21 Jul 3 Reasons Why Diagnosing Your Partner As a Narcissist Is a Bad Idea
Narcissists. Out of all the various personality disorders out there, why is narcissism so often on the radar of couples suffering in unhappy marriages and relationships? In my work as a relationship and couples therapist, it’s a word that I’m hearing my clients using. A lot.
I’m hearing it from clients who experience their partner as thoughtless, self important, arrogant, unwilling to compromise, and/or lacking in empathy.
It’s a “diagnosis” that offers an answer and brings sense to a relationship experience which is often very confusing, lonely, and painful.
Anyone in an unhappy, unfulfilled relationship like this could be forgiven for making a “diagnosis” of narcissism, which in these cases, certainly can look like it makes sense.
But diagnosing your partner as a narcissist can be a bad idea.
In many cases it’s not actually an official diagnosis. What I’m seeing in practice is that it’s a “diagnosis” usually courtesy of Dr Google, self-help books, and/or magazine articles. It’s often made without the knowledge or co-operation of the very person it’s made about.
It’s not easy to get an accurate diagnosis of a personality disorder like narcissistic personality disorder. It can’t be done online or by reading a book. It can’t be done by taking a quiz. And it can’t be done by anyone except a trained specialist working extensively, and (this is pretty obvious but often also overlooked), together with their patient.
The actual personality disorder which is narcissism involves a specific set of behaviours and personality traits that are sustained and entrenched. Not many people actually have this disorder. But all of us can behave in narcissistic ways at times.
What I’m seeing with couples in therapy is that narcissistic behaviours often escalate when relationship stress rises. The more relationship stress, the more narcissistic behaviour. And the more narcissistic behaviour, the more relationship stress. No wonder their partners start reaching for explanations that, on paper, feel so right.
If your relationship has been under stress and you’ve been looking for answers, you might have concluded that your partner is a narcissist. I often work with clients who have done just this. So I’ve also seen what can happen next.
If you diagnose your partner with narcissistic personality disorder:
1. You might be wrong:
On the one hand it makes sense that narcissism is a diagnosis best made by the very person or people who know and love the “patient” the most. After all, theses are the people who will have experienced the narcissistic behaviours and traits first hand.
But on the other hand, being so close to someone prevents the objectivity that is essential for accurate judgement, especially about something as serious as a personality disorder.
It would be like asking a fish to make an accurate description of the water in which they are swimming around in: impossible, given they literally cannot separate themselves from it in order to see it from an outsiders view.
2. You’ll start seeing only what you’re looking for:
Ask anyone who has studied medicine or psychology and they’ll tell you how easy it is to identify with any number of the physical or emotional symptoms that are typical of this or that condition or disease.
When we see a list of symptoms and look for these, we find them. The problem is, we don’t see what’s not on the list, because we’re not looking for it. We can’t see what we’re not looking for.
In other words, once you’ve decided that your partner is a narcissist, guess what you’ll notice? He or she will indeed behave exactly like a narcissist!
What this may mean is that when your self important, un-empathic partner extends a selfless offer to help out when you’ve had a bad day, or happens to confide in you with vulnerability and honesty when they’re trying to connect, you’ll not necessarily notice that this simple act of caring or intimacy is markedly non-narcissistic.
3. You’ll stop taking your share of responsibility in the relationship:
When normal relationship issues arise, it’s crucial that both partners are on board in defining and resolving what went wrong. Responsibility in relationships works when both partners are able to self-reflect and ask:
“What part of this is my “stuff”?
Both partners must be willing to accept responsibility for whatever way/s they were involved. Relationship problems pretty much always involve two.
But once you believe that your partner is a narcissist, it will be easier for you to respond to relationship problems more like this:
“Wow! I am married to a narcissist. No wonder XYZ happened. Here’s just another consequence of his/her narcissism”.
You’ll just naturally stop checking in with yourself because you’ll have a reason why things aren’t working. And it won’t be you.
If you suspect you’re in a relationship with a narcissist, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with doing as much research and being as well informed as you can. Just don’t jump to conclusions.
Everyone can behave in narcissistic ways, without actually being a narcissist. Often, partners appear narcissistic when they’re just dealing with relationship dysfunction in their own dysfunctional ways.
Talk to your partner about what you notice. Describe how you feel when he or she behaves in certain ways. Ask for feedback about how you can do this better too (although I’m guessing you may already be hearing more than enough on this!). Then communicate about how you’d prefer things to be, and why.
Be curious about what prompts him or her to behave as they do. Ask questions about how the two of you could be handling your relationship stresses better. And seek professional help for yourself, for your partner, or for your shared relationship, if things get too overwhelming.
Who knows, maybe down the track, a diagnosis of narcissistic personality disorder may be made by a specialist who is fully equipped to make it. If so, you’ll both have lots to learn, assuming you both decide you want the relationship to survive.
Till then though, maybe you can assume you are in a relationship with a person just like you: flawed and imperfect, but also capable of positive growth and change.
Want to talk about your own relationship or personal wellbeing? Contact Pamela here. Pamela has been helping individuals and couples achieve healthy relationships for over 20 years.