couples counselingnarcissismpsychology

Engaging Narcissists in Couples Counseling

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In my practice, I frequently see couples where one partner lacks empathy, is self-centered and self-aggrandizing, and believes that he is never at fault in any situation (I’ll use “he” here, because although there are narcissists of both genders, it is mostly diagnosed in men.) This partner may meet criteria for narcissistic personality disorder, although it has never been formally diagnosed, since narcissists usually see no reason to seek individual therapy.

Narcissists are extremely difficult to treat in couples counseling, because they deflect any suggestion that they could be contributing to the current marital difficulties. They blame either their spouse or circumstances outside their control (e.g., their job, other family members) for all conflict within the relationship.

The non-narcissist spouse generally suffers from low self-esteem, like I describe here. Then, in a vicious cycle, being involved with a narcissist lowers one’s self-esteem even more.  (Another common pattern is that a narcissist marries another narcissist, but this couple is very unlikely to admit to any marital dysfunction or to seek counseling.)

Conflict arises in the marriage when the non-narcissist spouse wishes to be close to the narcissist and to get her emotional needs met, but feels pushed away, like the narcissist does not really know or care about her.  Frequently the narcissist also engages in gaslighting, where he denies his partner’s reality, either directly by lying or indirectly by just not admitting to himself that he did anything wrong.  For example, there will be exchanges like:

Wife: How come you didn’t answer when I called?  I told you I was getting the results of my biopsy.

Narcissist: I did answer!  But I had no service. (This one is overt lying.)

Or,

Narcissist: I was too busy to answer (convinced himself of this because it is impossible for him to admit to himself that he forgot this critical date and ignored the call).

So what we have is a dynamic where one partner acts like he can do no wrong, admits no part in any marital problem, and thinks that he does not need to work on the marriage, coupled with another person who is anxious to improve the marital situation and to feel known, understood, and valued.  The non-narcissistic spouse can at times act “crazy” because she is so desperate to be heard and understood by the narcissist, e.g., yelling, crying, throwing things.  This has the opposite effect than intended, because the narcissist will think, or say outright, “Of course I don’t want to be close to you, you are so crazy.”  This of course makes the spouse feel even crazier and more off-balance, and therefore more frantic to repair the marriage.

This is a very difficult couple to treat, but successful therapy hinges on cultivating empathy in the narcissist for his wife’s perspective and feelings.  If there is even a small move in the direction of understanding his spouse’s point of view, the marriage has the capacity to improve. On the other side, there needs to be an increase in the spouse’s feelings of self-esteem and self-efficacy.  If she can learn to value herself and find sustenance and support in other people, her career, or other outlets, then she will not be as dependent on the narcissist for validation.

A narcissist, although he can change and learn to be more empathic, will generally always have limitations. He rarely will turn into a person who is comfortable with sharing his vulnerabilities and with asking for emotional support.  However, if he can learn to provide some emotional support, the marriage will improve and grow closer.

Some techniques to engage a narcissist in exploring his more empathic side are to start with what he already does well and build on that.  Many narcissists are great with their children (particularly when the children are too young to reject the parent or his values) and their pets, because they enjoy dynamics where others look up to them. Children often function as an extension of the narcissist’s self.  If a narcissist has any capacity for empathy, it will manifest itself here.

Thus, a narcissist can be enticed to develop empathy for his wife by recognizing and praising how he acts empathically with children or pets, and drawing parallels between these situations and his marriage.  E.g., “Just like how great you were at comforting Josh when he lost the game, I’m hoping that you can express empathy to your wife when she feels upset or lonely.”

Similarly, a narcissist often wishes to impress others, and his desire to show the therapist what a quick learner he is can work to the couple’s advantage.  As long as the therapist affirms the narcissist for his effort, he will often work quite hard at excelling at therapy, which can include the ability to learn the skill of empathizing.  In reality, this is a skill that the narcissist likely did not learn at home, so he is frequently very curious about it and how it would work to allow him to connect better with others. Often, narcissists respond well to the idea of learning from “experts,” such as the therapist, and will pride themselves on being the best student of therapy that the therapist has ever seen.

This may initially seem to be a shallow type of change, as it is extrinsically and not intrinsically motivated. But, in reality, if a narcissist sees that empathizing works well and changes his wife’s behavior and feelings toward him, this will reinforce his desire to stay in treatment, where deeper and more substantive personality-level change has a chance to happen.  The marriage will also stabilize if the narcissist’s spouse finally feels heard and known for the first time in the relationship, which will allow her a more secure base from which to explore working on her own self-esteem and identity outside of the marriage.  Overall, then, teaching basic empathy and validation skills can be seen as an effective way to initially get buy-in with a narcissist in couples counseling, so that more profound change can later occur. For more on how narcissists behave, read Disarming the Narcissist by Wendy Behary.

Read this here on PsychCentral Professional!

Order Dr. Rodman Whiten’s books, 52 Emails to Transform Your Marriage and How to Talk to Your Kids about Your Divorce: Healthy, Effective Communication Techniques for Your Changing Family, and listen to The Dr. Psych Mom Show on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, or anywhere else you listen to podcasts. If you need therapy, check out her online group practice Best Life Behavioral Health.

This blog is not intended as medical advice or diagnosis and should in no way replace consultation with a medical professional. If you try this advice and it does not work for you, you cannot sue me. This is only my opinion, based on my background, training, and experience as a therapist and person.

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10 Comments

  1. Annie
    November 7, 2014 at 1:47 pm — Reply

    Wow, I think this could be what’s going on in my own marriage. Certainly the behaviors you describe reflect a lot of my reality where my emotional needs are not met. My husband is completely unable to have a discussion about our marital problems. He’s also good with our son (most of the time, although he can also be mean) and the pets. He is hyper-emotional when he watches movies (e.g. he will cry at almost every movie, laughs uproariously, etc), but he cannot express emotion or talk about how he feels with regard to our relationship. He says he cares but his actions don’t reflect that. And he completely ignores my requests about certain sexual preferences, claiming that he can’t help himself.

    I’m not really sure it’s narcissism, though, because he says that he doesn’t know how he feels when I’ve tried to have discussions about our relationship. I’ve come to believe that he’s not lying, he actually doesn’t know how he feels. But maybe he just doesn’t want to say because he thinks I won’t like his answer, or maybe he gets off on maintaining control by not saying.

    • November 7, 2014 at 2:50 pm — Reply

      yes. narcissists often exhibit lots of shallow emotions, eg when watching tv. couples counseling?

  2. SB
    May 13, 2015 at 1:01 pm — Reply

    This sounds like my situation. I’m not sure of the best way to suggest therapy though. I’m afraid he’ll just reject the idea as he believes there’s nothing wrong.

  3. Karen
    January 22, 2016 at 10:06 pm — Reply

    This is almost exactly what I faced in my marriage. I had already been doing individual therapy and finally issued an “or else” ultimatum. We did couples counseling with two different therapists, then we were directed (him especially) into separate therapy — his was group format.

    Imagine my shock when after ~8-10 weeks, he came home and announced he was done, he’d “graduated.” And I’d yet to notice any change in his behavior towards me. What he got, instead, was the idea that his issues were all the fault of his mother … and was challenged by the therapist to have a “confrontation” with her! Which he did … although I attempted to explain what I saw in his father’s behavior towards his mother … which was being replicated in our house.

    He became more and more verbally and emotionally abusive over the next several years. I continued with my own therapy, and realized how much my original self-confidence (though with a tendency towards co-dependence, to be sure) had deteriorated as I’d developed severe health problems — worsened by stress, including that I experienced with my husband.

    What I didn’t understand for many years, was why he got nastier and nastier towards me, the nicer and more loving I was towards him: He really thought so little of himself, despite the grandiosity, that how could he respect someone who thought well of him, the loser at heart? So this article’s recommendation that the spouse NOT praise the things the narcissist is so self-congratulatory about, but instead, the smaller, more everyday acts of kindness, built on that enlightenment for me.

    Since my husband often faced great stress in his job, and despite being a dream employee who worked far beyond “the call of duty” yet got insufficient acclaim … yep, I was his greatest cheerleader in that regard. And I’d have to say that back-fired, and fed his escalating bullying, to my dismay and confusion. Though I encouraged him on little stuff, too … which he pooh-poohed.

    Eventually, I told him whether he really changed his attitude towards me or just pretended that he had, bottom line, his behavior HAD to change. If not, then even if I had to live in a closet-sized apartment, I would divorce him, I didn’t deserve such mistreatment.

    And, for awhile, his behavior improved. Which told me he COULD do it. Unfortunately, as he advanced in his career, he was rewarded — literally and figuratively — for effectively bullying his contractors into big concessions. He brought that home with him, along with a blatant disrespect for my ongoing illness and inability to work.

    After another year, and a 1300-mile move for his advancement, he was fully back to his nasty ways. The day my first disability benefit check arrived (I’d delayed filing, always certain I’d get back to my “old self” any time now), I went out and bought a car, rented an apartment, and hired movers.

    I was surprised how down I was for the next 6-8 months, believing I’d already grieved the end of my marriage. BTW, we hadn’t had sex in almost 10 years … first, because we were both so angry and then the effect antidepressants had on my libido; later, because I remained so angry as well as ill, yet was also drinking heavily to cope with that anger — and disappointment; and finally, during the partial year in which his behavior improved and I was sober, because neither of us really knew how to be intimate with the other any more (or trusted the other’s “reformation”).

    But I NEVER regretted leaving the marriage. There have been rough times, especially health-wise, in the ~12 years since, but I believe they would have been even worse had I stayed and taken any more of the man’s abuse. I would have felt — and been — just as alone, struggling with illness, aging parents, tight money, PLUS the toxic environment my former husband created in our home, even when he was away on business.

    Had he known I really would leave, had he believed it, MAYBE he would have maintained the better behavior. With me being so ill, I don’t think he even once seriously thought I’d divorce him as I’d threatened. As a result, he was absolutely stunned. Further, in his arrogance, even after I left, he failed to research what the atmosphere in our new state was when the woman filed for divorce (very, very woman- and family-friendly).

    Between that, my disability, and his choice of lawyers, he ended up paying almost 50% more a month in support than he would have if he’d accepted my initial proffer, before any lawyers were involved. When he told the financial mediator, in tears, that he didn’t want to be there, negotiating, he didn’t want the divorce, that he stilled loved me, I almost fell onto the floor.

    Huh??? I sure hadn’t heard that, nor seen him act in such a way that validated such a declaration, in a long, long time. My theory was that he figured withholding reasonable living expenses would force me back home with him. He didn’t yet know I was making ends sort of meet with my initial disability income, and there was NOTHING that was going to force me back with him. As the saying goes, that ship had sailed.

    After experiencing this man’s narcissism for years, and occasionally running into it when I finally resumed a bit of dating, my opinion is that the only thing that can “save” marriage to such a personality is if there is a very deep, and respectful, LOVE for the non-narcissistic partner. And probably, catching and treating the issue ASAP, not 10-12 years into the marriage.

    Were there signs before we married? Yes, though they were very subtle, and I was being courted. Planning the wedding, some odd interactions popped up, but I attributed them to this being his first marriage at the age of 38 (and, my second, at age 33, and single after the first for 11 years).

    A few months into our marriage, however, and more telling signs appeared. Just as they subsided under my insistence (or I got used to and ignored them), the next round I attributed to having been separated for most of our first summer married: He was assigned across the country on a corporate purchase/turn-around, in which he worked 120+ hours a week, for weeks on end. Just him being willing to work those kind of hours, for less than executive-level pay (and no overtime pay), was a screaming symptom that I didn’t understand … and would pay for many times over, in a variety of ways.

    My own, still-present health problems started less than six months after his return from that assignment.

    I believe that I was also more inclined to forgiveness — or fortitude — over the years because this was my second marriage … I’d gone into it very much in love, ready to “settle down,” and committed to a life-long relationship. I was NOT going to have a second, failed marriage, no matter what.

    Yeah, well … sometimes, there are worse things than “failure.”

  4. Jon Bee
    January 23, 2016 at 3:36 pm — Reply

    I had a female narcissist enter my life a couple years ago. She was 33 years old and already had three failed marriages to her record.

    Husband #1 bought her five boob jobs. Apparently he wasn’t jealous enough of her and that marriage lasted four years. The next one lasted just over two and produced two children. The last marriage was still intact when she lied her way into my home. That marriage ended after just 18 months.

    Prior to meeting me she worked as a “fitness model”, an “Escort”, and as a “Featured” make-up artist. Despite being a college graduate and having married well several times, she had no money, no savings, no checkbook, no ATM cards and no credit. She did have some very expensive jewelry and designer handbags though. She had also attended and “graduated” from at least four Tony Robbins courses, (whom she virtually worships).

    When I met her, the children from marriage #2 were long gone and she had no parental rights to them anymore. Unbelievably, a different motivational speaker had convinced her to write a book on how to raise children!

    Five months into our relationship, she threw a tantrum when I refused to ride along with to see her kids for a two hour State supervised child visitation and got a DWI. She blew a whopping .351bac. This intimated strongly to me that she’d been drinking daily for sometime. This is what it took to finally dislodge her from my home.

    Her subsequent alcohol treatment didn’t appear to change her one bit, always blaming me for her “binges”. She was aware of her problems but blamed it on her father who didn’t love her mother enough. She called this “scarcity”.

    From afar, I waited for her to get sober as I thought that might take care of these issues but it never happened. Instead she spent the summer telling me she loved while simultaneously finding a new guy who could “worship the ground she walks on”. I suspect that when he runs out of money, or the bloom wears off the rose, she’ll leave him too.

    There is no reason to have one of these people in your life. People deserve to be loved. Narcissists are, at least in my experience, incapable of that. Any emotion out of them will be like words spoken by a parrot; mimicked meaningless noise. Buyer beware.

  5. Paul
    January 25, 2016 at 9:12 am — Reply

    I can barely begin describe the impact my narcissistic wife has had on my life and that of my young daughter.

    My wife isn’t the part time textbook variety that is so often described. She’s extreme and getting worse by the day, all out of public view, of course. If I had the time, energy and headspace I could describe behaviours and scenarios that beggar belief.

    In my wife’s case, I honestly think some of her narcissism stems from never having faced any of the harsh, life changing challenges throughout her time on this planet that many of us have been forced to deal with. Her perspective is lacking, in even the most basic, basic ways.

    Those close enough and unfortunate enough to cross her path will soon know that they’ve made a serious, life altering mistake, which is impossible to avoid.

    Personal autonomy is not possible, at all. Family are expected to serve, without complaint, without question. Choosing to do something for your self will produce the most vile, disgraceful and relentless outpouring. The name of the game is to ensure misery. Stability, feeling good about yourself, pursuing own interests or goals, relationships… not possible… not allowed. Complete subservience and codependance is required… demanded. Unwavering gratitude for allowing those close to her to exist in her presence is our only purpose. Any deviation by trying to exercise independence is immediately and visciously crushed.

    My wife is truly devoid of conscience. We’re all guilty of being insensitive or lacking a conscience at times, but this is like nothing I’d previously experienced.

    She makes no excuses nor apologies for her behaviour. Challenging her actions whether they be overt or covert are always denied and immediately followed by more of the very thing. Even now, after all these years i still find it shockingly sick. My wife trials different methods then refines those that she feels had the desired effect. The depths that she is prepared to sink are utterly disgraceful. Compunction is a foreign emotion and one that i have never truly felt from her. I’ve come to realise that this is how some people operate. It is how my wife operates.

    When i first experienced her dark side, i thought she was simply behaving like a spoilt, juvenile brat. As time has passed, I began to see an even darker, more sinister and caculating side to her personality. I now think she’s a sociopath. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if she is bodering on Psychopath. Her glib responses all too often send a chill down my spine, literally. And her desire and ability to openly and calmly deceive scares the hell out of me.

    Prior to meeting my wife, Gaslighting was a term I had never heard. I now know, and I know what it’s like to be on the receiving end of someone who gaslights during the most basic interactions. I also know how someone could feel like they are losing their mind from the relentless torment and instability it creates.

    The similarities between my wife and the traits of those prepared to engage in such tactics… frankly it scares the hell out of me how solar they appear to be. I’m scared for me, I’m terrified for my daughter.

    My wife will only get worse. I can see that and I truly believe that. No amount of counseling can help someone like her because in her world its not everyone else that is a problem, its just those close to her. Sadly, that seems to include her own daughter. The counselling is required by me, and will be [required] by my daughter.

    My dilemma is in leaving my daughter with her willfully destructive mother. The common advice to partners in abusive relationships contradicts my instincts and I feel utterly torn. Gender stereotypes and public perception isn’t helping either. I don’t doubt what would result if I choose to leave my wife, and trying to take the necessary measures to ensure my daughters safety when alone with her mother just doesn’t seem possible. Her mother is the ultimate chameleon and is very capable of charming even the most ardent critics. But behind closed doors, she’s a monster who’ll use her own daughter without a second thought.

    I know that a leap of faith is required. Unfortunately, I have no faith in a person who has terrorised us for years and is yet to show any signs of mercy.

    I’m not normally one to give unsolicited advice, in fact the opposite. But… If you ever meet a person whom you suspect to be narcissistic or have a personality disorder… Run! Run for your life!

    • monidipa monidipa
      May 12, 2016 at 12:02 am — Reply

      To PAul, my situation is same as yours except my husband is narcissistic and we have a son. The decision you took to stay on to avoid giving partial custody of your daughter to her narcissistic mother, is the same reason I could not leave my husband. I think most people do not understand it is just not easy to divorce when you have small children. For my son, I have made the ultimate sacrifice to have stayed on with his abusive dad just to keep him safe. I stand between my son and husband to buffer the damage. It was a hard decision for me to make; whether I could be a good enough mother staying on in this relationship or divorce my husband and allow alone time for my son with his dad. I chose the former. I thought this would at least allow me to stay near my son to protect him. My son is now 14. I think I made the correct choice. I try very hard to keep a semblance of a ‘happy’ family, by following virtually all the advice given by experts as to how to deal with a narcissist. I dare say it has worked well and my son is doing very well in school and has a near-perfect relationship with me, as a mother-son relationship can be. But it has taken a toll on me and I believe shortened my lifespan.
      Good luck to you. Try to spend as much time as you can with your daughter and undo the damage her mother is causing. After a while your daughter will be old enough for you to leave the relationship and you would be able to get a life of your own. Cheers! Good times are ahead!

      • KarenE
        May 10, 2017 at 8:38 pm — Reply

        I, too, stayed years longer than I should have, in the later years primarily because I couldn’t stand the idea of not being with my kids half the time (we’re in a jurisdiction where 50-50 custody time is the absolute norm and default), but primarily because I worried what it would be like for our kids to spend half their time with their father, without me around to manage things. I had managed to leverage him into being less scary and less rude and critical, and things seemed to be going better in the last year we were together.

        Fortunately, our jurisdiction also gives the kids input into custody decisions from around age 12, and autonomy about those decisions at age 14. So when he had his second affair, when the kids were 11 and 12, I kicked him out. He was so focussed on his ‘new life’ at that point that he easily accepted the custody arrangements the kids and I preferred; he had them 15% of the time.

        What I discovered after that was very eye-opening. First of all, despite missing their dad, the kids and I quickly became MUCH happier in our day to day lives. Not having to live with his moodiness and manage his life made things so much better, and I was a better, calmer mom too.

        But most importantly, I saw that my kids had been learning A LOT from observing our relationship. Our then-11 year old daughter was rude and self-centered – even more than adolescent girls normally are! She had her father’s exact tone and attitude. Our more even-tempered son had become withdrawn and placating, with occasional bouts of passive-aggression.

        So when the ex came sniffing around to try to come back (repeatedly over a 2 year period), it was easy to resist. I didn’t want to continue to teach my kids that in a relationship, there’s a bully and a placatory person, there’s one who gives and gives and another who just takes, there’s one who does the heavy lifting of life, home, kids and relationships, and the other who takes advantage of that to gain what they want, while investing very little, there’s one who does things nobody should tolerate (violence, infidelity, meanness), and another who tolerates those things.

        It’s been almost 5 years, and my kids are now people I can be proud of. As well as happier, they are more balanced, and know that there are consequences for our choices in life. They are far better at addressing issues with other people in assertive ways, neither aggressive nor overly nice. And they know that there are other options in life, aside from living in a bully-victim relationship.

  6. KarenE
    February 8, 2017 at 8:43 pm — Reply

    Even if you do manage to ‘maneuver’ a narcissist into behaving better, it often won’t last, or they’ll behave better, you’ll feel better …. and then they’ll fuck around and leave or you’ll finally kick them out for fucking around.

    The rates of infidelity by narcissists is extremely high, and they often become very resentful of having to ‘work’ on the marriage or improve their behaviour – because you’re not the boss of them!

    I’d like to see a frank discussion among couple’s therapists of how to deal with THIS reality, and how to help the other member of such couples make an eyes-open decision about what they have in the marriage, what they want, and where their cut-off is.

  7. KarenE
    February 23, 2019 at 7:15 pm — Reply

    Oh, plus they’ll also often drop the non-narc partner like a hot potato if the partner gets sick, gets old, needs to focus on themselves, or on care for kids or elderly parents, or on their own career…..

    The problem of using a reward system to get people to behave better (which is what is described in this article), is that it only works as long as the rewards keep flowing. Because there is no strong pair-bond or loyalty with a narcissist, once they figure the relationship is costing them more than they gain, they will be out of there!

    Is it a favour to help a non-narcissistic partner to make that relationship seem better, for a while, knowing that long-term outcomes are not likely to be good?

    Don’t forget the Gottman research on successful, HAPPY long-term relationships; the generosity factor is key! And lacking in narcissists …..

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