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