Was He too Good to be True and Now a Nightmare?
Mental Health: Marriage to a Narcissist Can Cause Emotional Damage, Experts Say
Have you ever met someone that fit the following description? He’s so charming, intelligent and attractive that you’re blown away by the fact he’s paying attention. He tells you that he’s never met anyone as beautiful. “So what we’ve only been dating for two months. How about we get married?” he asks. This might be true love. On the other hand, you might have hooked up with a narcissist who uses charm to woo his victims so he can fill his empty self with the qualities you possess.
Narcissism is about how we view ourselves in relationship to the world. The word comes from a mythical Greek youth who symbolized pathological selfishness, alienation, self-deception and self-destruction. Everyone has some degree of narcissism — but some is healthy and some is not. Healthy narcissism is a mature, balanced love of oneself coupled with a stable sense of self-worth and self-esteem,” said Dr. Sam Vaknin, author of Malignant Self Love. “But, the sick narcissist’s sense of self-worth and self-esteem derive entirely from audience feedback because the narcissist has no self-esteem or self-worth of his own. In the absence of observers, the narcissist shrivels to non-existence and feels dead.”
The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM) says that almost 75 percent of those diagnosed with Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD) are men, and the numbers are growing. A 2006 study found that two-thirds of college students who took a Narcissistic Personality Inventory evaluation had above average scores, representing a 30 percent increase since 1982.
Experts say pathological narcissism is caused by both nature and nurture. While there are likely genetic factors that make someone predisposed to narcissism, the way they are raised can make a huge difference in how that narcissism develops,” said Dr. Irene Matiatos, a clinical psychologist who works with victims of narcissists.
Consider these questions:
Does he seem oblivious to other people’s needs and feelings?
Do you notice he often exudes an air of superiority or amused indifference?
While he may maintain piercing eye contact, does he eitherget uncomfortably close or seem coldly detached?
When you go out to eat, does he ask for special treatment or overreact if his martini comes with only two olives instead of three?
If you don’t give him your undivided attention, does he sulk and find ways to humiliate you?
Do his manners suddenly deteriorate into barbs and hostility?
Does he talk in terms of ‘I,” “my,” “myself,” and “mine” but, rarely, if ever, say “yours?”
Does his humor feel biting and, if you protest, does he tell you to “lighten up?”
Is he impatient, easily bored, even angry, if the conversation is about something other than what he’s thinking?
He is, after all, extraordinary. Meanwhile, you’re walking on eggshells because he thinks even the most innocent remarks are attempts to belittle him. If any of this sounds familiar, you may have a narcissist in your life. He attaches himself to his victims and sucks out their lifeblood to feed his empty self, while you become increasingly confused, numb and drained.
Narcissists often have other mental health issues such as eating disorders and substance abuse issues. Because they have poor impulse control, narcissists may spend too much and engage in inappropriate sexual behavior and are frequently abusive. On the other hand, Theodore Millon, author of Personality Disorders in Modern Life, says some narcissists feel morally superior, and “It is those who are unable to remain morally pure who are looked upon with contempt.” If your narcissist is the morally superior type, you’ll feel constantly judged.
Unfortunately, narcissists are hard to spot. Mary Jo Fay, author When Your Perfect Partner Goes Perfectly Wrong, offers clues including: egotistical and controlling behavior, feeling like the rules don’t apply, is never happy no matter what you do, feels more entitled than any one else, shows a lack of compassion and has significantly changed their personality since the relationship began.
“The narcissist has a sense of fantastic grandiosity, brilliance, perfection and power. They lack empathy, are exploitative and compulsively seek narcissistic supply which is about getting attention, admiration, adulation…a confabulated person aimed at inspiring awe and extracting compliance and subservience from others,” said Dr. Vaknin. And if you got mixed up with a narcissist, don’t be too hard on yourself. Even an experienced mental health diagnostician with unmitigated access to the record and the person can have a difficult time determining whether someone is a narcissist,” Dr. Vaknin said. “While a narcissist can learn some skills to navigate life with less damage than others, most never will because they do not believe they have a problem.And there’s no pill or therapy that can fix the problem. I believe there is no cure for this very serious mental disorder,” said Dr. Matiatos.
LIVING WITH A NARCISSIST
If you’re living with someone who has NPD, experts say you probably have said one or more of these things during your relationship: “I’m constantly walking on eggshells. When I come home, I don’t know if Dr. Jekyll or Mr. Hyde will greet me.” Or “I’m on an emotional roller coaster. I can’t figure out what I did wrong.” Or ” I don’t want to rock the boat. I’m so confused. Why can’t things be the way they used to be?” The problem isn’t you, according to Dr. Vaknin: “To cope with a narcissist is a full-time, energy- and emotion-draining job, which reduces the persons around the narcissist to insecure, nervous wrecks.”
There are a range of narcissistic reactions, styles, and personalities — from the mild, reactive and transient to the permanent personality disorder. Where your narcissist is on the continuum will determine what kind of relationship you have — which will change constantly, leaving you with no emotional security. A common practice for narcissists is to isolate their victim with comments like, “You don’t need to call your mom or your girlfriends,” or “You must not love me very much if you don’t want to spend time with me.”
“Patients with NPD feel injured, humiliated and empty when criticized. They often react with disdain, rage, and defiance to any slight, real or imagined. To avoid such situations, some patients with NPD socially withdraw and feign false modesty and humility to mask their underlying grandiosity,” said Dr. Vaknin.
If you decide you’ve had enough, suddenly he’s attentive and kind again — the charming, wonderful guy you fell for. “The one time that person senses you are about to leave, it threatens his ability to believe in himself. He needs you to validate his existence, so he will give you intermittent re-enforcement,” said Fay.
Unfortunately, the relationship will fall apart again, experts say. And when that happens, the victim wants to recapture the first three months — which were an illusion. Eventually, the cycle of trauma can take a toll. The manipulation that goes on leaves the victims feeling like they’re crazy. They get depressed, angry and frustrated because they’re living in emotional nightmare and they look like World War III. “Who do you think the judge is going to assign the kids to?” said Fay.
According to experts, your choices when dealing with a partner who has NPD include:
1) Stay with things as they are. If you take this route, things will go from bad to worse to awful.
2) Stay but establish very strong boundaries. If you take this route, know that you are alone in your relationship.
“The women (and men) in these relationships are abused. They’re upset because they’re trying to do everything to make the marriage work. They’re taking way too much responsibility in the marriage and they’re being constantly criticized. Whatever they’re doing isn’t good enough. They’re pretty broken, anxious and have a lot of self-doubt. They wonder what they’re doing wrong. What they’re doing wrong is staying there. Flee with all due deliberate speed. Get an order of protection if needed,” said Dr. Matiatos.
“If you do decide to leave, you’ll be a wreck for a while but he’ll be fine. You will grieve the relationship but the narcissist will move seamlessly into another relationship. He’s not really relating to you. He’s relating to some imaginary perfect mate he’s created in his mind. He writes the script and if someone does something that doesn’t fit, he writes her out and puts someone else in. You are banished. That’s your punishment,” said Cynthia Zayn, co-author of Narcissistic Lovers: How to Cope, Recover and Move On. Take the punishment and be grateful you got out alive.
DIAGNOSING NARCISSISTIC PERSONALITY DISORDER
Dr. Sam Vaknin has expanded on the nine criteria listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual for NPD. In order to be diagnosed with NPD, someone needs to exhibit five of these criteria.
1. Feels grandiose and self-important (e.g., exaggerates accomplishments, talents, skills, contacts, and personality traits to the point of lying, demands to be recognized as superior without commensurate achievements).
2. Is obsessed with fantasies of unlimited success, fame, fearsome power or omnipotence, unequalled brilliance (the cerebral narcissist), bodily beauty or sexual performance (the somatic narcissist), or ideal, everlasting, all-conquering love or passion.
3. Firmly convinced that he or she is unique and, being special, can only be understood by, should only be treated by, or associate with, other special or unique, or high-status people (or institutions).
4. Requires excessive admiration, adulation, attention and affirmation or, failing that, wishes to be feared and to be notorious (Narcissistic Supply).
5. Feels entitled. Demands automatic and full compliance with his or her unreasonable expectations for special and favorable priority treatment.
6. Is “interpersonally exploitative” i.e., uses others to achieve his or her own ends.
7. Devoid of empathy. Is unable or unwilling to identify with, acknowledge, or accept the feelings, needs, preferences, priorities, and choices of others.
8. Constantly envious of others and seeks to hurt or destroy the objects of his or her frustration.
9. Suffers from persecutory (paranoid) delusions as he or she believes that they feel the same about him or her and are likely to act similarly. Behaves arrogantly and haughtily.
10. Feels superior, omnipotent, omniscient, invincible, immune, “above the law”, and omnipresent (magical thinking).
12. Rages when frustrated, contradicted or confronted by people he or she considers inferior to him or her and unworthy.
FOR MORE INFORMATION
The 1944 film Gaslight starring Ingrid Bergman and Charles Boyer does a great job of portraying how a narcissist chips away at his victim’s self-confidence.
This article was contributed by Sam Vaknin, the author of “Malignant Self Love: Narcissism Revisited.” He served as a columnist for Global Politician, Central Europe Review, PopMatters, Bellaonline and eBookWeb, a United Press International (UPI) Senior Business Correspondent and the editor of mental health and Central East Europe categories in The Open Directory and Suite101. Visit his website at http://samvak.tripod.com.