Marriage can be challenging under the best of circumstances, and if one partner lives with a mental health condition, the complexity of your life together only increases. If you realize you may have married a narcissist, you might be wondering what to do next.
Pretty much everyone has a narcissistic trait or two — narcissism tends to exist along a spectrum of severity. But narcissistic personality disorder is characterized by a “pervasive pattern of grandiosity (in fantasy or behavior), need for admiration, and lack of empathy,” according to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th Edition.
Five or more qualifying criteria, such as a preoccupation with unlimited success or power, a need for extreme admiration and exploitative behavior, are required before a mental health professional can confirm the diagnosis. That said, experiencing narcissistic features firsthand — including excessive self-centeredness or a lack of concern for your feelings — in your spouse or someone close to you can be very painful.
How to know if you’re married to a narcissist
“Few people can navigate living with a person with this problem and come out in one piece,” he explains. “Therefore, it is critical before deciding what to do about it that you get clarity on whether your spouse in fact qualifies for this diagnosis — or is just a plain old, run-of-the-mill jerk. There is a lot you can do to improve a marriage with a jerk, including marriage counseling. But with someone afflicted with narcissistic personality disorder, even that tends not to help much. It may be wise to meet with a professional, either together or on your own, to be sure about the circumstances before deciding how to handle it.”
If you suddenly realize you are married to a narcissist, the biggest piece of advice Dr. Cali Estes, founder of The Addictions Academy, says she can give people is to not engage. “They may want to argue with you, gaslight you and then turn around and tell you it was your fault,” she tells SheKnows. “They generally will not attend couples counseling, as they do not see their behavior may be problematic.”
What to do if you’re married to a narcissist
People with NPD have a deep need for control, Estes says — and they tend to justify their own behavior, no matter how costly or harmful it may be to others. “But, if you behave the same way, by cheating or staying out late, for example, they’ll turn on you and tell you the problem is your fault.”
Learning to set boundaries is key when it comes to dealing with someone with NPD, says Estes, as fair and effective negotiation might not be possible. “If you engage in an argument with this person, it will allow them to continue gaslighting you to prove their point. Simply walk way. Let them know what boundaries you have and be prepared to leave when they are crossed. People with narcissistic personality disorder like to be engaged, and if you shut it down, it disrupts their behavior and inhibits them from acting out.”
Estes suggests taking time to cool off during conflict while not responding to attempts to hook you back into a fight — no responding to calls or texts. “Tell them you will contact them when you are ready. With a narcissist, you have to reestablish the balance and never compromise your ability to control the situation.” Getting help from a qualified therapist might also be necessary as you navigate your marriage to someone with NPD.
Should you leave your marriage?
If you do decide it’s time to leave your marriage, it’s important to proceed with care. “The very first thing you do not do is tell the narcissist that you want to end the relationship,” Shannon Thomas, a licensed clinical social worker and the author of Healing from Hidden Abuse, tells SheKnows. “That might seem counterintuitive, but the toxic person will absolutely follow with one of two things. They will either start love bombing you to keep you emotionally trapped in the relationship through trauma bonding or their behaviors will become even more poisonous and potentially damaging to your overall wellness, physical safety or reputation. Sometimes all three.”
According to Thomas, the very first thing to do if you plan to leave a narcissist should be to look at the areas of your life where the narcissist takes space. “Are you financially dependent? Do you need to reconnect with family and friends as a support system? Do you need to start taking better care of yourself so you have the energy to leave? Looking at where the narcissist occupies your life will help with filling it back up with healthy, positive people and activities,” she adds.
No matter what course of action you decide to take, navigating any type of relationship with someone with NPD requires community support and self-care. And if your narcissistic spouse is abusive in any way, it may be time to assess whether or not staying in the marriage is a healthy choice for you.