The Harm of Partnering with a Person with Narcissistic Personality Disorder

Narcissism is a hot topic lately. It can be a challenge to understand the conversation around narcissism, malignant narcissism, narcissistic personality traits, and diagnosed personality disorder. Even more challenging can be attempting to determine how much active trait in a partner is enough to sabotage hope for a safe and healthy relationship.

Professionals have also been grappling with these nuances too. Narcissistic Personality Disorder falls within the classification of Cluster B personality disorders; ‘cluster’ infers that identifying traits are overlapping amongst the disorders. Comorbidity with another disorder can amplify the expression of shared traits. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) deems this category “dramatic and erratic.” The Alternative Model presented in the DSM-5 stresses the interpersonal functional impairments of these personality disorders in the areas of intimacy, empathy, self-identity and self-direction. Some functional aspects found to be impaired in varying degrees are: capacity for self-awareness, accurate self-assessment and reflection, stable self-worth; the ability to regulate emotional experiences, develop insight, see another’s perspective, engage in constructive and pro-social experience, set goals; have depth and duration in personal connections, a capacity and desire for closeness, respect for boundaries; and holding mutual esteem for others.

The presence of these impairments often serves as a blueprint for how a person with NPD will think, feel, behave, and interact in a relationship. As well, they are, according to the severity of impairment, reliable predictors of the damage that will come to intimate partners exposed to the relational dynamics generated. A partner trying to keep up with the shifting ground of a person with NPD’s mood, projections, and manipulation is destined to be negatively impacted. Sandra L. Brown, pioneer in this sub-specialty of relational trauma, rightly uses the term, “relationships of inevitable harm”.

Exposure to abnormal pathology can leave the partner anxiety-ridden, confused, self-doubting, depressed, and traumatized… and psychologically tethered to the very individual who hurts them and erodes their self-worth the most.

A person with NPD’s deficits within the relationship often play out in dichotomous ‘Jekyll and Hyde’ behaviours. Subsequently, the partner will be confused by the manipulations and shifting personas. Fixation on the dichotomous nature of the relationship is a primary expression of cognitive dissonance. Intrusive, unresolved contradictions about the person with NPD and their relationship, present as re-experiencing akin to the experience of flashbacks sometimes identified in cases of PTSD. Most persistent and deeply felt is the confusion many partners experience about their own identities; a crippling sense of loss is a common consequence of the emotional abuse that is inherent in what Brown has coined, the Pathological Love Relationship. Continually trying to resolve the dichotomy of a narcissist’s behaviour inevitably disturbs the partner’s executive functioning, the very mental skills needed to accurately assess risk and act in the interest of self-preservation.

Very often, both partners will deeply experience those interpersonal impairments, and survivors often need assistance in recovering from harm. It helps to have a trauma-trained professional who can help relieve the cognitive dissonance that keeps a survivor stuck, restore self-worth and confidence in judgement, and learn skills to soothe the wounded nervous system.

Julie Butler is a member of the College of Registered Psychotherapists of Ontario, Coordinator of the Association for NPD/Psychopathy Survivor Treatment, Research & Education. She practises at Grandi & Associates in Windsor, Ontario, and is a therapist for the Windsor-Essex Victim Services Quick Response Program.

*Photo credit: ‘Close to You,’ acrylic on canvas, 36 x 48″, by Katie Butler