Marriage

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.

Why?

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.

And read the posts and comments here.

8 Comments

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8 responses to “Marriage

  1. Karl S

    Good morning. I very much appreciate this information. I find you present it in a kind and comforting way.

    My personal experience being married to a somatic covert narcissist is that I tolerated her irresponsibility and everything that goes with being married to this type of person only to be discarded. The threat of divorce was a constant and effective way to control my attempt to object to things that she would or would not do. We did not resolve conflicts and somehow it was consistently flipped to make the conflict my fault and herself the victim. I wish I would have had the wisdom to have simply let her be bad and suffer the consequences of her action or inaction instead of trying to convince her to behave differently. My choice resulted in many fights that were witnessed by my children and provided her with a justification to leave the marriage.

    I share this to ask that you include the perspective of the spouse who believes in their marriage and tolerates the abuse and winds up being discarded. That has been the hardest part for me to accept and overcome.

    Thank you for this weekly post. I am sure it helps many people deal with something they never dreamed would happen to them.

    Karl S

    • Thank you Karl! I think you have done a good job of sharing the pain and frustration of the faithful spouse. So many here have experienced a similar struggle. They tried, and they tried hard, to make things work. Sacrificing much of their own goals and dreams, personality and initiative, to try to save the marriage. Then, as you say, they were discarded. They feel betrayed, violated, confused, and misunderstood.

      The sad thing is the realization that so little mattered to the narcissist from the beginning. It wasn’t your fault. It was the inability of the narcissist to love and even to care about others. When the narc can just drop the relationship you worked so hard to maintain, you have a right to be shocked and disappointed. But it wasn’t you.

      One of the most important things for any of us is to be who we are. You are someone who believed and hoped. You trusted. You were willing to work, to sacrifice, to suffer. And you did. But you were true to the values you held. You were who you are. Now, you move forward with integrity. There is loss and remembered pain. There are still lingering consequences, especially with children. But you can step into the future knowing that you tried, perhaps imperfectly, but your heart was right.

      Again, thanks for bringing this to our attention. I took the liberty of making you a little more anonymous, as I generally do here.

      • Singing Eagle

        “The sad thing is the realization that so little mattered to the narcissist FROM THE BEGINNING. IT WASN’T YOUR FAULT!. It was the inability of the narcissist to love and even to care about others.” … It’s like being blindsided in the most unlikely/ unexpected person . ….. Very key point! Thx!

  2. Savedbygrace

    Hi Dave, when you say:
    There are things you can do to help if you want to stay. Learn about boundaries and find the strength to maintain them.
    I truly believe you need to add a word of caution about safety as abuse can escalate under these circumstances. The N cannot handle the threat to his/her power and control and whatever tactics he/she uses may intensify, or if he/she is not getting their usual way they may become violent even if previously they have not been. With escalating behaviours there is increased risk to the other person and children.
    I used to think”If only I had better boundaries back then” however as I reviewed our marriage every attempt at my boundary setting was viewed as a challenge which he made sure he more than met- abusers will do what it takes to keep control. My boundary setting in other relationships is in the range of ‘normal’ and I have fairly equal relationships characterised by give and take and mutuality.

    • You are right, of course. Boundaries always involve risk. While most narcs are not physical abusers, some are and, as you say, some might become violent. I don’t always say that because it seems obvious, but you are right to point it out. Don’t assume that your narc will just accept the new boundaries and you will solve your marriage problems. Most likely, your boundaries will begin or escalate the battle. That doesn’t mean don’t have them, just understand the risk.

      So, if you are afraid of your narcissistic spouse or lover, get out. Separate yourself before you do things that add more risk. I am not talking about divorce. That is never the first step. Safety for you and your children is the first step. What has to come after that remains to be seen. Don’t put yourself in danger.

      Thanks for the comment, Savedbygrace!

  3. Sharon

    Thank you for such a coherent description of a narcissistic marriage. Even after 5 years of leaving a 26 year marriage it is still difficult to understand what exactly happened. Thank for offering some clarity 😊

  4. Singing Eagle

    My Dear Bro. Dave,
    It is so refreshing and validating to read your description of Narcissism in marriage. I don’t know of anyone who has described EVERYTHING you’ve said that is so true and that I’ve lived through for many years. The gaslighting, the stripping away of your own self-worth, the constant belittling, etc. I DID eventually learn how to set boundaries and have a solid support group, all of which took many painful years to develop. I even had the opportunity to meet and minister to other women at a local government sponsored support group. What was most sad was that majority of women there were godly, Christian women who could not find help in the Christian community or have anyone who really listened and believed them even in their own local churches. Many ministers or pastors naively (and yes, pridefully) think that they can counsel couples in any marital conflict neglecting to realize that it is never a good idea to counsel abuse issue couples in the same room or at the same time.
    And of course, as anyone in this kind of relationship knows, the abusive spouse is quite well experience in turning on the charm so it makes it look like the one being abused is the crazy one and doesn’t know what they are talking about.
    This blog has been such a source of healing and comfort for me. You don’t deliver excuses to live in bitterness like some sites. Instead, it not only confirms the painful observation I’ve lived in but also gives me biblical and personal options in what I can do to heal, make viable choices and pursue a better life.
    Thank you!!!

  5. Mona Teclaw

    I also want to thank you for these informative and very consoling messages. I am still trying to wrap my head around what I endured at the hands of my disordered ex-husband. What I wouldn’t give to have one whole day without revisiting a scenario or an offense. And yes, the blaming, the “punishing” myself for not being strong enough to leave sooner. It can tear you up. I am almost 2 years free of the madness and every day I HAVE to CHOOSE to forgive myself and to be thankful for my survival and for the way out God made for me. Because it is true what you say about the Church not accepting that some relationships cannot be saved. I loved my pastor, but he literally stopped communicating with me when I made the decision to leave. He wanted me to quote scripture that would justify my choice. I felt defeated because I knew in my heart, but couldn’t yet say it with Biblical words. You see, He personally led my husband to the Lord 7 years ago and could not see through the charade and manipulation of those “earthly sorrow” tears, shed to prove he was as ‘good’ as I was…with no intent on following through with real heart change. However, it didn’t take long for that mask to slip in our relationship…but the church NEVER saw it. He was a master manipulator.
    I give The Lord all credit for opening my eyes and urging me to research, learn, and believe that He did not expect me to live in that oppression. I praise Him for women like Leslie Vernick and others who unpacked all of the scriptural references and truths about what marriage ISN’T. And I pray for all spouses everywhere who have not had the blessing of right counsel, such as this. Everyone of us has a story. I thank you Pastor Dave, for helping us to re-write the ending. May God bless you and this ministry.
    M.R. Card Teclaw

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