Last week I published an article about staying or leaving a relationship. While there is no
direct answer to this question and I always prefer to explore other alternatives than a separation. When it comes to a relationship with a narcissist, it is quite a different “story”.
A relationship with a narcissist is the opposite of a healthy intimate relationship and this is for many reasons:
You cannot show yourself vulnerable, the narcissist considers it as a weakness;
You cannot be yourself and live up to your potential, committing to your values and realizing your dreams as the narcissist will always make it clear that this is not for you and about you;
You are not loved because a narcissist is not able to love;
You are always being put down and feel like “not being good enough” because a narcissist doesn’t have self-esteem so neither you should have it;
You will never be encouraged to become a better version of yourself;
You will lack energy and feel tired, exhausted, sleepy, flat, numb as a reaction to living next to the narcissist;
Not being able to express your emotions will lead to health problems in long-term;
If you have a family with a narcissist, the narcissistic family has its own dynamic that will hurt your kids;
Your self-esteem will get lower and lower as the narcissist will make to believe you that it is all your fault (projection, gaslighting, manipulation);
You will lose many friends because the narcissist will try to isolate you;
You will never feel understood because the narcissist is careful about the image he gives;
With time you will feel very lonely as there is no real connection with a narcissistic person;
There is no place for respect, you are a thing to the narcissist; he uses you;
And finally, your trust in other people, therefore a chance to end up in a healthy relationship, will suffer.
So this is not about staying or leaving, this is more about WHEN and HOW; it is a matter of timing and preparation.
It is a matter of COURAGE, willingness, and RESPONSIBILITY for your own life.
Many people have to stay in a relationship with a narcissist and this is for different reasons - economic, children care, fear of being judged, fear of being abandoned, fear of change … sometimes there is no logical reason, they just stay, because they cannot do differently now. It is fine when it is temporary and when we know why we do that.
Elisa took time to choose her life partner and married in her mid 30’s. She has a University degree and enjoys her job. She has good friends, her sport and travels. She met her husband at work and after 2 years of dating, they decided to get married and have a family. It went all fine: mortgage, first child, a promotion at work, second child, seaside holidays in summer, and ski holidays in winter.
While she has been doing everything to split her time between family and job, her husband Mats started showing some unhappiness with their family life and invited her to a couple therapy. During the couple therapy, he made her understood that she wasn’t doing enough and was behind with housework. Elisa felt it was unfair but couldn’t really understand what was happening. She didn’t know how to protect herself and was tired of juggling between the career and two young children.
Unfortunately, narcissistic behavior is not very well known of therapists, psychologists, and other professions having a potential impact on a relationship.
Elisa was aware of the roller-coaster dynamic of their relationship and started therapy to clear the unhealthy habits on her side. While she started working on her self-development, Mats didn’t hesitate to blame her every time something happened (milk spilled > her fault), to put her down, and when a conflict arose Elisa would get a silent treatment. He was showing very clearly a disregard towards her needs and feelings and the communication became purposeless.
The big majority of my clients, no matter how the relationship was abusive, witness having considered the abusive behavior as normal.
Elisa had never heard the word “narcissist” and because she lacked self-esteem and her boundaries were not strong enough, she felt guilty and made even more effort.
But, it happened that the word “narcissist” was mentioned by her therapist. When Elisa put the word to Google search, she was surprised how much the description matches with her situation; indeed, she was in a couple with a narcissist.
Fortunately, with the internet, online communities, and the spread of information, we realize at a certain stage of our life that this is what is going on in our lives. Because no matter how narcissism is hidden and unknown, surprisingly, it has very common patterns in all relationships and families.
Who is a narcissist ?
A narcissist is a first of all a very insecure person. So insecure, that I almost feel sorry for them. They don’t even realize what they do and how much they violate the boundaries of other people. However, we should never feel sympathy for them, as they do not deserve it.
It is their lack of empathy that allows them to hurt and harm. They do not feel other people's emotions so feel completely entitled to behave abusively. The reason they do not respect other people’s boundaries, needs, and feelings, is that they are not in touch with their own needs and feelings either.
Insecurity and lack of empathy are the two main traits of narcissists. No matter their origin, gender, religion, education level, income, job, social class, hobbies, they were damaged by their parents; very often they copy the behavior of one of their parents; “monkey see, monkey do.”
Commonly, narcissists demonstrate the following behavior patterns:
Lack of responsibility
Blaming the victim
Projection (projecting the bad part of themselves on the others)
Hypersensitivity to criticism
Demanding agreement and admiration
Gaslighting (making you think you’re crazy)
Indifference to other people
And the list can go on.
To learn more about narcissism I recommend the book by Julie L. Hall “The Narcissist in your Life”.
How to deal with a narcissist in your life ?
Leaving and consciously recovering must go together.
When Elisa discovered the dynamics of her relationship, she still had lots of love feelings for her husband. She was also scared to hurt their children so launched an attempt to save the marriage by being open with her husband about the narcissistic dynamic.
The narcissist doesn’t change, bottom line.
Elisa started working on herself. With the help and support of her coach, she learnt to identify her emotions and needs. She understood her fears and underlying beliefs. She learnt to listen to her heart and observe her inner self.
While being in a relationship with a narcissist there is only one survival strategy:
TO BUILD THE RESILIENCE AND RECOVER.
When you want to survive with a narcissist, you have to go “grey rock.” You strengthen your boundaries, build up walls, and do not share personal information. You are not empathetic and don’t show any emotions; give the minimum and don’t expect to receive something in exchange. You are not a team, everyone has their own interest. Especially, don’t show yourself vulnerable, don’t explain yourself.
You have to become basically unattractive in the narcissist's eyes, boring, flat. You answer shortly and don’t enter the drama game. The narcissist will eventually leave you alone and lose his interest.
At the same time, build an external and internal structure as a long-term solution, grey-rock strategy is only a temporary solution.
Remind yourself that you don’t need a narcissist in your life, he needs you.
Be reminded while you have also developed some unhealthy adaptive strategies, focusing on yourself is not being a narcissist.
When you come to the moment you realize you are in a relationship with a narcissist a “LETTING GO” process must be deployed. The feeling of loss is so strong that there is no way around it.
The letting go process starts with grieving, continues with acceptance and once it is finished, the negative feelings are released.
Elisa kept changing with the help of her coach and observed the relationship with her husband. A few months later there was a trigger, a complete break of trust, and she decided to leave. Never came back to this decision since; never regretted making it.
When the letting go process is finished the recovery phase follows and this is the phase many people enjoy the most. You learn about your desires, your needs; you define your boundaries. I also work on boosting self-esteem with my clients as it has suffered in the relationship.
When I start working with my clients they experience a lack of energy, fatigue, numbness, anger, fears; they are very hopeless about their future.
When I finish working with them, they feel aligned with themselves, a new energy comes, they feel passionate about their activities, they have plans and dreams again; decided to love again.
Elisa and Mats reached a divorce agreement with the help of a mediator. Elisa went through a deep sadness when her marriage ended up. Thanks to her intense feelings she felt alive. She understood what was important to her in a love relationship. She changed her limiting beliefs into the positive ones. Her life suddenly became the life of her choice and she felt a profound gratitude for it.
The best revenge is to live a fulfilling life!
This article cannot be long enough to cover all the complexity of narcissistic relationships; if you wish to further discuss the following topics don't hesitate to schedule a coaching session with me:
- co-parenting with the narcissist;
- going through a divorce procedure with a narcissist and reaching an agreement;
- recovering after a narcissistic abuse;
- finding love again.