Boundaries Q&A with Dr. Townsend: 4 Tips for Dealing with a Narcissist

Dr. John Townsend

Question: Dr. Townsend, can you give advice for someone who thinks they are married to a narcissist? Everything seems to revolve around my spouse's wishes and demands.

Dr. Townsend: I'm sorry to hear about your situation. First off, the label of "narcissism" is not very helpful unless you are talking with a licensed therapist who has actually done an interview and diagnosed the person. People throw around the term, "narcissism," a lot and it gets confusing. It's much more helpful to talk about specific attitudes and behaviors that are problematic. For example, your second sentence, about everything seeming to revolve around your spouse's wishes and demands, is clear and specific. So let's deal with that aspect and get you some relief. Here are four tips:

1. Be clear about the problem, and be vulnerable about its impact on you. Many times a spouse who is self-involved will not be able to pick up hints, nuances, and indirect remarks about their attitudes. You need to be direct, though vulnerable, with them about the problem. For example, you could say, "I love you and care about our marriage. But this past week, when I tried to talk to you about our financial problems, you kept turning it back to you and your needs. You really didn't ask how I felt or asked about my point of view. I want to help with your needs, but I start feeling helpless and a bit alone, when it's not a two-way street between us."

2. Own your part. 99% of the time there is some "beam in our eye," or contribution to the problem (see Matthew 7:3-5). When you admit this to your spouse, you are helping by getting out of the "I've got it together and you are a screwup" mode and into the "We both have challenges" mode, which makes what you have to say much more digestible. You might say, "I am part of the problem here. I often get quiet and sarcastic with you, which isn't kind. Or I overreact and blow up, which doesn't help either. I'm going to try to do better about this."

3. Ask for specific change. You can't get a change when you don't ask for one, as we don't have because we don't ask (see James 4:2). Don't assume your spouse knows how to change, so help him or her. Say, "When I talk to you about money, please give me eye contact, be nice, say words that show you understand, and then after that, give me your point of view." A spouse that has difficulty getting out of his or her emotional frame of reference can read my book, Loving People, which provides ways to listen and show you are listening, as good skills.

4. Move to consequences when all else fails. Unfortunately, some people are not moved by vulnerability and reason. They tend to deny reality until it moves out of the "words" world into the "action" world. In this case, read Boundaries in Marriage and create consequences that do not condemn nor control your spouse. Basically say, "I am giving up trying to reason with you, so I am going to take some steps that will get me out of the hurtfulness of your behavior." This might mean being less emotionally vulnerable and available, or going to a Dave Ramsey financial course, or seeing a counselor for marriage work on your own. It helps to realize that God has been healing self-involved people for a long time. Work His processes. God bless you, and if you still find it difficult to have a boundary-setting conversation with your spouse, consider reading these resources:

Watch Dr. John Townsend explain how giving back helps cure the attitude of entitlement.

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