Surviving a Narcissistic Partner: Should You Stay Or Should You Go?

Dear Terry,

I’m definitely a “Fixer” and I married Tim knowing that he was controlling and self-centered. But I just never realized how hard it would be to live with someone who is so arrogant and insensitive to my feelings. I’ve been with Tim for ten years and we both have kids from previous partners. We got married four years ago because our kids kept asking us why we weren’t married. One thing that makes it difficult to leave (I’ve thought about it many times) is that I worry about our children growing up in a divorced home.

I read your last blog about narcissism and it hit me like a lightning bolt. Tim fit all but one of the characteristics on the list but the worst part is that he expects me to treat him like a king even when he verbally abuses me.  I also see him taking advantage of his friends and family – like when he borrowed money from his mom to start a business and never paid her back.  He’s a taker and since I’m a people pleaser he usually gets what he wants. I’ve just started going to counseling recently, and my therapist says that I have codependent tendencies and so I tend to put others needs before my own.

Things got a lot worse after we had our kids, Jared and Lauren, who are seven and nine years old. When Tim’s two teenage daughters visit on the weekends it’s like a three ring circus. Tim was a lot of fun to be around the first few years we were together. I felt lucky to be with him because he’s so handsome and charming. I guess I was blindsided when he started verbally abusing me and blaming me for all of our problems.  Most of my friends envy me because they think he’s a great catch. Sure, he’s good looking and he is a smooth talker but that’s part of the problem. Whenever I ask anything from him that he doesn’t want to do, he talks me out of it and somehow makes me feel stupid for requesting anything from him.

When I was reading Haley’s story in your last blog, it was like I was reading about my own life. I tend to pick guys who take advantage of me because I’m a soft-hearted giver. Tim gets angry when I pressure him to go for counseling and can’t seem to handle it when I’m upset – he usually threatens to leave so I back off. Whenever I allow myself to be vulnerable and tell Tim that I’m feeling hurt, he usually comes back with “You’re too sensitive.” I want to believe that he’ll change but I’m starting to get very discouraged and worried about the effect his narcissism is having on Jared and Lauren.

I’m desperate to make a decision about whether we should split up or stay together for our kids. Please help me.

Sincerely,

Kara

Dear Kara,

In my last blog I defined narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) and stated that narcissism exists on a continuum from mild to severe. Keep in mind that narcissism ranges from self-centeredness and other narcissistic traits to NPD. Narcissism is very hard to diagnose – even by experts. The following is a summary of NPD from the DSM-5 (Diagnostic and Statistical Manuel of Mental Disorders) used by clinicians to diagnose and treat individuals with mental illness. Keep in mind, NPD can only be diagnosed by a person who is a licensed mental health professional.

Narcissistic Personality Disorder – A pervasive preoccupation with admiration, entitlement, and egotism. Individuals with this personality exaggerate their accomplishments/talents, have a sense of entitlement, lack empathy or concern for others, are preoccupied with envy and jealousy, and have an arrogant attitude. Their sense of entitlement and inflated self-esteem are unrelated to real talent or accomplishments. They feel entitled to special attention, privileges, and consideration in social settings. This sense of entitlement also produces a feeling that they are entitled to punish those who do not provide their required respect, admiration, or attention.

Before you make a decision about the future of your marriage, I highly recommend that you take a close look at your needs and prioritize them.  It’s impossible for a partner to meet all of your needs but certainly basic needs, such as safety and security, should be satisfied. Then assess the degree of Tim’s narcissism and whether it is what author Wendy Behary LCSW refers to as “perilous narcissism.” In her acclaimed book Disarming the Narcissist  Behary describes this type of narcissist as unremorseful and devoid of a moral compass – as having a complete disregard and contempt for others. She writes, “There are certain circumstances where an intimate relationship with a narcissist isn’t worth fighting for, even if you have the leverage. The narcissist may even be a threat to your (and your children’s) security, safety, and stability.”

According to Behary, safety should be your first and foremost priority when dealing with a “perilous narcissist” – especially if their threats are increasing and they are violent or explosive. If Tim is perpetually verbally or emotionally abusive and becomes more callous or menacing, you may have to decide to put the safety of yourself and your children first and come up with an exit strategy.

Your concern about your children’s well-being is legitimate. Dealing with a narcissistic parent day in and day out can be devastating to a child, according to Dr. Lisa Firestone. She writes, “The problem with narcissistic parents is that, although the focus seems to be on their child, there is actually very little regard for the child in their parenting style.” How do narcissistic parents damage their children? Dr. Mark Banschick notes “For example, they may disregard boundaries, manipulate their children by withholding affection (until they perform), and neglect to meet their children’s needs because their needs come first. Because image is so important to narcissists, they may demand perfection from their children.” The child of a parent who has NPD is in a no-win situation – whether they fulfill their parent’s wishes or fail to do so.

What impact does a high-conflict home have on children? In her landmark book For Better or For Worse, eminent psychologist E. Mavis Hetherington highlights the results of her 30 year study of 1,400 divorced families and the importance of examining the type of conflict children experience. She notes that high-conflict that involves the child, is physically violent, threatening or abusive, and conflict in which the child feels caught in the middle, has the most adverse consequences for children.

Let’s face it, marital conflict can have negative consequences for children whether their parents are married or divorced. In a longitudinal study spanning over many years, renowned divorce researcher Paul Amato found that conflict in intact families was associated with emotional problems in children.  Amato states “When parents engage in a pattern of chronic, overt, destructive conflict, children may be no worse off (and perhaps better off) if the marriage ends in divorce.” Even the late divorce expert Judith Wallerstein who tended to emphasize the detrimental impact of parental divorce on kids writes “Children raised in extremely unhappy homes or violent homes face misery in childhood and tragic consequences in adulthood.” She goes on to say, “I don’t know of any research, mine included, that says divorce is universally detrimental to children.”

Consider these points if you decide to preserve your marriage:

  • Don’t let your partner off the hook. In other words, practice empathetic confrontation which is showing compassion while setting limits. Wendy Behary writes, “While it is necessary to harness your understanding and emotional generosity, it’s equally necessary to hold the narcissist accountable when he acts condescending, selfish, controlling, or downright mean.”
  • Avoid exposing your child to high-conflict that involves them, is physically violent, threatening or abusive; and conflict in which the child feels caught in the middle.
  • Read, attend workshops, and visit websites designed to help you learn effective communication strategies to cope with a partner with narcissism such as reflective listening and setting healthy boundaries.
  • Encourage your partner to get counseling by someone who specializes in treating someone with NPD or narcissistic traits and seek professional help yourself.

If you decide to end your marriage, here are tips on how to breakup with your partner in the most caring, safe way:

  • Write a script to use when talking to your partner and try to stick with it, using as few words as possible. You might say something like: “I tried to make this marriage work. Nothing has changed and it’s not healthy for me or the kids for us to stay together. I wish you well.”
  • Be sure to show compassion toward your children and don’t badmouth their other parent in their presence. Divorce is painful but sometimes necessary if children are exposed to certain types of conflict or abuse. However, they are vulnerable to experiencing loyalty conflicts and shouldn’t be in the middle between their parents.
  • Be sure that you and your children feel safe. This might mean having a close friend or family member on hand when you talk to your partner.
  • Make sure you have plenty of support from a lawyer, friends, family, and a therapist.

If you choose to preserve your marriage, you are wise to learn new ways to understand and respond to Tim.  Examining your own communication patterns and tendency to be selfless is essential to changing the dynamic between you and your partner. Focus on personal responsibility rather than blame and call attention to your needs. It’s essential to let go of feeling overly responsible and to stop putting your needs last at the expense of your own happiness.

It’s not uncommon for people with codependent traits to be attracted to narcissists. According to codependency expert Ross Rosenberg, “Codependents – who are giving and consumed with the needs and desires of others – do not know how to emotionally disconnect from romantic relationships with individuals who are narcissistic—individuals who are self-centered, controlling, and harmful to them.”  If that’s the case, discussing ways to set boundaries with Tim in your counseling sessions will prevent you from engaging in a toxic, self-defeating pattern of relating to him and prevent you from giving up your personal power. Rosenberg writes, “The inherently dysfunctional “codependency dance” requires two opposite but distinctly balanced partners: the pleaser/fixer (codependent) and the taker/controller (narcissist).”

In closing, whether you decide to stay in your marriage or end it is a balance between the resources and stressors inherent in living with a narcissist. It’s crucial that you take an honest look at the impact your husband’s behaviors and the dynamics in your marriage are having on your children and yourself. Either way, it’s critical to seek professional help because you don’t have to submit to a dysfunctional relationship. While there is no clear cut path to follow that will lead to a guaranteed positive outcome, you are wise to carefully consider the hazards of living with a partner who has NPD or narcissistic traits.

I’d love to read your comments and questions. Please forward them to terry@movingpastdivorce.com or click the Question tab on this website.

I’d love to read your comments on this page. Be sure to order my new book “Daughters of Divorce: Overcome the Legacy of Your Parents’ Breakup and Enjoy a Happy, Long-Lasting Relationship.”

We hope you follow us on Twitter!

Thanks, Terry

 



24 Responses to “Surviving a Narcissistic Partner: Should You Stay Or Should You Go?”

  1. kay says:

    This quote is perfect:

    Examining your own communication patterns and tendency to be selfless is essential to changing the dynamic between you and your partner

    Wish I had done that first!

  2. Kay says:

    This fits just perfect:

    Examining your own communication patterns and tendency to be selfless is essential to changing the dynamic between you and your partner

    Wish I had done that first!

  3. Gabrielle says:

    Hi,

    And thank you for a marvelous article. I’ve never been married to a narcissist, but I’ve had the distinct pleasure of cutting friends with NPD out of my life. It’s never an easy thing, and at first, you think that you’ve caused all the trouble. But there were breaking points for me, and I’ve ended them all. I’ve forgiven them, but I cannot forget them.
    I want to show this article to everyone I know. I think it is a world of relief for those of us who’ve been verbally, mentally and emotionally abused by people with this disorder.

  4. janice says:

    All so true. Great article. Breaking off a relationship right now with a narcissistic man who feels entitled to cheat bc he feels people love him so much. He believes that i should just forget what hes done numerous times and let him be a man. So lookin forward to my future w/o him. No more mental, verbal, physical abuse. This article has given me much needed insight on my decision to move forward. He has total disregard for my needs period. Thnks for posting this.

  5. Jose Byron Gonzalez says:

    Thanks so much for this article. Still reeling from a breakup with someone who, clearly, was a narcissistic lady. Five years and it was all about her, everything that was wrong was always my fault and she kept reminding me how “I should take good care of her or some other man might steal her from me” especially when I asked her to meet me at a restaurant and blew up at me, telling me that she was “too beautiful to walk the streets alone” and I should always pick her up and return her at her door. I kept thinking, I’ve been able to get along with other women and wondering why I could never please her in anything. Should have trusted my instincts at first. Lesson learned.

  6. Cathy says:

    Terry, thank you . The values you have outline are right on point. I’ve left 1 1/2 years ago. Moved twice from his continuously stalking. ( or his friends & son ) tried to hit me with someone else’s car to scare & intimidate me. What is hardest, being assaulted for the last time – I am a Cancer survivor! How dare him. My counselor said – he never ever Did love me. Hit me pretty hard in understanding. Still working on loving myself. Thanks Again. I’m on the healing, right path.

  7. Jennifer says:

    Great, well-researched article with sound advice. I would add one caution before making boundary changes in relationship with a narcissist: understand that things may escalate quickly. In my case, after one of his blowups I kindly, lovingly said he needed to speak to me with the same polite tone and respect he used with his female colleagues (a benchmark, if you will, so he could evaluate his own conduct.) Six weeks later he was done. Had I not been mentally and financially prepared for the end of my seventeen-year marriage, I would have been more devastated than I was. As it stands now, I’m grateful the abuse is over and I can learn to live as a whole, worthwhile person.

  8. Trish says:

    Iam 50& married to a Narcissist/master manipulater 20yrs in April,I’m grateful I found this info.I had no idea about the abuse side, for first time in years.I don’t feel crazy,what’s been happening to me is real,I refused to give up on my dream of someone/marriage lasts forever, but I have reached a point where Im devasted caught him again txt, 3profiles on sex sites,& so much more, I m dependant on him financially,I’m stuck, and trying to work up courage to leave him, but drepppresion&anxiety&worthlessNess is so severe I’m paralyzed with fear hiding in my dark roomm, Is it normal to need to seek Help? Pshycitrist?

    • Terry says:

      Hi Trish,

      I highly suggest help by a licensed clinician which could be a psychologist or clinical social worker but not usually a psychiatrist – who usually is most helpful with prescribing medication. Perhaps at a Women’s center or Family service agency can help you and they usually employ licensed therapists. Sadly, your problem is fairly common and you might even find a support group which would be beneficial – you’re not alone!

      Best,
      Terry

  9. Lynette says:

    Hi , I have living with a narcissist for 20 years.It has cost me and my family an unbeleable amount of emotional trauma . I am still living with him but the relationship ended years ago. He is good looking and very charming to all around him. We have very little equity in our property, I don’t have a job due to ill health,The only income I have is from our business that he runs but I can no longer work in as I am not well enough. I am 65. As our business is realestate, he will be the one selling our property when he sees fit. Even though their will be very little money left. To get a Government house it will take years.i can’t move in with family as they all have there own problems. I am exhausted and after many years, Still stuck. If you can help me, I would be most great full . Lynette

    • Terry says:

      Hi Lynette,

      Your situation is quite challenging and I can’t help you solve it through an email. If you’d like me to give you in-depth feedback, please sign-up for telephone coaching here:http://movingpastdivorce.com/counseling-services/telephone-coaching/ There is a fee (you must pay before we speak) but it could be helpful to you. Or,I recommend you engage in for counseling for feedback and support. You can get a referral from your doctor or insurance company.

      Best Regards,
      Terry

  10. Mandy says:

    Thank you very much. Very informative and accurate with what I have experienced divorcing my narcissist. One quesetion I have is with co-parenting our two children 50/50 custody. My son is 11 years old, at an age where he is learning who he is and how to handle situations. What can I do as his mother to teach him to not become like his father? I never bad mouth his dad (or really try hard not to) but he is seeing how is dad is all on his own. I am frightened my ex is going to have so much pull in who he becomes. What can I do to help change this pattern?

    • Terry says:

      Hi Mandy,

      This is an important but in-depth question. I believe that it is a good idea to either sign up for coaching with me on this website or schedule several sessions with a counselor. Narcissism isn’t necessarily passed down in families if you have one healthy parent but you may need support to counteract some of the traits that your child might admire or try to copy. However, I can’t give advise in detail in this format. Regards, Terry

    • Terry says:

      Hi Mandy, I believe that both mothers and fathers are equally important to the healthy development of a child. One reason why the topic of fathers and daughters is written about so often is because dads often reduce their contact with their daughters (more than sons) post-divorce and daughters may blame themselves – creating low-self-esteem. Regards, Terry

  11. Connie says:

    Im not sure what to do. I believe I have married a narcissist and have been staying only to be a buffer for my son. I can’t bare to think of him having to deal with his father on his own so young. Our son does not like to spend much, if any, time away from me as it is and I know it would be traumatic for him to have to stay with his father without me there. But staying is killing me. His father tells me I am crazy and have crazy idiotic parenting philosophies and that if he called CPS they would take my son away from me. He cusses at me and refuses to leave the room when I ask him to; then tells me that he is f’**ing sick of not being shown love tenderness kindness and gentleness. Whenever we talk I get short of breath and start shaking; I cant control it. Counseling isn’t an option right now for me because my son doesn’t want to be left with anyone and I respect his wishes. I don’t know what to do. I fear the court system and what his father will do and say. I have heard the horror stories, so I think it would be better if I stay. But I also want to give my son the best of me and his father is killing me inside….I am so scared that my son will be taken from me – if I stay OR if I leave. And I don’t know any good lawyers experienced in this.

  12. Shelly says:

    Well – I must say your article was very informative. I left my narcissistic partner 2 1/2 years ago soon to be 3. Recovery and healing has been such a difficult long road. I am a recovering co-dependent. I didn’t think to put two and two together. This is quite an awakening for me. I have been independent and relationship free all of this time. He reappeared in my life with the death of his father and his fall from grace with his CFO position with a school district. I guess he needed an ego boost and of course I obliged. Nevertheless, his interest waned and my eyes were opened. For the longest time I thought it was me. If only I had done this or said that or not done this or not said that. In the end, we all deserve mutual love and respect. I am currently working towards an advanced degree. I am more confident and am learning to make it on my own. Someday in the distant future I may date again. But for now, I’m healing and getting stronger by myself for myself. Thanks for the article!

    • Terry says:

      Hi Shelly,

      You are welcome. Self-awareness is the first step to changing a dysfunctional relationship pattern.

      Regards,
      Terry

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