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Challenge of the Narcissist in Relationships
Narcissists look at the world through a lens
that has him or herself at center. Their needs and wants tend to supersede those
of others. Others are typically there in the service of their needs.
Niceness and charm to the narcissist are but
tools to disarm the other towards the service of meeting one’s needs.
As the niceness and charm flatter the other by
way of positive attention, the other feels attracted and beholding to the
narcissist. As the superficiality of the niceness and charm fade against the
ongoing subordination of the others needs, that sense of feeling attracted and
beholding is supplanted with consternation.
Consternation is the outcome of feeling taken
advantage of in lop-sided relationships.
Consternation is the outcome of feeling
manipulated by being lulled into a sense that the other cares when their
positive attention is really a guise for meeting self-serving interests.
Consternation is that mix of emotions that includes anger, bewilderment,
confusion and dismay. Consternation stifles the will of the person to continue
to meet the needs of the narcissist which then drives anger singularly from the
narcissist, the result of feeling thwarted when seeking self-interested
Upon the narcissists needs not being met,
particularly in view of a relationship where from the outset his or her needs
were met fully on the basis of niceness and charm, the narcissist then projects
blame upon the other, proclaiming their change of heart as the root of the now
burgeoning relationship turmoil. This would be typical of the narcissist who is
otherwise pleased with him/herself, views others as being there in the service
of their needs and who cannot cast negatively upon him/herself to see
him/herself as selfish and self-serving. As such, the credo of the narcissist
would be, “If not for how you have changed, all would be well (for me).”
This with nary an appreciation of his/her role in the dynamic. It is all about
projecting blame because the narcissist is never wrong.
Of course this is crazy making for the partner
of the narcissist who now may be dependent upon the positive reflection
previously received through the niceness and charm of the narcissist. If that
other person has an already fragile self-esteem, the positive attention of the
narcissist may have felt like the elixir of life. Now the narcissist, having
developed a dependency of the other for that elixir uses the withdrawal of
positive attention as a weapon in the furtherance of his/her self-interest and
personal gratification over the needs to the other. Oh what a tangled web.
How does the therapist intervene? What can be
done to restore some semblance of order? Can the needs of both be met
The answer depends in part on the disposition
of the partner.
If the partner does have a fragile
self-esteem, that partner will likely seek to maintain the relationship but will
seek some degree of reciprocity. At least some of the partner’s needs must be
fulfilled. The credo of the partner dependent upon the narcissist is “Throw me
a bone here.”
In these circumstances, I appeal directly to
the narcissist’s interests. Getting a narcissist to be altruistic is quite a
stretch. Getting a narcissist to appreciate the value for themselves in
achieving a quid pro quo (this for that) with others may be within his/her
The challenge is one in helping the narcissist
appreciate it is in his/her own self-interest to better meet the needs of their
partner so their own needs can be more easily met. To the degree to which this
can occur, the narcissist learns to throw their partner a bone. This may be felt
as satisfactory to the person whose self-esteem is low or fragile. From the
partner’s perspective, it may be all they are seeking to keep themselves
emotionally afloat. But is this an inappropriate outcome? Again, it depends.
If this is sufficient to the persons involved,
this remains their choice. If it is not sufficient to either person, then one or
other may choose to work more intensely on him or herself.
If the person who has low or fragile
self-esteem develops a more independent sense of self and worth, it may come to
pass that this person finally initiates a separation from the narcissist
partner, no longer feeling dependent upon him/her for scraps or bones. If the
narcissist comes to appreciate the needs of others, develops empathy and acts
altruistically, then a better outcome may be had as a couple.
If the partner of the narcissist already has a
strong sense of self and is not dependent upon receiving a positive reflection
in the eyes of others in order to feel whole or worthy, then the relationship
will likely end. This person will have a more realistic appraisal of the
situation, will see the narcissist as a narcissist, lick their wounds for time
and energy wasted and the fantasy of love lost and then move on.
As for the therapists, we need reasonable
expectations of what we hope can be achieved and not get inducted into thinking
we can rescue clients on the basis of their wish fulfillment.
Challenging situations indeed.
Direnfeld, MSW, RSW
Direnfeld, MSW, RSW
Call Gary for your next conference and for expert opinion on family matters. Services include counselling, mediation, assessment, assessment critiques and workshops.
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