Editor's Note: Do you need sound, Biblically-based advice on an issue in your marriage or family? Dr. David will address questions from Crosswalk readers in his weekly column. Submit your question to him at: TheRelationshipDoctor@gmail.com.
When Carly Simon sang the phrase, "You're so vain," from the song of the same title, she may have been singing about a narcissist, though probably never used the term. In recent years, narcissism has gained incresing notoriety.
Vanity is a common trait, of course, and all of us can identify with it at some level. Who hasn't spent time primping in front of a mirror before an important event, hoping our good looks will gain us some attention? Who hasn't even been chided for being "so vain" by someone for that same primping?
Seeking a bit of admiration is normal; however requiring excessive admiration can be something quite different. When that requirement is combined with additional symptoms, such as grandiosity, lacking empathy and having a sense of entitlement, the problem becomes much more significant.
"He's such a narcissist!" are words I hear frequently from women describing men who wreak havoc in their marriage from such a trait.
"Why is she so narcissistic?" is another common question posed to me by men who can't seem to finding their footing in a marriage with such a woman.
A man wrote to me about such a problem with his wife:
Dear Dr. David. My wife is too powerful for me. Her ego is overwhelming, and I'm not sure what to do about it. When it comes to doing anything, she's done it more or better than anyone else. She puts people down if they don't agree with her, and she seems to have an insatiable need for admiration. She doesn't seem to really care about others, and uses people for what they can do for her. Of course, when I mention any of these things to her she denies them. She would never admit to having an ego problem. You can imagine what it is like to live with a woman like this. Can you give me any tips on how to confront someone who never thinks they are wrong?
Yes, there are effective ways to deal with someone who is narcissistic, and being prepared and knowledgeable about this problem is one of the first effective things you can do.
Let's first agree on a more specific definition of narcissism, and more specifically, the more serious disorder of Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD). NPD, or exhibiting narcissistic personality traits, is usually comprised of several of the following:
- Grandiosity and a sense of self-importance
- Requiring excessive attention
- Exploitive of others
- Envious of others
- Preoccupation with success, talents, beauty
- Sense of entitlement
- Lack of empathy
Now, before you run out and diagnose your mate, parent, sibling or workmate, remember that there is little value in slapping a diagnosis on someone you love. In fact, labeling and judging are often injurious, and likely to create even more distance with the one you care about. Use this information carefully and caringly.
Living with a narcissistic person can be extremely trying, as I discuss in depth in my book, Dealing With the CrazyMakers In Your Life. What can you do with this information, and what can you do if you find yourself in close relationship with someone with narcissistic tendencies?
First, understanding a problem is half the problem solved. This is true for the issue of narcissism. Recognize whether this is really a trait within yourself or your mate and consider how you have been responding to it. Perhaps you have been responding to a narcissistic individual aggressively. This is unlikely to help the situation. Perhaps you have been withdrawing, also unlikely to help. Step back and reflect on the situation.
Second, stop criticizing and start encouraging solutions. Labeling a narcissist won't help anything, nor will criticizing them for a trait they likely deny. Instead of criticizing, isolate specific issues you wish to change and enlist your mate in working with you to change them—one at a time. Keep a positive focus, using your energies in solving problems.
Third, attack the problem, not the person. Choose a particular aspect of the narcissistic tendencies and encourage him/her to work on the problem with you. For example, if you don't feel heard, ask them to practice listening techniques with you. Practice reflection and paraphrasing to encourage empathy.
Fourth, seek first to understand and then to be understood. Make sure you are accurately listening to your mate, ensuring he or she feels heard. Then ask them to listen to you. Show them the respect they desperately need and they will be more likely to show it back to you.
Fifth, set healthy boundaries. When the narcissist in your life tries to manipulate what you say, gently stop them. When they attempt to twist your words, gently set a boundary. Speak up so you are both heard and so there is mutuality in your marriage.
Finally, seek professional help. A little bit of narcissism in a marriage can be toxic, derailing the best of conversations. The narcissistic individual is likely to be overly sensitive, over-reacting to minor slights and becoming overly aggressive in response to these slights. Professionals can help you build a safe relationship where issues can be managed and resolved.
Practice some of these tools and let me know how they work for you. I'd like to hear your experiences with narcissism in marriage.
August 17, 2010
Dr. David Hawkins is the director of the Marriage Recover Center where he counsels couples in distress. He is the author of over 30 books, including Dealing With the CrazyMakers in Your Life, 90 Days to a Fantastic Marriage, and Saying It So He'll Listen. Dr. Hawkins grew up in the beautiful Pacific Northwest and lives with his wife on the South Puget Sound where he enjoys sailing, biking, and skiing. He has active practices in two Washington cities.
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