It’s Narcissist Friday!
Ninety percent of the literature on narcissism is written from the perspective of marriage or intimate relationships. That is my guess, not the result of careful study. It might also be an exaggeration (but not much). If you pick up almost any book on narcissistic relationships, it will primarily focus on marriages. The next largest focus will be parental relationships, but most of the heat comes out of marriages.
Marriage is where most people have discovered narcissism. We might go into marriage with open hearts and rose-colored glasses, but eventually we look more carefully at our reality. When someone explains narcissism, those in marriages can see it at work.
The marriage relationship presents extra challenge because it is 1) intimate; 2) adult; 3) holy.
Intimate: Marriage is a relationship where the narcissist can intimately manipulate another person. Partners go into marriage expecting to share in the most deeply personal way available. Narcissists, however, don’t share themselves. They take whatever their partner is willing to give, but offer little of their own fears, compromises, weaknesses. In other words, narcissists use marriage to learn intimate things about their partner without sharing heart issues of their own. The exclusive nature of that intimacy allows the narcissist to abuse without others seeing. The narcissist is usually a different person to the spouse than to others. But the expectation of loyalty means the spouse is less able to share the truth.
Adult: The guilt and shame that comes on the spouse of a narcissist is partially due to the fact that the relationship began by choice. Sometimes there were warnings that were ignored. Sometimes there were deceptions that were presented by the narcissist. The victim/spouse feels they have no excuse because they should have known better, should have listened to cautions, should have been more careful. The pain of the relationship is the result of a bad or foolish decision, the victim thinks.
Holy: Even the bond between parents and children does not have such a strong sense of moral obligation. Separating from parents is considered normal; separating from a spouse is considered wrong, at least in most Christian circles. Narcissists know this. They use the extra pressures of the church to continue their control over a spouse. From a Christian context, marriage is an easy place for narcissists to do their nasty work. Spouses feel compelled to stay in the relationship in order to be spiritually acceptable.
Therefore: The intimacy brings intensely painful feelings of betrayal which the victim feels he/she deserves because of foolish choices and can’t escape because of the spiritual expectations of the marriage relationship. We can understand why Christians find the narcissistic marriage such a quandary.
And the Christian is left with no good option. Since the narcissist almost never changes, the spouse can either choose to stay in the painful relationship or leave it and suffer the consequences. Neither choice is desirable. Reconciliation, restoration, honest change: these normal relationship options do not seem to be available in the narcissistic relationship. Added to this is the fact that few churches are educated on narcissism or prepared to help victims.
Combating narcissism in marriage takes strength, one of the things the narcissist usually drains from a victim. It is important for outsiders to offer real support: a believing heart, a place of refuge, resources for leaving, time away from the struggle, and more. Expect weakness, anger, fear, and other challenging emotions from the spouse of a narcissist.
Our culture is beginning to accept narcissism as a type of abuse. More counselors are learning about the struggle and offering concrete help to victims. My concern is that narcissism is often treated as trivial, minor abuse, by those who haven’t experienced it or as curable by those who have never really worked with a narcissist. Spouses must be very careful about choosing and submitting to any counselor, especially those who desire to “fix the marriage.”
Sadly, the spouse of the narcissist is left with trying to learn about the affliction on her/his own. Study narcissism in marriage. There are things you can do to help if you want to stay. Learn about boundaries and find the strength to maintain them. Read. Gather support. Find a good counselor for yourself. Don’t be afraid to put away some money and make some plans for separation if necessary. Don’t blame yourself. Don’t think it will just go away if you try harder. Prepare yourself for battle and find ways to build your health. Pray and let others pray for you. Don’t beat yourself up for some strange and challenging emotions.
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