We all carry at least a little narcissism in our hearts. We all show a few traits that belie underlying pride and entitlement. But what happens in marriages when narcissism is a defining feature? And how can spouses of narcissists learn best to cope with this issue?
Ok let’s get into the topic of narcissism — which, actually, can be one that feels pretty hopeless. But this is the first time I’ve really examined how to work with a narcissistic spouse and I am glad that there is hope. It can be very difficult to live with narcissism and no doubt some of our listeners today feel the reality of this: but there is hope.
What Does Narcissism Look Like?
Narcissism either comes as a personality trait or traits — when we look at those you’ll probably notice that we all exhibit some of these characteristics at least on an occasional basis. For example, showing a sense of entitlement in your marriage — like you deserve to have something done for you by your spouse — but this does not necessarily mean that you have Narcissistic Personality Disorder, or NPD. NPD is a whole level above narcissistic traits. So let’s look at these traits vs. having a diagnosed personality disorder.
Narcissism as a personality trait is defined as:
- Belief in one’s own superiority
- A sense of entitlement and a need for admiration from others
- Displays of dominant, controlling or manipulative behavior and a disregard for the needs of others
So generally seeing yourself as above other people is the central issue. Narcissism does not always produce a universal sense of superiority but leads to narcissists thinking they are better in certain areas which they value. They may value their looks, success, wealth or some other form of ability but overlook areas where they might be considered lacking.
Narcissists are often prone to extreme jealousy and have very fragile self esteem as their sense of worth is directly tied to their ability to feel and be seen as superior to others[i]. As soon as that superiority is threatened their sense of who they are starts to fall apart.
Now just remember that any time we talk about abnormal psychology that it’s easy for any one of us to freak out and think — “Wow! That is me! I am so messed up!!” Especially for something like this.
If you are a believer in the Lord Jesus Christ, as Verlynda and I are, and you understand that the Bible talks a lot about pride and you see the pride that exists in your life as I see the pride in mine, it can be easy to go from thinking we have the normal set of pride issues that come with our broken humanity to thinking that wow, maybe I have a huge personality problem.
Stay calm. Think this through. Talk to the people who know you best and who will be honest with you.
Take, for example, beliefs in one’s own superiority. Here’s a good example – I’m the guy who tries to nail the best parking spots when I go to the store. As close to the door as I can. I don’t park in any handicap spots — don’t worry! But when I nail an awesome parking spot there’s some major gloating that happens! But just because I do a few things like that, which involve the belief in one’s own superiority (“who’s the mac daddy for parking spots??”) or a sense of entitlement (“I deserve an awesome paring spot”) it does not mean I am a narcissist.
Narcissistic Personality Disorder
I think all of us display narcissistic behaviors from time to time.
A much smaller subset of the population would exhibit regular narcissistic traits or have narcissism as a more central part of their personality. That would make that person more challenging to be married to.
NPD on the other hand is the most severe situation. This disorder affects about 8% of men and 5% of women. The DSM definition of NPD includes:
- Pathological personality traits such as antagonism, grandiosity, and attention seeking
- Impaired individual functioning due to unreasonably high standards and the need for approval from others in order to form a stable identity,
- Impaired interpersonal functioning due to a lack of empathy and intimacy
So here we’re dealing with a sense of superiority so strong that it impairs the person’s ability to relate to other people, and also affects their own inner world due to the intense pressure to live up to their own impossible standards. Characteristics of those with the disorder include:
- An insatiable appetite for the attention of other people.
- Behaving as if they deserve special treatment.
- Commonly exaggerating their achievements, talents, and importance.
- Finding it difficult to maintain healthy relationships.
- Having fantasies regarding their own intelligence, success, power, and good looks.
- If they have to take advantage of others to get what they want, they will, without regret or conscience.
- Responding to criticism with anger, humiliation, and shame.
One question you may be wondering about is “can narcissism ever be a good thing?” It sort of makes sense to think that loving yourself and having high self esteem may yield some benefits. Does that end up being the case?
Well, narcissistic personality disorder (and to a lesser extent sub-clinical narcissism) is occasionally associated with moderate levels of distress, depression and anxiety for the narcissistic individual, but sometimes linked to high levels of functioning and mental wellbeing. So yes, it can be a bit of a mixed bag for the narcissistic individual.
However, narcissism is consistently linked to very high levels of distress for those around them[ii]. To put it another way: “the mind of a narcissist is like a sports utility vehicle. It is great to be in the driving seat, but fellow motorists must watch out, lest a collision with this mobile fortress demolish their more humble hatchbacks.[iii]”
So those are the characteristics generally, but we want to help specifically with narcissism and marriage. Now we’ll move on to looking at how these traits impact marriage so you can make sense of why your marriage is the way it is.
Bringing Out the Best In Your Narcissistic Spouse
We have created a bonus guide called “Bringing Out the Best In Your Narcissistic Spouse”, which can help you deal with the worst aspects of narcissism and leverage the good parts to help your marriage. We’d love for you to get a copy of this by becoming a Patron of The Marriage Podcast for Smart People. Once you become a patron you will get access to this on our Patreon page. It is very easy to sign up and download.
Narcissistic Traits and Marriage
Narcissistic traits lead to relationship dysfunction over time, but not initially. A study in 2016[iv] interviewed 146 newlywed couples over the first four years of marriage. They found that narcissistic traits in either husbands or wives predicted a sharp decline in marital quality over time and an increase in marital problems such as conflict.
The effect of wives’ narcissism was stronger than the effect of husband’s, and specific traits of entitlement and exploitative behaviors were the strongest factors. Effects of wives’ narcissism may be stronger because men are expected to act more self-interested and boastful than women, so narcissism is seen as more normal in men and more problematic in women[v].
Before these problems start to kick in, narcissistic relationships may initially function well, for both the narcissist and their spouse. At the start of the relationship the narcissist sees the relationship as a way of enhancing themself and increasing their own happiness, while seeing little cost or investment to the relationship.
The narcissist will probably be good at presenting themselves positively and may come across as confident and charismatic, therefore leading to higher satisfaction for the spouse at first. Over time the Narcissistic traits start to become harmful to the partner, while the narcissist themselves are required to invest more into the relationship over time, which they will not be motivated to do[vi]. And so the relationship starts to deteriorate from both ends.
Later into the relationship, narcissism can have some specific effects, which we’ll look at now.
Beliefs and Goals
Narcissists often have very specific beliefs and goals when coming into a relationship. They will aim to choose to marry someone who enhances their own status, power or self-image, so are often drawn to people who are attractive and successful. They will also pick spouses who are very attentive and affectionate towards them to enhance their own self esteem.
Here’s an interesting observation: despite being drawn to socially desirable spouses, narcissists do not see their spouses as being especially desirable. In one study narcissists rated their partners as being no better than average on measures of attractiveness and desirableness, while rating themselves as higher than average[vii].
Narcissists are interested in self-enhancing behaviors and attitudes more than they care about communal interests.
They are therefore most interested in their own needs and in seeking sensation and excitement, while valuing their own traits of power and dominance. They are less interested in traits and actions which benefit both them and their partner, such as intimacy, warmth and concern, often seeing relationships as a way of enhancing their own pleasure at the expense of the partner[viii].
This “all about me” attitude reduces relationship quality and levels of intimacy for the spouse of the Narcissist. A real and passionate connection to someone only comes when you care about them as much as (or more than) yourself, and for a narcissist that just isn’t going to happen.
The lack of intimacy (and lack of interest in intimacy) described above negatively impacts sexual satisfaction. No surprise there. Narcissists are also usually more interested in physical pleasure than the emotional connection of sex, seeing sex as a means of personal pleasure[ix]. Which ironically ends up making sex less enjoyable since the emotional connection is missing.
Going through these details you can really see that this is a different way of seeing the world. Yes, all of us married folk pursue sex for pleasure but really we have this drive for connection and for being with someone and for being seen and known and loved and appreciated. But for the narcissist it is almost like a more reductionist approach where something like sex is reduced to a way of producing something pleasurable for myself. It likely feels very selfish if you are married to a narcissist.
Commitment and Infidelity
Narcissism is also linked to lower relationship commitment and higher infidelity[x].
The reasons for this are interesting — a little complex — but they make sense.
The Investment Model (which we touched on in our episode on how porn impacts marriage) states that any relationship commitment is determined by three factors: satisfaction with the relationship, investment in the relationship and availability of alternatives. Narcissism affects all three of these factors:
- Naturally there is reduced relationship satisfaction,
- which de-motivates the Narcissist to invest in the relationship and
- they carry an inflated view of their ability to find alternative partners[xi]. They see themselves as perfect, right? So of course other people will be willing to take them in if their current relationship doesn’t work out.
Narcissism is part of a cluster of personality traits that are all linked to lower levels of sexual restrictiveness, meaning a lower belief that sex should only happen in loving and committed relationships. Narcissism also is linked to high levels of self-monitoring (the ability to regulate how you come across to other people), Machiavellian personality (being manipulative), high extroversion and low agreeableness, all of which are linked to less restricted views of sex and to higher infidelity[xii]. In other words, the character traits and values required to be more predisposed to extramarital affairs are all there.
Probably there’s a spouse listening today and you are married to a narcissist and probably you have been blamed for the affairs. I want you to know that this is not all your fault. Really, there is probably very little you could have done to stop the narcissist and ultimately he or she needs to take ownership of these broken parts of their life and seek to find healing and recovery. Narcissistic traits and NPD are pretty common in sex addicts.
Mind Games and Abuse
Narcissists often use relationships and other people as a means of self-enhancement. They do this by seeking and expressing superiority or dominance over others and by drawing attention to themselves through exhibitionism— extravagant behaviors to attract attention[xiii]. When their attempts to prove superiority are thwarted, narcissists can become aggressive or may take credit for their partner’s accomplishments.
Narcissists often adopt a “game playing” style of love, where they aim to get exactly what they want from the relationship (status, power, physical pleasure) while giving as little as possible. This quote from a study in 2002[xiv] summaries the Narcissist’s style of relationship:
“We suspect that the ideal solution for narcissists is to begin and maintain a relationship with a partner using charm, extroversion, and confidence. This gives narcissists access to positive attention, esteem, and sexual resources. They would be careful to keep this relationship from becoming too intimate or emotionally close lest they lose control.
Finally, narcissists would covertly seek out other potential romantic partners. This strategy would allow narcissists to maintain power and freedom in the existing relationship. Likewise, it would allow narcissists to garner esteem and sexual access from additional partners. Finally, it would offer narcissists an easy transition to another relationship if their current relationship ends.”
This pattern of mind games and controlling or manipulative behavior often constitutes emotional abuse, and can spill over into physical abuse. Research shows there is sometimes a link between the two. A study in 2008[xv] found that abusive husbands often displayed an egocentric style of behavior referred to as “sexual narcissism” in which they held an inflated view of their own abilities while having a reduced interest in closeness and lower sexual satisfaction overall.
At the end of the day narcissists are very wounded people. But in their attempts to fill that wound and to protect their incredibly fragile egos they end up destroying a lot of other people and relationships too. That is why it is so difficult to be in relationship with them. They bear the image of God but it can be so painful to relate to them.
How To Help Your Narcissistic Spouse
Most of what we have to say about this is in the bonus guide for the episode, but here are some thoughts to get you started in case you’re not able to become a patron today.
You need to be aware that narcissism as both a trait and a personality disorder are very difficult to change. This is partly because they reflect core components of the person’s character which are very resistant to change, and partly because the narcissist will not want to change, due to having a very high view of themselves and therefore seeing no motivation to get help[xvi].
They need good psychotherapy to deal with whatever hurts are underneath their insecurities and change their patterns of thinking. But when you have this inflated view of yourself why would you think that you need therapy? That’s the dilemma. But in moments where they feel they have failed in some way, or been unable to prove themselves superior, these moments may provide the motivation needed to get help[xvii]. These brief moments of weakness can be the gap in their armor that you need to get in.
So change may be difficult, but when specific traits and attitudes are worked on, trait narcissism can actually be positively correlated with relationship satisfaction and psychological wellbeing. In other words, you can take what you are confronted with and work towards pointing that in a good direction. There are two areas where this can be developed:
Remember how we saw that narcissism wasn’t necessarily all bad? A study in 2004[xviii] found a positive link between sub-clinical narcissism and a range of positive outcomes. But this link is entirely mediated by levels of self esteem: when self esteem is high, narcissism can have a range of personal and couple benefits including:
- Daily and long-term well being for the narcissist and their partner
- Reduced anxiety
- Reduced depression
- Reduced feelings of loneliness
- Low levels of neuroticism
So narcissism can potentially be a good thing if it leads to high self esteem. Working on self esteem through developing the narcissist’s interpersonal skills, confidence and identity could therefore turn narcissism into a good thing[xix].
Here’s one specific way you can work on gently changing narcissistic attitudes in your spouse. A study in 2009[xx] described a process called communal activation, in which a narcissist can be taught to think more in terms of others and less about serving their own needs. This is done by “priming” them with thoughts about caring for others and acting in a way that benefits other people.
Simply presenting these thoughts or ideas to them causes narcissists to place more value on commitment and actions that benefit the spouse as well as themselves. I think this is where being a part of a local church can be a huge help because it normalizes this perspective.
This priming process produces an immediate short-term effect and also increases commitment levels over time in married couples, while increasing the narcissist’s thoughts and motivations towards caring, empathy and concern for others. This process eliminated the lack of commitment found in many narcissists, and in some cases brought their levels of commitment to above what is normally expected in married couples[xxi].
In a follow up study Finckel[xxii] asked people high in narcissism to discuss their own personal goals. When their partners made them feel loved and cared for during this conversation, the narcissistic spouse would later report higher levels of commitment to the relationship.
So while this can be a very difficult kind of personality to work with — and if you are in an abusive situation you do need to prioritize your own safety — there is hope. There are things you can do to help yourself and help your spouse. The more educated you are, the better equipped you are to handle all that goes with this kind of situation.
[i] J. D. Miller, W. K. Campbell, and P. A. Pilkonis, ‘Narcissistic Personality Disorder: Relations with Distress and Functional Impairment., Narcissistic Personality Disorder: Relations with Distress and Functional Impairment’, Comprehensive Psychiatry, Comprehensive Psychiatry, 48, 48.2, 2 (2007), 170, 170–77 <https://doi.org/10.1016/j.comppsych.2006.10.003, 10.1016/j.comppsych.2006.10.003>.
[ii] Miller, Campbell, and Pilkonis.
[iii] Constantine Sedikides and others, ‘Are Normal Narcissists Psychologically Healthy?: Self-Esteem Matters’, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 87.3 (2004), 400–416 <https://doi.org/10.1037/0022-35184.108.40.2060>.
[iv] J. A. Lavner and others, ‘Narcissism and Newlywed Marriage: Partner Characteristics and Marital Trajectories., Narcissism and Newlywed Marriage: Partner Characteristics and Marital Trajectories’, Personality Disorders, Personality Disorders, 7, 7.2, 2 (2016), 169, 169–79 <https://doi.org/10.1037/per0000137, 10.1037/per0000137>.
[v] Lavner and others.
[vi] Lavner and others.
[vii] W. Keith Campbell, Craig A. Foster, and Eli J. Finkel, ‘Does Self-Love Lead to Love for Others? A Story of Narcissistic Game Playing’, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 83.2 (2002), 340–54 <https://doi.org/10.1037/0022-35220.127.116.110>.
[viii] Joshua D. Foster, Ilan Shrira, and W. Keith Campbell, ‘Theoretical Models of Narcissism, Sexuality, and Relationship Commitment’, Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 23.3 (2006), 367–86 <https://doi.org/10.1177/0265407506064204>.
[ix] Foster, Shrira, and Campbell.
[x] David M. Buss and Todd K. Shackelford, ‘Susceptibility to Infidelity in the First Year of Marriage’, Journal of Research in Personality, 31.2 (1997), 193–221 <https://doi.org/10.1006/jrpe.1997.2175>.
[xi] Foster, Shrira, and Campbell.
[xii] Foster, Shrira, and Campbell.
[xiii] Campbell, Foster, and Finkel.
[xiv] Campbell, Foster, and Finkel.
[xv] David Farley Hurlbert and Carol Apt, ‘Sexual Narcissism and the Abusive Male’, Journal of Sex & Marital Therapy, 17.4 (1991), 279–92 <https://doi.org/10.1080/00926239108404352>.
[xvi] W. Keith Campbell and Joshua D. Miller, The Handbook of Narcissism and Narcissistic Personality Disorder: Theoretical Approaches, Empirical Findings, and Treatments (John Wiley & Sons, 2011).
[xvii] Campbell and Miller.
[xviii] Sedikides and others.
[xix] Sedikides and others.
[xx] Eli J. Finkel and others, ‘The Metamorphosis of Narcissus: Communal Activation Promotes Relationship Commitment among Narcissists’, Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 35.10 (2009), 1271–84.
[xxi] Finkel and others.
[xxii] Finkel and others.