When you declare to the world that you will love someone “till death do us part,” this commitment will grow and it will be tested. Bringing together two people with distinct personalities and different childhood experiences who fall in love can be a testament to love conquering all. But life brings inevitable peaks and valleys that can challenge that commitment, which can either make the partnership stronger or dissolve it eventually.
When a married couple has children, this adds another layer to their relationship that can deepen the connection but also complicate it further. This is especially true if you are in a marriage where partners have different parenting styles. Sometimes, you may even have to translate what love can look like when you are married with children because relationships evolve. There is no formula for the perfect marriage because perfection is an illusion. However, there may be certain types of issues in a marriage that can pose greater challenges, like being married to a narcissist. We interviewed Brooke Sprowl, licensed psychotherapist, to ask her what warning signs we should be aware of that may determine if you are married to a narcissist.
Below, with Brooke’s expertise and guidance, we share more information on what defines a narcissist and how a mother can navigate this relationship dynamic to avoid toxicity in the marriage and support the well-being of her children.
Narcissism/Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD) Defined
Many of us may have used the term “narcissist” to describe someone who is selfish or self-absorbed. However, we may be using this term without truly understanding what defines narcissism. One point Brooke addressed is that everyone possesses some form of narcissism to a certain degree and this does not necessarily mean we have NPD. In fact, Brooke shared that there are degrees of narcissism that do not make this personality trait binary.
Brooke explained that she views narcissism (or NPD) “as a framework for understanding a spectrum of different behaviors and defense mechanisms in which a person’s low self-worth, trauma, and insecurity lead them to compensate and identify with achievements, status, grandiosity, entitlement, or self-absorption.”
How Narcissism Can Affect a Marriage
But what does a marriage with a narcissist look like? Brooke described people meeting the criteria for a NPD diagnosis or with a high degree of narcissistic qualities as individuals who “may have difficulty empathizing with their spouse or taking another person’s perspective.”
If you are in a marriage with a narcissist, asking them to listen to your side of an issue may result in triggering their defensive responses and “make it difficult for them to meet their partner’s needs or take their partner’s feelings sufficiently into account.” For example, asking for “me” time in your marriage does not equate to being a narcissist. Instead, the narcissist qualities of your partner may display themselves when you are trying to find a middle ground in co-parenting and continually hit a wall because your partner refuses to accept any other perspectives outside of their own. This can result in barriers to compromising in a marriage, which is the cornerstone of many successful relationships.
Warning Signs of a Narcissist
We asked Brooke to explain any warning signs of a narcissist so that mothers can be more informed on how best to navigate these relationship dynamics. Brooke shared the following warning signs:
- Bragging about one’s achievements, status, and/or positive traits and constantly wanting to be the center of attention.
- Needing excessive praise, wanting to associate with only high-status or special people, and difficulty empathizing or seeing other people’s points of view are other signs.
- Those with a high degree of narcissism may seek validation from others in order to avoid showing vulnerability and cultivating authentic connections.
For example, this may play out as someone who likes to be the life of the party by boasting about their work achievements and leadership qualities while being oblivious of others’ wants and needs. On the other hand, those who do not show high degrees of narcissism may exude confidence without “highlighting their achievements or traits verbally” because they don’t demonstrate a strong need to be the constant center of attention. Brooke noted those who do not have high degrees of narcissism “may [still] desire recognition, as most humans do, [but] their need for it is situational and less frequent.”
It is fair to assume that most people who are married would like their partnership to be healthy and supportive of their child’s well-being. “The most important way to create a healthy, non-toxic environment for children while being married to a narcissist is to set and enforce healthy boundaries,” Brooke said. Additionally, partners should “not play into the narcissistic traits while still demonstrating compassion for the underlying trauma and insecurity that engenders those traits.”
Seeking therapy can also help a person understand the reasons why their partner acts with a high degree of narcissism. At the same time, individual and couples counseling can provide tools for the individual with a NPD diagnosis to learn how to practice more empathy and care for their spouse, which will positively affect their children.
Red Flags that Staying in a Marriage with a Narcissist Can Be Toxic
Marriages are rarely simple because they are comprised of the intertwining of two individuals’ histories, joys, traumas, desires, and needs. Brooke emphasized the roles both parties play in partnerships involving a narcissist. More specifically, she explained the dynamics of codependency not only of the narcissist but also of the partner married to them.
“What I have found fascinating throughout years of working with narcissism within codependent couples is that narcissists are also highly codependent and reliant on their dependent partners for praise, and dependent partners also demonstrate covert narcissistic traits in that they seek identity and status through their association with the more overtly narcissistic partner,” she said. In other words, both parties feed off of each other in this elaborate codependent relationship that can prove toxic if therapy and healing are not prioritized for the well-being of all members of the family.
Can a Marriage Survive if One Partner is a Narcissist?
If you believe you are married to a narcissist, hope is not lost. In fact, Brooke believes marriages can survive when a partner has narcissistic qualities, but it depends on the degree of narcissism and also if the individual is willing to acknowledge their behavior and, in the process, seeks therapy to heal the root causes of the trauma causing the narcissism.
Brooke also highlighted the dependent partner’s role (the person married to the narcissist) in the “co-created relationship dynamics,” which also needs to be addressed for the marriage to survive without scapegoating the narcissistic partner. A marriage with a narcissist has more of a chance of thriving if “both partners [are] willing to take full ownership for the ways in which they participate in the codependent relationship and to heal their underlying trauma associated with their ways of relating by looking at themselves with brutal honesty and endless compassion … with the help of a skilled therapist versed in these areas who does not scapegoat one party or the other,” she said.