About the Author
Dr. Karyl McBride, PhD, is the author of Will I Ever Be Good Enough? and has spent many years researching the insidious disorder of narcissism and how it impacts adults and children alike. She is a licensed marriage and family therapist with more than thirty years of experience in public and private practice.
Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.
Will I Ever Be Free of You? CHAPTER ONE
AM I IN A RELATIONSHIP WITH A NARCISSIST? HOW DO I KNOW?
When Ellen entered her first therapy session with me, she held a card in her hand that she’d printed out from Someecards.com. Without speaking, she handed it to me. It read, “We divorced for religious reasons. My partner thought he was God and I didn’t.” While I smiled at the humor, it gave me a good sense about what she would tell me in her story.
When Mark and Ellen first met, Ellen felt caught up in a whirlwind of excitement. Mark was charming, witty, and seductive. Ellen believed that what she and Mark felt for each other was true love. She didn’t realize until after they’d married and had children that Mark’s charm was that of an artful narcissist. Despite his initial showy displays of love, Mark cared only about himself and consistently manipulated others to get his own needs met. He emotionally abused Ellen and their children. When Ellen decided that she had had enough and filed for divorce, Mark was appalled. He could not believe that Ellen would abandon him and ruin his life. Mark saw himself as the victim.
Unwilling to compromise, unable to see things from any perspective other than his own, consistently angry and vindictive, Mark created havoc for Ellen through the divorce, lashed out during each phase of the proceedings, and had excuses for even his most egregious behavior, blaming others—especially Ellen—for his actions. He never thought twice about using his children as pawns. The judge got increasingly frustrated as Mark and Ellen showed up in court again and again.
When a divorcing couple is made up of one narcissist and one reasonably normal person, the narcissistic spouse can single-handedly create all kinds of conflict. The narcissist’s actions cause the “normal” spouse to go into defense mode—especially when children are involved. To outsiders, it looks like a fight between equals, but what is really happening is that the normal spouse is trying to protect the children from a bully. Many people do not recognize the qualities of narcissism, even when they are involved with a narcissist.
A common perception among divorce lawyers, therapists, parenting-time evaluators, judges, and other professionals is that, whenever you have a “high-conflict” divorce, both parties are responsible for the conflict. Many professionals assume that difficult, drawn-out custody battles are caused by two parents who are each stubborn, selfish, and perhaps a bit crazy. As Michael Friedman wrote in an article for The American Journal of Family Therapy, “The concept has even entered into what might be called family court folk wisdom: we say that Mother Teresa does not marry Attila the Hun or that it takes two to tango.”1
People use the label narcissist loosely, typically to indicate someone who is vain and selfish, but the personality disorder is precisely defined and has been studied by mental health professionals who have identified the traits of narcissists. How do you recognize someone who is a narcissist, as opposed to someone who has a healthy self-respect or even someone who is disagreeably arrogant, but not an actual narcissist?
Could This Be My Partner (or My Ex)?
The term narcissism comes from the Greek myth of Narcissus, a handsome young man who believed himself to be better and more beautiful than everyone else and who fell in love with his own reflection in a pool of water. Whenever he reached out to capture this vision of beauty, however, he touched the water and shattered the reflection. Even so, he could not tear himself away and lost all interest in food, rest, and normal life. Gradually, he lost the strength and the beauty that had made him so appealing and died while gazing at his reflection. His unhealthy self-love was a curse. Sigmund Freud used this myth to describe a psychological disorder—a disease of self-love—that he saw in some of his clients.2
The American Psychiatric Association (APA) classifies mental disorders according to their symptoms in The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM). The DSM includes narcissism with personality disorders that lead to dramatic, emotional, or erratic behavior, such as borderline personality disorder (BPD) and histrionic personality disorder (HPD). These personality disorders have a lot of “comorbidity,” meaning that someone can have more than one of them at once. The nine traits listed below from the DSM define the narcissistic personality:
1. Has a grandiose sense of self-importance, e.g., exaggerates achievements and talents, and expects to be recognized as superior without commensurate achievements.
2. Is preoccupied with fantasies of unlimited success, power, brilliance, beauty, or ideal love.
3. Believes that he or she is “special” and unique and can only be understood by, or should associate with, other special or high-status people (or institutions).
4. Requires excessive admiration.
5. Has a sense of entitlement, i.e., unreasonable expectations of especially favorable treatment or automatic compliance with his or her expectations.
6. Is interpersonally exploitative, i.e., takes advantage of others to achieve his or her own ends.
7. Lacks empathy: is unwilling to recognize or identify with the feelings and needs of others.
8. Is often envious of others or believes that others are envious of him or her.
9. Shows arrogance, haughty behaviors or attitudes.3
Narcissism is a spectrum disorder, which means it ranges from a few narcissistic traits to full-blown narcissistic personality disorder (NPD). How common is narcissism? The American Psychiatric Association estimates that 2 to 16 percent of the people who are being treated by a mental health professional suffer from it, and it manifests in less than 1 percent of the general population.4 In other words, the APA thinks it’s rare. On the other hand, Jean Twenge and W. Keith Campbell, authors of The Narcissism Epidemic: Living in the Age of Entitlement, state, “Nearly 1 out of 10 Americans in their twenties, and 1 out of 16 of those of all ages, has experienced symptoms of NPD.”5 Twenge and Campbell believe that we are living in a narcissistic culture and that the incidence of narcissism is increasing.
I believe the truth lies somewhere between these two points of view. We all have some narcissistic traits and can occasionally behave in a narcissistic way. That does not mean we are narcissists. Given that narcissists generally do not seek treatment, I believe that narcissism is much more common than statistics would indicate. My research and clinical practice also support this view.
Let’s spend some time getting to know the nine traits of narcissism by looking at examples of how they present themselves in love relationships. Remember, this is a spectrum disorder. The more of these traits a narcissist has, the more heartbreak he or she creates for the people in relationships with them.
The narcissistic personality:
1. Grandiose sense of self-importance without commensurate achievements. Example: The partner whose attitude is “When I say ‘Jump!’ you say ‘How high?’?” Jackie was the breadwinner for her family, which included her husband, a stay-at-home dad, and two children. Jackie expected the family to organize all their activities around her. She was a finance executive for a car dealership, but to hear her talk, she owned and ran the company. They would be bankrupt without her! Jackie reminded her family constantly how smart she was. She clearly felt that others were beneath her.
2. Fantasies of unlimited success, power, brilliance, beauty, or ideal love. Example: The partner who constantly obsesses about status symbols. When Paul and Vicky went on vacation, Paul would always call local real estate agents, pretending to be in the market for a new or vacation home. He would present himself as a wealthy investor and insist that he needed a real estate agent sophisticated and connected enough to screen properties for him, so that he would see only the best of the best. While his income was middle-class, he would say things like “We really need a property that has a private landing strip, or at least room to add one. I travel a ridiculous amount, and I prefer to fly my own plane when I can. It’s just more convenient.” Vicky felt embarrassed to be pulled into this kind of lie and ashamed to be deceiving the real estate agents.
3. Belief that he or she is special. Example: The partner who regardless of income has to have the best divorce attorney in town. When seeking professionals to help with a divorce, such as evaluators and therapists for the children, the partner can only hire experts with PhDs who have studied at prestigious universities. If the judge does not rule in the narcissist partner’s favor, that partner decides the judge is stupid and probably won’t follow the court’s orders. I recently observed a woman yelling at a judge, “You are just ridiculous. I am going to get a new judge!” She seemed to think this was as easy as exchanging a pair of shoes and was surprised when security removed her from the courtroom.
4. Requires excessive admiration. Example: The partner who is so needy that he or she solicits admiration all the time. My client Tasha said, “Whenever we were going anywhere special, my partner Julia would always be the last one dressed. The whole family would be gathered in the hall, impatient and ready to go. Then Julia would make her entrance, coming down the stairs, preening and turning. She was waiting for everyone to go ‘Oooooooooh’ and ‘Aaaaaaaaah’ and ‘Mama, you’re so gorgeous.’ The kids and I would go over-the-top admiring her. We knew we weren’t leaving the house until she got the admiration she wanted.”
5. Has a sense of entitlement and expects automatic compliance of others. Example: Marcy felt she was entitled to pay less and demand more from the law firm she had retained. She refused to talk with the paralegals, always demanding to speak with “the attorney I am paying so much money to.” If her hysterical demands were not met instantly, Marcy would threaten to change attorneys. Her favorite saying to her friends and family was “I will demand attention and be heard immediately, and if you don’t believe me, just watch.” Marcy’s lawyer dumped her right before the proceedings began.
6. Is interpersonally exploitative and takes advantage of others. Example: The father who uses his children for his own ends. After Jeff and Heather got divorced, Jeff treated his daughter like an accessory. He realized that “there is nothing that makes a single man more attractive to women than walking around looking like a devoted father to his three-year-old daughter.” He insisted that she dress in clothes that made her look upper-class and took her out to late-night dinners at restaurants. Once, when she became ill while visiting with him, he checked into a hotel so that the hotel staff would have to clean up after her vomiting. Jeff felt that he should not have to do this.
7. Lacks empathy. Example: The person who views any situation through the lens of what it means to him or her. Peter came home and said to his wife, “You know how my secretary has that bad breast-cancer gene? The one that means she has to take time off from work every four months to have screenings? Well, right now, when we are under so much stress in the office, she’s finally been diagnosed with breast cancer. I can’t believe this is happening to me. She was also rattling on today about how worried she is about her kids and how they will handle this . . . hinting she might need more time off work. My business cannot handle this right now!”
8. Is often envious or believes others are envious of him or her. Example: The partner who cannot enjoy her husband’s success. Brian was a new partner at a law firm and had just won a complicated and hard-fought trial. The law firm arranged a party to celebrate this victory and to thank Brian for his successful work. Brian wanted his wife, Beth, to attend the party and celebrate with him. Beth pretended that she would go and “acted” excited, but right before they left for the party, she decided to stay home because “I have better things to do!” She told Brian as he was walking out the door, “I think you won that case because I was listening to your whining every night. You couldn’t have done it without me. I really don’t have the time in my schedule to do that for you.” Brian’s excitement and pride in his work was blown to bits as he slowly drove to the party alone.
9. Shows arrogance. Example: The partner who is not particularly engaged with his child’s accomplishments but wants to take all the credit for them. Jake attended a parent-teacher conference with his ex-wife and eight-year-old son, Mick. Mick was doing well in math, and his teacher was showing his papers and test scores to his parents, clearly wanting little Mick to have the lovely experience of being praised by a teacher in front of his parents. Jake interrupted the teacher abruptly and announced, “I can see where he gets his brilliance! I was always a star in mathematics as well and in fact won a trip to an academic festival when I was much younger than Mick. It is also why I am doing so well in my engineering career. Yup, this kid gets his smarts from his dad. Nice going, son.”
These nine traits describe why narcissists cannot love. They place primary importance on “what you can do for me” and expend a lot of energy on appearances. In a relationship with a narcissist, you will eventually realize that this person does not see the real you. You are the person’s object to be manipulated for his or her own goals and needs.
My client Todd struggled to keep his voice steady as he said, “It is just so hard for me to realize that my wife is not capable of love. Our whole relationship was a farce. How could I have not seen it? It hurts me so much for our children as well. She can really never be the mother they need. None of our emotional needs were met, and I am just now understanding this.”
Suzie was exasperated as she revealed, “I found out rather quickly that my husband would exaggerate his stories to make them sound better. He was often obnoxious to others, particularly those in the service industry. There seemed to be something missing in him. There wasn’t a soul of deepness to him. He would fake this charming cuteness. I guess I should have figured this out sooner, like on the day of our wedding, when he was showing his actor side. In the wedding ceremony, I was looking at him and his body was turned to face all the people out in the audience. I whispered to him that he was supposed to be looking at me. He thought he was on a damn stage.”
Is It Narcissism or Something Else?
If you have looked at the traits and examples above and said, “That’s my partner and that’s my life,” then your partner likely has narcissistic traits or maybe even full-blown narcissistic personality disorder. You will probably never get an official diagnosis because your partner likely won’t seek treatment. Even if you are in therapy, your therapist will only be able to make a secondhand diagnosis based on your reports about how your partner behaves.
People who are sociopathic, psychopathic, or abusive are extreme examples of narcissists. Other people who are emotionally limited may not be narcissistic. Asperger’s syndrome, for instance, may be confused with narcissism because people with Asperger’s are not as sensitive as normal people to emotional cues, but they do not mean to hurt or manipulate others. Narcissists general...
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