Is My Spouse a Narcissist?
After years of providing legal representation to clients attempting to extricate themselves from toxic relationships, I have learned so much about personality disorders. Of course, I can also draw clarity from my own harrowing personal experiences with a narcissistic partner.
I use the term “narcissism” interchangeably with other Cluster B psycho-pathologies, including narcissistic personality disorder, borderline personality disorder, psychopathy (anti-social personality disorder), and histrionic personality disorder. I believe these Cluster B (Axis II) disorders all include some degree of unhealthy narcissism at their core, even if they are different conditions.
When a client schedules an appointment after reading my blog or being referred to my office, she will likely ask me if I believe her spouse suffers from narcissism. Although I lack the medical background to diagnose someone correctly, chances are, if she landed on my site, my answer would confirm her initial suspicions.
Suppose you’ve had the unfortunate experience of being involved with a narcissist in a romantic capacity. In that case, you’ll try to learn everything you can to avoid the possibility of future run-ins with narcissistic people. You will do everything to protect your inner child from further narcissistic abuse commonly suffered by those intimately involved with narcissistic spouses.
Recognizing Covert Emotional Manipulation & Abuse
Based on my experience, many attorneys do not understand the nature of narcissistic abuse which is often very covert. Although most narcissists yell and scream during narcissistic rages and will inevitably break all boundaries by shouting in your face and calling you disgusting names, much of their emotional abuse is more covert. Most will be masters of covert emotional manipulation and abuse by resorting to long periods of silent treatments, ghosting, or stonewalling. All of these are done typically to punish you for some perceived transgression.
Stonewalling is the refusal to communicate with someone. This means that your spouse refuses to listen to you and your concerns. Stonewalling is one of the most prevalent narcissistic abuse techniques.
First, I want to make sure that my readers understand that all of us have both engaged in silent treatments or have been the recipients of someone else’s treatments. We may sometimes ignore our children or spouses who hurt us and choose to become silent or give the cold shoulder because we feel too hurt and vulnerable. It is healthy to take a timeout periodically to control your emotions so you do not say anything hurtful to others. Still, it is unhealthy to take a silent, long timeout to control others.
I also want to offer hope to those going through a divorce with a narcissist. You will grow from this experience and never again accept stonewalling from someone you care about. You will learn that it is commonly used by those high in narcissistic traits as a subtle form of manipulation. You will likely never again be involved with another toxic partner or part of such an addictive relationship.
But why do people high in narcissistic traits employ this covert form of manipulation?
Narcissists Fear Intimacy, Vulnerability, & Abandonment
Narcissists have an unconscious fear of abandonment, but fear enmeshment or being controlled by others. For this reason, many professionals can have a hard time distinguishing between borderline personality disorder (BPD) and the quiet or vulnerable narcissist (covert or closet narcissist). Covert narcissism is just a subtype of narcissistic personality disorder. There are actually several common traits inherent to both NPD and BPD; particularly, covert narcissism.
At the core of these disorders is an intense fear of abandonment. Someone who develops quiet narcissism was probably abandoned, constantly demeaned, and rejected by a primary caregiver. They could also have been devalued and thrown away by their mother or father. Because this fear is so buried inside the true self of someone suffering from narcissism, it almost becomes non-existent and the narcissist denies any such fear, whereas, I think, most of those with BPD are more conscious of this deep fear of abandonment. To compensate for this deep fear, the narcissist develops an outer grandiosity or machismo and denies the need to rely on others. This “false self” is what we encounter, and for the narcissist, he probably doesn’t even know that this is not the real him, and that the real “him” is a very scared and fearful child who depends on others for love.
When a narcissist ignores you, you have hurt him, but he does not want to risk exposing the scared child beneath his grandiose outward appearance. Furthermore, he is scared that telling you what’s wrong will lead to a negative consequences, such as abandonment. If he says nothing, he doesn’t risk being vulnerable or showing you that he’s hurt.
Narcissists Are Typically Lazy & Expect Everyone Else to Read Their Minds
At other times, the simple reason for a long period of silence from your narcissistic spouse is because she is too lazy to tell you what’s wrong and she is too special to have to explain anything to someone so inferior (you). She may justify this to herself by thinking, “I am not his mother, and I shouldn’t have to tell him that what he’s doing is so wrong or really hurts me.”
Narcissism Is a Shame-Based Disorder with Maladaptive Defense Mechanisms
Although it seems like most narcissists seem to be shameless, they actually feel deep shame, but their defense mechanisms protect them from truly identifying with that shame. Narcissists are also trauma victims, but their adaptive defense mechanisms are very different.
Narcissistic Injury & Taking Back Control
This is also known as “putting you back in your place.” A narcissist can use silence to control you and make you feel responsible for the perceived injury. The narcissist’s unspoken message is, “No one can ever make you happy. You are never going to be pleased by anyone. All you do is nag. Shut up, or else, my silence will make you shut up. You will give me the treatment that I deserve (he doesn’t).”
Being an empathetic person, you will, of course, probably ask him why he’s ignoring you, but you’ll be met with a cold stare. More silence follows. Then, you will do whatever you can to make him stop ignoring you. Often, those of us with children know that they can sense the silence, and we want them to know that they’ve done nothing wrong, so we try harder to get the narcissistic person back into our good graces. By now, you probably know that this never works as a permanent solution, and that the best thing you can do is to use the silence to really look within yourself to see why you’re holding on to something so broken.
Narcissistic Defense Mechanism of Overcompensating by Bullying
A child raised by a narcissistic parent craves that parent’s love but, unable to obtain it, attempts to do whatever it takes to receive the attention from a parent otherwise incapable of providing such attunement. The helpless child morphs his personality, may embellish his achievements, and lie to stay out of trouble or to receive love, instead of neglect. Raised in a harsh and cold environment, the child learns that he will receive attention and praise if he is a good boy. If he doesn’t win his soccer games, he will be chastised. This child may learn to develop narcissistic defense mechanisms to make up for his perceived shortcomings. These maladaptive behaviors may become affixed and permanent over time, and, as an adult, the narcissist may overcompensate for his feelings of deep unworthiness by bullying others or storming off when he doesn’t get what he feels he deserves.
Narcissistic Defense Mechanism of Blaming Others to Remain Unblemished and Perfect
The traumatized child may suffer harsh physical abuse, mental abuse, and severe neglect. She may have repeatedly heard that she is worthless or otherwise defective. A psychopathic or narcissistic parent may physically abuse the child for any mistakes that she’s made. Suppose she accidentally spills water on the floor. In that case, the abusive parent (because of his own trauma) may believe that the innocent act of spilling water by the child was meant to hurt him because she expects him to clean it up, or it triggers some form of abandonment in her father. He lashes out, smacks her, and he calls her “worthless” or a “lazy idiot.” This child’s physical and mental survival may require her to adapt a defense mechanism of believing that others are completely wrong, out to hurt her, and she will perform mental acrobatics in her young mind to make herself believe that she is truly perfect, and that others need to recognize her perfection. Their failure to recognize her perfection means that they are the defective ones.
Splitting or Devaluing Are Common in Narcissistic Personality Disorder & Borderline Personality Disorders
Again, the lack of object constancy and permanence are at the heart of these disorders. Although those suffering from borderline personality disorder may rapidly cycle between worshipping you (idealization) to hating you (devaluation), narcissists typically do not cycle repeatedly between the extremes with the same people. At the beginning of your relationship, you are “perfect,” and by the end, you are “defective” and “broken.” The silent treatment works to silence you, like turning off a broken toy to keep the motor from running.
You are not disordered, so you will not be able to make sense of a narcissist’s discard phase. Just know that you can heal with distance, time, and therapy. Experienced trauma therapists may be able to help you process just how abnormal the situation was. An attorney with experience divorcing a narcissist can help you redirect the blame to the narcissist and help you understand that although people can fall out of love, it doesn’t happen so abruptly and silently as it does in a marriage to a narcissist.
If you’re looking for an experienced family and divorce law attorney, contact Keithley Law, PLLC, at (703) 865-7710 to schedule an initial consultation in our Fairfax law office.
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