We’d like to share with you our latest podcast episode: Married to a Narcissist: What can you do besides leave and still lead a happy life? Listen along to the podcast and read the written transcript while following along.

Written Transcript of Married to a Narcissist Podcast Episode 010

Rivka:  Hi everybody. Welcome to the next episode of ‘Can this marriage be saved?’  This week’s topic is on the topic of narcissists and narcissistic spouses, something that’s been a topic that for me is long overdue, because I’ve been wanting to address this because so many people are struggling. Either with narcissistic spouses or they’re worried their spouse is a narcissist. Shlomo, how can we put this to bed?

Shlomo:  So, I think that one of the dangers is people like to be armchair psychologists and now it’s Dr. Google- it’s very easy to just look online and say, “You know I looked online to find out what a narcissist is and my spouse qualifies.” And we’ve talked a lot in the past about personality disorders or just any type of diagnostics and pathologizing. And sometimes it can be used to kind of blame one spouse, other times it can be used as a crutch. “I have thing and I can’t fix it.”

So, it’s very dangerous and we start throwing out these you know three letter, four letter words.

Rivka:   Yeah, but I’m sorry but spouses that are Narcissus I don’t think are saying, ” I’m sorry I can’t do anything about it.” I feel like those people don’t even know they are narcissists.

Shlomo:    Okay. So, there’s official criteria for what is considered a narcissist by the D.S.M., the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, is what we have to use if we’re going to give someone a diagnosis for insurance purposes.

You know, I typically don’t like to diagnose because if I don’t need to do it for an insurance bill. You know it only serves to make one spouse look like they’re the bad guy and I understand there are some severe cases that really do present themselves as pathological and It may seem that there’s nothing you can really do about it but I think I would say the majority of cases where people claim their spouses a narcissist, I think that if we can understand a little bit more about what that is, we can work on that.

Let’s just run through some of the some of the features of the narcissistic personality disorder:

  • Having an exaggerated sense of self-importance
  • Expecting to be recognized a superior even without achievements that warrant it
  • Exaggerating your achievements and talents
  • Being preoccupied with fantasies about success, power, brilliance, beauty of the perfect mate.
  • Believing they are superior and can only be understood by or socially with equally special people.
  • Requiring constant admiration having a sense of entitlement.
  • Expecting special favors unquestioning compliance with your expectations.
  • Taking advantage of others get what you want.
  • Having an inability or unwillingness to recognize the needs and feelings of others
  • Being envious of others and believing others envy you

I think that some of these features may seem like they are not necessarily pathological. But the question is when it really crosses the line is where you think of yourself so highly that you put yourself and value yourself better than other people. So we have to think about how that interferes in your relationship.

As far as is it mostly women that are narcissists or men that are narcissistic husbands, I mostly hear a lot about women complaining about their narcissistic husbands. “The husbands incapable of empathy” and so the question is, is this something that is pathological or is this something that is just a result of them not knowing how to be an empathic or is it something that we’re not taught?

I think a lot of times feelings are something that men are not, from a sociological  perspective, that this is not something that is necessarily a value for men to have. So it’s not something that men are good at. That’s why a lot of men don’t like therapy- they don’t want to share their feelings. So we have to look at that and perhaps, they don’t really know how to do it because they didn’t have that opportunity. Whereas for women, it’s more acceptable for women to express their emotions and express their feelings.

But one thing that we say in Imago therapy is that the way that we view narcissism in general is that we view everyone as somewhat self-absorbed.

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We like to view it as a spectrum- anything with a personality disorder we like to look at as a spectrum so it’s not really that you are a narcissist or not a narcissist but everyone has a little bit of that narcissism otherwise we wouldn’t be able to stay alive and we wouldn’t be able to look after our needs. But the question is when it gets to the point where it gets in the way of relationships and that’s where it becomes problematic. The question is – Can we do anything about it? We find that the people who are narcissistic they’re usually actually very fragile. They’re not just these confident people. But really inside they’re deeply wounded and they’re absorbed with themselves in order to have masked that pain. So the example I like to give -if you’re hurt, if you’re in pain, we may have said this before in one of our podcasts. I’ve mentioned this before…

Let’s say you stub your toe and you’re hurting. You know I remember one time when I was a little boy and I was in a locker room and this bench fell on my finger and it actually broke my finger. It was so excruciatingly painful. I remember screaming and people coming up to me saying, “Can we help you? Are you ok?” And I was like, “Get away from me! Leave me alone!”

I was so consumed with my pain I couldn’t focus on anything else. That’s what happens psychologically – we all have a certain element of pain that we have psychologically, certain things we didn’t get growing up, Some people are more deeply and impressionably wounded than others are so they’re going to have more pain.

So, even though it may not look like the person is suffering but on a psychological level for suffering we’re going to be absorbed with ourselves. We are going to think about how can I get my needs met. We’re going to think, “How can I get what I want in my relationship?” So it becomes a little bit of a challenge for us in relationships and dealing with another, because for us the safest thing is to view things from our perspective because that helps us get our needs met.

So, when we start meeting another person and we start realizing that they see things differently, they view things differently. Their viewpoint may actually be at odds with ours and conflict with ours, which may conflict with something that we think we need. That becomes very unsafe and dangerous and we have a hard time being able to validate that and empathize because we take it as a direct threat.

So, a lot of people that we feel like they’re incapable of empathy it’s not so they’re incapable of empathy but they’re feeling so unsafe and so guarded that it’s hard for him to be able to differentiate and to realize that, ” I can be safe with another person. ” I can value someone else’s experience, I can value their emotions even if it’s something hurtful they’re feeling about me, I can value that and not be threatened by that and it’s not necessarily going to take away from me.

So, that’s part of the work that we do with couples trying to get them to that place where they can come from a place of compassion to feel safe, to feel connected to not feel threatened by the other person’s otherness.

And when we can do that, that brings us out of ourselves and makes us feel safe enough to be there for another person and to be empathic and to not be self-absorbed.

Rivka:   It sounds very different than perhaps other strategies. Maybe that an individual therapist or someone would have with a narcissist right? Like don’t they have more suggestions like – “You have to be tough, you need to stand up to him?”

Shlomo:   You know, someone whose spouse is a narcissist?

Rivka:   I feel like what you’re saying is remarkably different.

Shlomo:  Well, it’s a more holistic approach, we’re dealing with the root of the problem not the symptoms. If we’re just looking at this person as a narcissist, everything they think is about them, a lot of times people might say, “You can’t live with such a person, maybe you should leave such a person”, because in a relationship you have to be concerned about the other person and if you’re just concerned about yourself how can you be in a relationship?

So, you know, a lot of people might just say this is a lost cause person especially if you get to the point where they start diagnosing it as a personality disorder. Then you’re kind of gone, because how is this person really going to be able to change if this person is so, so into themselves. “They’re not capable of being in a relationship and there’s really nothing you can do about it.”

And what I would say is that instead of viewing it that way and from that negative perspective and looking at the symptoms, Let’s explore what’s causing the symptoms- Is a person really born with that? Yes. We are born… Children are self-absorbed.

We were having a meal and we were cutting and distributing the food and one of the kids announces first, “Don’t put honey on my bread!” It’s the first thing he says and I already know that he doesn’t want honey on his bread but he’s not the first one served, he’s not the oldest, he’s not my wife, he’s not you, he’s not a guest. He’s thinking about himself and that’s normal. And that’s normal for children because as we become more emotionally mature we start to be able to get beyond that- but you know we are concerned about our self-survival so that is normal but…

Rivka:   Is a narcissist like a stunted child would you say?

Shlomo:   I mean in some respects – it’s a lack of emotional maturity with a person is self-absorbed there is a lack of emotional maturity there and we’re trying to get to a point where there’s enough emotional maturity to realize that, I don’t have to agree with another person to be able to be there for them to empathize with them to validate their experience.

This symbiosis that we discussed where we just think that everyone is an extension of ourselves which is a really immature way of looking at things. It’s immature because it’s coming from an immature wounded place.

Rivka:   So, how do you actually -when you say – it’s okay, to hear them and validate them, empathize with them. How do you actually do that with a narcissist? Who is a real bully at times! Can you think of a scenario, something they would say like, “I am going to tell the entire community you… when you went out with your friend instead of being home and cooking my dinner. I’m going to tell everybody about your lack of mothering.”

Shlomo:   Right. So, obviously they’re scared there’s something that they’re concerned about and we need to dig deeper and figure out what is that? It’s not something you can do overnight and I’m not saying that you should tolerate abusive people…

Rivka:   We’re not saying that!

Shlomo:   We’re saying get help and get the right help!. So for example, one of the things that I’m going to work with a couple in this situation is to put them in the dialogue process. So that let’s say the non-narcissist wants to share what they’re feeling – I would teach the narcissist how to be able to hear the other person with mirroring back. They’re repeating back what the other is saying so they can really hear what they’re saying and not what they THINK their spouse is saying.

By taking themselves out of it and that’s the thing! Because the narcissist is self-absorbed. We’re all self-absorbed to some extent but you know the narcissist is even more self-absorbed so taking themselves out of it and really being present.

Rivka:   So, giving another example?

Shlomo:   Well you were talking about what the narcissistic spouse would say.

Rivka:   So what would the non-narcissist spouse say to the narcissist spouse now?

Shlomo: You can just mirror back and say, “So you’re going to tell, you really don’t feel like I’m being a good mother and you want to tell the whole community about me for what I did and just let them hear themselves say that.

Rivka: is that right?

Shlomo:  “Is there more you want to share about that- you know that makes sense you’d be nervous” and I mean hopefully…  usually with the help of a third party -with a professional – especially in these cases, because it can be difficult to do on your own.

Without the help of a third party what I would help them do is- with the identified narcissist- explore “why is it bothering me, what am I scared of happening”, because there’s obviously a deeper issue there. You don’t just – this is a defense mechanism to start threatening, but what is it that they’re worried about? What is it that they need that they’re not getting and really focus from that perspective- what is it that you want. What is it that you’re not getting? What are you afraid of? What are you feeling insecure about?

Rivka:   That’s a little hard for the non-narcissist spouse.

Shlomo:   Yeah. The non-narcissist spouse would not usually ask those direct questions – I would help the narcissist spouse explain these things I wouldn’t necessarily.

Rivka:   No but yes…

Shlomo:   You’re saying the other spouse is going to say..

Rivka:   It’s a little hard to hear this to almost give the narcissistic spouse space- and one point I think you didn’t bring up yet- is that it gives room for the narcissist to think about things, but one benefit that it has for you the person listening who is not a narcissist, is that mirroring- repeating back what your spouse is yelling at you-  is actually going to help you remove that symbiosis that you mentioned right? It’s going to help you step away, but still being empathic without seeming like you don’t care and you’re cold.

Shlomo:   You’re thinking protecting yourself yet…

Rivka:   It’s almost very helpful in protecting yourself because you don’t engage with them- you don’t get into a huge fight- you repeat back what they’re saying for their benefit and for yours right?

Shlomo: Because the mirroring helps the other person feel heard and helps them feel noticed but it also helps protect you so that you don’t have to take it personally.

Rivka: Correct.

Shlomo: So, you can, there can be a part of you telling yourself that, “So he is just you know – what’s his problem? he’s going to go threaten me just because I’m doing some benign thing? You know that’s his problem that’s not my problem. I didn’t do anything wrong or maybe… and maybe I did something- but it’s triggering him, so again, it just helps you not get wrapped up in that

Rivka: But you don’t say that?

Shlomo: Right! You’re not going to say that to them, but when you get wrapped up in these accusations or these self-absorbed comments, what you’re doing is actually adding fuel to the fire. So…

Rivka:  If you can say it in a way that is compassionate and IS genuine for you but just know for yourself.

Shlomo: It will help you deal with your pain in hearing it and will also help them hear how ridiculous they are -but also coming from a place of some compassion and curiosity- that hmmm, I know that I didn’t really do anything wrong. He’s got some issue that he is upset about. Wondering why it bothers him so much? I wonder why he’s going off the handle and why he’s so wrapped up in himself about this issue.

You know, let me listen and maybe we can explore this- if I listen I will hear what he’s really saying.

Rivka:   Right.

Shlomo:   And yeah, because it’s really getting underneath the surface now. Now I know there are situations where it really appears that people are extremely, extremely self-absorbed and I can tell you, though, that even people that I’ve thought to be pretty self absorbed, and even people whose spouses have diagnosed them as narcissist, they have been able to engage in this process and have actually been able to listen, in a way that they never have before. So I think it’s very powerful.

So, as much as it’s easy to just dismiss a relationship and just say, “this person is a narcissist and there’s no way to work on it” I can tell you that I’ve definitely seen this process help, because what this process is – this is exactly what its doing. It’s even … people that are not narcissists … remember we are all self absorbed.

It’s taking the SELF out of the conversation and really hearing the other person.

Not only will it help the spouse who is NOT a narcissist. But it will help the narcissistic spouse take themselves out of it, instead of reacting, and really actually be able to make room for someone other than themselves. And that’s what this work is all about, making room for the other, entering the world of the OTHER, which is so difficult for a narcissist.

But it is possible. Now I’m not saying that there are no people out there that are so completely narcissistic that there is they’re beyond help. I can’t say statistically how that looks. I can imagine if someone is not willing to engage in the process, yes it is challenging.

A lot of people are afraid to go to therapy. They don’t think it’s going to help them or they don’t want to open up so I realize there’s a lot of a blocks getting in the way but if someone is willing to get help, then I think that’s already a good sign -that if you have the right tools that you can actually get the help- even if you think your spouse is a narcissist.

To continue learning how to make your home safer and more supportive, talk with us about our 2 Day Marriage Restoration Retreat. We’ve had narcissistic spouses in our 2 Day Marriage Restoration Retreat before and they were able to understand their role and commit to making future changes because of the safety and structure that the 2 Day retreat provided them with, calming their sense of being threatened. Talk with us today about scheduling your own retreat experience!

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Shlomo & Rivka Slatkin

Rabbi Shlomo Slatkin is an Imago relationship therapist and certified (master level) Imago workshop presenter with over 20 years of experience hosting couples therapy retreats in-person and online. Contact info@themarriagerestorationproject.com or