Marilyn and David have been married for five years. Marilyn teaches grade three and loves her work and the students she teaches. David is a lawyer who has been moving up the ladder in the large downtown firm hoping to be made a partner soon. David never misses an opportunity to put Marilyn down about the way she dresses and her friends from university she stays in touch with. David also frequently mentions to Marilyn how much more money he makes than her and that his job is more important than hers. Marilyn resents his put downs, but has learned it is best not to pay much attention when he is critical. What really infuriates her though, is how flirtatious David is with his female colleagues. A girlfriend tells her that she saw David at restaurant with a colleague when he was supposed to be working late at the office. When Marilyn decided to follow him after work and caught him kissing the female colleague. Instead of confronting him and listening to his denial and lies, she took a golf club from her trunk and smashed the window of his new sports car.
If you are married to a person like David who has some of the following traits: is self-absorbed, entitled, demeaning, distrustful, perfectionistic, snobbish, approval seeking, unempathic, unremorseful, compulsive, addictive or emotionally detached, then there is a good chance they are a narcissist. (See Is Your Partner Self-Absorbed?). Whether your partner has most of these traits and is extremely self-absorbed, or whether they have only some of the traits in certain circumstances, you know that they can hurt you emotionally. What they say to you and how you are treated by them can take a toll on your confidence, how you value yourself and your viewpoint and erode your self-esteem.
It appears that many people who become attracted to narcissists often have been raised in families where healthy self-love was not modeled or encouraged. Often verbal or physical abuse or neglect was present in childhood. When they see the strong self-confidence and self-entitlement of the narcissist, they are attracted unconsciously to this person who appears to have what you did not receive in childhood. The narcissist seems very good at selecting unconsciously a person as a partner who is emotionally vulnerable who they can dominate. So this is how the self-absorbed become attached to the unloved.
In her book Disarming the Narcissist, Wendy Behary identifies three typical reactions to the behaviour of the narcissist partners have that are related to our own internal autobiography from childhood, making us vulnerable.
1. Mistrust and Domination lead to Emotional Detachment or Avoidance.
As a child, you felt taken advantage of and subjugated by your parents. These memories are activated by your partner’s criticism, demeaning comments and blame. Protective coping mechanisms to shield you from control and abuse in childhood, lead you to shut down emotionally and do as you are told.
2. Defectiveness and Unrelenting Standards lead to Anger and Resentments.
If the way you were raised led you to feel unlovable, defective or flawed, then the narcissist’s criticisms and withholding nature will lead you to work as hard as you can to be the perfect spouse and ultimately fail to please either of you, in the long run.
3. Abandonment, Emotional Deprivation and Self-Sacrifice lead to Denigration
If you grew up feeling that there was no one you could truly count on, people you loved could leave you, or did not understand you or give you love, affection and support, like an alcoholic parent, you learned to put your own needs and feelings aside and take care of others. You are likely still trying to take care of your narcissistic partner.
Setting Limits and Boundaries to Increase Your Self-Worth
If you are living with a narcissist, you need to prevent erosion of your self-worth. If he or she is physically violent, emotionally abusive, addicted to alcohol or drugs, or constantly unfaithful, your best solution is to do whatever it takes to keep yourself safe. That means you will have to ask him or her leave, or you will have to leave yourself. No other strategy will work in these circumstances.
In The One-Way Relationship Workbook, Neil Lavender and Alan Caivola make the following suggestions to help you protect yourself from the harm of the narcissist and increase your self-worth.
1. Know where your difficulty with boundary setting comes from in your childhood:
o Physical or sexual abuse,
o Neglect of your needs due to an alcoholic or mentally ill parent,
o Rejected, ridiculed or belittled by your parents,
o Threats to be sent away to a relative, foster home or boarding school,
o Witness to physical violence or sexual abuse of any member of the family
2. Recognize which of the three typical vulnerabilities are yours from the list above.
3. Declare what behaviours from you narcissistic spouse you will not tolerate and identify for yourself how you will respond.
4. Take time for your favorite activities to really enjoy and enhance how you feel about yourself. Do things that reinforce the message, “I am worth it” and make them a regular part of your daily, weekly or monthly routine.
5. Learn to say no. You will need to practice this over and over and not allow yourself to be worn down, manipulated or made to feel guilty for refusing an unreasonable request.
6. Develop persistence in holding your ground because:
o you cannot change the narcissist
o they do not understand, nor will they accept, that they narcissists
o the narcissist is unlikely to change themselves
o even if they seek therapy, most narcissists want others to change, not themselves.
If you are in a relationship like David and Marilyn’s, or know that you can no longer tolerate the toll the narcissist takes on your self-worth, it is really good idea to get some help for yourself to figure out how to cope better or whether it’s time to leave.