SOURCE: Leslie Vernick
Question: My husband has been emotionally and verbally abusive from the start. We have been married almost 7 years and have a beautiful 2 year old son. I have been trying everything within my power (counseling, using tactics to stop abuse when it’s happening, anti-depressants) to “fix” my destructive marriage. In March of last year, I finally told him exactly what I thought our problem was: that he was abusive. At that time, he received that surprisingly well. Obviously God had gone before me and prepared his heart for that.
However, 6 months later I wasn’t really seeing changes and I was noticing he was giving himself a lot of slack with going to his therapy appointments, etc. So I took things up a notch. I wrote him a letter asking him to examine those behaviors and attitudes and left with our son for the weekend for him to process that in peace. What I had hoped for upon my return was a sincere apology and a renewed sense of wanting to do the right thing for our family. What I got was anger thrown at me
A week later, I asked him to move out for a separation. I was absolutely at my wit’s end. I was still hoping that he could be rattled, that the Lord was trying to get through to him through these steps I was taking.
It’s been a little over 3 months now and I am still not really seeing the key changes I would like to see, such as a sincerely apologetic heart, ownership over the harm he has done and even a willingness to let me be mad. There’s a lot more to our story than I can inundate you with here, but I feel that our marriage cannot be saved. I feel like divorce is imminent.
One of the therapists we have seen believes he has Narcissistic Personality Disorder. I don’t want to just “give up” on my marriage. It feels like I am a failure. I know I have done wrong as well. I know that this isn’t ALL his fault, but at a certain point it does feel like the problems of abuse and self-centeredness need to be broken before any of the other issues can be addressed. I’m at a loss. I know you can’t tell me whether or not you think I should divorce from reading these few paragraphs, but I am wondering if you can speak more to the NPD factor and how long you think it takes for safety to return (referring to your series on “Can This Marriage Be Saved”). I just don’t feel safe, but I don’t want to deny an opportunity for safety to grow.
Answer: Let me begin by saying I applaud your courage for trying to do things that will change the destructive dynamics of your marriage. Safety is essential for any relationship to be healthy. If you aren’t safe to be yourself, to share your thoughts and feelings in a constructive way, or to disagree without fear of punishment or retaliation, then you can’t fix what’s wrong because it’s not even safe to talk about it
You mention that you have done wrong too. There are no perfect spouses. All marriages have things that are wrong with them, but when the marriage is relatively healthy, the husband and wife will look at their part, apologize, make amends and work toward corrections.
Let me ask you this, are any of those “wrongs” that you say you are guilty of safety issues? For example, have you not respected a time-out when your husband is getting heated and wants to end the conversation for a period of time? Or perhaps you’ve shamed and criticized him when he’s expressed his opinion or tried to disagree? If so, you can take responsibility for those things and work to change. Since you have a two year old child, the two of you must communicate around finances, issues regarding your son and visitation, and if you haven’t practiced safety in those interactions, then you can start there. Safety involves respecting boundaries, stopping destructive interactions when the other person says stop and taking responsibility for your own actions when you’ve crossed the line and scared or hurt the other person. (For those who want to read more from my 3 part article “Can This Marriage Be Saved,” go to http://www.christiancounseling.com and click on Leslie’s blog).
But your question is directed to help about the diagnosis of NPD and whether or not that is a “curable” problem. There are many people with NPD who are highly talented, successful people who often have a fan base of admirers and people willing to give themselves to him or her because of the afterglow it affords by being associated with such a successful person. The narcissist’s entitlement mindset seems more excusable or justified because of his or her success.
However, when a person is NPD and is rather ordinary, he or she still feels entitled and becomes disgruntled when people aren’t treating them as special as they feel they deserve. From a purely secular point of view, NPD is one of the hardest disorders to treat primarily because the narcissist never sees himself as “the problem”. Therefore they rarely present themselves for treatment. They may go to marriage counseling, but it is always their spouse’s lack of love, lack of support or lack of care that becomes the issue. They often portray themselves as the victims of emotional abuse.
If or when the therapist tries to get the narcissistic person to reflect honestly on himself or his or her behavior, there is usually great resistance, excuse making, blame shifting, or termination of treatment. If you don’t think you have a problem, if you won’t listen to someone who gives you feedback and if you refuse to look within, there is not a high probability that you will change.
A narcissist doesn’t know how to love another person as a separate person. For a narcissist, another person’s sole purpose is to be an object who will love and admire them. In other words, you become nourishment to meet their NEEDS. When you cease nourishing them, they will discard you and move on to new food (another person).
When they say that they love you, what they mean is I love how you love me. When you love them well, then you are wonderful, the best thing that ever happened to them. When you fail to love them well (as you always will), then you have a price to pay. A person with NPD finds it impossible to put themselves in someone else’s shoes (empathy) and has little compassion for anyone other than themselves. A narcissist gets into a relationship to be adored, admired, and loved, not to love or to sacrifice themselves for someone else.
That said, there are times when someone is in so much pain they are willing to hear and look and reevaluate who they are and how they’ve seen themselves and others. In these cases, the road to transformation is long and slow but change can happen. God is in the business of changing hearts and transforming lives. Yet the paradox that is hard for us to live with when we’re married to someone with NPD is that God doesn’t change us without our permission.
For you, if you choose to stay with him, understand that you will always give more than you receive. He will be unhappy with you when you are unable to meet his demands and expectations and will often be rude, sarcastic, judgmental and abusive telling you so. Develop a good support system outside your marriage. Find other things to do that give your life meaning and fulfillment. Don’t pine for a husband who will cherish you for you. That doesn’t mean that people with NPD can’t be fun loving and kind when they want to be, but there is always something in it for them.
A while back, one of our readers of this blog recommended a website http://www.narcissismcured.com which was started by a woman who is married to a narcissist. She is not a therapist, but she claims she worked to figure out how to change herself and in doing so, her husband began to change as well. I can’t validate their story (they live in Australia), but I’ve read some of her material and think she offers some helpful perspectives and strategies for you to keep sane in the midst of staying married to a man who has a deeply entrenched problem.
If you Google narcissism, you will also find other helpful material on the web as well as support groups for people who live with or are related to a narcissistic person. One of the things I always tell people is that truthful information can be very helpful in making wise decisions. Before you end your marriage, make sure you have done all you can to stay safely as well as sanely.