It doesn’t really matter if they’re diagnosed or not (they rarely are). A person with narcissistic traits/tendencies/ issue may be (almost) as difficult to deal with in real life, so it doesn’t really matter. Narcissism is on a spectrum and a matter of degree. We’re all just a little bit narcissistic, aren’t we? What we’re talking about is much more on the toxic end of the spectrum.
The leading traits that you’re looking for are a strong sense of entitlement; inability to take responsibility or own their part; lack of remorse and/or inability to say “I’m sorry” for anything; the ability to recall things completely differently than you do and flip the story to place blame on you; lack of being able to see your side of things in a situation (connected to gaslighting); and often difficulty with emotional regulation (they blow up into a rage, often out of the blue, and struggle to calm themselves down).
If you find yourself saying yes to most of these traits, it might be useful to educate yourself about narcissism. Learning more about narcissism and narcissistic personality disorder may be helpful for your own freedom. Knowledge will help you manage the relationship better and can set you free from taking on all the blame they will inevitably put in your lap. As you learn more, it can also help you not take their behaviors so personally.
Here are some ideas of how to do things differently now that you know you’re engaged with someone with narcissistic issues. Please note: This is not an exhaustive list by any means and there’s much more to learn. See resources at the bottom:
Don’t expect them to change. Work on yourself. You will make the changes.
We cannot change others; we can only change ourselves. This is a huge life lesson for all situations, but especially true when you’re talking about narcissism. We can wish/hope/pray that someone will make changes in their lives that will help us out, but they can only do so when/if they really want to. Change is hard for us all, so the person changing must really want to make these changes for themselves (it doesn’t usually work to do this hard work for someone else).
When living with a person with narcissistic traits, it is most likely that they will not even see themselves as part of the problem and will refuse to change. Know that no amount of rational thought or conversation with them will help. Getting into an argument in general doesn’t usually go well because they have to win and don’t use rational arguments at all. Therefore, for you to feel sane and keep moving forward in your own life, you will have to be the one to make some changes.
It is completely unfair and it can be helpful to recognize that it isn’t fair. In order to make the relationship the best possible, you are the one that is able to remain calm, set clear boundaries, hold firm to these boundaries, and protect yourself. You may need to protect yourself energetically, emotionally, and/or physically.
Learn to parallel parent rather than expect co-parenting
When you have children, the relationship with a narcissist become exponentially more difficult. You may struggle to be “on the same page” with your partner with parenting ideas. It is often recommended for people to go “no contact” with narcissists who are particularly hurtful/abusive because they aren’t really able to change very much (at least not unless they’re very interested in making changes and get help). However, with a child or children in the mix, it may be impossible to go no contact. Even if/when you divorce, you’ll still have the children together and will have to have some contact with your previous partner.
It can be helpful to let go of the concept of co-parenting. Parenting will not look or feel the same as many of your friends who divorced (if they weren’t married to a narcissist). It might be useful to think of it as parallel parenting instead. You’re both parenting, but in your own ways. Even though this can be challenging for the youngster(s), it won’t be as confusing if you aren’t expecting to be co-parents with the same rules and consequences in place in both households. Your partner will likely not agree to these rules and it can become a power struggle that gets you right back to where you were when you were married. Letting go of co-parenting and all the frustrations and tension that comes with it can be quite useful.
Talk to your child
One of the more challenging things that happens when you live with someone with narcissistic issues is that you lose trust in your instincts or intuition. This happens for you, as well as your children. The narcissistic parent will make you and your child feel “crazy” when you were in fact right all along.
It can help for you to talk to your child and share with them some of the challenges their parent faces and allow that to be the parent’s stuff to work through. This isn’t about trash-talking your partner, or about throwing out the word narcissism. It’s simply about helping the child learn to trust their intuition again.
When the parent with narcissistic tendencies starts screaming and yelling at the child for something rather small, you can let the child know that the parent had an overreaction and it was inappropriate. That’s something that Mom/Dad needs to work on and isn’t the child’s fault. They couldn’t have done anything different to avoid it.
Then, it might be useful to teach some of the skills you’re practicing to stay calm in these moments and share how it’s hard for you too. It’s also not really fair, but we can only control/change ourselves; we can’t make others change. This concept will follow them throughout their entire lives (in work and in other relationships), so it’s a good lesson to learn early.
Let them think they’re winning
Whether you’re living with, in the midst of divorce, or beyond that stage and now parallel parenting, it’s a good idea to learn how to negotiate with your partner differently. Someone with narcissistic tendencies, want to win. In fact, they thrive on winning and need to believe they have won something.
So, it can help to start with something higher than the ideal of what you want and through negotiation they will get some things, which makes them think they got away with it. Ultimately, you’re actually just getting what you expected. This is a rather manipulative way of living, but it can be worthwhile when you have the kids (and your own) best interests at heart. Your partner only has their best interests at heart too, so even though it doesn’t feel fair or good, it just evens the playing field for this particular area of life.
Learn more about you
Learn about why you are/were attracted to this person. What made this partnership possible? What initially grabbed you about this partner? When did you realize things changed? Learning more about yourself will help you to not make similar choices in the future. This isn’t your fault – there is no particular blame – it’s just a way of helping you tease out what was going on inside you and learning from your past. Our past always influences our present and will likely influence the future.
You could keep a journal and write about these questions. You could write a letter to your past self with the knowledge and wisdom of today. You could write a letter to your partner that you will never send to them (just as an exercise to learn more about you).
You may also want to seek professional help to learn more about yourself and have support (especially as you navigate a divorce).
Self-Care: take care of yourself
Self-care is also key at these difficult times. Take some time for YOU and recharge your batteries (you can look back at the several blogs I have on self-care and stress management).
Here are some books that you may find useful, as a way to start to educate yourself and break free (in no particular order):
The Narcissist in Your Life by Julie L. Hill (2019)
Disarming the Narcissist by Wendy Behary (2013)
Rethinking Narcissism by Dr. Craig Malkin (2016)
You could also look for any of the above authors on podcasts or google their names for shorter articles and websites for more information.
Kimberly Atwood is a licensed psychotherapist and certified sex therapist working in private practice in Princeton, NJ. She also provides online therapy with clients living in Indiana, New Jersey, New York, Massachusetts, and Pennsylvania. She specializes in sexual health, intimacy and relationship issues. For more information, please check out her website.