My husband was diagnosed with narcissistic personality disorder three years ago. He still just wants to “work on the marriage,” and has a very difficult time doing any personal core work. In fact, he doesn’t go to therapy anymore. He insists that working on the marriage is all that’s needed because he’s okay with himself. He sustains that I need to change to the way things were before the diagnosis. I continue to do my own core work, and, consequently, we continue to drift further and further apart because the more knowledge I get, the more I can’t unsee things that are now making sense – things that before only felt like cognitive dissonance and disconcerting. It feels like the chasm between us continues to widen the more I do my core work and the longer he continues to not do his. Of course, there’s more context, such as what crisis got us to be in a therapist’s office to even get the diagnosis. My question really centers, though, on where do we go from here? He’s stopped therapy, I continue to do core work and grow emotionally and in awareness, and the chasm continues to widen. We’ve been married for several decades and are empty nesters.
I commend you for your commitment to healing not only yourself, but also your marriage. It sounds like you’ve stayed with him through years of tough interactions and are still looking for ways to make this work. I can hear the exasperation in your question as you wonder what will happen to your marriage if your husband continues to sit out on the self-improvement. Perhaps I can give you some additional ideas on how to keep moving forward.
First, it’s important to make sure that you’re not making excuses for abusive behavior. Sometimes when a loved one is given a diagnosis, it’s common to write off abusive behavior as part of the disorder. You mentioned a crisis in your history that may be part of a larger pattern that needs to be confronted. Abuse can show up in many forms, such as: emotional abuse, sexual abuse, physical abuse, threats, intimidation, coercion, spiritual abuse, and economic abuse. Make sure you’re not tolerating any of these behaviors and get the support you need.[i] In the Gospel Topic resources, we are reminded that abuse victims often “struggle with feelings of confusion, doubt, guilt, shame, mistrust, and fear. They may feel helpless, powerless, lonely, and isolated. They may even question the love of Heavenly Father and their own divine worth.”[ii]
It sounds like you’re getting clarity on the patterns of interacting that are damaging and destructive. Even though he’s willing to do marriage counseling, please recognize that using the marriage as a shield to avoid taking personal responsibility is only going to perpetuate more blame and disconnection. However, sometimes a desperate spouse is so relieved to have their resistant spouse in counseling that they’ll just allow the marriage counseling to become a substitute for personal responsibility. If you are working with a marriage therapist who can spot these patterns and redirect him back to his personal responsibility, then marriage counseling might be worth pursuing.
As you know, individuals with narcissistic personality disorder have a fragile view of themselves, so they often prefer to talk about “we” or “you” instead of pointing any responsibility at themselves. As long as there aren’t abusive patterns in the relationship, it is possible to make a relationship work when your partner has narcissistic personality disorder. It requires you to continue your own work and education so you don’t personalize the deflection that inevitably happens when you express your needs.
If his diagnosis is something he knows and accepts, even though he refuses to do his own personal work, then make sure you’re getting the support you need from others who understand. Make sure the support is actually supportive and not critical or feeding more powerlessness. One risk of support groups is that they can turn into gripe sessions that leave you feeling more bitter and hardened toward your partner. It can also put you in a position of superiority and keep you from believing there’s anything you can change.
Most people think those with narcissistic traits feel great all the time. In my experience, they often suffer in ways that we can’t always measure. They are plagued with a perpetual sense of not being good enough, but their way of coping is to project confidence, blame, criticism, superiority, or other difficult interpersonal dynamics. It’s possible to hold firm expectations that you won’t allow yourself to be mistreated while holding compassionate space for how small and insignificant they feel on a regular basis. Like the Savior’s response to his cruel abusers, you can recognize that they “know not what they do.”[iii]
No one is all good or all bad. In fact, this is the black and white world that individuals with narcissistic traits live with, so it’s important for you to keep a nuanced view for your own sanity. You can continue to invite your husband to look at how he’s impacting you while also valuing the good qualities and attributes that have kept you in the relationship all of these years. If you choose to stay with him, you will have to tolerate a certain level of distance, as the disorder makes it difficult for him to tolerate any real intimacy. Make sure you have meaningful connections with other loved ones and your Heavenly Father so you can have that deep reciprocal response that validates your worth and value.
I understand that choosing to stay and work through these challenges is a sacred and private decision that is only yours to decide. Others may see some of the difficult interactions and wonder how you put up with the relationship, but their opinions don’t matter. Continue to assess your needs and the needs of the relationship and advocate for those things that really matter. You can know what’s worth your energy and effort as you figure out your marital dance with him.
Geoff will answer a new family and relationship question every Friday. You can email your question to him at [email protected]
About the Author
Geoff Steurer is a licensed marriage and family therapist in St. George, Utah. He specializes in working with couples, pornography/sexual addiction, betrayal trauma, and infidelity. He is the founder of LifeStar of St. George, Utah (www.lifestarstgeorge.com) and Alliant Counseling and Education (www.alliantcounseling.com). Geoff is the co-author of “Love You, Hate the Porn: Healing a Relationship Damaged by Virtual Infidelity”, the host of the Illuminate podcast, and creates online relationship courses available at www.trustbuildingacademy.com. He earned degrees from Brigham Young University and Auburn University. He is married to Jody Young Steurer and they are the parents of four children.
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[iii] Luke 23:34