This is the first of many articles I’ll be presenting over the next few months on narcissism.  In this article I present, in a fictitious session, a narcissist and his wife coming in for assistance for their daughter.  I present a brief background of the husband/father (narcissist) and the wife/mother.  Most of the dialog is from an initial session with the couple and of a later session with the wife alone.  Included are the suggestions I made to the wife regarding her husband and insights into the wife’s view of that relationship.  I see these dynamics portrayed often in my office.



Jim is the president of the trust department of a bank in a large city. His wife, Debbie, works at home, raising their three children, Annie 17, “Mac” (Mackenzie) 15 and Lynn, 11. The couple came in due to Annie’s eating disorder; she was anorexic, 5’5” and weighs 100 lbs. Shortly after I began working with them, I realized Jim was narcissistic.  Debbie, seemingly, had no idea. I am writing about this couple/family because I want to show how narcissism can be invisible at times.

Jim came from a southern family. He was the oldest of three boys and his father spent a lot of time with his sons growing up. Fishing, hunting and sports were the main focus at home or rather, outside the home.  Jim’s father, I was told, was rather crude about women when they, he and the boys, where off together. When around his wife (and other women or in public), he was respectful and polite.  He expected his sons to be the same; respectful when with women but rough when with the guys.

Jim’s mother, on the other hand, ran their home like a general. She understood “Boys will be boys” but at home, she insisted on respect, manners and religion.  Jim’s father backed her on such.

As Jim grew, his self esteem and confidence also grew. Graduating high school, majoring in finance and graduating college, getting his first job at a prestigious banking institution, he was proud and made his parents proud.

He met Debbie in college. She was beautiful, smart and feminine; all the things Jim wanted. They started dating in freshmen year. Quickly, it was clear who was in charge. But that was ok with Debbie. If Jim wanted to do something, that was fine with her; no matter what it was, it would be fun with Jim. Jim was fun, in love and loyal. Debbie couldn’t ask for more and as such, she gave Jim all she had and never looked back.

Jim slowly began to recognize the power or influence he had with Debbie. He’d seen it in his parent’s relationship. He’d seen his father make decisions and his mother follow along; never questioning him, always supporting him. And it was not that his father just made decisions carelessly or selfishly. His father could always explain why he was deciding as he was deciding; could always point out how what he decided was best for he or his wife or the boys. Jim liked that. The correctness of his father’s decisions were right there in front of you…..the success of a close, loving family. What was to be questioned?

Economic growth and opportunity brought Jim and Debbie to this area. Jim’s salary allowed Debbie to not work and soon she was pregnant with Annie. Soon after, Mac came along. Jim climbed the corporate ladder and worked hard. Lynn eventually, came along. Debbie stayed home and took care of the house and girls. They were all happy.

Years passed….

I greeted Jim and Debbie in the waiting room. Because Jim was closer to me, I introduced myself and shook his hand first. As I reached to Debbie, repeating my name and shaking her hand, she told me her name. At the same time however, Jim interrupted and began telling me about their daughter. Debbie laughed nervously and then looked at Jim with a concerned expression. I asked them to follow me to my office. Jim followed me and kept talking. Debbie followed Jim.

Jim walked into my office first. Jim handed his coat to Debbie, who quickly took it. Jim sat down and started to talk before Debbie was settled.

“I just don’t know what is wrong with her. She seemed happy and is such a good girl but now she’s losing weight and apparently cries at night.”

“What do you mean ‘apparently’?” I asked.

“Well, uh, that is what Debbie tells me” Jim said, continuing to look only at me.

“Can you tell me about this?” I ask turning to Debbie.

“Well, like I said, my wife tells me most nights she will hear Annie crying in her room. Debbie says she’s asked Annie what is wrong but just brushes Debbie off.” Jim continues.

“Debbie, is that what you experience with Annie?” I again ask Debbie.

“This has been going on for months now. We are worried sick!” Jim laments.

“I understand and I’d be worried too if my daughter were struggling like this but… Debbie, tell me what you see and hear from Annie.” I ask again.

“I…told you doc…our baby is sick. Can you help her?” Jim said, now almost begging.

During this conversation, Debbie is continually looking at Jim every time I ask her a question; but not saying a word.

“Have either of you noticed I have asked Debbie a question now about three times and each time, Jim, you respond. I know you two are worried but…have either of you noticed this?” I ask.

“What….uh….well, I was just answering your question.” Jim responded. “What’s your point?”

“I don’t know if it is related to Anne’s struggles but I noticed you, Jim, answer for both, you and Debbie.” I said.

“What do you see going on with your daughter?” I ask Debbie.

Jim sat back a little with a worried and slightly disgruntled look on his face. He looked at that moment, I thought, like a parent trying to be patient while teaching his son or daughter to drive a car and the child turned right when he told them to turn left.

“Well, she is very worried,” Debbie began, almost hesitantly but with a firm voice. “She talks a lot about being worried, worried about all kinds of things and that she just can’t get herself to stop…worrying.”

“Just like I told you doc…” Jim jumps in.

“Well…not really. You said Annie was crying at night. Debbie said Annie is worried and can’t stop worrying.” Jim nodded his head sideways and gave a tight grin.

“Okay…but what do you think is wrong. What do you think we should do?” Jim pressed.

“I don’t know yet…” I responded. Jim looked back, rather shocked.

“Debbie, what has Annie been worrying about?” I continued with Debbie.

Debbie looked at Jim, who began to talk. I stopped him with my hand (holding it up like a ‘stop sign’). “Go on Debbie…what has Annie told you she is worried about?”

Again, Debbie looked at Jim, almost wanting him to talk for her but after a minute, she continued. “She is worried about making mistakes…” Debbie said as if she were revealing a forbidden truth.

“About making mistakes…?” I asking, encouraging her to continue.

“Yeah…” Debbie continued now without hesitating. Jim also didn’t jump in but he was looking at me directly, almost searching or demanding a statement or conclusion from me. “She says she is afraid of saying the wrong thing in class, not getting A’s, Jim getting upset with her because she didn’t do something around the house right….things like that.”

“What…” Jim was shocked at the last comment. “She’s afraid of me getting upset at her for not doing something right? Why didn’t you say something to me before this?

“Oh Jim, you didn’t do anything wrong. I don’t think it is you. This is her issue, all in her head. So I didn’t say anything to you. My God, you love all three of your daughters. Anyone can see that. This is her problem…but I don’t know what it’s all about.” Debbie looked back at me. “Have you ever seen this before?”

As the session continued, I noticed Debbie would easily fall back into the habit of deferring to Jim and Jim answering for both of them. It was not that Jim was arrogant in this conversation or interaction with his wife. He was just more…. dominant, in charge.

At the end of the session, I asked about rescheduling. Jim was quick to pull his schedule up and suggested, “I am free next Tuesday morning…” without asking Debbie.

“…and what is your schedule like honey…?” I said as if I were Jim, engaging her to schedule together.

“Huh…” Jim responded, looking up at me.

“You answered my question without asking Debbie when she wanted to reschedule or what day. This is part of that ‘talking over/for her’ stuff that I have pointed out to you a couple times over the last hour. Do you see that?”

“Uh…yeah.” Jim asked, genuinely confused.

“…and I’ll bet it has something to do with Annie, her behavior. It is something to think about. Anyway…” now looking directly at Debbie, “when do you want to reschedule?”

“I said Tuesday would be good.” Jim continued.

“You did it again Jim. I looked directly at Debbie and you answered for her. Debbie, when do you think you should come back?” I asked Debbie directly.

“I think Annie should come next.” Debbie said looking at Jim, almost pleadingly.

“Oh, yeah, that would be good idea.” Jim said. “Schedule Annie for next Tuesday doc.” Jim said to me.

“Once again Jim, look at what you just did. You went from scheduling with me on Tuesday, not asking your partner, to telling me to schedule Annie for next Tuesday, not asking me if I thought I should see Annie. What do you think that means….about you?” I asked Jim.

“I….don’t know. What you are getting at? Jim said with indignation.

“Jim, I know you love your kids and your wife but you think of situations, this situation, only from your perspective. You don’t ask Debbie her perspective or Annie hers. It is as if you expect yourself to know the answer and fix the problem. The fact is, you really don’t know what the problem is and this scares you. But, you act like you are in charge of the situation. You take over conversations, answer for others, say what others say is what you said, don’t ask others for their opinions, consider only your schedule, etc. Because of this, you miss a lot of information that could help you and others find solutions.” I said.

“….I don’t know…about this.” Jim said hesitantly.

“I understand. Ask Debbie what she thinks about what I am saying.” I directed.

Jim hesitated a minute and then looked at Debbie.

“I think he is right Jim. Sometimes, you just jump into things, start doing something without really looking at the situation first….and it messes things up. Look, this is not just about you. I am part of this too. I just stand back and let you take the lead.” Debbie said, watching Jim’s facial expression as she spoke, as if trying to read how he would respond to what she was saying.

“I am only just trying to help my daughter.” Jim said defensively.

“I know…but what has worked for you in the past may not work this time. You are being challenged, in this situation, to learn to ask others what they think is going on and what they think should be done, instead of telling others what the problem is and how to fix it.” I said.

I’d like to see you two again, together. When could you two come in” I asked again.

“Next Tuesday is go….” Jim stopped himself and looked at me. He then looked at Debbie.

“How is Tuesday for you honey?” I prompted.

Jim snorted, “Yeah, how is Tuesday for you?” he said to Debbie.

“Okay but I want to schedule an appointment for Annie also.” Debbie said.

Jim quickly looked from Debbie to me, with a surprised look on his face. “Jim,” Debbie spoke, “Is that ok with you?”



Debbie came by herself the following Tuesday. Jim had an unexpected meeting and couldn’t attend.

“Tell me about your relationship with Jim.” I asked.

“Shouldn’t we be talking about Annie? Debbie questioned.

“We will but I want to start with you and Jim.” I redirected.

“Well, he’s a good man….We met in college and I quickly fell in love. He was tall, good-looking and funny. He always had a plan. He was kind, respectful hard-working…and faithful. So, I…I never questioned him, his opinion. It was easy, comfortable” Debbie said with a small smile.

“How the relationship been over the years?” I pushed.

“Jim has always been a hard-worker and again, has always been faithful.” She said.

“You already said that…I wonder why?” I said.

“I love Jim and I would never leave him. Most women would die for a chance to have a good man like him. He’s faithful, he provides well for us….but, over the years, I have begun to notice things, things I don’t….don’t want to acknowledge, much less talk about.” Debbie stopped.

“Such as….” I pushed.

“It is always about Jim! What we do, where we go….what we eat, who we talk to, hell, even how we make love!” She was silent. I was silent.

“It’s always been this way. In the beginning, it was fun to have someone who always had an idea of something to do, someplace to go, people to be with. I know, I am repeating myself.  I loved it. It was certainly better than being with my dad. He left us when I was 7. I remember mom and dad always fighting. He was always mad about something. Mom tried to do everything. I tried to be good and do everything right, so he’d be happy, so they wouldn’t fight. But he left us. Men leave.” Debbie cried.

“Do you think about leaving Jim?” I asked.

“No” she said (I wasn’t so sure), “…it’s just….my whole life is wrapped around him. I don’t think I would know who I am anymore….apart from Jim.” She was silent for a minute. “It’s so easy though. He does everything for me….think, decide, and talk…everything.”

“In the beginning, you said the relationship was fun. Then, it sounds as though something changed in the relationship.” I asked. “Am I right?”

“Yes. Over the years, I think we both got locked into certain roles. Jim had all the answers and I went along with him. I think part of this happened for me when I got pregnant with Lynn. Before that, I was busy with raising Annie and Mac. I didn’t want to have any more children but Jim did. I think he was hoping for a boy. It was when he was pushing me to get pregnant I realized how vulnerable I am to him. If I were to say “No”, would he leave me like my dad left mom? I don’t have any employable skills. Would I end up living on child support? And who would want me with three kids? It was easier to just go along with what he said, what he wanted. I wouldn’t have to think about being on my own. So, we had Lynn. I love her and am glad we had her but…more and more, I know this is going to sound crazy, more and more I feel myself shrinking and Jim getting, somehow, ‘bigger’.”

Debbie continued, “What’s worse, Annie is now doing the same things I used to do when I was a young woman. When I was her age, I starved myself, worried about everything, cried every night.”

“Relate this to Jim”, I asked.

“I think that, as Jim gets bigger and bigger, he believes, more and more, that he is always right….and it is harder and harder for me to stand up to him. And if it is hard for me, I can’t imagine what it is like for Annie. ” Debbie sighed.

“What about Mac and Lynn?” I asked.

“Mac, I think, knows what is going on with Jim and me. She is always complaining how we never get to do anything that is not Jim’s idea….and complaining I don’t speak up to him about this. Lynn is disappearing. More and more, she seems to be getting quieter and quieter. I think this is her way of…surviving. It is not that Jim is a bad guy, husband or father. He just always thinks he is always right. A lot of time he is right, which only makes this worse. Just because he is right doesn’t mean we still couldn’t do something different or do something the way the girls or I would suggest.” Debbie looked off in the distance, worried.

“You ever thought about being a therapist?” I said. We both laughed.

“I think you are right Debbie”, I said. “I see what you say in our sessions and can appreciate this happening with your girls because I have seen it unfold in other families just as you predict.” I said.

Debbie shared other examples of Jim’s narcissism in their relationship/home:

Debbie gets up, before Jim, to shower and have things ready for him when he gets up; a cup of coffee for him in the bathroom, preparing his breakfast, ironing his clothes for the day, etc.

The girls are asked to shower the night before so there is enough hot water for Jim in the mornings. They have never ran out of hot water but Debbie just doesn’t want to take a chance.

After he showers, Debbie helps Jim dress. Jim is color-blind and doesn’t match colors well. “Here I go…” Debbie said Jim will say rather loudly when he walks from the bath to their bedroom, alerting Debbie to join him.

Jim manages the finances; Debbie knows she could handle the checkbook and bills but thinks it is prudent to let Jim do it, since he works for a bank.

Debbie fixes dinner every night, always keeping in mind what Jim likes. She feels it is only fair given “he works all day”.  The same applies to TV after dinner; Debbie defers to his choice of shows or lets him watch TV on the big screen (while she’ll watch in the bedroom).

“When Jim is not there in the evenings, the girls get excited about what they will have for dinner and watching TV on the big screen. Not that they want something extravagant. Usually, they just want mac and cheese and/or mashed potatoes and gravy but it is just having a say that I think excites them the most.” Debbie explained.

“Once Mac suggested we all have an equal say or vote in where we eat dinner on Friday nights. Jim initially went along with it but then the girls realized if they all agree together, they could out-vote Jim and I. One Friday, they all voted for Taco-Bell. I could see immediately, Jim was not happy. I didn’t vote. When we got there, the girls ran in and I begged Jim to just go along with it. He did but didn’t talk during dinner. The next week, he had a business after-hours thing and the following week Jim just decided where we ate. We never voted again. Mac was pissed and I tried to calm her down. She yelled at me for not standing up to him. She was right but….Jeez, I felt just like my mother before dad left. I thought I’d throw up.”


Debbie and Jim continued in therapy. Annie joined, attending with her parents and individually (I also referred her to a physician.) but for the purposes of this article, this is a good example of what I call invisible narcissism. Experts would call this “Covert Narcissism”.  Let’s look now at the suggestions I made to Debbie (in regards to Jim’s narcissism):

  1. I asked Debbie to begin noticing and list all the things she does for Jim. For example, in the mornings, make sure the girls shower the night before so he has enough hot water, shower before him, have a cup of coffee for him waiting in the bathroom, lay his clothes out, help him dress.

Now, look at the list and decide what things are necessary and what things are nice. For example, laying his clothes out sounds necessary, in light of his color-blindness. Bringing him coffee or helping him dress sounds to me nice.

Comprising this list may take a week or so to do. I encouraged Debbie to look at every aspect of her day with Jim; morning, afternoon, evening, weekends, bedtime, intimacy, etc.

Then, I suggested she look at the invisible aspects of her day with Jim; how she let’s Jim’s preferences influence her choices, actions, etc.: what she doesn’t do or allow in the home, the morning routine, why she stopped voting where she wanted to go on Fridays for dinner, what to fix for dinner, how they make love, where she watches TV in the evenings, etc.

Finally, I had her make a list of how she’d like life to be at home: how she would like to make love, what she (or the girls) would like to have for dinner, if she would like to revive the tradition of voting where the family eats on Friday evenings and where she would like to eat, how she would like the morning routine to be for she and the girls, etc.

We reviewed her list in an individual session.

  1. I asked Debbie to look at how she sees herself in relation to Jim, in the relationship:

Debbie says she does a lot of things for Jim because “….he works hard for us all day”. I asked Debbie if she works hard all day.

I questioned if her hard work allows Jim to be gone and work at his job or if his working allows her to be home (working).

  1. I asked Debbie to look at how she sees Jim in relation to her in the relationship:

Could Jim get along without Debbie doing some of the things she does for him?

Could he dress himself?

Could he get his own coffee in the morning?

Could he live for one evening if she fixed macaroni and cheese and mashed potatoes for dinner for the family one night?

  1. I asked her where she learned to see herself the way she does in relation to Jim; where had see seen this positioning in a couple before and how did that relationship work.

Our discussions of these lists and questions lead Debbie back to her family and what she saw in her parent’s relationship: her mother had waited on her father, her parents fought because her father thought her mother’s efforts were not good enough….and eventually, her father left her mother and she sank into a bitter depression.

Our discussion also revealed:

Debbie really did think Jim’s efforts/work was more important than hers and consequently, he was more important than she.

Debbie honestly thought she did too much for Jim and that some of Jim’s preferences were unfair to the girls.

Debbie sort-of liked waiting on Jim; it gave her a sense of purpose, position and even control. Her purpose in life (besides being a mother to her daughters) was to take care of her husband and subsequently there was an order in her life; the order was: Jim was first, she was second and the girls were third (In truth, I think the order really was: Jim, the girls and then Debbie).

Debbie also didn’t like this. She resented being a house wife like her mother. She feared she would become just like her mother someday; bitter and depressed. And she was tired and angry at always being second and Jim always being first.

Finally, Debbie was very confused about both liking and not liking her role as Jim’s care-taker. First, it was not like Jim was selfish or stingy. He was very generous with gifts and money….but it was always his decision! Second, Debbie was a very intelligent woman. She did well in college. She had gifts, talents, skills. She had job offers out of college that could have lead to a number of different careers. What happened? Where did that woman and that life go? Third and most importantly, Could changes be made? Jim was very stubborn when crossed. What if he left her…what would her life be then? What would happen to the girls in such a case?


It was ultimately Annie’s struggles with food (and not Debbie’s disappointment and dissatisfaction with her life and relationship with Jim) that prompted Debbie to act. Debbie knew Annie needed to start to talk about what she was worrying about if her self esteem and eating were ever to improve. Debbie also knew Annie couldn’t do this on her own; she needed a model to work from and someone “in her corner” to support her. Debbie knew she (Debbie) had to be the one to model for and support Annie. Debbie knew she needed to start standing up to Jim, initiating changes in their relationship and the family. And most importantly, Debbie knew she didn’t know where such changes would lead….


In Invisible 2, I discuss how Debbie initiated changes and the consequences.