“This office is impressive.” Donald was looking around with a big smile on his face, pleased, nodding to himself.
“Good for you,” he said as he sat down beside his wife on the couch across from me.
“It does the trick,” I said with a smile.
“But, you know, I have to tell you,” Donald’s smile quickly faded to a look of disapproval. “I can see your electrical panel over there, and that is a little distasteful to be able to see. You should really do something about that.” He had a smirk on face now as he waited for my response.
The grey panel he was talking about was hiding behind a corner divider, and Donald had a 3-inch window to see it on the wall.
“You are quite observant,” I replied with a smile. Before I could say more, Donald’s wife interrupted: “we’re not here to give interior design advice”.
Donald shrugged his shoulders, taking a sip of coffee with a look of disinterest.
“You're right,” Donald continued without skipping a beat, “we are here to get strategies to communicate better and to be our best selves, and we’re hoping you can do that for us.”
A very normal request. “Yes, I am happy to teach you everything I know about good communication,” I shared back. “Why don’t we all get to know one another, and I hear a little more about what brings you both to therapy?”
“However you want to do this, you are in charge.” Donald smiled back.
The reality is, Donald doesn’t care about the electrical panel - he was asserting himself as the voice of approval and disapproval. This can be an subconscious behavior, or it could be a tactful and strategic move. In this case, I would later find out that this was the first of many power-play moves that Donald would throw my way in the course of our couple’s work.
“We are not here to become our best selves,” Amanda quickly snapped back at Donald. “We are here because you slept with my best friend and broke us. You literally broke us.” Tears rolled down Amanda’s face as she shook her head in disbelief.
“You are right, and a lot of things got us to this place; we were broken long before this, so if we can’t fix this then maybe we shouldn’t be here. Maybe we should just end this and move on”. Donald said in cold and matter of fact way.
“Move on, I just found out last week!” Amanda said in bewilderment.
“I have said everything there is to say; we need to move forward and she is right. I am not willing to live in purgatory for the rest of my life.” Donald’s response is alarming and hurtful, and it is from a place of toxic shame.
Welcome to a relationship with a narcissist: it is painful, fragile, and for many, it is confusing.
The narcissist is allergic to feelings of shame and accountability for their actions, and Donald was no exception.
Narcissists lack empathy and have trouble seeing the other person clearly from their own needs and desires. At the core, it is a listening and immaturity disorder.
In the above scenario, Donald was having trouble tolerating the pain he had caused, and instead of feeling remorse and trying to make things better, went on the offense in attempt to have Amanda tend to his needs for reassurance.
The message from this story is to highlight the way Donald responds to Amanda.
This article is not to label, diagnose, or use the word narcissist to beat others down, but rather to shed light on some of the characteristics, behaviors, and most importantly, provide insights on what you can do if your partner begins acting this way.
This dynamic of ‘take care of me for hurting you’, is called toxic shame. In couple’s therapy, we teach couples how to have appropriate shame that looks like: “I hurt you, I feel horrible, and what can I do to make this right”?
When a couple has one partner offending from the toxic shame position, they are constantly pushing their feelings away to make the offending partner feel better. “I hurt you, now come and make me feel better for hurting you” is their stance, and it promotes repressed feelings and an unsafe environment.
If partners find themselves on the receiving end of this toxic cycle, they often loose part of themselves in order to sustain the relationship. Frequently, the parts that get disowned are their voice, sadness, and anger, because if they are expressed, they risk having their partner leave or threaten leaving them.
Partners who lose their voices are not weak: quite the opposite. They are very strong, but guilty of giving up on themselves for the sake of the other; it is tiny steps in the direction away from themselves that lead to that feeling of loss of self.
There are certain steps you can take to protect yourself if you find yourself in a relationship with someone who weighs heavily on the narcissistic side of the spectrum, and it is very important that you establish strong boundaries.
The goal is to help you see if you are in relationship with someone that struggles with these traits, or perhaps you yourself have these narcissistic traits; we want to help you with what to do once you know this about your partner or yourself. Finding a marriage counsellor can be really helpful to addressing these feelings and traits.
They are experts at the honeymoon stage of relationships, falling in love within the first couple of weeks, and their energy can be intoxicating at this stage. The challenge there is always a fall from grace, and the relationship always will enviably feel like you are trying to get back to that beginning place.
It is easy to understand why anyone would feel swept away in one of these relationships. They are fun, charming, and can be the life of the party.
The magnetic energy and often projected confidence can feel like you can take on the world and do anything with this person. They see the world as opportunity and potential. It is often that potential that they see in you that is so fulfilling and intoxicating. Here is the bad news: that potential they see in you has nothing to do with you, and everything to do with them.
The opposite is just as true. The potential you see in them can be just as challenging. Too often I will work with partners hanging onto the potential they saw in the person from the early days of the relationship that it makes it hard to accept who they really are.
Marriage counselling and psychotherapy with a trained psychologist in Calgary can be helpful to address these dynamics.
Most marriage counsellors get asked this question. The good news is: sometimes, and the bad news is also: sometimes. The old adage ‘it takes two to make it work’ is very true for if there is hope for change. Not every person with narcissistic traits is incapable of change - the question is, are they willing to go within and take on the parts of themselves that create stress for others throughout their relationships?
To feel a sense of control again within yourself when you are in relationship with someone who has these traits, ask yourself: “what do I deserve? Am I acting out of self-love and respect for myself, or am I compromising and giving in way too much?”
It might be a good idea to try individual relationship counselling first just to get clear on what your needs and next steps might be to feel supported.
Lastly, you don’t have to do this alone. Let one of our trained Calgary Psychologists help you with individual counselling or marriage counselling to get back on track. We will help you connect to what matters most again and learn empowering ways to communicate in your relationship.