In my role as a therapist, I have worked with people who are dealing with various mental health issues, pain of unresolved and processed trauma, and dysfunctional relationships. As someone who specializes in marriage crises and issues, I’ve noticed an increasingly prevalent issue in marriage—narcissism. While society uses that label for anyone with a lack of self-awareness and an inflated ego, few people understand or interact with someone who suffers from a narcissistic personality disorder (NPD).
A Working Definition of NPD
Narcissistic personality disorder is more than wanting to be the center of attention. NPD is marked by an exaggerated sense of self, a persistent need for admiration, an inability to recognize the feelings and needs of others, and a sense of entitlement.
People with NPD are friendly and likable at first glance. They will shower others with praise, volunteer to help someone and exude confidence and a positive attitude. However, those positive traits fade as the disorder begins to show itself.
Mental Health Issues and Marriage
Signs You’re Married to a Narcissist
Unfortunately, many people in a romantic relationship do not realize they are interacting with someone with NPD. A narcissist will act like they have fallen head-over-heels in love. They profess their love for you early and often in the relationship. They will put you on a pedestal and make you feel incredibly special. Often, in the throes of this whirlwind romance, you may miss the signs that you are dating or engaged to someone with NPD. However, negative traits associated with NPD will eventually surface as judgment, anger, and self-absorption. Signs and examples include:
- They think every problem is someone else’s fault.
- They think no one is as funny, smart, or attractive as they are.
- They are highly defensive and hypersensitive to criticism.
- They give you the silent treatment to control you.
- They leave you constantly walking on eggshells.
- They are charming in public, but not in private.
- They brag in public about all the nice things they do for you.
- They fly into a rage—even in public.
- They are unfaithful, often repeatedly.
- They insist on controlling the family finances.
One other sign of living with someone with NPD is that you begin to question your own judgment. That’s because a narcissist is a master at manipulation and will make their spouse feel unsure of themselves. If you can recall a time when you felt confident, more intelligent, and capable—but you don’t feel that way anymore—that’s probably a sign that you’re in a relationship with a narcissist.
Dealing With a Narcissistic Spouse
If you have a spouse (or ex-spouse) with NPD, you probably won’t be able to confront them directly. They are skilled at deflecting responsibility and assigning blame to someone else (probably you!). You cannot control that person, but you can take actions to maintain your own emotional health. Here are some steps you can take.
- Remember that it’s not your fault. It’s easy to begin to believe the lies your spouse is telling you, especially when you’ve heard them over and over. It’s healthy to own your mistakes, but it’s not healthy to take the blame for someone else’s behavior or accept blame for something that didn’t happen.
- Foster healthy, supportive relationships and a good support system. Narcissists will attempt to isolate you from others, often in subtle ways. Make sure you maintain friendships and keep interacting with family members who love and support you. The stronger the support network, the better it’ll be for your mental health.
- Take care of your needs. A spouse with NPD will ignore your needs, it’s important for you to do what’s necessary to keep yourself in a healthy place. Get exercise. Spend time with God. Go for walks if things get tense. Learn tools to help keep you calm, such as breathing exercises, journaling, yoga, or centering prayer. It’s okay to take care of yourself.
- Don’t take the bait. A narcissist loves a good argument. After all, they always win! If they are feeling insecure or out of control, a fight with a spouse or a co-parent can make them feel empowered and strong. They don’t care about who stands in the way of their victory, so it’s better to stay out of the way altogether.
- Set clear boundaries. And keep them. This step may be difficult because someone with NPD does not like to be told what they can or cannot do (it feels like a loss of power and control). However, this setting and maintaining boundaries is important for your mental health. For example, you might say, “If you call me names or put me down when others are around, I will leave.” The key is the follow-through. If they violate the boundary but don’t suffer the consequences, they’ll keep doing it!
- Pray, pray, pray. Jesus encouraged His followers to pray and not give up (Luke 18:1). Pray for your spouse’s heart. Pray for God to bring them awareness about their behavior. Ask God to give you wisdom and discernment. Ask Him to bring unity to your marriage (or co-parenting relationship).
- Go to counseling. One of the best (and most important) things you can do for yourself is seeing a licensed therapist who is trained and experienced in dealing with someone with NPD. A counselor is a safe and trustworthy person with whom you can share your experiences. You can work through the trauma of living with a narcissist while also learning the tools necessary to maintain your mental health.
Couples’ counseling is also an option, but there’s a good chance your spouse will resist. If they are willing to go initially, they will respond negatively if their negative traits and behavior are exposed. They may stop going altogether. Even if your spouse quits, it’s important for you to keep going. Again, therapy is a vital element of good mental health.
You deserve to be treated with respect and dignity, regardless of anything you may do (or be accused of doing). God created you and you are fearfully and wonderfully made (Psalm 139:14). You are not flawed, stupid, or unlovable. In fact, God loved you enough to send His Son to die for you (John 3:16). Like a fingerprint, you are one-of-a-kind, with a distinct personality, intelligence, and way of being, and nobody can take that away.
3 Signs You’re Married to a Narcissist
If you are married to a narcissist, don’t give up hope. Change is possible. It will take time, a lot of hard work, and determination, but no situation is hopeless. Nothing is impossible with God (Matthew 19:26; Luke 1:37; Job 42:2). He specializes in miracles. The Bible is full of stories in which God intervenes. He creates dry land out of the sea, makes dry bones come alive, raises people from the dead, and turns mourning into dancing. He can do the impossible in your marriage, too.