By Terry Gaspard, MSW, LICSW
Recently, I received the following e-mail from Haley, a 32 year old woman who is in a great deal of emotional pain and turmoil in her marriage with Eric, who she fears is a narcissist (fictitious names).
I don’t know how come I always fall for the wrongs guys. Eric and I have been married for seven years and our relationship has always been like a roller coaster ride. He can be very charming and swept me off my feet when I was in my last year of college. Sometimes Eric can be affectionate and loving – but other times he can be as cold as ice, critical, and rejecting. I just can’t figure out if he really loves me. I feel like I have to walk on eggshells and watch everything I say or he’ll go into one of his rages – which can last for hours.
Eric can be so arrogant and selfish at times. When we were at a restaurant with our daughter Elli recently, he called the waitress rude and clumsy just because she accidently dropped a spoon. The other weird thing about him is that when he is upset about something, he doesn’t express sadness. He didn’t even shed a tear when his grandmother died last year and he was supposed to be her favorite grandson. When my mother died of cancer two years ago, he couldn’t comfort me and just said, “Get over it, you have to focus on the living.” This really hurt – it cut to the core because my mom was always my rock and Eric knows how close we were.
My parents were divorced when I was six and my childhood was chaotic – dealing with a stepdad and two stepmothers – not to mention four stepsiblings and two half-siblings. But when Eric and I get into an argument, he usually blames me and says that I don’t know how to be a good wife because of my background. His parents stayed together even though their house is like a war zone – even today! Unlike Eric, I had a good relationship with both of my parents and stepdad growing up, but I’m starting to believe he is right. My self-esteem hit rock bottom a long time ago. Eric wants my love and admiration but he is so insulting and I’m sorry to say that I don’t love him anymore.
I went to see a therapist last month because I’m starting to feel depressed and it’s affecting my job and my relationship with our five year old daughter, Elli. The therapist told me not to blame myself because Eric seems to have traits of narcissism. She told me to go on-line and do some research before our next session, but that made me even more confused and upset.
How do I know if Eric is a true narcissist and whether or not I should leave or stay?
I appreciate any help you can give me and Elli.
Over the past several years, many articles have been written about ways to recognize and break off from a narcissist. The term “narcissist” has been spreading on-line like wildfire. In reality, there are degrees of narcissism and it’s a tough condition to diagnose – even for an expert. In fact, many narcissists appear to be “great guys or gals” but can behave very differently behind closed doors. Often their partners report feeling a genuine connection to them at times, but say that they can turn on a dime and become cold and rejecting – especially when they don’t get their way. It’s not uncommon for a person in an intimate relationship with someone who is narcissistic to begin to doubt themselves and to lose self-confidence. In fact, most narcissists are perfectionists and their partners report that they feel that nothing they do is right or appreciated.
First, I will define narcissistic personality disorder according to the DSM-5 (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders). This manual has recently been revised and is used by mental health professionals to diagnose and treat individuals who suffer from mental illness.
Keep in mind that Narcissistic traits can exist in anyone but that not everyone meets the criteria for narcissistic personality disorder – an pervasive (ongoing) pattern of grandiosity (in fantasy or behavior), need for admiration, and lack of empathy, beginning by early childhood and present in a variety of contexts, as indicated by five (or more) of the following traits:
- Has a grandiose sense of self-importance (e.g., exaggerates achievements and talents, expects to be recognized as superior without commensurate achievement).
- Is preoccupied with fantasies of unlimited success, power, brilliance, beauty, or ideal love.
- Believes that he or she is “special” and unique and can only be understood by, or should associate with, other special or high-status people (or institutions).
- Requires excessive admiration.
- Has a sense of entitlement (i.e., unreasonable expectations of especially favorable treatment or automatic compliance with his or her expectations).
- Is interpersonally exploitative (i.e., takes advantage of others to achieve his or her own ends).
- 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 him or her.
- Show arrogant, haughty behaviors or attitudes.
According to the DSM-V, narcissism exists on a continuum from mild to severe. Author Darlene Lancer, posits that narcissism ranges from self-centeredness and other narcissistic traits to Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD). Lancer writes, “NPD wasn’t categorized as a disorder by the American Psychological Psychiatric Association until 1987, because it was felt that too many people shared some of the traits and it was difficult to diagnose.”
Attorney Stephen Futeral of the Charleston Lawyers Blog, notes that anyone who is married to someone suffering from a personality disorder will report that their marriage is marked by periods of high conflict. He writes, “When you add the additional struggles that come from a divorce, then you have a recipe for EXPLOSIVE conflict between spouses and significant damage for children caught in the middle.
Perhaps the most important question to ask yourself is: Do Eric’s behaviors make it impossible for you to live a happy, fulfilled life? More importantly, do you feel safe and capable of raising Elli in healthy way given your current family situation? I would recommend that you discuss these and other questions with your therapist.
Identifying and breaking up with a narcissist can be a difficult process – which in some cases may take years. The problem is that many narcissists are hard to spot because of their charm and charisma. Author and dating coach Sandy Weiner writes: “The problem is that many narcissists are cleverly cloaked in a different costume, that of the “nice guy” the one who says loving things to you. You feel a connection like never before. Sex is off the charts. It’s intoxicating to be around him. He’s fun, charming, and exciting. This feels like your true soul mate!” Keep in mind that although Ms. Weiner’s article is written with a female audience in mind, she could just as easily be describing a female.
One last word of caution, a true narcissist probably won’t take it well if you break up with him or her. You also have a tough row to hoe if you are considering trying to get full custody of Elli. In many cases, I’ve seen narcissists lash out in rage when they feel their children are being taken away from them because they view them as possessions. So be sure to get legal advice and protect yourself and Elli by being discreet and seeking help. You aren’t alone and there are many resources – which I cover in my next blog.
In my next post, I will address whether or not individuals in intimate relationships or married to narcissists should stay or leave. Stayed tuned in two weeks for this informative blog. I’d love to read your stories, questions and comments. Please send them to me at firstname.lastname@example.org or simply select the Question Tab on our navigation bar on this website.
Follow Terry Gaspard on Twitter and Facebook. She is pleased to announce the publication of Daughters of Divorce: Overcome the Legacy of Your Parents’ Breakup and Enjoy a Happy, Long-lasting Relationship (Sourcebooks).