Does Couples Therapy Work with Narcissists?
Written by Randi Fine, Narcissistic Abuse Expert
Narcissistic Abuse Guidance and Support with Randi Fine
All relationships have conflict. Every relationship has areas of difficulty. There will be some form of disagreement and hurt in every relationship. What determines a successful relationship is the willingness and commitment of each partner to find resolutions they can agree on.
Agreements often involve compromise. Compromise requires flexibility and options. It does not involve sacrifice. Sacrifice involves giving up an important aspect of the self to benefit someone else, and never getting it back. That depletes the one who is sacrificing and endows the other. The balance of the relationship is thrown off more and more with each sacrifice.
Trust in a relationship and commitment to its success can easily be destroyed when problems between couples are avoided or unaddressed, when one partner is dismissive, negative or uncooperative, and when problems persist too long without intervention. Problems that couples cannot work through on their own such as infidelity, shifting of goals, money issues, sex. boredom, etc. may arise. These types of unresolved challenges may influence the long-term success of a committed relationship and are best solved through couples therapy.
The couples therapist’s goal is to help the couple gain greater insight into the patterns of behavior; how they relate to each other, interact with each other, and the way they communicate with each other. To achieve optimal results with couples therapy, both partners must be willing to participate in the process, do the work, and commit to changing their behaviors.
The American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy, reports that 98 percent of people who used marriage and family therapy services rated them as good or excellent. As a narcissistic abuse expert and coach who has worked with hundreds of narcissistic abuse sufferers and has talked to thousands more, I believe the reported percentage of satisfaction is over-inflated. I question the statistic because, not only does couples therapy not work for everyone, it doesn’t work when one partner has narcissistic personality disorder. NPD is at epidemic levels and a more prevalent factor in relationships than is commonly known. On the website hbwvlaw.com it is stated that “according to the U.S. National Institute of Health 6.2% of the United States population has NPD. That means that for every 10 divorce cases at least one of the spouses is a narcissist.”
Most people enter couples therapy with the intention of changing their partner’s behavior. Targets of narcissistic abuse go to these therapy sessions hoping the therapist will open their partner’s eyes to how hurtful she is being, and in doing so will help the couple get their marriage back on track. When narcissistic abusers agree to couples therapy, their intention is to convince the therapist that they are perfect, that they are victims of abuse, and that their partner is to blame for everything that has gone wrong in their relationship.
To quote Ellnor Greenberg, Ph.D. in her Psychology Today article, Is Couples’ Therapy Useful When One Partner is a Narcissist? “Effective couples’ therapy requires each member of the couple to be willing to reflect on his or her beliefs, behaviors, and impact on the other person. It is necessary for people in couples’ therapy to be able to admit where their behavior or their expectations for the relationship are unreasonable. Narcissists cannot admit their flaws without in their own mind shifting from feeling special to worthless. This makes it highly unlikely that they will actually be able to utilize couples’ therapy to try to improve their approach to the relationship.”
When they do agree to go to couples therapy, narcissists do not intend to improve their relationships. They go for two reasons:
- to prove that their partner is entirely to blame–to build themselves up and tear their partner down
- for entertainment–they enjoy the challenge of trying to win over the therapist and ganging up against their partner
In therapy, narcissists will falsely but convincingly lament about the undying love and commitment they have for their partners–how they only want what is best for them. They will portray their partners as abusers; rageful, delusional, cruel, self-centered, unreasonable, hurtful, unloving, and neglectful. Narcissists claim that it is their partners, not them, who are the hurtful ones, the ones uncommitted to the relationship, the ones who refuse to work things out.
Narcissists, consummate actors that they are, can be very convincing in this ruse. Discerning couples therapists quickly recognize the projection and manipulative tactics. But many don’t. Many are blinded by the narcissist’s lies, cunning manipulation, and impressive facade. Failing to see through the charade they often buy into the narcissist’s victimhood, and falsely place all responsibility for the relationship problems on the true victim. Others overlook the signs of narcissistic personality disorder entirely and may just as easily be manipulated.
In many cases, though targeted partners try desperately to make couples therapists understand their perspective and believe their reporting of the madness they are subject to at home, the blame will be assigned to the wrong person. The targeted partner will be accused of being the offender and all responsibility for the relationship problems will be placed on her. She will be reprimanded for perpetrating the abuse against a loving, undeserving partner and advised to be more forgiving and considerate of his needs. The targeted partner leaves the therapy session feeling more confused and invalidated than she did before–shamed and blamed–abandoned and betrayed by the person she trusted to help her–feeling far worse than she did before reaching out for help. And the cycle of abuse continues.
Couple’s therapy only works when both parties are willing to change. With their self-perceived omnipotence, narcissists see no reason to change, therefore are entirely unwilling to do so.
Therapeutic success also requires vulnerability from both sides. In the clinical environment of couples therapy, opinions and expression of feelings are encouraged, and both partners are given a safe space in which they can comfortably open up. In this setting, couples with two committed people can work through conflicts and strengthen their bond.
Targets of narcissistic abuse go to couples therapy with the same expectations but with a false sense of safety. They trust that the therapist will take them at their word and safeguard them from further abuse. But even if the therapist hears, believes, and validates everything the targeted partner discloses, and the narcissist fakes empathy, is congenial and remains nonreactive, there will be hell to pay afterwards, especially if the couple live together in the same home. The non-narcissistic partner is guaranteed to be punished in some way (emotionally, physically, verbally or sexually) for revealing “private information”, exposing the truth, and criticizing the narcissistic partner who demands nothing less than loyalty, obedience, respect, appreciation and reverence.
You deserve to be happy, be loved and have a fulfilling relationship with a committed partner who meets your needs. If you are in a relationship that is making you unhappy and leaving you confused, depriving you of your individuality and stealing your self-worth, causing you to walk on eggshells or live in fear, it may be time to end your involvement. Do not abruptly leave or threaten to leave. It is not safe and never recommended. To learn safe exit strategies, enlist the help of a narcissistic abuse specialist: therapist, narcissistic abuse coach, or divorce coach. These professionals will be invaluable in helping you achieve your desired outcome.
Randi Fine is a narcissistic abuse expert and coach, and the author of the groundbreaking book Close Encounters of the Worst Kind: The Narcissistic Abuse Survivor’s Guide to Healing, the most comprehensive, most well researched, and most up-to-date book on this subject. In addition to helping survivors recognize their abuse and heal from it, this book teaches mental health professionals how to recognize and properly treat the associated abuse syndrome. She is also the author of Cliffedge Road: A Memoir, the first and only book to characterize the life-long progression of complications caused by narcissistic child abuse.