Can You Say No To A Narcissist? Co-Narcissism and The Coupledom

Narcissism: For the purposes of this post I am using a definition of narcissism found on a website called Seximus: “Narcissism, behavior which involve exclusive self-absorption. A degree of narcissism is considered normal, where an individual has a healthy self-regard and realistic aspirations. It is considered pathological behavior when the person tends to harbor an exaggerated sense of his own self-importance and uniqueness.”

To expand that description, self-importance and uniqueness may refer to negative assessments as well.  A person can be self-absorbed with their presumed flaws as well as their presumed greatness.

Self -Absorption: The characteristic that leaps out is “self-absorption” to the virtual exclusion of the needs and concerns of others. Consider this behavior on a continuum from normal to abnormal and everything else in between. Situational narcissism can occur to anyone during setbacks brought on by health, work, interpersonal distress and loss and should reverse with time. Narcissistic behavior that pervades situations regardless of external challenges speaks more to personality style and is the focus of this post.

Co-Narcissism:  In a 2005 article psychologist Alan Rappoport, Ph.D. coined the term co-narcissism to describe  the adaptation that children make  to deal with narcissistic parents and is characterized by feeling overly responsible and compelled to meet the needs of the other. For our purposes I will use that term to describe the role of a spouse when faced with the narcissistic behavior of their partners

Do You Often Feel Invisible in The Coupledom? Healthy narcissism is a good thing. We need to care enough about ourselves to stay healthy, strive to achieve, pick caring partners, and teach our children the same. However, the line drawn in the sand is how the needs and feelings of others factor in to the equation. In the intimacy of a marriage or committed partnership, if one member is primarily caught up with trying to please the other, to manage their partner’s moods, and screen all experience through the lens of the effect on their partner, then you have a Coupledom in the throes of reactivity to unhealthy narcissism.

The invisibility factor enters the Coupledom when the co-narcissist feels unseen and unheard. Their “real” self melts away, and is replaced by a hyper vigilant, micro managing and eroding self. Typically a patient who answers the question “How are you ? by talking about their partner “Things were better this week. She was in a better mood.” is defining their well being in terms of their partner’s state of mind.  If the partner is having a better week, then “Things are good.”  In fact, it is not the patient who is better at all, just the tenuous “holding environment” that is keeping their partner sufficiently satisfied so as to make the home life “OK” for now.

In the children’s book “If You Give A Moose A Muffin” by Laura Joffe Numeroff,  a young boy shares his  freshly baked muffins with a Moose lured   from the woods by the scent of fresh baked goods.  A spontaneous act of kindness (and a toss of a muffin out a window)  triggers a cascade of moose demands for homemade jam, more muffins, a sweater to ward off the chill, socks, sock puppets, and materials for scenery, all of which sends the little fellow running hither and thither to satisfy his antlered guest.  This is a hilarious and wonderfully wise depiction of “narcissism” when extrapolated to the “human world”. Consumed by moose needs, the boy has time for nothing else. Subtract the fun and adventure and this little fellow has been hijacked into the role of a co-narcissist.

Hit Them Over The Head With The “I” of The Other: It does take two to make the narcissistic contract work. “Enabling” well describes the role of the co-narcissist who chooses amongst survival strategies to share a life with a narcissistic partner. These choices may include constant vigilance to anticipate the needs of the other, preemptive behaviors to prevent a breakdown in the system, attempts at mind reading and micro managing family members; or avoidance by creating distance between themselves and their partner while searching out a separate and often secret life. These behaviors may appear to be survival strategies but come with great costs. Children learn the model of submission, or avoidance and the horrible habit of NEVER BEING ABLE TO SAY NO! The narcissistic partner may wonder why everyone seems unhappy, and blames the spouse or someone else for that unhappiness. And the spouse continues to melt away, losing more and more of the self, until there is only a shadow to remind them of what was once their “I”.

The Power of the I:  I exist too. I have needs. I have feelings. I am here too. I see me and you need to see me as well. My experience as a clinician has shown me that the self-absorbed individual needs to be figuratively “hit over the head” with the reality of the other. They need to be painstakingly taught that their self-absorption, though it may seem like survival for them, takes down their dearest relationships if unchanged. Their partner has to reconstruct a sense of self, recognize their right to have needs  and resign from the job of placating or enhancing the other. It is an emancipation proclamation. I am here too. I eat, I sleep, I dream, I cry, I don’t like football, I do like Lifetime T.V. I am not evil just because I say NO to you. I exist too!!!

That Charming Moose: Unlearning the habits of a lifetime for that charming moose will not be easy. Nor for the little boy. But a muffin with a little homemade blackberry jam should suffice. After all, the little boy may need to take a bath and do his homework. And it just may be time to go. The Moose is big though;  shrinking down to human size will take courage and conviction and practice. If the Coupledom is going to survive, the Big N (Narcissism) has to be acknowledged, along with its counterpart, Co-Narcissism,  and collectively morphed into the Big C (The Coupledom, that domicile where the relationship resides and both parties in it have equal weight).

A Team of Three: The challenge to evolve from a Narcissistic Coupledom to a Healthy Coupledom will take emotional muscle. The Narcissistic partner will need time and teaching to grasp what caring for others looks like, and the Co Narcissist time to test out the new tools of self affirmative behavior. These are tasks comparable to learning a new language, a new culture and a new way of walking. Bring in an expert and work as a team of three to ensure a safe journey to the proper destination.

©jill edelman, M.S.W., L.C.S.W. 2010

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7 Responses to “Can You Say No To A Narcissist? Co-Narcissism and The Coupledom”

  1. BHC

    Another astute, incisive description of the destructive brew that some people can make together–thanks, Jill. My question: is the co-narcissist even aware that they are in a destructive cycle or is he or she so absorbed by the other person that he or she has lost the notion that they could have an existence apart from the narcissist, preventing them from ever changing? Unfortunately I know people in relationships like this and they seem impervious to the idea that their own interests and well-being are irrelevant to the relationship–even when their co-narcissism eliminates the possibility of having close relationships with anyone except the narcissist?

    • jilledelmanlcsw

      Brooke, Great to hear from a dear voice from afar. As with all these issues, of course there is a continuum of awareness from none to a full awareness. I have seen folks who see their hardship as stemming from failures to make the grade with their narcissistic partner and ever at work to catch up. Though they may be angry and frustrated, they have not connected the dots. That is where, as I commented earlier, other behaviors step in that might upend the relationship: affairs; illnesses; death. But for many who walk into my office or any other clinicians’ office with depression, somatic disturbances, anxiety, an affair or other distancing and or attempts at self affirming behavior, seeking out the nature of the couple interaction might reveal the presence of that unspoken “narcissistic contract”. Clinicians have to look for it. It is easier when both parties are in the room, i.e.couples work. This is why bringing in the partner is always an excellent move, if only for broadening view to what is going on.

      As for your friends, fear prohibits vision. If the fusion is bumping along OK and no one is looking outside the relationship yet, than trying to raise that awareness is difficult. However, symptoms may offer an opportunity to suggest that they read up on some stuff. I love the A HA that occurs when bells ring and connections are made.

      Keep the questions coming.

  2. Anne Carpender

    Once again a brilliant article! I once was on this ride, being with someone who had many narcissistic behaviors. The roller coaster ride of only really doing well when the Narcissistic partner is doing well or not in a mood ran so true and the loss of oneself I found made me sick.

    I don’t think I was strong enough to stop my enabling behaviors, therefore getting out was my end to the struggle.

    Thank you for this article.

  3. ALW

    Thank you for your article. I have a situation that maybe could help me with.

    I became involved with my narcissistic partner when I was 48 years old. He showered me with affection and attention. My husband was offering me no attention as he is alcoholic and also had narcissistic tendencies. But, my new N was very special as he was my first love. At 15, we had experienced an intense, stormy relationship which left me broken. However, I still had intense feelings for my first love and when we hit it off again, he had no trouble reeling me in and keeping me as his captive. Ours was mainly a long distance relationship. We rarely saw each other, but when we did it was like spontaneous combustion. A wild whirlwind of sex, intense conversation, living out a fantasy that I bought into easily because he was the center of my universe. Our fights were all on the internet. After a year and a half I learned that my N has full blown NPD. I am finding it extremely difficult to separate myself from him even though we live 1500 miles apart. I find it very difficult to be angry with him, etc. I keep wanting to be able to find a way that we could stay together even though I know that we cannot due to his delusional thinking, etc. Also, his family offers no support for him and they do not realize he has a mental illness. They expect him to get a job and support himself even though he seems totally incapable of doing so. I feel some responsibility in telling his family how serious his debilitation is but I don’t know if I should get involved. Any suggestions?

    • jilledelmanlcsw

      I am glad that the article on Co-Narcissism was useful to you. The description of your situation is moving. Loving someone who is compromised by a significant personality disorder is fraught with struggles. Trying to excise yourself from the grip of this passionate affair is where your efforts should lie. The possibility of involving his family in your “diagnosis” is another issue. You would have to be very clear as to what your were trying to accomplish in doing so. And equally important, whether that goal is likely to be met. My hunch is no.

      I would urge you first to examine your motives and question your goals. Good luck.


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