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.

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Thanks, Terry