RELATIONSHIPS

How to cope with a narcissist spouse

Draw a clear line around verbal abuse as it often escalates to physical abuse

Narcissism can be toxic in a marriage
Narcissism can be toxic in a marriage
Image: Canva

Let's talk about a relationship where one partner is a narcissist.

Do you ever feel engulfed, controlled, manipulated and as if you are losing your sense of self in your marriage?

Does your spouse use one set of rules for himself/herself and another for you?

Do you ever feel dumb around your spouse or in group settings defer most of the conversation to him/her because your view may be dismissed?

Does your spouse dismiss your feelings as "crazy" or "too needy" even though you are convinced of your reasonability?

Does your spouse act out sexually, act reckless, is emotionally attacking, manipulative, and blames you for their feelings?

If the answer is yes, you may be married to a narcissist.

Marriage to a narcissist

Marriage to a narcissist can feel like one long and draining emotional roller-coaster ride. All of your attention goes to your spouse, yet they constantly criticise you for not meeting their needs. Because they believe they know everything, they must win every argument and can make your life a living hell if they “lose”.

You may feel like you must tiptoe around, making sure you say exactly the right thing so as not to tick them off.

It can be quite confusing when the person you love consistently ignores, dismisses and explains away your feelings, wants and needs, while complaining that you never do what they want.

A narcissistic spouse will keep you off balance with criticisms, withdrawal of love, impossible demands and lectures

It can also be very hard to feel safe, cared for or even heard and considered in such a relationship. You may feel under constant pressure.

This pressure can lead to depression, low self-esteem, anxiety as well as fear of making a mistake. Basing your self-esteem on the opinions of someone else is always a vulnerable proposition, but when you are married to a narcissist it is devastating.

A narcissistic spouse will keep you off balance with criticisms, withdrawal of love, impossible demands and lectures about how they know better than you do while invalidating your needs and feelings. Ultimately all your attention goes to them, while your needs get ignored, even by you.

Not all the signs of narcissism are obvious and we’d guess that many people have various traits of narcissism without actually being a full-blown narcissist or are actually diagnosed with narcissistic personality disorder.

Official diagnosis can be made by qualified mental health professionals and requires that the individual exhibits a majority of the following universal symptoms:

  • Has a grandiose sense of self-importance – exaggerates achievements and talents, expects to be recognised as superior without commensurate achievements.
  • Is preoccupied with fantasies of unlimited success, power, brilliance, beauty, or ideal love.
  • Believes that they are "special" above everybody else and can only be understood by, or should associate with, other special or high-status people or institutions.
  • Requires excessive admiration.Has a very strong sense of entitlement – unreasonable expectations of especially favourable treatment or automatic compliance with their expectations.
  • Is exploitative of others – takes advantage of others to achieve their own ends.
  • Lacks empathy – is unwilling to recognise or identify with the feelings and needs of others.
  • Is often envious of others, or believes that others are envious of them.
  • Regularly shows arrogant, haughty behaviour or attitude.

Decide where your boundaries are and defend them

Firstly, narcissists do not respect, or even notice, other people's boundaries.

This means you need to be clear about what sort of narcissistic bad behaviour is tolerable and which is intolerable.

Left to their own devices, narcissists will cross most lines that other people automatically respect.

For example, many narcissists think nothing about criticising your taste in clothes, your relatives, or your deeply held beliefs. Many will hit below the belt in a fight and say ugly and disgusting things to you but afterward act as if nothing happened.

Secondly, some narcissists do not mind creating humiliating public scenes.

You need to draw a very clear line around verbal abuse as it often escalates to physical abuse

This can range from them angrily insisting that the two of you get up and leave a restaurant because they feel the service is insultingly slow even though you are perfectly happy staying.

You need to decide if this is something you can live with at all and, if so, where the line is for you. Any narcissist who does this once is likely to do it repeatedly. It is part of how they cope with what they perceive to be insults to their self-esteem.

Lastly, you need to draw a very clear line around verbal abuse as it often escalates to physical abuse. Unless you’re a masochist, we suggest you stop them right at the beginning.

It may start somewhat innocuously, but may quickly escalate if you allow any form of abuse to continue.

It is never easy to be in a relationship with a narcissist. It will, however, go smoother if you educate yourself about what you can realistically expect, learn a few tips about how to deal with narcissistic bad behaviour, clearly decide where your boundaries are and are prepared to defend them.

It is also important to think about what you are doing to take care of yourself. What are you doing to identify and meet your own needs and wants?

Narcissists, by definition, think only and entirely about themselves and would be happy to blame you for their own shortcomings.

So it is up to you to decide how to take care of you.

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