Written 04/02/24

"is my partner a narcissist?" I am often asked this in individual and couple therapy. In this blog, I am not going discuss how you can know if your partner is a narcisist. Rather, I am going to discuss the value of using a less pathologizing view of narcissism and the benefit in addressing it in a relational context. Ergo, the first way to work with it relationally is to get rid of labeling your partner. I am not saying diagnosis has no place as I make a living diagnosing mental health disorders. However, when navigating the complexities of relational dynamics, labeling can be counterproductive and distract from addressing the core wounds and the negative cycles that both partners co-create.  This stands true of any diagnosis a relationship partner may have or has been diagnosed with.  So, maybe your partner has "narcissism" but we don't want to oversimplify their behavior but rather understand the nuances of their emotional experience and actions as that is where change can happen. Perhaps one of the most important reasons I dont like to use the label narcissism in navigating it in a relationship is that labels unconsciously create a barrier to empathy reducing ability to see the human inside with complex emotional anxieties and needs. Lastly, labels can create stigma and feed shame that create more attachment hurt that doesn't help in healing the wounds of the person.

The Use of An Attachment Lens

   When working with someone who may display narcissistic behaviors, in most cases, I posit it is helpful to consider those behaviors from an attachment lens. When viewed through the lens of attachment theory, we can see narcissist behaviors not as fixed traits, but as adaptive coping strategies born from attachment trauma. This perspective allows us to empathize with the individual's underlying pain and provides a pathway for healing. In fact, there are multiple benefits for addressing wounds when one considers it through this lens: 1. By focusing on core wounds, we can understand the root of the behaviors that may be causing distress in the relationship, allowing for a more compassionate and effective approach to healing. 2. Understanding a partner's core wounds can facilitate empathy, as it reveals the pain and unmet needs driving their actions, fostering a more supportive and collaborative dynamic. 3. When both partners recognize their own wounds and how they contribute to the negative cycle, it encourages personal responsibility and mutual support for growth and change. 4.  By avoiding labels and focusing on the cycle, partners can create a new narrative for their relationship that emphasizes growth, connection, and mutual understanding. 5. Addressing core wounds allows for targeted interventions that promote healing and the development of healthier coping strategies, relational patters and the most important, secure attachment--the antidote to narcissism.

Working With Narcissism in Couple Therapy

Within the framework of attachment, narcissistic behaviors are understood as protective measures—attachment strategies developed in response to deep-seated pain and unmet needs for safety, validation, and connection. Rather than assigning pathology, EFT considers these behaviors as evidence of attachment wounds, emphasizing the importance of fostering secure attachments through therapeutic intervention.

Narcissistic behaviors can be integral to the negative cycles that couples experience. These cycles often consist of one partner's actions triggering the vulnerabilities of the other, leading to a pattern of interaction that reinforces each partner's core wounds. When behaviors perceived as narcissistic emerge—such as a need for excessive validation or an aversion to criticism—they are often a response to feeling threatened or insecure within the relationship.

In the cycle, one partner's self-focused behavior can provoke feelings of neglect or rejection in the other, who may respond with criticism or withdrawal. This, in turn, exacerbates the first partner's insecurities, leading to further self-protective behaviors. Understanding these patterns is crucial to breaking the cycle and fostering a healthier, more empathetic connection.

The Role of Empathy in Healing Attachment Trauma

Empathy is the cornerstone of healing in EFT. By offering empathy, therapists and partners engage in a process that activates mirror neurons, fostering emotional resonance and connection. This neurological engagement encourages the development of empathy within the individual and can facilitate the rewiring of neural pathways, promoting growth and the capacity for secure attachment even later in life.

How Narcissistic Traits are Addressed in Session

EFT sessions abstain from using stigmatizing labels like "narcissistic," focusing instead on the attachment dynamics at play. I will guide you both through a process of recognizing and articulating the emotions that fuel your negative cycle. This involves:

Creating Safety: I will first start by establishing a therapeutic environment where both of you feel safe to explore vulnerabilities and fears with me to a degree and can identify the negative cycle.

Emotional Awareness: I will aid you both in becoming aware of your emotions and the influence these have on your behaviors and relational patterns.

Restructuring Interactions: As safety within the relationship grows, i will help you both restructure your interactions to be more supportive and nurturing.

Expressing Attachment Needs: I will encourage you both to express needs and fears, which can deepen emotional connection and understanding of each other.

Reframing Experiences: I will assist you both in reframing your experiences in ways that validate each others needs and promote healing, moving away from blame and toward mutual empathy.

Consolidating Change: Once we have things restructured, I will work with you both to reinforce and consolidate these changes, ensuring that progress is maintained.

P.S. Stay tuned for my future blog on "Common Complaints of an FA and Ways to Address This with Your Partner," where we will delve into the complexities of the Fearful Avoidant attachment style and provide strategies for nurturing a healthy relationship dynamic.

Common Wounds, Strategies and Emotions

Examples of How Wounds Could Develop

Imagine a child named Alex who grows up in a family where high achievement is the only measure of worth. Alex's parents, though well-intentioned, constantly compare Alex to siblings and peers, highlighting shortcomings rather than celebrating strengths. Whenever Alex brings home a test, the first question is, "Why didn't you score higher?" rather than "Did you do your best?" Over time, Alex internalizes the message that his value is conditional on external success and that they are never quite good enough.

Adaptive Strategies: As Alex matures, he develops a relentless drive for perfection and success. He becomes the valedictorian, the star athlete, the employee of the month—yet the internal narrative of inadequacy persists. Alex projects confidence and seeks validation through accolades, but privately struggles with impostor syndrome, fearing one day everyone will see the "truth" of his inadequacy.

Associated Emotions: Alex's outward success masks an inner world of shame and insecurity. Despite achievements, he feels vulnerable, as if his worth could be questioned at any moment. This leads to a constant pressure to perform and an inability to internalize and own his successes genuinely.

Consider a child named Jordan whose early life is marked by instability. Jordan's parents are emotionally unavailable due to their own struggles, and there are frequent periods when Jordan is left with various relatives or in daycare without a consistent caregiver. The unpredictability of who will be there for Jordan creates a deep-seated fear of being left alone and unloved. Jordan learns to be hyper-vigilant to the moods and needs of others, trying to secure a stable presence by being indispensable and pleasing.

Adaptive Strategies: As Jordan enters adulthood, she finds herself in relationships where she overextends herself to ensure her partner's happiness, often at the expense of her own needs. She becomes adept at reading others and manipulating situations to avoid potential abandonment. Any sign of disinterest or withdrawal from a partner triggers anxiety and controlling behaviors, as Jordan desperately tries to maintain the connection.

Associated Emotions: Beneath Jordan's accommodating exterior lies a well of loneliness and anxiety. She is perpetually on edge, fearing that any misstep could lead to rejection. Anger can also surface, directed both inwardly for feeling so needy and outwardly towards partners who cannot assuage the deep-rooted fear of being left alone.