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Saturday, April 18, 2015

Psychotherapy Blog: A Relationship With a Narcissistic Partner Can Have a Negative Impact on Your Self Esteem

In a prior article, Narcissism: An Emotional Seesaw Between Grandiosity and Shame, I discussed how the grandiosity that people with narcissistic traits exhibit is often a cover up for an internal sense of shame.  In this article, I'm focusing on the challenges for people in relationships with partners who have narcissistic traits.

A Relationship With a Narcissistic Partner Can Have a Negative Impact on Your Self Esteem

Being in a relationship with a person who has narcissistic traits can be difficult.  Over time, a person with narcissistic traits can affect the way you feel about yourself.

Let's first look at some of the characteristics of people who have narcissistic traits:
  • A Sense of Entitlement and a Need to Be the Center of Attention:  People with narcissistic traits often feel that they should be treated like they're "special."  They often feel that they should be the center of attention and that other people should fulfill their needs (often immediately).  They feel easily slighted.  Often, if they're not the center of attention and they can't get others to pay attention to them, they become angry because they're not getting their way or they might become dismissive of the situation ("I really didn't like these people anyway") as a defense against feeling slighted.
  • A Need to Dominate the Conversation:  People with narcissistic traits like to dominate conversations to talk about themselves.  Often, they can go on and on without noticing that they haven't allowed other people to talk.  If you happen to disagree with what they've said, they can feel emotionally injured and get angry or indignant.  At that point, they might ignore you and talk on as if they didn't hear you, dismiss what you've said or insist that they're right (even when they're not).
  • A Lack of Respect For Others:  Many people with narcissistic traits are so self centered that they feel they're not accountable when it comes to certain rules or social etiquette.  They feel the rules don't apply to them because they're "special" and if you can't see how "special" they are, they feel there's something wrong with you that you don't see it.  This goes along with a sense of entitlement.
  • A Need to Impress:  People with narcissistic traits often like to impress or charm others to get compliments or recognition.  This might include how they look (including, for women, breast enlargement or liposuction to attract men and to feel more attractive than other women), financial gains, career status or bragging about knowing "important people."  This might also include overspending on things that they can't afford, like a luxury car, in order to gain status or appear that they have more money than they actually have.
  • A Lack of Empathy:  One of the most challenging traits for someone who is in a relationship with a person with narcissistic traits is their lack of empathy.  Empathy allows you to put yourself in the other person's shoes to try to understand what's going on with him or her.  Because the person with narcissistic traits is self centered, s/he often has a hard time empathizing with someone else.  When you're around someone who is especially narcissistic, it can feel like you're alone because this person is unable to "tune in" to what's going on with you and, sometimes, lacks interest in doing this.
  • A Need to Blame Others For Their Problems:  It's not unusual for people with narcissistic traits to blame others for their problems.  Rather than taking responsibility for a mistake, they find a way to blame someone else.  If you're in a relationship with someone like this, you will probably be the one that is often blamed ("I wouldn't have forgotten if you had reminded me.  It's your fault").  Their underlying shame makes it difficult for them to own their mistakes (see below).
  • An Underlying Sense of Shame:  Even though people with narcissistic traits might exhibit grandiose behavior, it's often a cover for a sense of shame that they hide (see my prior article about narcissism).  Often, they didn't get the emotional attunement that they needed as children which can lead to a deep sense of shame.
The traits that I've described above tend to be the most dominant characteristics of people who are narcissistic.  Not everyone has every trait or every trait to the highest degree.  There can be variations on the theme.

The following scenario, which is a composite of many different cases with all identifying information changed, illustrates how being in a relationship with a narcissistic person can have a negative impact on your self esteem:

When Ann met John at a party, she thought he was the handsomest, most charming and intelligent man that she had ever met.  He also had a great sense of humor and he made her laugh the whole night.  She felt captivated by his charm and wit.  She could see that other men and women at the party were also riveted by him as well.

During the first few months of dating, Ann had a wonderful time with John.  Not only was he a lot of fun, but he took her to the best restaurants in the city and they got special service.  He was also very generous with her.

A Relationship With a Narcissistic Partner Can Have a Negative Impact on Your Self Esteem

Ann was also amazed at all of his accomplishments--first in his class in college, captain of the football team, and a quick rise to the top at his company.

Everything seemed to be going well until one night when they were at dinner and Ann disagreed with something that John said.  They happened to be talking about an area that was Ann's area of expertise, history, and John attributed a particular quote to the wrong person.

Ann thought she was being gentle and tactful when she told him who actually said the quote, but John's mood suddenly switched from being light and funny to being angry and sharp with Ann.  He insisted that he was right and Ann was wrong.  She was shocked because she had never seen John like this before.

Ann didn't want to make a big deal out of this, so she told him that it didn't matter and it might be better to talk about something else.  But John wouldn't let it go, and he insisted that he was right and that she was wrong.  He also insisted that Ann acknowledge this.

Ann managed to change the subject but, afterwards, when she got home, she wondered about this.  She came away feeling uncomfortable and wondered why it had been so important to John to be "right."  To satisfy her curiosity, she looked up the quote and she saw that she was right, but she decided not to bring this up with John because she didn't want to get into it again.

Ann thought that John was probably having an off moment and decided to forget about it.

A few days later, Ann and John got together with her friends, Mary and Ed.  This was the first time that Ann's friends were meeting John, and Ann hoped that everyone would like each other.

Soon after the introductions, John asked Ed what type of car he drove.  When Ed told him that he drove a Honda, John laughed and told Ed that he drove a Mercedes Benz, he has always had a Mercedes and he wouldn't think of driving anything else.

A Relationship With a Narcissistic Partner Can Have a Negative Impact on Your Self Esteem

There was a pause in the conversation and Ann felt uncomfortable.  She could see that John was behaving in a competitive way with Ed and it made her feel uneasy.

Then, Ed changed the subject and they began talking about sports.  At one point, John interrupted Ed to tell everyone that when he had been the captain of his college football team, professional scouters were interested in him, but he injured himself so he didn't join a pro team.  But if it hadn't been for that injury, he surely would be on a pro team now.

Without giving anyone else a chance to talk, John continued to talk about himself--even though he didn't become a pro football player, he is very successful and makes a lot of money.  Then, he proceeded to go over all of his career accomplishments.  He spent the rest of the night grandstanding.

Going on and on, John didn't notice that both Mary and Ed's eyes were glazed over and they were suppressing yawns.

Ann felt so surprised and embarrassed that by the time they were considering dessert, she told them that she had a headache and she thought it would be best if they left early.

John made a big deal of picking up the check, much to Mary's and Ed's annoyance, but John didn't notice that they were annoyed.  His attention was on the waiter, who thanked John profusely for the generous tip.  Ann could see how gratifying this was to John.

When Ann got home, she felt upset that John had been so self centered and obnoxious, so she decided to talk to John about it when she saw him the next time, which was a few days later.

Before Ann could even broach the topic, John asked her why she was friends with Mary and Ed.  Ann was taken aback by this question and asked him why he was asking her this--to which John responded that he didn't see anything special about them.  They seemed boring to him and they clearly weren't able to understand or appreciate his accomplishments because they didn't seem impressed.

At that point, Ann could feel her face getting flush with anger.  She told John that Mary had been her friend since high school and she had been a very supportive and caring friend throughout their friendship together.  And Ed was one of the kindest people that she knew and she was happy for Mary when she met him.  She told John that she felt angry and offended with how John was measuring their worth.

John laughed sarcastically and told Ann that he was surprised that Ann would be interested in hanging out with "losers."  He told her that all of his friends were highly successful with a lot of money, expensive cars and expensive houses.  He wouldn't even consider being friends with people like Mary and Ed.

Then Ann asked him, "Then why are you interested in being with me?" and he responded, "Because you're beautiful and you're successful in your career."

Ann noticed that these attributes were external and, to her, external attributes were a lot less important than someone's internal attributes--like being kind and caring to others.  She realized that John not only didn't see or care about those attributes, but he didn't see them in her.

This was the beginning of the end for Ann.  She told him that she realized that they were two very different people with different values and she didn't want to see him anymore.

For a few weeks after that, Ann received angry, hurtful messages on her voicemail from John.  He told her that if she didn't see what a "good catch" he was, then she must be "a loser" too.

Even though Ann knew that John was a much more shallow person than she realized, his words hurt her.  When she first met John, she didn't see his narcissism.

Narcissistic Partners: Ann Saw John with Another Woman Shortly After the Breakup

A days after she broke up with him, Ann saw John with another woman.  He seemed like he was being his most charming self.  He didn't seem to be broken hearted about Ann.  He didn't even notice her.

Ann began therapy a month later to try to deal with the breakup.

During her therapy, Ann realized that John's charm and attentiveness to her were meant to get her attention so she would like him.  It was all a show--the charm, the wit, the gifts--to get her to admire him, and if she wasn't admiring him, he couldn't tolerate it and she was of no use to him.

She realized that she wasn't a real person to him.  To him, she only existed to the extent that she would admire him.  And because she was beautiful, he saw her as a "trophy" on his arm for other men to admire him for being with her, another form of self aggrandizement for him.

During therapy, Ann was able to make connections between John and her father, who also had many of the same traits.  She realized that since she grew up with someone who was narcissistic, John seemed familiar to her.  But she knew now that she didn't want to be taken in again by another narcissistic man.

People with narcissistic traits, whether they possess all the traits outlined above or some of them, often don't show their narcissistic characteristics at first.  Similar to John, they are often charming and witty and people want to be around them because they're fun.

The problem is that after a while, people with narcissistic traits reveal these characteristics in way that are detrimental to the people around them.  What might have seemed, at first, like fun often turns out to be a way to seek attention from others.  Sooner or later, their sense of entitlement and lack of empathy, among other traits, come to light.

So, it's not unusual for them to have problems having close friendships, romantic relationships or collegial relationships because many people won't put up with them.

In situations where the person with narcissistic traits is a boss or the head of a company, s/he often knows how to defer to the people above them (higher ups, people on the board or shareholders), but their subordinates suffer under their "reign."

Although this article's vignette happened to be about a narcissistic man, there are similar situations where the narcissist is a woman.

In my next article, I'll provide some tips on how to deal with a narcissistic partner (see my article:  Coping Strategies For Dealing With a Narcissistic Partner).

Getting Help in Therapy
Being in a relationship with someone who is narcissistic is a constant challenge.

Getting Help in Therapy

Other people might not see this side of your partner because people with narcissistic traits often know how to hide it, especially if they feel that these other people can be "useful" to them.  So, without your partner acknowledging his or her narcissism and others to acknowledge what you're coping with, you can feel very alone.

Rather than struggling alone, you could seek help from a licensed mental health professional so that you can understand the role that you play in this relationship dynamic, make decisions as to whether you want to stay or leave the relationship, and what you can do to salvage your self esteem.

About Me
I am a licensed NYC psychotherapist, hypnotherapist, EMDR and Somatic Experiencing therapist who works with individual adults and couples.

To find out more about me, visit my website:  Josephine Ferraro, LCSW - NYC Psychotherapist.

To set up a consultation, call me at (917) 742-2624 during business hours or email me.