Did You Marry a Narcissist?

We tend to call anyone we find exceptionally annoying a narcissist. Indeed, the word has become the ultimate insult for modern times. It’s used so much that, I’ve found, most people truly don’t know what it actually means.

This was even true of me. I didn’t completely understand what a narcissist was or was not until I worked with Mary Ellen O’Toole, PhD, a former FBI profiler, on the book Dangerous Instincts. Now when I think back over my life, I can think of just a few people who qualify as full-blown narcissists. As for the rest of the people I found exceptionally nerve racking? They were probably just a bit selfish with a touch of an anger problem.

I find the topic of narcissism intriguing. I’m guessing you do, too. Even more intriguing is this: how so many people end up in relationships with narcissists. I’ve witnessed this phenomenon first hand. One of my best friends has been in a relationship with a narcissist for many years. She’s no dummy. She’s also not weak or lonely or desperate. So why does she stay? And can she be happy with this guy?

To find the answers to those questions and more, I tapped the mind of Meredith Resnick, the author of the Narcissism: Surviving the Self-Involved – A Little Primer on Self-Care.

Q: Just about everyone thinks they know someone who is a narcissist. I’m guessing, however, some of the people that we think of as narcissists are just your common everyday jerks. How can you figure out if you’ve accidentally married a narcissist?

 Meredith: Though a common everyday “jerk” is not necessarily someone who is great to be in a relationship with, what might set him (or her) apart from the narcissist is that, despite the stupid things they do or say, a particular “jerk” might still be able to feel and express empathy for others. If one feels the protracted absence of empathy in a relationship, and feels a cold frost in its place, this could indicate that narcissism is present.

Q: Why can people seem so great in the beginning, but soon everything falls apart?

 Meredith: In the beginning, particularly when there is a strong physical attraction, we tend to see the terrific parts of the other person’s personality. I’ve read and heard that, in fact, this “seeing the best in the other” is actually us projecting our finer qualities (I call this reverse projection) onto the other person. You might have heard it called the honeymoon period.

At some point in the relationship, both parties will acknowledge their own assets and liabilities (we hope), and move forward as two individuals coming together in a union–but remaining the individuals that they are. The alternative is one feeding off the other, which is what happens when you are involved with a narcissist. This is where the term “narcissistic supply” comes from.

If you are involved with a narcissist, you’ll notice signs of trouble when you take back your own assets, which means you have stopped “seeing” and projecting them onto the other person (so, ceasing the reverse projection). Trouble is, narcissists like the reverse projection; it makes them look better. The narcissistic person has begun to wear the projected assets as his or her own mask, and will experience your assets as his or her own! Then, when you attempt to own them again, he or she might say that you are copying them, stealing from them, trying to be like them.

Once this happens, you can become the object of the narcissist’s rage (which can be very loud or icily quiet) and soon finds yourself apologizing, because this rage (again, loud or quiet) can be frightening and intolerable.

Q: What are some of these traits?

Meredith: According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), Fourth Edition, Text Revision (DSM-IV-TR, 2000): “The essential feature of Narcissistic Personality Disorder is a pervasive pattern of grandiosity (in fantasy or behavior), need for admiration, and lack of empathy that begins by early adulthood and is present in a variety of contexts, as indicated by five (or more) of the following (which can be viewed in DSM-IV-TR, page 717):

  • Has a grandiose sense of self-importance
  • Is preoccupied with fantasies of unlimited success, power, brilliance, beauty or ideal love
  • Believes that they are special and unique and can only be understood by, or should associate with, other special or high-status people (or institutions)
  • Requires excess admiration
  • Has a sense of entitlement
  • Is interpersonally exploitative
  • Lacks empathy; is unwilling to recognize or identify with the feelings and needs of others
  • Is often envious of others or believes that others are envious of them
  • Shows arrogant, haughty behaviors or attitudes

Q: So let’s say someone is reading this, sees that checklist that you just gave, and says, “Oh em gee, my spouse has every single one of those traits!” Then what? Is it even possible to have a happy marriage if one’s spouse is a narcissist?

 Meredith: Understanding the disease of narcissism is a must. Read about it, do research, educate yourself. The other important step is to understand why and what led to developing the blind spot that led to falling for this person who is unable to truly, authentically show empathy and be in a relationship with another person. The support of a licensed, trained clinician can help you grow and heal. (Typically, when it comes to couples, one therapist will see the couple; two other individual therapists will see the individuals separately.)

Q: I have a friend who is dating a narcissist. He’s really good at convincing her that she’s the problem. It takes an army of friends like me to prove to her that it’s the other way around. Do you have advice for people who are probably married to narcissists but who blame themselves for their failed marriage?

 Meredith: One of the underlying themes of narcissism – though not said directly – is the sense that it is always the other person who is responsible for the narcissist’s happiness, contentment and, more globally, life. Since the partner cannot provide the cure to make the narcissist happy, devaluation comes next.

It’s important to understand that the interior life of the narcissist is equivalent to a black hole. Narcissist’s have a very fragile internal life. Deep within they feel a dense of profound emptiness, of being null, void, empty, a shell.

Think for a moment how frightening that would be, to live like that day in and day out. But instead of finding a way out of the hole, the narcissist projects his or her fear of nothingness on another person. Once we take it on – always unknowingly – we feel their pain and desperation. But we cannot fix it because the original problem does not belong to us.

Narcissism is a slippery, and convoluted slope. It can take years for one partner to realize the other is narcissistic. In fact, it can take decades. One of the greatest gifts we give ourselves is becoming aware of its effects, and how, in turn, it affects us. This we do have control over, which is very good news.

Meredith Resnick is the author of Narcissism: Surviving the Self-Involved – A Little Primer on Self-Care. She is currently working on Stronger Every Day: 366 Thoughts, Meditations and Ideas to Help You Overcome the Effects of Narcissism (2013).

Her work has appeared in Los Angeles Times, Newsweek, Psychology Today, JAMA, Orange County Register, Culinate and many others. She is the author of Narcissism: Surviving the Self-Involved. Visit MeredithResnick.com and YouAndN.com for more information.

104 comments… add one

  • Kay August 13, 2015, 7:14 am

    I am married to a narcissist – although we are separated right now. When we married, I kept my house ( my safety net) as I KNEW who he was but threw the dice and married him anyway.. thinking I could handle him. That was four years ago.. (My Dad was a narcissist of the worst kind and destroyed our family so I was no stranger to this condition… although for decades I didn’t have a label on my Dad… Shocked to realize that’s what he was..)

    I found out that I couldn’t handle my husband.. NOT because I couldn’t keep quiet, not make waves, not provoke him, humor him, and turn myself into a pretzel.. I COULD do that and was very successful.

    What I did NOT realize was that every time I did that — I lost a piece of me. My self esteem plummeted, my self respect went out the window, my kids hated seeing me be such a doormat, my friends were astounded that I would accept such bad treatment.. Get the picture??

    I was losing myself to make HIM happy..

    There is no glory in being abused. These narcissists do not honor marriage vows. They mean NOTHING. So.. why is there a double standard?

    I feel sorry for him — I know there is no cure — and every attempt I made to teach him empathy or just understand what I was trying to say — he immediately got defensive and BLAMED ME… He always blamed anybody but himself for any bumps in the road. He cannot be introspective.

    I know these people are disordered — but I truly believed when I married him – I could bring order to his life – stability – LOVE – support – etc… But it only resulted in him becoming more demanding and entitled. They ARE black holes – nothing will fill them up..

    And.. the most sad revelation…. If you leave they will NOT CARE. No sadness. No remorse. No regret.. ZERO. THey will just replace you in a heartbeat with another willing source of supply ( attention).. THey are the ultimate attention wh*res…….. Selfish, self centered, disrespectful, dishonest, delusional, domineering, controlling, impulsive, immature, and fake creatures on Earth.

    What a way to “live”…

    I am separated – getting “free health insurance” – I can play the game, too. Should get something for the 9 yrs I invested my soul. But not for long.. I am 66 yrs old — this is NOT the life I signed up for.

    NEVER fool yourself into believing they will change. The only person who can change is YOU. GET OUT. RUN RUN RUN RUN RUN and NEVER let them back in — they will suck you in with charm/manipulation/ because they are experts. It’s all LIES. Be smart. If he/she is hurting you… that is not love. LOVE SHOULD NEVER HURT YOU.

    And those of you with children who say you are protecting them and don’t want them to suffer thru a divorce?? YOU are their role model. YOU teach them that it’s ok to be ABUSED and NEGLECTED. You are not hiding ANYTHING from them. THey have eyes – they know. TRUST ME. THey know.. My Mother did that .. and SHE died a broken woman too.

    God Bless.

    Reply
  • Lina August 13, 2015, 1:09 pm

    Hi,
    I also did not realized that I married a Narcissist until I google in the internet and found the word Narcissistic trait.
    It’s not only drain you emotionally also financially.,,I spend more money living with him than I was a single.Now he lives in the house I bought which he had no single dollar shared with it plus I am paying all the bills.He keep his money for himself alone.
    He never shared to me his money,thank God I have a good job.I thought at first he was ignoring me and very cold because I have no job at that time but it still the same after I got a job.
    I am always the one showing affection and I am tired and sick of it because I feel like I am not desirable.
    Yes divorce is on the loom.I can not live forever like this,no empathy,no affection,verbally abusive,criticize everything. We do not have kids in our marriage anyway.
    I try to ignore him,whenever he is nagging or bitching on me. I tried to control my self,because even when I cry,he won’t understand .This I learned after reading in the internet about the Narcissistic person.
    I am sure when he is with his friends ,he would tell them that it is all my faults.
    He will raised his voice when ever I say something which he don’t agree and I would ask him why you get mad , and he will say ” No I am not mad”…He told me that he did not physically hurt me and I said that he abused me verbally,then he was even more angry after hearing it,because he won’t accept it.
    What scares me is what if he is planning to do something bad on me.I know how manipulative the people like them.I have a cat and he had dogs,,He hated my cat ,and said he do not like cat,so I put my cat outside and I feed my cat outside.He even told me not to feed the cat so that he will go away.I said why are you cruel to the cat?..After few weeks my cat died in our neighbors yard.I do not know what happen then.I told him that the cat died,of course I already him.he had no empathy.

    .

    Reply
  • Dj August 19, 2015, 3:41 pm

    I’m unfortunate to have a narcissistic sociopath on my hands. In short it’s worse than just selfish or narcissist. There is no going to a counselor you’d have to drug, hog tie & place him in the trunk to get him in there because “all counselors are stupid”, “psychology is not a real field etc.” they won’t just go on their own & if they do they play mind games with the counselor & keep blaming you for all relationship problems, so sessions get nowhere.
    Crazy making, they do that. Making you feel stupid/worthless, they do that. Making you feel like you can’t trust your own thoughts, they do that. That you can’t trust anyone else, they do that. Often blame others for all troubles leading up to current life, they do that. Subtly controlling what you do, yep check mark. Glorify themselves & say everyone else is stupid, a predator, & out to get them for their radical ‘genius’, yep they do that. Can act good enough you actually think they mean it when they say “sorry”! Oh hell yes that’s their forte, charming to where you have no idea they’re this mental until you get too deep into the relationship. There’s still this mental idea being told to me that he’s a Prince of a chateu taken by the french government called Wagram, related to the Rothschilds (just let that sink in for a second) & his great (or great great) grandma is friends with the current Queen Elizabeth. There’s absolutely no documentation backing this up. I resigned myself that because I have mental issues of my own I must have a crazy beacon flashing neon green that attracted him. I’ve lost the ability to keep chasing my mental tail caring.
    If you wander into the world of one like a witch maze (big Madoka Magica fan here) run for your freaking life DO NOT STAY thinking you can FIX THEM! YOU CAN’T “FIX” THESE TYPES there’s not even a “good side I’ll remember why I fell in love with” because that ‘good side’ is a class act too. I almost checked myself into the hospital 3 years ago & am about ready to do so again.

    Get away it is never worth staying & try hard not to have kids with them you don’t even want to be tied this way to one. The poor child has to come to terms with this type of existence being their parent & it’s not going to be something you can ‘protect’ them from. They’ll figure it out one way or the other while the NS lies through their teeth why you’re no longer together.
    Scars from the cuts across your wrists & alcoholism (if not complete drug addiction) is what you walk away with getting too involved with NS types.

    Reply

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