Welcome to Relationship Rehab, news.com.au’s weekly column solving all your romantic problems, no holds barred. This week, our resident sexologist Isiah McKimmie tackles a husband questioning whether his wife of 10 years is a narcissist.
QUESTION: How can I tell if someone is a narcissist? I’ve been with my wife for ten years and over the past three years I’ve had secret a realisation that she’s a narcissist. She is completely self-obsessed and makes everything about her and gets jealous if give my attention to anything else (including our kids!). She often puts me down and when I point it out she’ll beg for forgiveness but then do the same thing all over again. How can I tell if she is a narcissist and more importantly what can I do about it? I love her but we can’t go on like this.
ANSWER: It must be difficult to acknowledge the traits you’re seeing in your partner right now – and really difficult to live with them.
Narcissism is a popular topic right now and honestly the term is thrown around a little too freely. But let’s look at what narcissism is, what it feels like when you’re in a relationship with a narcissist and what you can do about it.
What is a narcissist?
A narcissist is someone with an inflated sense of self and self importance. They appear grandiose, talking about themselves and their achievements often. They have an excessive need for praise and are very sensitive to criticism. Underneath their mask of extreme confidence is actually very fragile self esteem.
Narcissism exists on a scale. At one end, we have self-focus but at the other end, in its extreme, is classified as a personality disorder.
Most of us will have some narcissistic tendencies – they can actually be healthy in small amounts. Many characteristics of narcissists are praised in our culture, and it can be difficult to realise when these traits become problematic. You may even value narcissistic traits of your partner, as (especially the beginning of a relationship) they can be very attractive.
Underneath narcissism is actually extreme fragility. Narcissistic traits are developed to help someone feel better about themselves and survive in the world.
But knowing that doesn’t necessarily make a relationship with them any easier.
Being in a relationship with a narcissist can be painful and damaging. We often don’t recognise the signs that we’re dating one until it’s too late.
• At the beginning, they made you feel special and seemed to know exactly what you wanted
• They have a high need for praise, admiration and attention
• They really struggle with criticism or any kind of negative feedback – and may react aggressively when you give it
• You find yourself treading on eggshells trying not to upset them
• They have difficulty empathising with you and diminish your hurts
• You constantly put their needs and feelings first
• They believe they deserve special treatment
What can you do if you’re in a relationship with a narcissist?
What to do if you find yourself in a relationship with a narcissist depends largely on where they sit on the scale of narcissism and their ability to take responsibility, where you’re at in your relationship with them and your safety.
It’s usually really difficult for narcissists to change their behaviour – it’s simply too painful for them to acknowledge that their behaviour is anything less than perfect (or at least justified).
Even raising these issues with someone with strong narcissistic tendencies can be challenging. You’ll often be faced with denial – or worse, them turning it back onto you. You can end up feeling like you’re the one who has done something wrong and you may even find yourself apologising for your actions when trying to share how they hurt you.
In a relationship with a narcissist, you begin to doubt yourself. They’ve often cut away your other support networks, including friends and family. By criticising and belittling you, they increase your self doubt. They also become the ones that make you feel better. So you become dependent on them.
The threat of a partner leaving only accentuates the insecurity a narcissist feels and they act out even further when you try to do so. They may increase their criticism and their put downs, act out in violent rages or, as your wife has already done, break down and beg for forgiveness, starting the whole cycle again.
If you do decide to leave a narcissist, know that they will often find a way to hook you back in. The Grey Rock method is most often cited as the technique for dealing with narcissists. This involves interacting as little as possible and showing very little reaction to their behaviour.
The traits you’re describing are consistent with narcissism and certainly aren’t conducive to a happy relationship.
Firstly reach out to your own therapist. Having someone to hear you, validate you and assure you you’re not crazy can help give you the support and confidence you need to make changes in your relationship. A good therapist can also support you with communication tools for raising issues in a way that is less likely to get a negative reaction.
If your wife is willing to look at the issues that are concerning you in your relationship, you stand a chance of being able to make change together and shifting your relationship into something more satisfying.
If she isn’t able or willing to take on board what you’re saying, you’re faced with a really difficult dilemma. I’m aware that you have kids, so leaving will be difficult for you. If you do decide to leave, be firm in your decision.