How to deal with a narcissistic partner

Partners of narcissistic individuals may not know why their relationship is so unrewarding. Their mate initially appeared outgoing, appealing, conversant, intelligent, sociable and desirable. It is only with time that mates of narcissists begin to experience loneliness, lack of connection, ineptness in fulfilling the other’s needs and the disappointment about their own unfulfilled personal needs.

The reason for this surprise outcome of the initially promising union is that identifying narcissism is not easy since many of the narcissistic traits masquerade as desirable attributes to the unskilled observer.

The Mayo Clinic defines Narcissistic Personality Disorder as “a mental disorder in which people have an inflated sense of their own importance and a deep need for admiration. They believe that they are superior to others and have little regard for other people’s feelings. But behind this mask of ultra-confidence lies a fragile self-esteem, vulnerable to the slightest criticism.”

This report adds that narcissists have traits that “Cause them to feel and behave in socially distressing ways, limiting their ability to function in relationships and in other areas of their life, such as work or school.”

What initially appeared to the spouse as his mate’s healthy sense of self is actually a fragile ego that is easily bruised revealing deep self–shame and humiliation. These intolerable emotions may propel the narcissist to verbally discount and shame the mate to regain his/her own emotional balance.

In “Personality Disorders” Dr. Heather Veague places Narcissistic Personality Disorder in a Cluster that “may be described as dramatic, emotional and attention seeking. They may seem to be ‘moody’ and ‘difficult,’ and often report that they have difficulties getting along with others.” Dr.Veague likens personality disorders to a chronic disease like Diabetes. There are no cures, but some treatments can ease the person’s unhappy state.

The cause of Narcissistic Personality Disorder is not known. Current research is exploring both the neurobiological genesis and dysfunctional parenting such as excessive pampering, extremely high expectations, abuse or neglect.

Narcissistic personality disorder is a rare condition affecting less than one percent of the United States population. It is not diagnosed until early adulthood. Though it affects more men than women, it is found in both genders.

The Mayo Clinic Report states: “People with narcissistic personality disorder are most likely to seek treatment when they develop symptoms of depression — often because of perceived criticisms or rejection.”

The depression may be treated by psychological and psychiatric means. The currently advocated treatment for narcissistic personality is psychotherapy. It is wise to seek a therapist who is knowledgeable and experienced in treating narcissistic individuals.

Dealing with a narcissistic mate:

  • Understand that Narcissism is a personality disorder and not a volitional unkindness.
  • Provide frequent affirmations. Expect no reciprocity.
  • Respect that your mate’s behavior is a reaction to his/her emotional pain and is not intentionally hurtful or caused by you.
  • Get your support from family, friends or colleagues.
  • Encourage your partner to seek professional help.

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About Author

Offra Gerstein, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist in clinical practice in Santa Cruz, California for over 25 years, and specializes in relationship issues for couples and individuals for improved quality of life. Her work includes: mate selection, marriage, long term relationships, gay and lesbian couples, work relationships, parenting issues, family interactions, friendships, and conflict resolutions. Offra has lectured extensively to various groups, conducted support groups for several organizations, and has been writing a weekly column "Relationship Matters" for the Santa Cruz Sentinel since 2001.

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