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

Dr_John_TownsendQuestion: 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:


How to Have That Difficult Conversation

The Entitlement Cure

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



  1. Alli says

    People with personality disorders can destroy people’s lives. They are incapable of having real emotions and mist do not have a conscience….your answer seemed flippant to me.

      • Denise westfall says

        Our son is married to a woman who is a lawyer and has been diagnosed with a personality disorder. They are Christians .They have been married 4 years and when she became pregnant with twins 18 months ago , controlling behavior started. Your boundaries book was misused to justify their bad behavior. 18 months later we are not allowed to see our son or twin granddaughters or a new 2 week old baby or our son. We are told via text that if we want to have a relationship we wil do exactly what they say: no matter how controlling or constricting we think it is. They are the gatekeepers and she is the mother and she gets to tell us when and where we will see their children. These are their words. Our hearts are broken and our extremely close extended family stands untied in knowing this is disrespectful and wrong. We know they are scapegoating on us because they have a bad marriage but it is all so heartbreaking. We feel like puppets and every four months we are told that there will be 4 more months of absolutely no contact because we have crossed our dil’ boundaries. Our son has never exhibited any behavior like this in his life. We know we have no control and only he can say no to his wife . We are at the mercy of a personality disordered daughters law who holds away from us our son and grandchildren. We have been to their counselor( they were getting divorced, but she got pregnant and won’t go anymore). The counselor said she could not confirm she knew our son and his wife but tell her our story. So we did ( details dot matter but horrible things have been done ). She said to my husband and me: this is. Not about you.. They are misusing boundaries to justify their behavior. They have a terrible marriage and she is trying to control him. They are scapegoating on you and blaming you for their marital problems because they don’t have to look at each other. You are like puppets and she is the puppet master. You have to walk away and say ” we love you and we want to be part of your lives but we csnnot live like this anymore. When you are ready to treat us with respect we are here but until then we are going to go on with our lives with our family and friends who love us.” That was 6 months ago and a lot of drama has happened. We do not engage when any texts or emails comeour way blaming us for things we didn’t do. We just state we love you and our hearts and arms are open. You are a strong man, and you know what is right and wrong . this is your choice. We know we have no control , and only our son, with Gods help, can stop this.

  2. Chris says

    She specifically asked about narcissism and I feel like this answer is a cop-out. Narcissism and Cluster B are prevalent and dangerous. Being vulnerable with one puts you in more harm and danger. These boundaries are good for healthy people, they won’t work with a narcissist, so this article misses the point. How about doing an article on if a person has been diagnosed as a narcissist? (If that makes you more comfortable) That’s what people need to know. And how about boundaries with an abuser? Not every narcissist is an abuser but every abuser is a narcissist.

  3. Linda says

    There’s only one way to deal with a narcissist. Get out now. There is no reasoning with the person who suffers with moral insanity. Narcissis are sociopaths. They have no empathy; they may know the difference between right and wrong but that does not influence their behavior one bit. They don’t care who they hurt, the only thing that matters to a narcissist is getting what they want at all costs .

    • Lyn says

      Thanks for sharing. The relationship you are in is not ok- but I think you know that. Have a look at Leslie Vernick- she has some really good advice on working on your own self, her purpose is people can then make decisions from a place of strength rather than fear or weakness. I hope you have support in your church & from your adult children.

      • Linda says

        I am working on myself; I will never get involved with a man who has a personality disorder ever again. I don’t have any children, either. Not everyone has kids. Why can’t the church understand that? Jesus was single; He never had kids!

        I was involved with a narcissist in 2007. That was enough for me! But it effected me very much and I remember the lessons I learned from it. That’s why I would never encourage anyone who’s involved with a personality-disordered individual to do anything except GET OUT FAST.

        Christian women are “low-hanging fruit” for this type of man because we’re taught to do and be bottomless pits of kindness and giving. These men know it, too. The closest thing I can define them by biblically is having a reprobate heart.

        At any rate, don’t let a narcissist manipulate you into sticking around for more of his abuse. Being afraid of a narcissist is a healthy fear, because all they do is consume and destroy. They are real life vampires.

  4. Michele W says

    I went to counseling hoping to work things out in my marriage. The more open and vulnerable I became about admitting my part in conflict the more my husband would condemn me. He would say things at home like, “See! It’s all you! You’re the reason for our problems!” He would also tell me the problem is that I don’t submit to my husband.
    I have been careful not to label him but your advice seems like you are setting this woman up for more abuse and condemnation. Narcissist or not, these types of people will use anything you say against you.

  5. Vivian says

    I started to read Bible few years back. I stopped fighting hard with my husband the way he supported his 2 grown up sons without budgets. I asked no gifts from him for all birthdays and holidays. I gave him birthday parties and gifts. I have sisters from church suggested me to leave but I don’t think to run away can show God’s victory! Every things we have are from GOD, if GOD allows him to spend so much money blindly on his sons, I shouldn’t say anything even 61% retirement income from me. The more I read Bible the less desire I have for the material world. I only want to make sure we pay all our bills so we owes no debts. I continue to serve my husband the best food the best way he allows me. I cook what he orders for his dinner. I do set boundaries : I demand respect for my family, no F. words around me. Though I fee I am a servant not wife but it is o.k. I am the servant for the Lord. I am happier and have more peace than before I started to read Bible . War Room movie inspired me a lot. This movie is encouragement from God! If you decide to give glory to the Lord ,stay and fight hard for your husband from devils. When we change in the name of Jesus, the battle is God’s . Don’t loose the FAITH!

  6. Louise says

    I agree with Chris, yes HER question was if she “thinks” but MY question is if you KNOW and its been diagnosed. The nature of the narcissist also means that many of them will not go to therapy anyway as “there’s nothing wrong with me”. I want to know the practical steps of dealing with a narcissistic person in ANY relationship. This would assist us in knowing how to deal with those kind of people because people out there and in families are not always “normal” and “healthy”. How do you set up boundaries in that type of relationship?

  7. Terri says

    Okay, so he doesn’t want to deal with a “thinks” he’s a narcissist. So I have an ex-husband who is a DIAGNOSED narcissist. Can you please speak on it now! I personally did not know that was his issue until 16 years into our marriage when enough was enough. I started gaining my own strength to say no and walk away and he just got worse! So no as an ex, I still can be victimized from him because we have 3 children together.

  8. Lynn says

    I appreciate the many comments here. I hear many of you are in damaging relationships that have wounded you deeply. I, too, have been down a similar road. My former spouse sat before a few professionals who were unable to see his damaging ways and often colluded with him in ways that were more damaging to the children and me when we were behind closed doors with him. He is winsome and easily manipulates others including pastors and professional therapists, which led to isolation for me without support to turn to believe me for help. I was scolded by pastoral authority to submit. I read many Christian marriage books and applied what I read in order to serve God by surrendering to service to my spouse as taught at church and in many of those books. I was told in church that my needs aren’t needs, but wants, and that God knows what I need. I was very empty in my marriage because when I did express a need, I was sure to have it withheld or receive the opposite or hear it dismissed. I was married 26 yrs.

    When things came to a head several years ago, I set more boundaries in the form a therapeutic separation with the support of skilled professional therapists who have no doubt as to his recently identified narcissism and addictions. I tailored my communication to be what Dr. Townsend speaks of here with sharing a need and being vulnerable for 3 yrs, and part of that time we were in therapy sessions. You are right; it doesn’t work. He regularly continued to lack congruency between his actions and words. He consistently manipulated, bullied, controlled, and continues to post-divorce.

    I have seen that most Christians, churches, and pastors are not equipped to deal with narcissism, addiction, and domestic violence. I had a Christian friend respond to me several months ago when I reached out to her during a time of grieving about my broken marriage by excitedly asking if I had seen the movie “War Room.” I responded, “Yes, I have. I was there opening night with my children and I cried through most of the movie because my war room was my bathroom for years. I cried, prayed, and fasted, and my marriage didn’t turn out like it did in the movie.” Throughout my marriage, I read the Bible through many times and attended Bible studies. I have found a lot of help from Jeff Crippen who wrote “A Cry for Justice,” Lundy Bancroft’s “Why Does He Do That?” And many short works on narcissism and psychopathic behavior as well as the boundaries books. I’ve also learned about spiritual/religious abuse.

    Post-divorce boundary setting of pretty much “no contact” unless we have business regarding the children or divorce has provided some peace, but coparenting with him is really a misnomer and non-existing because his motives are not in the best interest of the children, but retaliatory control measures. An example of this is recently the kids’ counselor called CPS because they told her they were using firecrackers at his house. He reacted by saying the kids shouldn’t go to counseling anymore with many negative choice words and derogatory statements about her and me. He then rented several Harry Potter videos for the kids to watch while camping in a tent with him. I had previously discussed waiting until the kids are older to watch those movies due to the themes in them and he had so far agreed. My son returned to me saying he was anxious and sleepless and confused about why dad had rented those movies. He said he had asked to play video games instead of watching the movies, but dad put in one after another and there was no way to go to another room while camping in a tent. Several days later after another partenting time visit, my son shared that dad said if mom is going to do what she wants by taking you to counseling, then I’m going to do what I want and show you Harry Potter videos. I asked my kids how they felt and thought about that. They responded by saying it’s immature and childish and it’s how they, as young brother and sister act toward each other. My kids are now fearful of demons and spells and nighttime. My daughter acted-out angrily toward others and when I asked what the root of her anger is, she said she is mad at dad for showing them Harry Potter. When I ask them if they can share their feelings with their dad, they say “No” they don’t feel heard and they are dismissed. This is just one incident of many.

    I contacted proactively my attorney, kids’ counselor, DV center, CPS supervisor to learn what my responsibility is about parenting time because, in his unhealthy reaction, he did communicate that he would supervise the kids or see to their safety. I did not know if I sent them with him for parenting time and they got hurt if I would be responsible because I and the counselor were now aware of the firecracker incident. This is what I’ve learned: The system is reactive. No one responds or cares that he behaves in ways that are damaging to the kids. From what I’ve learned from therapists, the types of behaviors he does are emotionally abusing. There is no proactive way to set boundaries for my kids’ safety so they have reduced trauma later in life or reduced damaging messages that impact their future. The courts, counselors, etc. won’t act until damage is done. I feel sad and powerless.

  9. Annie says

    I see that the first few comments received a dismissive response by focusing on the word “thinks.” I, also, see that the original response is dismissive by the words, 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.” When I read the responses focusing on the word “thinks” and the original response regarding the word “narcissism” being thrown around and only acceptably, appropriately used by a licensed professional who has diagnosed a narcissist, I see a cognitive distortion of all or nothing, polarized thinking. I have come across a large number of people who educate themselves with the vast resources available by professionals, professional organizations, and peer-reviewed journals, and although they may not hold a professional degree as a therapist, doctor, or otherwise, they often come close or spot-on to knowing what they see as diagnoses and oftentimes use the professional language for what they see. I think this is great empowerment for people. When I think of all that, I think how wonderful it was for people to have the Word of God in print, so that they could read truth for themselves, and not have to rely on priests’ interpretations of what God’s Word says. Even though people are professionals in their fields of therapy, medicine, or pastoral knowledge, I have heard and seen numerous reports of professionals in all of those fields make errors in their diagnoses, make poor or destructive recommendations/prescriptions, or misinterpretations for what God’s Word means.

    I hear on this page several hurting people who I perceive are desperately looking for useful tools to help them navigate a relationship with destructive person and/or narcissist and/or to heal from the damages inflicted upon them by such a person. From what I have seen of victims/survivors of such abuse is that they have tried numerous recommendations and suggestions from pastors, therapists, Christians, workshops, books, etc. such as yours and have applied them, yet they still being victimized and/or suffer from wounds they are trying to heal.

    Thank you for your effort to respond to the original question. It may help some, and sometimes there is no plank in the victimized person’s eye. Sometimes there are really people out there in relationships with others who are destructive for no good reason. They purposely behave in their relationships in ways such as withholding, blaming, lying, betraying, gas-lighting, etc. in order to get a negative emotional response from their intimate partners because they obtain more fuel for their narcissistic supply than with positive fuel, and may provide them with some false sense of control.

    Please have empathy for the hurting people who are your audience. Some of what I see in your recommendations continues to put them in the responsible position in situations where they have long endured an irresponsible, destructive person. Most of these people are desperately trying to have some peace and respite from someone who consistently develops chaos; they are exhausted and often with few resources to support them, and, oftentimes boundaries result in increased abuse.

    • Nancy says

      Thank you from the bottom of my heart. You summed up what most of us feel to the tee. God bless you!
      My husband would never go to a therapist but I diagnose him with Narcissistic personality Disorder. He is textbook and holds 9 out of the 10 traits to be an NPD person. I found out he was a serial cheater. I could write a book and give seminars on NPD. I googled serial cheater, blame shifter, crazy maker, no empathy or compassion and viola there in a nutshell was my answer.
      Yes we are not stupid here and know what we face.
      I could write more but you said it all and here I am years off from you writing it and God is still working. ❤️❤️❤️

  10. Eric says

    It makes me angry to read the first few responses from the boundaries books team.

    Anyone who is truly a narcasisst is very difficult to diagnose and any professional who is operating from a place of healing and compassion (love) will acknowledge this.

    The fact is survivors of these ungodly evil moral prostititues know in their spirit what to do. In other words trust your gut. Trust the red flags. No more giving them a chance. These people are evil and know what they are doing. They are not ignorant. They are actually very smart and love abusing

    I recently exposed a spouse and then the woman who raised me. The abuse only gets worse and I would not recommend you follow my steps. Once they are exposed and know you plan to go no contact they will attempt to sabatage your escape anyway they can.

    If you want good advice regarding this topic you are much better off in YouTube. Many good channels from survivors who will give you the validation you need to make the courageous and right decisions.

    Remember God says the wicked practice wickedness that means just like a young man practices to be the best baseball player their are wicked people who are desiring to get better and more skilled at inflicting more evil.

    Don’t let the devil steal anymore of your life through these wicked moral prostitutes. Go no contact and don’t look back.

  11. Melody Shaske says

    I’ll agree that the word narcissism has been thrown around way too much. I have several friends that have gotten separated from their husbands because they learned about narcissism and their husbands showed some of the signs ad indeed they were quite normal … lets face it we all want things done our way sometimes. There are also so many different types of personality disorders and a wide range of severeness. Because I tend to date men or attract friends that are needier than most, I saw a counselor for myself and learned how to determine if there were red flags that a person may have a true personalty disorder before entwining the person too much in my life.

  12. Now What? says

    Ditto — the boundaries principles is being used to control me, while my husband has stonewalled for 7 years and neglected to own his half of the equation. What is a healthy boundary to set with a husband who reserves the right to make all of the rules regardless of impact on me so that he and the kids have maximum freedom and my freedom is diminished, including he keeps his income to himself despite the fact he makes a lot more and has negatively impacted my work (ten years of relational nonsense). I feel like the only option at this point is to file for divorce as he refuses any healthy conversation and continues doing as he pleases. Any time I try to talk to him he starts the defensiveness ramp-up and starts a fight, knowing I’ll leave since we cannot have a productive conversation.

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