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The Challenge of the Narcissist in Relationships

February 8, 2013

The Challenge of the Narcissist in Relationships

Narcissists look at the world through a lens that has him or herself at center. Their needs and wants tend to supersede those of others. Others are typically there in the service of their needs.

Niceness and charm to the narcissist are but tools to disarm the other towards the service of meeting one’s needs.

As the niceness and charm flatter the other by way of positive attention, the other feels attracted and beholding to the narcissist. As the superficiality of the niceness and charm fade against the ongoing subordination of the others needs, that sense of feeling attracted and beholding is supplanted with consternation.

Consternation is the outcome of feeling taken advantage of in lop-sided relationships.

Consternation is the outcome of feeling manipulated by being lulled into a sense that the other cares when their positive attention is really a guise for meeting self-serving interests. Consternation is that mix of emotions that includes anger, bewilderment, confusion and dismay. Consternation stifles the will of the person to continue to meet the needs of the narcissist which then drives anger singularly from the narcissist, the result of feeling thwarted when seeking self-interested gratification.

Upon the narcissists needs not being met, particularly in view of a relationship where from the outset his or her needs were met fully on the basis of niceness and charm, the narcissist then projects blame upon the other, proclaiming their change of heart as the root of the now burgeoning relationship turmoil. This would be typical of the narcissist who is otherwise pleased with him/herself, views others as being there in the service of their needs and who cannot cast negatively upon him/herself to see him/herself as selfish and self-serving. As such, the credo of the narcissist would be, “If not for how you have changed, all would be well (for me).” This with nary an appreciation of his/her role in the dynamic. It is all about projecting blame because the narcissist is never wrong.

Of course this is crazy making for the partner of the narcissist who now may be dependent upon the positive reflection previously received through the niceness and charm of the narcissist. If that other person has an already fragile self-esteem, the positive attention of the narcissist may have felt like the elixir of life. Now the narcissist, having developed a dependency of the other for that elixir uses the withdrawal of positive attention as a weapon in the furtherance of his/her self-interest and personal gratification over the needs to the other. Oh what a tangled web.

How does the therapist intervene? What can be done to restore some semblance of order? Can the needs of both be met simultaneously?

The answer depends in part on the disposition of the partner.

If the partner does have a fragile self-esteem, that partner will likely seek to maintain the relationship but will seek some degree of reciprocity. At least some of the partner’s needs must be fulfilled. The credo of the partner dependent upon the narcissist is “Throw me a bone here.”

In these circumstances, I appeal directly to the narcissist’s interests. Getting a narcissist to be altruistic is quite a stretch. Getting a narcissist to appreciate the value for themselves in achieving a quid pro quo (this for that) with others may be within his/her grasp.

The challenge is one in helping the narcissist appreciate it is in his/her own self-interest to better meet the needs of their partner so their own needs can be more easily met. To the degree to which this can occur, the narcissist learns to throw their partner a bone. This may be felt as satisfactory to the person whose self-esteem is low or fragile. From the partner’s perspective, it may be all they are seeking to keep themselves emotionally afloat. But is this an inappropriate outcome? Again, it depends.

If this is sufficient to the persons involved, this remains their choice. If it is not sufficient to either person, then one or other may choose to work more intensely on him or herself.

If the person who has low or fragile self-esteem develops a more independent sense of self and worth, it may come to pass that this person finally initiates a separation from the narcissist partner, no longer feeling dependent upon him/her for scraps or bones. If the narcissist comes to appreciate the needs of others, develops empathy and acts altruistically, then a better outcome may be had as a couple.

If the partner of the narcissist already has a strong sense of self and is not dependent upon receiving a positive reflection in the eyes of others in order to feel whole or worthy, then the relationship will likely end. This person will have a more realistic appraisal of the situation, will see the narcissist as a narcissist, lick their wounds for time and energy wasted and the fantasy of love lost and then move on.

As for the therapists, we need reasonable expectations of what we hope can be achieved and not get inducted into thinking we can rescue clients on the basis of their wish fulfillment.

Challenging situations indeed.

Gary Direnfeld, MSW, RSW

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16 Comments
  1. Laurie Fein permalink

    Gary, excellent discussion topic. A lot of attention has been brought to the issue of narcissism by the media in recent years. And anyone who has been on the receiving end of narcissistic rage will never forget it. The clarity of the dynamic can be very validating because of the effects of “crazy-making” that extends from interactions and relationships with narcissists. And I like that you addressed the capacity of the unluckyu recipient of the narcissist to handle their own escape. Thanks for starting this thread–and stand back and watch the active discussiuons. One of the issues I have encountered is where the line is. We have dealth with narcissists who are incorrigible. One the other hand, we all have a little narcissism in us. I think it’s helpful to understand narcissism and the dynamics to identify where the line is.

  2. Alysia permalink

    Thank you for commenting on consternation. My experience is that people often have several emotions that can be unsettling and conflicting as the idealization of the ‘narcissist’ starts to wane. I appreciate the ideas around how to deal with these complicated dynamics in treatment.

  3. I have had a LONG history of attracting narcissists, as I was raised by one. My sister is also very much one. It has taken me a very long time to fully de-internalize (“”) the false belief systems this caused. That said, I did not let either of my divorces get ugly.

    I am sort of stubborn, and could not for the life of me see my way clear to demonizing someone I chose, however mistakenly! I prefer to extract the lessons. I guess I am lucky that way.

  4. Yvonne permalink

    I am currently assisting the daughter of a narcissist to untangle the damage she has done. My resulting thoughts are that this women will continue to seek a relationship with her mother whilst her childhood emtional needs remain unmet. She is currently unable to accept that her mother may never do this.
    A difficult journey for a brave daughter who wants to break the cycle of narcissism which exists in her family for the sake of her children and herself.

  5. Joyce permalink

    I have been married to one of these for 19 years. It took that long for me to realize I was tired and stressed out with not having my needs met. He blames others for his loss of jobs. He is in so much denial of my wanting to divorce him. Now it is my fault that he cannot seek another job because of the divorce. He has my teenage sons believing this. I jsut want out of this relationship to move on to freedom.

    • Jan permalink

      This article is spot-on. i was married to one of these for 21 years, worked on my own codependent issues, and left. Finally realized there was no hope for change because, of course, everything was all my fault, all the time. From a distance I’m trying to enlighten my daughters how to protect themselves from his manipulations, but for me, this was the best decision I ever made and this freedom is priceless!

  6. rachel permalink

    Great article! Narcissists are usually very insecure and in my experience have no problem exploiting others to get what they want, with a total disregard for the feelings or boundaries of others. I am always amazed at the total lack of empathy in these people.

  7. Pauline permalink

    Awesome article!!! You really hit the spot. I wonder looking back on my relationships with narcissists, if there is any way to assist them deal with the insecurities they tend to have. Personality disorders are very difficult to treat, but there should be some hope, right?

  8. Dorota Shantianna permalink

    Wow! This explains everything for me. I could not understand my attachment, but the article makes perfect sense to me now. I am glad I had that experience and got two wonderful boys out of it. I understand now why I had so much anger and resentment toward my so called partner and can put a name to it. It seems I can finally let go.

  9. Sally permalink

    This is amazing. A friend fold me to read tho, and shes right!! I think my low self esteem has enabled me to stay with my narcissist so long. Honestly it has been the best years of my life, he’s the most dynamic, accomplished highly successful man I’ve ever meet. Unfortunately, glitches keep popping up from anger, criticism, and constant perfection. I love serving him, but at some point I got tired, or complained, and noticed he never acknowledged ANY amount if work. For instances saying “you never clean”. because I didn’t do the dishes one night. When in reality I cook, cleaned everyday for years. It goes on and on like that. Very refreshing perspective!!! Thanks.

  10. denise broome permalink

    i was in a 17 year relationship with a narcissist. he coached softball and football (he thought these were his “jobs” he got a grandiose sense of himself through this coaching..you can only imagine..parents constantly congratulating him on his great job!!! He started an affair with one of the softball moms and denied for months..He left and started a new life without really missing a beat, leaving me in a heap..I am up now and feeling my spirit come back. Being with him without realizing took away MY spirit. They seriously do not care @ anyone but themselves..GOOD RIDDENS!!!!!!!

  11. Tona permalink

    Gary – another timely topic. Enjoy dialoging with you.

  12. Sharon permalink

    Wow so reaffirming! I have just ended or rather, he has just ended a 10 year “on off” relationship and the reason is made so clear in this article so thank you Gary! I took my ex back 5 months ago after a 10 month break. At first he was his usual charming self but it wasn’t long before the cracks showed and I found myself asking questions about how I wanted to live my life. He never had any money so anything we did was funded by me. Sign no 1. It was always on his terms. Everything. To when we caught up what we did and at what time. Sign no 3. When I tried to talk about our future, he became angry and accusing of something I hadn’t done. And then he was gone. All the while (via copious text messages) claiming it was all my fault. No contact is the only way forward. That I know, as trying to make sense of his behaviour (impossible) and why on earth I kept taking him back….is now the work I need to do. Confronting times ahead but my children and myself deserve it.

  13. Thank You for this enlightening article. You wrote my story.

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