I’ve just finished watching the movie ‘Marriage Chronicles’ produced by One Truth Media. It was an interesting depiction of the things which can and do go wrong in marriage relationships. The story-line surrounded three couples who were invited to a marriage retreat by a therapist with some fairly unorthodox methods. From the movie’s outset, there was however one couple that I had my doubts about. While the other couple’s problems were equally serious, what caused me to doubt whether this particular couple’s marriage could be saved, was the nature of their challenge; narcissism. Yes, the wife was a full-fledged narcissist who was not in anyway into her husband because she was fully and completely into herself.
While it definitely takes two to tango, it also takes two to untangle. When the chief problem facing a relationship is however the self-absorption of one or both parties, one could well imagine that trying to resolve any serious issues which emerge, would be akin to pounding one’s head into a brick wall which does not intend to give; ever. We first have to get past the colossal barrier which narcissism itself is. And what exactly is it? One dictionary defines it as “extreme selfishness, with a grandiose view of one’s own talents and a craving for admiration” as well as “inordinate fascination with oneself, excessive self-love and vanity”. By its very telling definition, we can immediately recognize how easily this trait can be the enemy of intimate relationships or marriage.
So how exactly does the narcissist in a relationship behave and how does this affect the relationship? The individual locked into this style of functioning is typically:
- Obsessed with having his/her own needs met and will pout, throw tantrums or disconnect physically or emotionally from their partner when this does not occur
- Inflexible, stubborn and unwilling to compromise; there is usually no middle-ground for this individual who MUST have things done their way and who believes that he/she is ALWAYS right
- Sexually self-centered and performance oriented; this means that such individuals will attempt to foist their sexual preferences on their partner without asking or will care little about truly meeting their partner’s sexual needs; concern for their partner’s pleasure is not based on a desire to really please or communicate love but is really linked to whether or not they appear to be a good lover “for the record”
- Vain and overtly concerned with their physical appearance; while nothing is wrong with wanting to look great, individuals who are narcissists do not care as much about their partner’s up-keep and will spend inordinate sums of money to ensure that their own physical appearance is always “near-perfect”; this may involve inappropriate splurging on designer-wear or other cosmetic enhancements
- Selfish about their own personal development; while each member of the partnership may be individually responsible for things like education and career advancement, narcissists are unwilling to make sacrifices to assist or enable their partner’s development but prefer to have their spouse sacrifice for them, after all, they want to be admired, praised and lauded for their academic or career success
- Quick to lay a “guilt trip” on the partner who fails to give in to their every whim and fancy and is quick to play the “blame game” with respect to their own lack of happiness
Living with a narcissist cannot be easy in any way. The relationship is likely to be plagued by constant tension and an underlying sense of unrest. The other partner may feel constantly nagged, blamed, insufficient, inadequate and isolated. Failure to address the issues can also impact the sense of goodwill that should characterize a healthy relationship and could lead to real division. The self-absorption of narcissists makes it doubly difficult to pinpoint their contribution to problems in the relationship as they are usually unwilling to acknowledge responsibility. What then are the options for salvaging such a relationship?
There is no easy way around it. A selfish individual must be confronted with the truth of their behavior. Specific examples should be drawn to show how the offending spouse has continued to act in selfish and self-serving ways. The spouse who is constantly being hurt must also be honest and specific about how this behavior hurts or offends. While directness, assertiveness and clarity should characterize these confrontations, they should be done as much as possible without aggression or anger as this may serve to make matters worse.
The offended spouse should also be willing to establish “boundaries of intolerance”. In other words, he or she must be firm and clear on what behaviors will not be tolerated in the marriage repeatedly. “Tough love” also means redefining notions of love and loyalty. So often we are schooled into thinking that unconditional love means a willingness to accept whatever is dished out to us. The truth is, that while our love may not change because of our spouse’s “bad behavior”, we should still recognize that healthy self-love also means valuing ourselves enough to state what makes us unhappy. Very often abuse continues because we assume the role of helpless victim and our spouse is empowered by our weakness or lack of back-bone and the vicious cycle continues.
Very often the truth is established among more than one “witness”. When all else fails, the offended spouse should seek intervention from a third-party be it a counselor, therapist, pastor, family member or trusted friend. Valuable input from a third-party who is divorced from the day-to-day realities of the couple’s challenges, but can look at them objectively, may play a vital role in challenging the narcissist to see his/her behavior as offending. This admittedly may be no easy feat, as we often become comfortable with our own negative behavior, especially when it has been tolerated for a long time. Nonetheless, seeking assistance from others can only be a valuable strategy in the long term.
Mutual Responsibility and Modeling
While it is so easy to point the finger at someone who we think is perpetuating all or most of the undesirable behavior in a relationship, the truth is that both parties usually contribute in some way to the dysfunction. Narcissists can continue to “thrive” in their relationships because very often their behavior is enabled by a partner who lacks self-esteem, who is afraid to be confrontational or who is simply too plain lazy to do anything about the challenges faced. Both parties must be willing to assume personal responsibility in the relationship, which means a willingness for the offended spouse to see where he or she has also done wrong. Third-party intervention is often critical in pointing this out or in facilitating this. While our natural human response in a relationship crisis is sometimes to seek revenge, adopting an attitude of “tit-for-tat” will be counterproductive. At the same time, the partner who appears to have a more mature outlook or the one who seeks to initiate change must also be prepared to model the behavior, which he/she wants to see.