Expert Q&A: I Think My Husband Is a Narcissist, But How Do I Know for Sure & Help My Kids Understand? by Dr. Bethany Cook Clinical Psychologist
Q: I'm pretty sure my husband is a narcissist. It is always about him and his feelings. The kids and I walk around on eggshells, trying not to upset him. How do I know if he is a narcissist, and if he is, how can I help my kids understand how to not set him off?
A. Let's start with a story:
Living with a narcissist feels a lot like living next to a volcano. The land around you is fed by the volcanic ash; meaning the volcano (narcissist) is able to provide some sort of stability often in the area of housing or finances, and what is presented to the outside world must look like the model family.
Living next to a volcano is difficult (even if it looks picturesque) because the volcano is erratic and sometimes spits burning hot lava. These small explosions aren’t enough to fully damage the home but are often bad enough that you are constantly watching out for them, always checking the windows looking for signs it might explode again. It becomes so bad that you begin to struggle focusing on activities of daily living because your mind is always thinking, when will it happen? Will the kids be safe this time? Will I be able to protect them if it doesn’t stop like it usually does? When was the last time it happened? These intrusive thoughts hinder your ability to function normally and you become tired, stressed and ill. The volcano sees that you aren’t looking great and so it stops spitting long enough for you to find your sense of “unsteady stability.”
And once you start feeling sane again (because the volcano has stopped the abuse and might even be kindly tending to the kids and garden while you recover) you question if the disruptions were really “that bad” or if you merely imagined them as you look around at the lush landscape, tidy house, garden and clean children, so you just smile and stay.
The problem is this volcano is never going to stop spitting lava. It’s just what it is made to do. You can’t change what a volcano does anymore than you can control the tides of the ocean. As you realize this you may begin to ask yourself if there are ways you can protect your home instead of moving. Listen, a volcano is going to be volatile until the day it’s deemed dormant or in other words dead.
So you, the homeowner and primary parent to your children, are left with the gut wrenching, painstakingly difficult decision of either living in a danger zone and hoping for the best or finding a new place to live. This choice is a true dichotomy as neither outcome is pleasant or desirable because in the process of moving you can “wake” the volcano and can literally risk your life and your children’s trying to escape unharmed.
As you read the above metaphor, could you relate? Maybe it hit too close to home or maybe it didn't make sense at all. My hope in writing it was to offer an objective perspective; meaning I didn’t want you to cognitively think about the symptoms, behavior patterns, etc. Instead, I wanted to see if the story resonated first with your body, not your mind.
You mention walking on eggshells, which is most definitely an indicator you are living with a toxic person who is unable to take responsibility for their actions, offer mutual respect in the relationship by validating your concerns, feelings, dreams, goals and an individual who verbally (and potentially physically) abuses you on a daily basis. On occasion and sporadically he will offer a nugget of kindness in the hopes of reeling you back into his toxic web, but it’s more than likely just a piece of shit wrapped in pretty paper.
By doing this your husband is creating a toxic pattern of relating that can be very difficult to get out of because it happens slowly over time and unconsciously. Unfortunately, the research suggests it's highly unlikely that you and your spouse will be able to have a happy marriage. You’re then left with the difficult choice of staying or leaving. The most recent research I’ve seen states that children thrive more when living in a home environment that isn’t toxic. So if mom and dad aren’t doing well together then the kids are going to be negatively impacted.
How much short-term and long-term damage living in this type of environment may cause depends on many factors including but not limited to:
- The duration of exposure.
- The type of abuse they received and/or witnessed.
- The opportunities (or lack thereof) given to heal from the trauma in the form of removal from exposure.
- Going to therapy.
- Seeing their other parent successfully leave the abuser and thrive.
I’ve linked several articles below that go into greater depth and clarity on Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD) and how it impacts individuals, but I also wanted to give you a few “red flags” to look out for below. Please keep in mind only a trained professional can formally diagnose your husband. Nevertheless, educating yourself on the signs and symptoms will help you make informed choices for yourself and your children. It's very rare that someone with these characteristics willingly and openly attends therapy. Because narcissists tend to lack empathy and self-reflection, therapy isn’t productive.
- Monopolize conversations and belittle or look down on people they perceive as inferior.
- Has an exaggerated sense of self/ego.
- Requires constant, excessive admiration.
- Acts entitled.
- Overstates achievements and talents.
- Takes liberties with others’ kindness to get what they want.
- Has no desire to see the needs of others.
- Wants the newest, fastest and best of everything.
Individuals with NPD also tend to:
- Get frustrated and angry when they don't get special treatment.
- Struggles with interpersonal relationships and is easily offended.
- Responds with rage or contempt to neutral topics/comments and will belittle someone to make themselves look superior.
- Struggles regulating emotions and behavior.
- Can’t manage or cope with stress and adapting to change.
I prefer to not offer advice on how to teach your children to cater to or placate your spouse in order to “keep the peace” for the sake of an abuser. Rather, I’d like to offer ways to help you and them develop positive coping skills for managing their emotions around him, learn that their dad’s behaviors are in no way a direct reflection of them, and hopefully start healing from the abuse.
- Read articles and experiences from other survivors of narcissists’ abuse.
- Read books about how to deal with and protect yourself from a narcissist.
- See if you can get yourself and your children into therapy to start processing what has already happened and to learn and practice positive ways to cope and protect your and your children’s self-worth.
- Consider removing yourself and your children from the toxic environment. This will not be heard well by the narcissist who will undoubtedly lash out in obvious and unexpected ways. So if you do choose to leave, please have a support network around you if possible.
You must be an incredibly powerful and strong woman as narcissistic people tend to be drawn to those types of individuals. You may not feel that right now as you read this, but queen, you are powerful and you need to reclaim it. I am sending you the biggest hug. If your man is a narcissist you’re living in a war zone with a person who uses guerilla warfare to fight. Your body's flight/fight/freeze response has been on overdrive for way too long and your levels of stress hormones are probably off the charts.
Given all that, you are still powerful. You still have strength and fight within you or you wouldn’t have asked the question. I appreciate the opportunity to respond to it and hope my words have helped or guided you toward a happier, safer life for you and your amazing children.
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