Someone sent me the following email a few weeks back:

I wanted to ask you how do you deal with a narcissistic spouse? How to deal with them spiritual way? When we call someone a narcissist, why are they like that? And, what is the real meaning of narcissist?

I think a psychologist is better trained to address these questions than a philosopher. Nevertheless, I am happy to share my thoughts on the subject.

I once read a quote, “That’s enough of me talking about myself. Now, let’s hear you talk about me.” This sums up a narcissistic person.

Think of a very large hot air balloon, bigger than the size of a spaceship. In front of a narcissist’s ego, it’s no more than a tiny bubble. A narcissist has an insatiable need for admiration and a puffed up sense of self-importance. (A lot of preachers, swamis, religious and political leaders fall in this category, by the way.) In most broken relationships, at least one partner strongly displays the traits of a narcissist.

Born to a river god and a nymph, Narcissus was a strapping and handsome youth, a hunter by vocation. He was so enamored with his own beauty that he even scorned people who loved him because he didn’t think anyone was worthy of loving him. Nemesis, the goddess of divine retribution and vengeance in Greek mythology, led Narcissus to a pool where he saw his own reflection and fell in love with himself. He lost the desire to live because he didn’t think he could find anyone else as good as the reflection he saw. He stared at his reflection until he died.

The term narcissism originated from the legend of Narcissus. It basically means fixation with oneself.

You asked me how to deal with a narcissistic spouse. The truth is you can’t really deal with them. You can only take measures to protect yourself. If you are surviving in a relationship with a narcissist, chances are you are too empathetic, too caring.  You have put up with a lot, you are being soft and you are hoping your partner will change based on your actions. You are trying to adjust around your spouse’s needs hoping he or she won’t blow up or hurt you again with their gestures or words. The truth is, these strategies don’t really work with a narcissist. They are not the way they are because of you. They are just too self-obsessed.

A narcissist is also an expert manipulator for he/she knows how to extract a certain behavior from the other person. Even though it’s been classified as a disorder, in reality, when it comes to a narcissistic relationship it’s the partner of a narcissist (and not the narcissist himself or herself) who suffers the most. When two narcissists enter into a relationship, they have huge arguments over practically everything. None can take the criticism. They start putting each other down at every opportunity. And eventually they either split or end up living under the same roof as two complete strangers.
Here are four telltale (or even clear) signs of a narcissist:

They can’t handle the truth

No matter how constructive your criticism, the only way to deliver it is to absolutely load it with adulation. Even then, if a narcissist is not keen on hearing what you have to say, they’ll react undesirably, angrily or even violently. It is nearly impossible to peacefully confront a narcissist. If you have a partner you find very difficult to communicate with, you may have a narcissist at your hands.

They are never wrong

If you have a narcissistic spouse, it’s always going to be your fault. Period. If he can’t get his act together, it’s because you didn’t do certain things. If she’s mad that’s because you set her off. If she is sad that’s because you don’t love her enough. If you are having an argument, that’s because you don’t listen to him or her. A narcissist makes you feel guilty and responsible for his feelings. Somehow, they’ll make you feel that you are not doing enough.

They always come first

A narcissist has a general lack of empathy for anyone except himself. He or she will have no qualms in grabbing the first plate in a buffet or asking you to take the aisle seat because they want the window. Or, that you dine in a restaurant of their choice or vacation in a destination they prefer. At times, you feel that they are totally indifferent to the feelings, needs and preferences of the other person. They probably are.

Their way or the highway

There is rarely any middle path with a narcissistic partner. “This is how I am,” you’ll hear it often. Or, “This is how I’ve been brought up.” Or, “You don’t understand me. No one loves me, no one can help me,” etc. etc. By playing the victim, they get their way. Most of the time, they are not doing it intentionally but subconsciously.

A relationship where one partner is a narcissist is generally a broken and an abusive relationship. The amount of mental trauma, stress and conflict you handle on a regular basis in such relationship is known to you alone. Because often, a narcissist is unctuous and helpful for the whole world except his/her partner. So, any outsider can’t understand what you as the carer, or the softer partner, are going through.

I’m slightly modifying a joke I once read in Jewish Humor by Isaac Asimov:

When you tell a simpleton a joke, he laughs three times. Once when you tell it, next when you explain it and finally when he understands it.

When you tell a landowner a joke, he laughs twice: once when you tell it and once when you explain it.

When you tell a military officer a joke, he laughs only once, when you tell it. He won’t let you explain it, and chances are, he doesn’t understand it.

But when you tell a narcissist a joke, he tells you that he has heard it be­fore, and that you are telling it all wrong, anyway.

I may have painted the picture that narcissists are monsters. They are not. No one is. They are fragile human beings who, beneath their cocky masks, are deeply insecure and vulnerable. Narcissistic behavior becomes their coping mechanism more than anything else.

If you can’t call it quits on your narcissistic partner, there’s only one other option left: accept whatever you can and learn to protect yourself. If you can’t do that either, you’d better develop infinite compassion, patience and love. This is the spiritual way. Let your goodness rise above your spouse’s behavior. No matter what the circumstances, you choose a demeanor that befits you.

As Gandhi said, “I will not let anyone walk through my mind with their dirty feet.” Don’t let anyone else’s behavior change yours. The real you, the eternal you, your soul is beyond all this. No one can hurt you, no one can go there unless you let them. Since you can’t change them, emit vibrations of love. At the end of the day, you should be able to put your hand on your heart and say, “I did not deter from my path of goodness.” That’s all that matters eventually. Like it should.

Peace.
Swami