Wow, we had a pretty lively dialogue with Counselor Tim last week and I’m trusting he has seen and learned some things about himself from listening to all of you. But I’m also wondering if you have seen and learned some things about yourselves as a result of your interaction with him?
Tim was a total stranger to you – to me too. All we knew about him is what I told you and what he said. Yet some of you saw him as the enemy. How come?
We live in a very scary culture where differences of opinions or thoughts are vilified even when we claim to be on the same side of an issue. We’ve seen this happen politically a lot but it’s even happening in our small enclave of people who speak out about abuse and destructive relationships. We won’t all agree on everything here. Jesus knew that there would be a diversity of opinions in his Church, but he called us to unity and love so that we would not fall into attacking and accusing.
The O step of CORE means we will be open to one another and the Holy Spirit. We don’t know everything. That’s why we need to listen, to ask questions, and not prejudge or jump to negative conclusions about someone’s motives, character, story, or intent. Many of us encouraged Tim to listen more carefully. But it’s important that we challenge ourselves to do that also. That’s why I appreciate people like Tim, who challenge me to think about what I believe and teach in light of God’s word.
Learning to listen and not pre-judge someone is important if you want to have decent relationships in the future. Click To Tweet
No one likes to feel attacked or judged, and it elicits defensiveness in most of us when that happens. Tim was no exception. Sometimes the responses to his challenges or questions strayed from staying in CORE.
I challenged Tim to reflect on his part – but I’m not aware that he’s read anything about my teaching on CORE. But, I’m also challenging some of you to reflect on your part. Please don’t hear it as scolding. But I do want to encourage you to continue to learn to communicate in a healthier, more godly way even when you are upset, challenged or disagree with someone. This is crucial if you want a successful long-term relationship with anyone.
In today’s question, a person is challenged with how she is going to handle her side of the fence in living with a narcissist. Certainly, she faces a greater struggle then responding wisely to an online blog question. But this too is her opportunity to grow in her own CORE strength, not to attack or disparage him.
Question: How do I live with a narcissist?
Answer: This is a challenging question to answer as you have given me no details as to the particular form of narcissism the person you are living with displays or what kind of relationship you have with this person. Let me ask you a question. Has your spouse or the person you are living with been officially diagnosed with Narcissistic Personality Disorder or any form of narcissism?
Sometimes we see certain traits in someone, do a little searching on the internet and then “label” that person as Bi-polar, Multiple Personality Disorder (MPD), Borderline Personality Disorder(BPD) or Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD ). But that can be hurtful and dangerous, especially if you are the one being labeled. I have seen women who are suffering from abuse and trauma wrongly labeled as bipolar or borderline and eventually lose custody of her children.
The American Psychological Association’s Diagnostic Statistical Manual 5 describes Narcissistic Personality Disorder in the following way:
A pervasive pattern of grandiosity (in fantasy or behavior), need for admiration, and lack of empathy, beginning by early adulthood and present in a variety of contexts, as indicated by five (or more) of the following:
(1) Has a grandiose sense of self-importance (e.g., exaggerates achievements and talents, expects to be recognized as superior without commensurate achievements).
(2) Is preoccupied with fantasies of unlimited success, power, brilliance, beauty, or ideal love.
(3) 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).
(4) Requires excessive admiration.
(5) Has a sense of entitlement, i.e., unreasonable expectations of especially favorable treatment or automatic compliance with his or her expectations.
(6) Is interpersonally exploitative, i.e., takes advantage of others to achieve his or her own ends.
(7) Lacks empathy: is unwilling to recognize or identify with the feelings and needs of others.
(8) Is often envious of others or believes that others are envious of him or her.
(9) Shows arrogant, haughty behaviors or attitudes.
Not everyone who has some of these identified traits has narcissistic personality disorder. When you look down the list of descriptors – you might actually find yourself or someone you love sharing a few of the identified traits, some of the time.
We all fall on a continuum somewhere between healthy and unhealthy. And in a moments snapshot, we might look unhealthy if we were in a crisis, or we might look healthy if we’re giving a sermon in church.
That’s why it’s important to look at pervasive patterns because all of us have issues.
Everyone has sin patterns, and everyone has problems. In some way, all of us are touched and damaged by sin, both our own sin as well as the sin of others against us.
For example: wanting to feel special and be admired is one of the traits of NPD. But a bride might feel this way on her wedding day or you might feel extra special if your friends threw you a big birthday bash for your 40th birthday.
That’s not unhealthy narcissism or signs of NPD. Why not? Because you don’t always feel extra special. It’s not a pattern in the way you think about yourself.
Entitlement is another characteristic of narcissism and healthy narcissism might show itself when you believe you are entitled or deserving of special treatment if you were going through chemotherapy or in the emergency room after an accident or even you just won the lottery.
But soon, you go back to not feeling so entitled of extra special treatment and are also willing to give other people special attention in a time of need or blessing.
However, a person diagnosed with NPD has a felt NEED for constant admiration and ego stroking. They crave people who will admire them and make them feel special a lot. He or she also can’t handle criticism or negative feedback, because that would take the narcissist off a spot of specialness.
A person diagnosed with NPD refuses to take any responsibility for wrongdoing because that would require humility and the ability to recognize his/her own foibles. However, there are those who are not diagnosed with NPD who also find it hard to admit his or her faults and are extremely defensive when criticized.
A person diagnosed with NPD believes he or she is always right, wants to win, and is better than other people. That means that in every relationship with someone who has NPD, there is a one-up characteristic often displayed by an attitude of “I am better than you. I am more important, more special, more entitled, and more right than you are.” You can imagine the problems that come up when trying to live peaceably and wisely with someone who thinks like that.
So I’m going to assume that the person you live with – whether it is a spouse or an elderly parent or even a roommate, has not been “officially” diagnosed by a mental health professional as a narcissist but he or she does demonstrate some of the traits which make him or her difficult to live with.
If you look at the traits of narcissism moving up the scale, with 5 being relatively healthy, and 6, 7, 8, being more selfish, entitled, and wanting attention and admiration, and then 9, 10, describing more of a locked in personality disorder of these traits, where does the person you live with fall? Someone may have some narcissistic traits without having a full-blown diagnosis of NPD.
But your question is, “How do I live with a Narcissist?” and my answer is “It depends.”
First, it depends on where he or she falls on the scale of narcissistic traits and which ones are more predominant. Second, it depends on the type of relationship you have with this person you are living with. You haven’t said that it is your spouse so I don’t want to presume but for our purposes here, I will assume it is a husband (or wife) versus living with a parent or adult child who displays these traits. Third, it depends on where you are in you own emotional/mental/spiritual journey and your ability to have a good combination of truth and grace.
Don’t get me wrong. Living with someone who is unhealthy, whether he or she is physically unhealthy, mentally unhealthy, emotionally unhealthy or spiritually unhealthy takes its toll on someone. It has many challenges, but so does living with someone who is relatively healthy. It’s hard for some people to compromise and to honestly express feelings and thoughts in constructive ways. These are some basic ingredients required for us to live together with someone in a nourishing way.
But challenges also present us with new opportunities for our own personal growth and maturity. Therefore in order for you to discern whether or not you can live wisely and well with a narcissist, you first need to do your own work.
It’s not unusual for those who have traits of narcissism to be attracted to people who have their own traits of self-sacrifice, poor personal boundaries, and high empathy. I don’t know if that describes you but if so, you will need to learn how to identify and value your own needs as well as learn how to express them to your spouse in a way that gives you the best possible chance of seeing if your narcissist can hear you and respond positively.
Second, you need to learn what are some the key indicators that will alert you to know whether or not your spouse is willing and capable of learning to care more about you and your needs (because empathy and compassion for others don’t come naturally to someone with narcissistic traits).
Let me give you an example: Let’s say that your narcissistic spouse works long hours and when he comes home is absorbed in his own interests. When you’ve complained in the past, he minimizes your feelings, or mocks you or tells you that you’re being a nag. We know that when a narcissist is criticized, he immediately goes into attack mode. That’s just how they function. So the question is, can he be invited to care about how you feel and the relationship you share?
Here is where you will need to learn to be strategic with a clear mixture of truth and grace. Blowing up with criticism and judgment as well as attacking and accusing will only drive a narcissist to react negatively with more arrogance and insensitivity. However, sometimes, those lower on the scale (not NPD’s) can respond better but need a clear path on how to move toward caring rather than shut down or retaliate.
In my book The Emotionally Destructive Marriage I talk about speaking up by first affirming your commitment or care for the person and the relationship. For a tough talk with a narcissist, this is especially important because they are highly sensitive to rejection and abandonment. Reassuring him of your care or love or commitment may settle his insides down enough to hear the rest of what you have to say.
I understand this first part can take a good deal of grace and work on your part. Some women have tried for a long time to gain love from a narcissist by affirming his ego. They revolve their entire lives around making him happy until they are so tired or angry they just can’t anymore. At that point, they aren’t even sure they are committed or care anymore, therefore, it’s hard to say so without feeling like a liar. If that’s where you are at, don’t lie or pretend. But if you haven’t let things go too long, and you still are committed or feel positive feelings, it’s worth a shot.
When you start by affirming your care, it creates a safe space to hear the next part. Here’s where the truth with grace comes in. Next, you are going to gently share a vulnerable feeling about what bothers you without attacking him. For example, “I love you and want our relationship to be close. I feel lonely (this needs to be a feeling that is more vulnerable, rather than an angry feeling) when you work such long hours and we don’t spend time together.”
Now you wait to see how he responds. If he responds with a question, or an affirmation (“I want that too”) or any kind of comfort or validation (I’m sorry you’ve felt so lonely) or (I know I’ve been working long hours lately), that’s a good sign. Perhaps your spouse isn’t a full-blown NPD, but only someone with narcissistic traits and he can learn to be more caring of your needs and less wrapped up in his own.
However if he responds with criticism, judgment or an attack or deceit, or minimizes or mocks your feelings or tries to gaslight your perspective, understand that he is not capable of a reciprocal relationship. It is all about him and him only.
Then your problem becomes how do you live with a person who doesn’t care about your feelings or your needs? How do you live with a person with whom you are an object to use, not a person to love? The only way to live with someone like this is with very strong and clear boundaries, excellent self-care, and a good support network of healthy relationships. And even with those things in place it will still be very challenging and be draining. But for many reasons, you may not have the freedom or ability to separate right now.
If that’s true for you then use this time to do your own work instead of being angry that he refuses to do his. Learn how to speak up for yourself in a good way. Learn how to have good boundaries, which is about stewarding your own personhood rather than trying to manage him. And focus your attention on building healthy and strong friendships outside of your marriage so that you are getting some of your relationship needs to be met. As you work on these things, even the pain of living with a narcissist can bring about good growth in your own character.
Friend, how have you lived wisely with a narcissist?