the partners of narcissists. The partner of a narcissist tends to resent themselves for staying within the relationship. Often, the moments of bliss they experience seem to negate the hours of agony. Justin and Lily are at a promotional party for his new company. Lily witnesses the magnetic charm that Justin exudes as he celebrates with his colleagues. Lily stands alone, having been ignored by Justin for the last hour. Justin finally signals Lily over to meet his colleagues. Justin introduces Lily and tells the group that Lily’s father is a senator and her mother is an important judge. Lily realizes that she was invited over only as a prize to be gloated over. She realizes that this was just for his image. Lily feels like a stage hand who is only there to hold the spotlight while Justin shines. Lily questions how he can be so kind and caring while simultaneously so cunningly cruel. Lily has asked this question for years which provokes self-loathing about the way she falls for the small moments of kindness that seem magical. Lily grows resentful of his facade, his sense of superiority, and his boastfulness when his seemingly undivided attention, kind words, and doting only appear when it benefits him.
Intimidation: This is the most insidious form of emotional response. The person within the relationship must interpret the narcissist’s needs to avoid their criticism and degradation. For example, Lola consistently asks her partner Sharon her opinion on food, movies, or dinner choices. Each time Sharon responds with her personal desires, Lola criticizes and shames her choices. In order to avoid the criticism and shaming, Sharon allows her personal desires become the same as Lola’s.
Insecurity: The lack of reliability and instability of the narcissist’s presence is a breeding ground for the insecure attachment in the relationship. Rick has been friends with Jacob for 10 years. Rick has grown accustomed to their friendship being one side the majority of the time. In times of need, Rick has not been able to rely on Jacob. Yet, Rick feels a need to be there for Jacob regardless. Rick feels if he continues to be a good friend that maybe Jacob will come around.
There are many tools to assist with these emotional responses and viciouis cycles in these intimatre relationships. Locating a therapist who specializes with this personality type is a good start. If both parties are open to change, recovery and growth is possible within the relationship.