If your partner is a narcissist and you know how to protect yourself from becoming oppressed by them, you will need some strategies for interpersonal effectiveness to survive, and possibly even thrive, in your relationship. If you are uncertain about either of these points, please see: Is Your Partner a Narcissist? and How to Keep From Being Trapped in Your Relationship with a Narcissist.
If your partner is physically violent, emotionally abusive, addicted to alcohol or drugs, or constantly unfaithful, and making no effort to stop, your best solution is to do whatever it takes to keep yourself safe. You must tell them to leave or you must leave yourself. It is unlikely that any other strategy will work in these circumstances.
However, if you are living with a narcissist who you can engage, who wants to make the relationship better, and who can remain calm at times, you need to learn how to protect yourself and disarm them. If you feel safe and know that you can get through to your partner emotionally at times, then there are a few strategies that Wendy Behary in her book Disarming the Narcissist suggests. These three strategies are based on empathic confrontation, which means putting yourself in the narcissist shoes to see their inner world – the child inside the adult. When you hear the harsh tone of voice, you need to imagine the face of a deprived and lonely child. Your calming empathic and compassionate response will de-escalate them, as you hold them accountable for their behaviour. These strategies can help you to protect yourself, disarm the narcissist and lead to better interpersonal effectiveness.
Differentiate between Fault and Responsibility
Narcissists get very angry when they feel blamed. They have a thin skin, frequently feel criticized and become reactively defensive with anger. Empathic confrontation can work to prevent getting their anger directed at you and help them own their part of the situation.
Imagine your narcissist husband Ben, blames you when he is 20 minutes late picking you up. Instead of giving you an apology, as most people would, he complains about how inconvenient it was for him and saying he will never do this again for you.
Using empathic confrontation with complete composure, you take a very deep breath, remember that right now you are dealing for this moment with that little boy inside your husband’s adult body. He is angrily blaming you, but on inside is a lost and overwhelmed child screaming because he is unable to calm or sooth himself and afraid of getting punished. You let there be silence for thirty seconds as you collect your thoughts. Then you say “Ben, I am sure that the traffic (or whatever made him late) was very frustrating for you. It was completely beyond your control. You probably did not want to keep me waiting and were expecting me to be angry with you. I appreciate you picking me up. I am not blaming you for what was outside of your control. It was not your fault. However, you are responsible for how you express your feelings to me. You do not need to blame me. The way you just did is not acceptable. It is hurtful to me and our relationship. “
This is an example of how to differentiate fault from responsibility. While this may seem like very hard work, it may help establish the relationship rules and Ben can become a more self aware ‘healthy narcissist’.
Establish the Rules of Reciprocity
Rules of reciprocal behaviour means taking turns so the narcissist learns they cannot always get what they want. These rules can help fill the void in a narcissist where empathic reciprocity exists naturally in non-narcissists.
Imagine you suggest that you go to a new restaurant to your narcissistic husband, Rob. He likes to go to the same familiar place every weekend where he is treated like a celebrity. He says, “I don’t want to go to be a guinea pig at some new place where we have to wait to be seated. Who knows what the food will be like? Forget it!”
You pause and reflect. You remember him as he was as a little boy unable to fit in and who hated change. You remember your own tendency as a child to try to please everyone else and always give in on things you wanted. So, you say to Rob, “I know how much you enjoy your favourite restaurant. I enjoy it too. Tonight, I wanted to be a bit more adventurous and try something different. When you speak to me that way, so abruptly, I feel dismissed and cut off. I would like us to come up with a plan which we both might enjoy.” Rob grumbles a bit more then pauses, looks up and says,” Okay, I get your point, but please not this weekend. How about we go to the new place next week?”
You agree and hold him to his word ti go to his favourite this time and next weekend to the new one. This is an example of establishing reciprocity in the relationship. It is important to work to maintain this.
Promote Optimal Awareness by Providing Positive Feedback when Deserved
Positive feedback is effective in helping a narcissist partner know what works well for you.
Imagine your self-absorbed wife thinks to call you when her plans have changed and she needs to work late or is out with friends. This thoughtfulness is not at all typical of her. Her usual pattern is get home late, not apologize or explain, and not think about how her absence may have affected you. When she gets it right, does call, and shows consideration, it is important to thank her for thinking of you. Positive feedback when deserved, can have a lasting impact. Reciprocate consideration by asking how she’s doing. Showing concern and caring in return will reinforce her positive actions.
Can a Narcissist Change?
Most narcissists’personalities will never change. Those few who do adapt, do so extremely slowly with a great deal of help: therapy, spiritual guidance, self-help and a determined, loyal partner.
If the narcissist in your life is amenable to seeking professional help, seek out a therapist who can be empathically confrontational. In a limited way, the therapist has to re-parent the wounded side of the narcissist. They can learn to behave more thoughtfully and show signs of becoming a healthy narcissist.
If you are living with one, be sure to keep yourself from being harmed emotionally by him or her. You must work very hard at establishing boundaries and not absorbing the blame and anger they can place on you. You will need to learn effective de-escalation skills. Therapy for the narcissist’s partner can help bolster your authentic self, empathy, effectiveness, wisdom and self-advocacy.