“He’s so Self-centered!”

Julie’s statement captured her primary complaint about her boyfriend. She and John had been dating for several months and the relationship was getting serious, even to the point of some references to marriage. In light of a recent comment from John she was predicting a marriage proposal very soon. Her heart was telling her to accept his proposal, but her head was warning her about his apparent self-centeredness. Even though she loved him Julie did not want to make a marital mistake that could lead to major misery. As she shared with me more information about John’s attitudes and actions, I became increasingly concerned about the possibility that she was involved with a narcissistic individual. I explained to Julie the typical characteristics of narcissism and their impact on intimate relationships. Her feedback clearly supported my hunch. Without a doubt John had to be at the center of the solar system! At my suggestion Julie invited John to join her in a future session, but he quickly declined and emphatically declared that he was fine and did not need therapy. She was disappointed with his refusal to participate, but more so she was surprised at his attitude and tone. A few weeks later she made a tough decision and ended her relationship with John. In reviewing her decision Julie revealed her reason:  “I refuse to marry a narcissist.”*

Unfortunately, Julie’s experience is not unique. Many women get involved with men who, like John, are motivated by narcissistic tendencies. The initial attraction is often quite strong, and the relationship may seem rather appealing. A narcissist may project the image of an “I-have-it-all-together” man, and he can present an illusion that is charismatic and charming. However, before long the underlying currents of the man’s narcissism rise to the surface and his inherent self-centeredness becomes more clearly seen and recognized. The narcissistic pattern is not limited to the male gender. Women also can develop similar personality traits that lead to a narcissistic lifestyle. Regardless of the gender issue, this unhealthy pattern raises roadblocks and causes collisions along the Relationship Highway.

Have you ever been in a relationship with a narcissist? Are you in such a relationship now? Could you be married to a narcissist? If so, you can probably identify with Julie—and with many other women and men who are trying to survive the pain and peril of a narcissistic relationship. Survival in a narcissistic marriage is indeed difficult as the victim-spouse is slowly consumed by the self-serving narcissist. Because of the growing prevalence of narcissistic behavior the subject merits and invites our attention. Let’s look a little closer at this relationship threat and then explore several tips for personal survival.

Noticing the Narcissism Roadblocks

In our physical travels along highways and roadways serious problems can result from unseen and unexpected roadblocks. Through natural circumstances or personal carelessness we could collide with an unnoticed roadblock and sustain significant damage, or our travels could be hindered or halted by a random or routine roadblock. Similarly, our travels along the Relationship Highway could be placed at risk by the roadblock of narcissism, particularly if we fail to notice the road signs that provide warnings for our well-being and welfare. Wisdom instructs us to see the signs and to secure our safety as we travel toward our relationship destination.    

Like Julie’s experience with John, our inner alarm system should be activated when we see attitudes and actions that reveal underlying narcissism in our relationship partner. However, our alarm system will sound only if our understanding of the basic indicators of narcissism equips us to read the “road signs” effectively. That being the case, we would do well to enlarge our understanding of this relationship threat. So, let’s dig a little deeper into the patterns of narcissism.

You may recall that in Greek mythology Narcissus was a very handsome young man who spurned the attention of Echo, a nymph who found him very attractive and apparently irresistible. As a punishment for mistreating Echo he was doomed to fall in love with his own reflection in the lake. Obviously, since he could never consummate his love with a reflection, Narcissus simply pined away until, eventually, he changed into a lily which even to this day bears his name. (And we thought Narcissus was just a flower!)

Over time the term “narcissism” came to describe a certain type of excessive self-love. To expand my understanding of “narcissism” in regard to human relationships, I consulted the Baker Dictionary of Current Relationship Terminology (the BDCRT) and found the following information.
Narcissism, in relationship terminology, describes a pattern of behavior characterized by self-love, self-interest, and self-service.  Within a relationship the narcissist maintains an excessive degree of focus upon his own appearance, abilities, importance, and comfort.  He determines to gratify his personal wants, get his way, and gather desired possessions regardless of the impact on the relationship partner.  He believes that he is entitled to any and every type of personal happiness, and any type of behavior is justified if his personal goals are attained. Therefore, he tends to dominate in relationships, using skilled manipulations and intimidating threats to control other people’s behavior.  Because of his self-focus the narcissist has difficulty understanding and empathizing with other people in relationships. In spite of the fact that other people usually view him as selfish, self-centered, and self-serving, the narcissist seems oblivious to their perceptions of him and continues steadfastly to pursue more pleasure, push for more power, and purchase more possessions. Narcissistic people vary in their levels of narcissism, ranging from mild to severe levels, with corresponding negative effects upon their personal relationships. With the preceding characteristics at work, relationships with narcissists, understandably, tend to be shallow, short-lived, and stressful. Treatment for narcissism involves a major revision of deep-rooted attitudes and actions. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is a useful model to apply to this revision process. In terms of prognosis the long-term outlook for revision is limited since the typical narcissist sees no need or reason for personal change. The negative pattern is usually self-perpetuated and self-maintained.”  (BDCRT, p. 510, 2005 Edition)**
During my tenure as a mental health and relationship therapist I’ve known many people who exhibited varying levels of narcissistic behavior, and I’ve seen firsthand the devastating effect of the negative pattern on personal relationships. No doubt you’ve had similar experiences. As we assess the narcissist by observing his behavior and listening to his speech, we notice that there is a common set of “principles” by which he lives. I’ve recalled and collected some of these “principles” and have listed them in a “Bill of Rights” format. The following is what I consider to be a representative “Bill of Rights” for narcissists. You’ll notice the recurring theme: “I am entitled!”
A Narcissist’s “Bill of Rights” . . .

I am a narcissist.  I believe in the basic philosophy of narcissism and am personally committed to the advancement of narcissistic behavior in all human relationships.  As a self-proclaimed and committed narcissist I am entitled to certain rights and privileges.
I have the right to believe in and live by the basic tenets of narcissism without criticism and persecution by people espousing different views.
I have the right to practice a daily lifestyle of self-love, self-interest, and self-service since, in terms of human existence, it really is all about me.
I have the right to focus excessively upon my personal appearance, abilities, importance, and comfort, and to dominate every conversation with these issues.
I have the right to pursue more pleasure to fulfill my wants, push more power to get my way, and to purchase more possessions to build my wealth, regardless of the impact on other people.
I have the right to use whatever means are necessary to pursue personal happiness, including skilled manipulations and intimidating threats to control other people’s behavior so they will cooperate with me.
I have the right to ignore other people’s wants, needs, and feelings in order to prioritize and protect my own self-interests.
I have the right to expect that every human relationship should serve my personal agenda and that all relationship partners should always place my agenda above their own.
I have the right to blame every relationship failure on the other person since, as a devout narcissist, I cannot be guilty of flaws or shortcomings.
I have the right to personalize every negative criticism and to over-react with punitive measures to protect and enhance my own ego.
I have the right to admit or deny that I am a practicing narcissist based upon my personal goal and whether an admission or denial would best serve my personal agenda in the given situation.
I claim these rights. I am a narcissist and I am entitled to whatever makes me happy.  I love myself supremely.  You will love me as well when you come to know me and understand my outstanding qualities.  Then, and only then, will you be able to admire and appreciate me the way I truly deserve to be valued.
                                                                                                                                                                                                                 (BDCRT, p. 511, 2005 Edition)**

Self-love—selfishness—is actually narcissism at work within us individually and within our relationships.  The basic underlying motivational force is simply, “It’s all about me!” Even a superficial survey of our world reveals a widespread practice of narcissism in varying degrees and various expressions.  The narcissistic agenda is clear. To clarify, we see narcissistic people in constant motion to pursue more pleasure.  Their common mission is “my wants.”  The core motive is “the ultimate gratification!” Further, we see people, perhaps the same people, in constant motion to push for more power.  Their common mission is “my way.”  Their core motive is “the ultimate grip!” Also, we see people in constant motion to purchase more possessions.  The common mission?—“my wealth.”  The core motive?—“the ultimate greed!”

The basic goal of narcissism is “My Ultimate Gain.”  Interestingly, the first letters of “MUltimate Gain” spell MUG, perhaps a fitting description of what it feels like to be in a relationship with a narcissist.  We get “mugged.” The other person (the narcissist) gets whatever he wants at our expense; we get robbed and beaten up, physically and/or emotionally.  We may pay a heavy price in order for the narcissist to be happy.  One lady expressed this sense of feeling “mugged” when she described her narcissistic husband with the question:  “Why do I have to hurt so much just to make him happy?”  By definition the narcissist could care less if she is hurting; his attention is on his own ultimate gain. A fitting motto might be: “Narcissist is his name; mugging is his game!” Predictably, these malignant narcissistic patterns result in dead-end relationships.

Navigating the Narcissism Roadway

Traveling with a narcissist along the Relationship Highway is at best a very risky journey. Our personal safety is an issue at every turn in the road. Our emotional health is probably at greater risk than is our physical well-being. The ongoing challenge is clearly one of safety and survival. This challenge raises an important question: “How can we navigate the Narcissism Interstate effectively?”

Unfortunately, the exits from the Narcissism Interstate and the benefits of Welcome Centers are few and far between. Effective solutions are more easily sought than seen. Safety could mean that we look for the nearest relationship exit and take it. A dating relationship could be terminated as soon as the narcissistic pattern is clearly identified. A dating breakup is usually painful, but in the interest of self-preservation it may be best to terminate the relationship, grieve the loss, and move forward in a healthier direction. Wounded veterans of narcissistic relationships might suggest that it is better to have loved and lost than to suffer with sorrow in an ongoing narcissistic journey.

A marriage relationship threatened by narcissism poses an even greater challenge, especially if children are involved. Motivated by blind love, overwhelming chemistry, or personal desperation many individuals foolishly choose to travel the Marriage Highway with a narcissist. Within a short distance the day-to-day experiences of the marital journey begin to reveal the underlying narcissism. The recognition of the narcissistic lifestyle should prompt the other spouse to practice assertiveness and request that the narcissistic spouse change the negative patterns. The spouse requesting the change will have to revise and reduce her basic expectations of the marriage and sharpen her skills for survival. Additionally, she would probably benefit from professional therapy in which coping techniques could be explored and developed. The cultivation of a personal support system is vital to survival in terms of resources for emotional nourishment and ongoing encouragement. Hopefully, the offensive narcissistic spouse will choose to work toward healthier attitudes and actions which will make the marital journey a bit easier along the
Relationship Highway.

The best solution is for the narcissist to assertively exit the Narcissism Interstate as soon as possible and to learn how to travel effectively on the healthier Relationship Highway. Since there is a “No Narcissism Allowed!” policy on the Relationship Highway, the narcissist will have to experience a significant personal “make-over.” Professional therapy will probably be required if permanent change is achieved. A key issue is the narcissist’s emotional neediness. He projects an image of perfection to protect his deep-seated insecurity. His neediness is so extreme that he never feels emotionally satisfied. His emotional “gas tank” is never full. His need for constant ego-boosting is never-ending. Therefore, he relates to other people in a parasitic pattern through which he consumes their nutrition and then demands more. The narcissist is definitely a high-maintenance individual. His “make-over” will require some serious work on the inner neediness that drives much of the narcissistic behavior.

At the core of the narcissist’s renewal process is the commitment to a new relationship principle that I call “Seeking the Ultimate Good.” The principle states that “Both people in the relationship actively seek the other person’s ultimate good through personal sacrifice and mutual service.” This important principle focuses on the other person’s ultimate good in contrast to the self-centered emphasis inherent in narcissism. The basic focus of the narcissist is “Seeking my Ultimate Gain,” whereas the healthy approach is “Seeking the Ultimate Good.” Two specific types of action are necessary for the new goal to be accomplished:  personal sacrifice and mutual service.

In our culture the concepts of sacrifice and servanthood seem to run counter to prevailing philosophies of personal success.  Our culture tends to view sacrifice and servanthood with suspicion, assuming that such an approach to relationships will mean “losing ourselves” in some negative fashion.  However, properly understood and effectively practiced the two concepts will not threaten or undermine personal identity, integrity, and individuality. The two individuals can sacrifice for each other and serve each other while maintaining appropriate personal boundaries. Clearly, this approach is very different from the concept of a “50/50 relationship” in which each person gives only 50% to the maintenance and growth of the relationship. The “Seeking the Ultimate Good” principle means that each person is willing to provide 100% if it is needed. The needs and wants of the other person will “trump” or take priority over one’s personal needs and wants.

The principle of “Seeking the Ultimate Good” motivates mutual service in two important areas. First, each individual will prefer the other person in terms of “who gets his wants” and “who has his way.” As preference is given to the other person each individual must be willing to conquer inner selfishness and to choose mutual servanthood. Secondly, each person will strive to perfect the other person. In other words, he will work hard to encourage and support the other person’s personal growth and development toward goals that are inherently good. The consistent effort is to build up the other person instead of tearing him down. Through the mutual provision of appropriate emotional nourishment each person strives to “fill up” the other person. This “filling-up” process stands in sharp contrast to the parasitic “feeding off of” behavior typical of narcissism. A sincere commitment to the “Seeking the Ultimate Good” principle will not guarantee that the narcissist will make complete and permanent change, but the new belief will provide a good reassurance that the relationship is now on a better journey.

Concluding Thoughts . . .

Because of human imperfections the Relationship Highway is always a challenging stretch of road to travel. Thankfully, our travel along this highway is often experienced as a joyful journey. Regrettably, at times we encounter roadblocks that pose threats and hinder safe travels. Narcissism is certainly one of these rough roadblocks that must be taken seriously.

In our physical trips in life we are sometimes warned to avoid certain roadways because they are simply too dangerous to risk travel. Similarly, warnings are important as we consider a trip along the Relationship Highway. The current warning is clear:  “Narcissism Not Allowed!” If you’re considering a narcissist as a traveling companion, you’re choosing to embark on a trip that is indeed treacherous and tricky, a trip that will require excessive energy and strategic skill for basic survival. If you’re already involved with a narcissist in your relationship journey, particularly in a marriage setting, you have no doubt been struggling frequently with the predicted obstacles and roadblocks. I wish you well as you equip yourself for survival in a continuing journey in which personal hurt is highlighted and persistent happiness probably will not happen. I hope that the material in this article has been of personal benefit to you in your understanding of the threat of narcissism and the practical responses essential to your survival.

As always, I wish you the very best in all of your relationship journeys. 

*Disclaimer: Although not an actual couple Julie and John represent the many relationships that are undermined and threatened by the negative patterns of narcissism.

**BDCRT:  The Baker Dictionary of Current Relationship Terminology is a creation of the author for purposes of illustration and insight. It is not available in local bookstores.

Video: To watch a television interview in which Dr. Baker discusses narcissistic relationships click on the image to the right or click here. 

(To listen to an audio version of this blog entry, click the Play button below.)



         Healthy Relationships #117


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