Being in a relationship with a female narcissist can be demeaning and harmful. Take this advice as to whether it’s time to stay or go.
Let’s face it. Our template when it comes to a narcissist—is a man. The apocryphal poster children—Donald Trump, Kanye West, Tiger Woods—are often men—CEOs, politicians, entertainers, athletes, garden variety bullies.
However, while the statistics are indeed skewed—with narcissism more common in men than women, there are still millions of narcissistic women out there. The patterns are the same—lack of empathy, entitlement, grandiosity, coldness, carelessness, neglect, vanity, superficiality. In some ways, our over-valuation of vapidity in women (just smile and look pretty) can be a hell of a setup and fertile ground to develop narcissistic women. Narcissism in a woman can be even more striking because we “expect” nurturance, kindness, softness, and emotional depth from women—so when the pretty face turns out to be just a façade—it is unsettling.
When I set out to write my book Should I Stay or Should I Go: Surviving a Relationship with a Narcissist––I struggled with the gender of the pronouns in the book and even built in a disclaimer around my use of “he”. I do not want it to become a man-hating manifesto, and in fact did and do work and talk with many men salvaging themselves from relationships with narcissistic women. Narcissism is narcissism—it doesn’t know from anatomy. Most men who were drawn in by narcissistic partners acknowledge that they were initially dazzled by beauty or sensuality in their partners, and ignored the myriad red flags in the face of these physical characteristics. Before they knew it—they were in too deep. What felt like a sweeping love story, became film noire very quickly.
Many men in relationships with narcissistic women describe the relationships as “emasculating”—not only do men in these relationships feel like they are “never enough”—many times these relationships are governed by materialism—and so they give and give—to the point of financial and physical ruination. And in the midst of all this giving you may be expecting something back—intimacy, closeness, emotional connection—and while your ships of narcissistic supply and gifts and stuff keep sailing into her harbor, nothing ever seems to come back out.
It will never be enough. The ring won’t be big enough. The neighbors will have a better car. Your job title will not be powerful enough. The vacation will not be posh enough. You won’t be in good enough shape.
For years you may have believed that if you gave her the fairy tale, then it will be fine. So you keep trying to pull the sword out of the stone. The relationship then becomes about the “doing” rather than the “being”. Narcissistic relationships are held in place by the hope of a “someday better.” Letting go of hope is scary as hell.
The tragic fallout of the narcissistic relationship (whether with man, woman or beast) is that it leaves a person doubting himself. Self-doubt is a psychological cancer that takes you over slowly and insidiously and creeps into all areas of your life—parenting, career, friendships, day-to-day decision making. When that self-doubt becomes your new normal, and when you are destroying yourself in the process of trying to please an unpleasable partner—it may be time to take stock.
- Do I often feel like I am not enough?
- Does she remind me that “she can do better”?
- Do you keep trying new strategies to make the relationship “work?”
- Does the relationship feel like a one-way street?
- Do I feel like an audience to the show called “her life”?
- Does the relationship feel like a disconnected stage set?
- If there is sex does it feel obligatory and disconnected (for either of you)?
- Do you look forward to your future together?
Leaving isn’t easy, and it may not even be practical. I am a psychologist, and recognize that this has to be a step-wise process—always start with communication. Clear communication in which you take responsibility (“I feel…..”, “I recognize…..” – and avoids the accusatory “You are……….” “You said………….”). But you may have already tried these techniques and couples therapy and all of it. Communication does not work when the other person is not listening.
When the communication is going nowhere, and you are plagued with self-doubt and feelings of inadequacy, you are feeling depressed, distracted, or anxious, you are letting your health go, you don’t look forward to growing old together, or you feel as though you are talking and your partner is not listening—it is time to re-assess. And this re-assessment has to be done within a context of children, shared assets, shared history, nostalgia and dashed hopes. It won’t be easy, and is often a gradual process of letting go and taking your life back. Or if you do decide to stay, re-rendering your expectations and recognizing the desolation of the territory with your narcissistic partner. She is not likely to change. Build your social networks (something men are not always very good at doing) to at least ensure that you have support and sounding boards.
We teach men, as we should, to “do the right thing”—but doing the right thing should not entail futile self-sacrifice. Men often don’t want to leave, and in fact can be more tenacious than women in holding on. Often treating their relationships like endurance tests, and we socialize our boys and men to have “broad shoulders.”
This isn’t about broad shoulders—it is about broad psyches. It is about understanding your narcissistic partner and making decisions accordingly. It is about giving yourself the right to be heard, to be loved, to engage in the reciprocal dance of a loving relationship. The currency of a healthy relationship is respect, kindness, and mutuality. Retain yours and always regard your partner with compassion—it may be the best medicine of all.
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