The demands of marriage and parenthood often make obvious what may have been hidden during the time before. As more difficulty enters life, you may notice that your partner does not handle stress all that well. Or, you may find that they get a bit short-tempered when their daily routine is broken. It happens. Marriage often shades in all aspects of a person. Sometimes, you may find yourself wondering, “Am I married to a narcissist?”
Narcissistic personality disorder is a condition that can cause people to have an inflated self-importance, which can express itself as controlling, manipulative, angry, and critical.
According to Isolde Sundet, a therapist in New York City, narcissistic personality disorder is fairly rare. Far more common is narcissism as a personality trait or construct. To some degree, everyone is narcissistic; evolutionarily speaking, it’s beneficial for us to worry about ourselves. But that’s not always a helpful trait.
“When narcissism is malignant, however, or when someone truly suffers from NPD, their actions can have a profound effect,” Sundet says.
According to Ben Barer, a Maryland-based therapist, narcissism can affect someone’s entire life, but it’s most clearly exposed when a narcissist is in a relationship. Communication and conflict, for example, tend to surface a narcissist’s inflated sense of self and deep-seated insecurities, which can make attempts to work through issues and compromising difficult for the narcissist –– and exhausting for the other partner.
While a big ego is definitely part of it, harmful narcissism includes far more traits. How can you tell if your partner is, indeed, narcissistic –– and what’s the best way to cope if that’s the case? Here are six of the most common signs to watch out for, and some suggestions for how to deal with them, according to therapists.
1. An Inflated Ego
Probably the most commonly known sign of narcissism is a larger-than-life ego. “One major sign of a narcissist is when you see a combination of a grandiose sense of self and constant need for attention and praise,” says New York-based therapist Alyssa Mairanz. Usually, according to Mairanz, this inflated ego is a sign of and attempt to mask a deep-rooted sense of insecurity.
Sundet says narcissistic people are often preoccupied by fantasies of unlimited success, power, or beauty. They believe they’re “special” and unique, which is why they fixate on associating with other special or high-status people. This can lead to a sense of entitlement: In a relationship, that might look like assuming others should admire and respect them and automatically comply with their ideas.
What You Can Do: To overcome this, be mindful of how you speak to your partner, keeping in mind their need for respect and approval. And even if you’re annoyed with their perspective or behavior, try to be non-reactive. “Anticipate what their behavior cycles are,” suggests therapist Kathryn Smerling, who’s based in New York. “The more that you can self-reflect and be aware of your own triggers to react, the more you’ll be able to work with a narcissist.”
2. The Inability to handle criticism
According to Barer, another mark of a narcissist is the inability to handle even the slightest criticism. Narcissistic individuals often become immediately defensive when they feel like their inflated sense of self is being threatened, so even if you’re not directly criticizing them, they’ll find a way to twist what you say into an attack. For example, if you make a passing comment about the stack of dishes piling up in the sink, a narcissist would probably make you feel like you’re attacking them personally.
What You Can Do: One way to deal with that: When you feel it’s important to express constructive criticism, try not to be too pointed, says New York-based therapist Sabrina Tropper. “Always use ‘I’ statements, taking any opportunity for blame completely out of the picture.”
3. A Lack of Empathy
According to Tropper, it’s common for narcissistic people to have little to no empathy because they’re so focused on themselves and their own needs. Although they’re mostly able to understand what it is and have “intellectual” empathy, they simply don’t understand it on an emotional level.
Because of this,Tropper says, narcissists are often very charming and tend to shower their partners with compliments, especially in the beginning of a relationship, only to pull away and become cold or disinterested later on. This is what some people refer to as “love bombing.”
What You Can Do: It can be tough, but if you are married to a narcissist, Tropper suggests adjusting your expectations of your partner’s ability to show you compassion on a consistent basis. It could also help to have other outlets for empathy, such as a therapist or a trusted friend.
4. Outbursts of anger
Another common sign of a narcissist, Tropper says, is black-and-white thinking and rigid behavior. Narcissists tend to see things as “all good” or “all bad,” and usually, it’s “their way or the highway.”
In a relationship, that might mean a narcissistic partner can’t consider your opinion or idea, because they want to reinforce their own opinions and ideas are right. Questioning their black-and-white thinking, according to Tropper, can sometimes trigger rage.
What You Can Do: If your narcissistic partner gets angry that you’re questioning their ideas, it’s important not to fuel the fire. “Remain visibly calm when being verbally attacked, stating that you will not continue this conversation if they are insulting or aggressive in any way,” Trooper says.
5. Regular Projecting and Blaming
Because narcissists believe they’re always right, it’s common for them to project wrongdoing onto their partners –– Trooper describes this as playing “hot potato” with their emotions. For example, to protect their view of self-importance, they might place blame on you for forgetting your kid’s lunch at daycare, even when it was their fault (or no one’s fault).
What You Can Do: If you find yourself on the receiving end of criticism, you’ll probably (rightfully) feel angry. Try to remain visibly calm, and set a boundary to protect yourself emotionally. As when your partner is angry, express that you won’t allow your partner to berate you, and end the conversation if it continues.
Do your best, too, to depersonalize the blame. Tropper says it can be helpful to remember that these projections are usually a reflection of the narcissistic individual’s own insecurity.
6. Refusal to see their narcissism as a problem
According to Kevon Owen, an Oklahoma-city based therapist, narcissists usually view their confidence as a plus, as they’ve worked hard on maximizing it to protect their egos. This can make addressing the problem difficult –– Barer says it’s common for partners not to bring the narcissism up, because it will cause a defensive response.
What You Can Do: If your partner does attempt to make a change in their behavior, Tropper says it’s important to praise them. Be specific. For example, if they’re trying to listen to your ideas rather than forcing their own, let them know you feel respected and heard, and how valuable that is to you.
And don’t be afraid to seek professional support. In order for a healthy emotional relationship to take place, you’ll need to set boundaries and expectations, and enlisting the help of a couple’s therapist can be a good first step.
“For someone who is married or in a relationship with a narcissist, professional help must be part of the process in order to have a successful relationship,” Barer says. “The narcissist needs to realize the impact that this can have on the relationship and the other partner will need guidance and support along this journey.”
It’s good to keep in mind that being married to a narcissist does not automatically mean you need to leave the relationship. However, Mairanz encourages anyone who is struggling in a relationship to evaluate if it is a relationship that is worth you staying in. “The detrimental impact might only be addressed by leaving,” she says.