Watch Your Step: Couples relationships incorporate a complex interplay of behaviors and emotions that are products of the unspoken but powerful contract that provides a substructure of the shared life. There can be many substructures that compose the foundation of the attachment, some healthy and sustaining, such as common values and passions, others harmful and erosive to the bond. And one of the most harmful is the dance of co-narcissism…the “watch your step” or you may step on a crack that will break your partner’s trust and shatter, in a nanosecond, the fragile links holding the bond together. This is also described by many as the quality of “walking on egg shells” or “tip toeing around someone.”
The Beast Of Narcissistic Vulnerability In All Of Us: For some couples, the role of co-narcissist is fixed and rigid. The co-narcissistic partner is valued by the other as long as they satisfy their partner’s spoken and unspoken needs at the expense of their own individuality and emotional reality. The co-narcissist has been trained in childhood to subsume their identity into the folds of a parent’s needs, their day-to-day security in the “loving” parental bosom is only as good as their ability to mirror that parent’s greatness, goodness, talent, beauty, genius, or perfection in all things including parenting. By the time these youngsters reach adulthood, integrated into their psychological DNA is a finely attuned vigilance to another’s needs, along the lines of a lady’s maid or his lordship’s obedient servant, whose survival rests on anticipating and gratifying the lord’s or lady’s every whim. If they fail at their task, the beast dwelling within the seemingly normal human facade breaks out and roars, whines, whimpers, accuses, withholds or withdraws, with the taint of unworthiness, incompetence or cruelty smeared all over their partner’s character and self-image. In some Coupledoms, these roles are fixed. But in most Coupledoms, individuals take turns playing the parts, depending on a lot of variables including context, trauma, age, illness, loss and failure.
Owning The Narcissist Within: A surefire method to protect your Coupledom from Invasive Narcissistic Couples’ Disorder (my term), a virulent destroyer of mutual love and respect, is to own the narcissistic inclinations and attitudes within you. Most of us are replete in narcissistic habits of thinking, behaving and feeling. And a closer scrutiny of our tenaciously held belief systems in relationships will reveal some of the most toxic/self-absorbed, narcissistic ones. With an open mind and honest examination of self, matched by a willingness to hear how your partner experiences you, owning your narcissist within can save a whole marriage. Wow!
The Defensive You: What makes us all so defensive in exchanges with our partners about our “imperfections” is that we think any correction, suggestion or complaint, means we are all bad, all defective, failures at being lovable. So we bark, and balk about any single “criticism” or attack the other, feeling righteous and victimized. Oops, normal but not good and too much of it is creates long-term damage. Defensive responses, such as “I don’t do that but you do” (“turning the tables on the other” or “blame the victim”, familiar maneuvers to us all) or “I am never good enough.” Or “there is always something, I can never please you” can often be the narcissist in us speaking. Catch your defensiveness and you will find fearfulness, the threat that lurks beneath it and is based on very young notions that “I have to be perfect or I am unlovable, shameful or bad.” Change that nine-year old thinking and voila you have graduated middle school, skipped high school and now are an adult! At last.
Owning The Co-Narcissist Within: Alternatively, even as you are narcissistic at times, you may also be the one tiptoeing around on some issues or during particular stages of your relationship with your partner. Areas of discussion that are taboo are often indicative of co-narcissistic moments. A partner who won’t bring up a critical topic with their spouse ever, for fear that they will be perceived as having broken an unspoken vow, or being seen as an enemy, may often throw someone else under the bus as a consequence. Perhaps it concerns a child or parents, or the partner themselves, yet the threat of being perceived as hurtful or untrustworthy impairs judgment and impacts unfairly another, maybe you or your child. This could be around a spouse’s job loss, an illness, an addiction, or a sexual disappointment. If you notice that you are hyper-vigilant and micromanaging others, children particularly, around your spouse at certain times, you need to uncover the belief system behind these feelings, haul it out and question what you are doing, the ramifications for all, and make different choices, perhaps with help. This can be crucial to you, your marriage and your family.
Narcissistic Personality Disorder: Then there are those folks who suffer from and suffer others with their “Narcissistic Personality Disorder” which is vividly described in an article by Gudrun Zomerland, MFT, who is adept at capturing both how co-narcissists and narcissists come into being, and their impact on the Coupledom. The disorder, in its most severe form, is very hard to treat. Someone with Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD) often finds individual or couples therapy terribly threatening due to a mostly unconscious fear that others may see their “imperfections or flaws.” This possibility threatens to reveal their big secret, that they are in fact worthless, unlovable and shameful souls. Do they know that? Are these feelings so camouflaged by their opposite – self-love, self-importance, self-absorption and an inability to have empathy or interest in anyone who isn’t serving their needs – that even they don’t know what lies within their hearts? I don’t have the answer. Some may suspect and others may even give life to those feelings, but often that is just a fleeting moment before they fall back on their defensive, narcissistic posture.
The “N” Word: Villainizing Your Partner Or Your Ex: Writing this piece is a bit worrisome to me for fear folks may use it destructively. I have observed a trend in recent years where angry partners slam each other with the “N” word, making it more a weapon than a description of behavior or attitude. And ultimately weakening its usefulness. This piece is an attempt to elevate a conversation between two parties who share a relationship where each can own their “N” or “Co-N” piece without shame and ultimately mature together in the process. I work with couples that come into therapy convinced in their belief that the other wants to demean them or put them down, only to find out that in fact, this is not the case. This “narcissistic vulnerability” makes them view a partner’s initial attempts to describe the other’s impact on them, or some minor correction, as something personally threatening and ultimately so mangled and distorted in their personal viewfinder that instead of understanding, suspicion and distrust ensue. Particular subjects, such as parenting for women, and earning power for men, sexual appeal or ability for both, are sensitive spots and therefore are viewed as a personal attack, insult or assault. Finding out that this is not the case, that there are two people in the relationship which introduces multiple possibilities, reactions, beliefs and styles, liberates everyone to be able to trust again, grow up and become a much healthier, satisfied and happy Coupledom.
Help: This is work, wonderful work. For the therapist and for the couple who strip themselves of archaic belief systems which cripple trust and begin to embark on a real bonding based on honest self-reflection and empathy for another. Get an expert to help you do this very important work. Everyone benefits, the individual, the couple and the family.
©Jill Edelman, M.S.W., L.C.S.W. 2012