Is Couples’ Therapy Useful When One Partner Is a Narcissist?

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If you are in a romantic relationship with someone who qualifies for a diagnosis of narcissistic personality disorder, and you are reading this article, it is likely that you are desperate for help. You have discovered that once the initial glow of being in the relationship wore off, your narcissistic mate stopped telling you that you are wonderful and switched to criticizing and devaluing you. This has led to long, ugly, unresolvable fights.

Your once-great relationship is in tatters, along with your self-esteem. Even worse, you feel helpless, because everything that you try to do to fix things seems to make the problems worse. Now instead of living with your favorite person in the world, you are living with someone who acts as if you are the enemy.

At this point, you are probably out of ideas and patience and are looking for something else that might help turn your relationship around. This is usually when someone thinks: “Maybe going to couples’ therapy will improve our relationship and get us back on track.”

Basically, most partners of narcissists tell me some version of the following story:

I am beginning to despair. My self-esteem is in shreds. I cry all the time. I am not sure that I can take this anymore. My partner criticizes everything I do—even the way that I load the dishwasher and wear my hair. When we are out in public, my partner puts me down in front of everyone. When I protest or try to defend myself, they somehow turn it around so that they are the victim, and I am the bad one. I have invested a lot in this relationship, and I do not want to just walk away, if it can be saved. Nothing that I am doing to fix things is working. Do you think couples’ therapy will help us?

When I explore what the person actually wants out of couples’ therapy, it is generally an advocate who will:

  • Explain to the narcissistic mate exactly what she or he is doing wrong.
  • Get the person to see how he or she is hurting the non-narcissist partner.
  • Convince the narcissistic mate to change his or her attitude and behavior.
  • Unfortunately, while all of the above are worthy goals and sound reasonable, they are not actually likely to be accomplished in this situation. If your mate truly has an untreated narcissistic personality disorder, the sad truth is that couples’ therapy is unlikely to be very useful.(Note: In this article, I am using the term “narcissist” and “narcissistic” as shorthand ways of referring to someone who qualifies for a diagnosis of narcissistic personality disorder.)

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