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Narcissism

How to Manage a Narcissistic Partner

Narcissistic partners can’t be fixed but they can be managed.

Key points

  • Dread of loss of status can motivate narcissists to do what is required to avoid the loss of status upon which their self-respect depends.
  • A partner should call them out when they are contemptuous or insensitive.
  • When speaking up, stay calm and don't get defensive. They may get defensive and angry but give them space to calm down and think about things.

Many of us find ourselves in intimate relationships with narcissistic individuals. Narcissists make good first impressions. They seem confident, outgoing, and charming. They seem to know how to flatter our egos in just the way we want to be flattered. They might seem hard to get, so if we are lucky enough to get them, it can feel like we won the lottery. And if they are good-looking and successful as well, even better. What’s not to like? The sexual chemistry we feel is amazing. What could go wrong?

The answer is plenty. The better we get to know a narcissistic person the less we may like them. We begin to discover that they are selfish and self-centered, arrogant and condescending. They can be insensitive and lack empathy. They may feel entitled and expect to be indulged, and get angry when they don’t get their way. They expect favors that they don’t return.

When you experience buyer’s remorse with a narcissistic partner, what do you do? If you’re married with kids, it might not be so simple to break up and find someone else who's less narcissistic. You could hope that their narcissism is a kind of immaturity they will eventually outgrow. You could hope that if you confront their narcissism and demand change with the help of some psychotherapy, maybe their narcissism could be fixed.

But what if their narcissism is an entrenched personality trait beyond fixing or outgrowing? Then what? Are you doomed to a miserable marriage? And what if you’re attracted to narcissistic types despite your frustration with them and bored by others with whom it's easier to get along? Maybe, just maybe, with some hard work, you can learn to manage a narcissistic partner and learn to make the best of a bad situation.

What It Means to Manage a Narcissistic Partner

Why is it that narcissists can be managed but they can’t be fixed? What narcissists want more than anything in the world is to be superior to you. They might give lip service to wanting to be in an egalitarian marriage, but deep down, they want a servant, and that basic predisposition isn’t going to be fixed. Yet, it can be managed because you have the leverage to make a narcissistic partner treat you as a respected equal if you can find the courage to use that leverage wisely.

Narcissists are highly invested in their social status. Marriage, children, and the economic advantages of married life provide social status. Narcissists lose that status if their marriages fall apart. They suffer downward mobility and can be perceived by others as a failed spouse or parent. Dread of loss of status can motivate narcissists to begrudgingly do what they are required to do to avoid the loss of status upon which their self-respect depends. Does that mean you should start threatening divorce every time you are fed up with your partner? No. That would be a strategic blunder.

Frustrated partners in a fit of anger might threaten divorce to motivate behavior change. It never works because narcissists correctly perceive that it’s a bluff the very first time the aggrieved partner fails to follow through. The narcissist intuits that the partner delivering the ultimatum is in fact too dependent on the narcissist to follow through on their threat. What does unnerve narcissists is not a partner's anger but their indifference. Indifference conveys that one is no longer so invested in the relationship, has begun weaning oneself from dependence on it, and is emotionally preparing for an independent life if it comes to that.

Calling out a narcissistic partner on their insensitive, dismissive, contemptuous, and shaming behavior in a calm, matter-of-fact way (i.e., indifferently) makes an impact. Of course, your narcissistic partner is likely to respond defensively and with self-righteous indignation to any criticism and accuse you of being mean and unfair. They may try their best to get you to back down. Don't. Make it clear that you are entitled to your feelings and opinions, and don’t need to debate it if they see it differently. Make it clear that if you continue to feel mistreated, your partner shouldn’t expect much in the way of love, affection, sex, or other indulgences. Make them earn your respect.

The narcissist will engage in countercomplaint and accuse you of mistreating them. You don’t need to defend yourself. Just say, “Fine, if that’s how you feel, you’re free to divorce me and look for someone better. I don’t appreciate it that when I raise what I feel is a legitimate concern about you, you throw it back in my face. That’s not an attractive trait.” The narcissist still throws it back in your face: “Why don’t you divorce me?” Say, “I’m committed to learning to make the best of a bad situation by controlling my temper and speaking my truth.”

At this point, your partner might back down to make peace. Or they might storm off in a huff because they see they aren’t going to get anywhere with you. If they do storm out, as they are leaving, you could say, "Don’t come back without an apology for the way you’re ending this conversation.” Once they cool down and think about it a little, you just might get an apology.

You’re putting your partner in a forced-choice situation to treat you respectfully or let you continue to wean yourself from the relationship until you get to the point where it would be a huge relief to be done with your narcissist for good. This becomes a moment of truth for them. Some narcissists might let you grow apart because they can’t swallow their pride, but many will relent because they are much more dependent on you than you are on them, even if they are loath to admit it.

Managing a Narcissist Is Hard Work

Standing up for yourself can be draining and exhausting. Unfortunately, the marriage will only get worse if you don’t do the work. It’s in your enlightened self-interest. You can always get out if this is just too much for you or if asserting yourself this way is beyond your capability. If your narcissistic partner is your romantic type, and standing up for yourself in this way keeps them in line, you just might find that a lifetime with that person isn’t so bad after all.

References

Josephs, L. (2018) The Dynamics of Infidelity: Applying Relationship Science to Psychotherapy Practice. Washington, D.C.: American Psychological Association.

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