Being in a relationship with someone who is struggling with any kind of mental health problem can be challenging, but some conditions cut at the heart of the relationship. Among the worst kind of personality disorders for a marriage is narcissism. Marriage is about care and love for someone else, and that does not come easy for a narcissist.
Many people use the term “narcissist” inappropriately, as a loose label or, worse, as an insult. This chapter will help you understand if someone is really a narcissist and, if so, what this means for you. To make things simple, we shall break up the whole area into three categories and reflect on each. They are: 1) selfish, 2) mildly narcissistic, 3) acutely narcissistic.
While many people are kind and selfless, unfortunately, some people are selfish. Some people are just naturally more self-centered, and others were affected by their upbringing. Either way, there is no denying that certain individuals place a preponderance of consideration on their own wants and interests as against those of other people. While it unlikely that anyone would use the term “selfish” as a form of praise, the reality is that it is a “normal” personality type and there is nothing anyone could or should do to change it. There is no treatment to make a person less selfish.
Of course, people who are more inclined to be selfish can learn to be more other-centered, and many do. That is the essence of personal growth and development. Even people who are not regarded as being particularly self-centered can still evolve into a person who care more about others. We all should strive to improve our middos and become a better person. Those personal qualities will greatly enhance our ability to succeed and be happy in a romantic relationship.
When asked to compile a list of the most important qualities they desire in a spouse, most people write “kind,” “caring,” “generous,” or “giving.” We instinctively understand that in a relationship, the capacity to care and to be kind towards the other person is vital. This is backed up by the science. Having an “agreeable” personality is identified as one of the main determinants of marital happiness and success. It is therefore understandable that you may be concerned if the person you are dating appears to be selfish.
So, if you are one of those people who put the word “kind” on the top of your list of priorities, this is most likely not the person for you. It is worth probing patiently to make sure you are not jumping to conclusions, because people get things wrong all of the time. However, if it is clear that the person you are dating is indeed a more selfish type of person and “kind” is the more important feature for you, this is probably not going to work.
On the other hand, if it is not high up on your priority list and the person is not extremely selfish, you may wish to bring the matter up for discussion and see if there is openness to change. Selfish people are often unaware of their behavior and many are open to learning and changing. Try it; you may be in luck with this one.
There are people whose self-centeredness is taken up a notch. They may not get diagnosed by a psychiatrist as a real narcissist, but they have what is known as “narcissistic tendencies.” Because these are “tendencies,” the person can control and manage those instincts. However, because there is a natural inclination to be self-centered, the person is bound to slip up and make mistakes.
People living with this type of personality live with a constant push-pull. Assuming they were properly raised and educated, they know what is right and accept the norms of give and take. It is just that sometimes their personality gets the better of them and the extreme selfishness kicks in. It typically happens when the person experiences what is known as “emotional overload.” When the brain is flooded with anxiety, stress, or some other inhibitor of good thinking, the worst instincts can have their day.
While it is difficult to generalize, it is fair to say that people in this category are more prone to what may be referred to as “antisocial behaviors.” These include bouts of anger, denial of guilt, pointless blame, exaggerated self-praise, and such like. To be sure, the behaviors listed above are hardly admirable, and it is hard to imagine anyone putting any of those of their list of personality preferences. On the other hand, someone with a mildly narcissistic personality may have many marvelous qualities that need to also be taken into consideration.
Here is how you need to think of it: he or she is not “a narcissist”; narcissism does not define them. Narcissism is one feature of their personality, but their whole character should not be reduced to just a single characteristic. If someone is smart, beautiful or strong, we do not collapse their entire being into that one aspect of who or what they are. While their self-absorbed nature may cause additional difficult in a relationship, it does not mean there is no way to have a relationship with such a person.
Clearly, if you cannot stand selfish people, someone with a narcissistic tendency will not appeal to you. But if you can handle such a personality type and there are sufficiently attractive features to compensate, there is no inherent reason not to pursue a relationship with such a person. I would make it conditional on just two things: 1) that person’s acknowledgment of their issue and how it affects the relationship, and 2) a genuine openness to working on it and correcting any mistakes.
This part is easy. If someone is a true narcissist, you must get out immediately. You can never have a relationship with someone who is a full-blown narcissist. For a true narcissist, narcissism is not a part of their character; it is their character. No virtues or qualities would ever be sufficient to compensate for their single but all-consuming deficiency.
Someone with narcissistic tendencies is typically open to correction and growth (even if they find it a struggle). Someone who is a real narcissist is incapable of truly seeing another person’s point of view; all they are interested in is what suits them. That alone rules out their capacity to think and act as a spouse needs to. They could be rich, attractive, smart, whatever – they are to be ruled out.
Not all narcissists are sociopaths or psychopaths, but all sociopaths and psychopath are narcissists. Extreme narcissism is the bedrock for all the human monsters we read about in the media. So even if the person you are dating is not likely to take a chainsaw and try it out on human flesh, you are talking about a deeply flawed person who is no state to enter a relationship. Narcissists at this level will use any ploy to get their way, from manipulation to intimidation. You may have noticed that I am not a big fan of narcissists, and that is because they are extremely unpleasant and obnoxious.
While someone with narcissistic tendencies can control and manage their condition, full-on narcissists often cannot. Worse, they can do significant harm to others without feeling any compassion, and rarely will feel any remorse. If more on the sociopathic wing of the condition, the narcissist will have great difficulty understanding and relating to the needs of others. They are likely to be highly dismissive of the feelings of other people. If on the more psychopathic side of the condition, they are likely to have more sinister and aggressive attitudes and behaviors. Sadly, there are many narcissists in prison, and plenty of others who should be (unfortunately they have not been caught yet).
You need to think of narcissism as a mental illness, for that is really what it is. You would probably not consider marrying someone who was experiencing psychotic episodes, nor should you contemplate marrying someone who is a narcissist. The only way you would consider marrying someone of the kind described above is if they got treatment that was proven to be effective – again, the same as with any mental illness.
Treatment for narcissism can be transformative, but it takes a long time. If someone stuck through the process, that alone is a strong indication that they are committed to healing and to changing their life around. You would be best not to date them while they are going through the treatment, but only after they have successfully completed the treatment and are given the green light by a qualified professional.