A Therapist’s Guide to Living with a “Narcissist” – Chapter Five

In our last session, Sally and I discussed more things Bob does that really display narcissism in a relationship, the dynamics between two people in a narcissistic relationship and touched on why Sally may be staying with Bob.

Sally described an event that occurred quite a few months ago. She had decided to move out (They were lived together early in their relationship.) and in one of their post-break-up conversations, Bob asked her to tell him what she really thought about him. Sally said Bob told her that because they were broken up, it would be ok if she told him what she really thought about him; that her comments would not hurt his feelings. She shared a number of observations. He acknowledged the behaviors/faults she described, suggesting he had been aware of such and that he was working on such.  Later, they got back together. According to Sally, within weeks, Bob was accusing her of criticizing him, citing the faults she had described when they were broken up.

This is interesting for a number of reasons:

First, women think of and experience intimacy differently than men. In general, when you reference “intimacy” to women, they think of talking and sharing difficult experiences (These are called “Trouble Talks.”). When you reference “intimacy” to men, they usually think sex. I think Sally interpreted “Since we are broken up, give me some personal feedback.” from Bob as an invitation to intimacy (an intimate conversation) but later had it thrown in her face. Giving personal feedback to a narcissist is very dangerous because they will use it against you if/when an opportunity arises. Keep in mind that the prime motivator for the narcissist is interpersonal power…having control over their partner.  Bob’s request for such information suggests to me that he may have been planning to use this against her in the future and that the current “broken-up” status was just temporary, in his mind.

Second, one may wonder why Bob acknowledged/confessed to such behaviors/traits when Sally described such.  It may have been that there was a part of Bob that was afraid that he would lose her and so decided to acknowledge his faults to perhaps thwart her plans to leave him.

This leads to the second major topic of the session; Sally’s comment of “I feel lonely in this relationship.” Loneliness occurs in these relationships for a variety of reasons; let’s look at two.

First. Narcissists are…..narcissistic.  They think/talk/reference themselves primarily in their conversations and interactions with others. So, you don’t or rarely hear “How was your day?”, “How did that make you feel?” or “I bet that was hard for you.” comments from them. It is easy then to see why one would feel lonely with a narcissist.

Second. Any complaint will be seen as an accusation of the narcissist. So comments such as, “I am lonely.”, “I feel sad.”, “Your blue suit looks bad.” are/can be interpreted as a criticism of the narcissist and in turn they become defensive. They attack. After this occurs a number of times, the partner learns to keep not make comments. Hence, they feel lonely.

This leads to a question; why does Sally stay with Bob if his behavior is so bad? Consider the following: Your family taught you how relationships work. They taught you how men act in relationships and how women act in relationships, similar to how a dance instructor might teach you how to dance a particular dance, i.e., the Fox Trot. Most of us, unknowingly, take this information and, typically in high school, pick out someone who knows that way of being in relationships/that way of dancing and you begin a relationship.

Now, consider a comment by Sally a few sessions ago, “He reminds me of my mother.” It is conceivable that one of the reasons Sally stays with Bob is because Bob is like Sally’s mother (Sally was taught a particular dance by her mother and later discovered Bob who also knows the same dance; so they start a relationship together.).

But why not leave him? Anything would be better than what Bob has to offer, you think. Quite the contrary; I know many people who stay in unhappy relationships because they are afraid of being alone. People prefer the familiar, even if they are unhappy with it, to the unfamiliar.

A teaser: Sally describes her past two boyfriends as drug addicts. Do you see the connection between a narcissistic personality and an addiction?