Reader Married to a Narcissist writes:
I am coming to the horrifying realization that I'm a codependent woman married to a rather selfish (perhaps even, gulp, narcissistic) man. Of course we have two young (3.5 and 5) kids that I love fiercely. He works full time. I work part time and take care of the kids part time. In couples therapy, it came out a few months ago that he had one affair 5 years ago, another one last year, and a one-night stand with an old lover 2 years ago. I'm of course devastated. And really really pissed.
Finding out about the affairs has allowed me to admit to myself the other ways in which he is selfish and destructive. We've been together 17 years. He's not all bad and I wouldn't label him a sociopath or anything, but I just don't know how much change he's capable of, how much time I want to spend waiting for that change, or how to even set up the problem in my mind in order to make good decisions about my future and the future of my kids. How would you advise someone in my situation to think about the problem(s)?
I'm sorry you're in this situation. Infidelity is very difficult, and I discuss how to repair a marriage after a partner has cheated here. But on top of the pain of the infidelity, there is the daily pain of living with a narcissist. Here, I discuss how to engage with a narcissist in couples counseling, and it is pretty much the same thing if you want to have a marriage with one. You have to notice when he does act more loving and empathic (is he a good dad? Good with coworkers? You say he's not all bad, so when does he treat you well?) and build on this, by reinforcing and praising this kind behavior when it occurs.
You do NOT want to praise your husband for being amazing and impressive, as this just feeds the idea that he is perfect and superhuman. Praise him for everyday nice things that he does, because this feedback will increase the chance that he does more of these things that would actually make your life bearable with him. Example: "Thanks a lot for noticing I was struggling with the grocery bags. I really appreciated you taking one." Not: "You're the best one in your company, I can't believe you only got a five percent raise!"
There are many books you can read to help you deal with a narcissist, and I recommend you read a bunch of them to get a handle on this situation. Also, read my interview with Sam Vaknin, a diagnosed narcissist and author, and his wife Lidia, because it is really eye opening about how marriages with narcissists work. Whether or not you divorce him, you still have to co-parent with him, so it's important to think and read about how to best cope with his behavior.
Of course, the other two salient questions are: How did you end up in this situation, and do you want to make it work or not? For the first, I suggest therapy of your own, focusing on your early life, and patterns you may have witnessed with your caregivers. You say you're codependent, and that makes sense based on who you chose to marry. People who marry narcissists are either narcissists themselves (and then can become "the perfect couple" in a mutual admiration society) or enablers, and if you are unhappy with the situation, it's likely you're #2. Did you see a pattern where one caregiver was the martyr or the enabler for the other? As a child, did you see a marriage where only one spouse got their needs met, and the other negated their own needs? Something about this co-dependent dynamic must be familiar to you on a deep level.
Imago theory (read how I apply this here; it's relevant to your situation) states that we try to get someone like a caregiver who didn't meet our needs, and then try to change this person into someone who would meet our needs. So, you married someone who was emotionally unavailable like, odds are, one of your caregivers, and then tried to build your husband into an emotionally present and loving partner, by catering to his needs and demands and hoping this would make him love and value you back. But does he have this capacity?
You're going to have to balance acceptance with the hope for change. You can accept his limitations, but also set firm boundaries (e.g., no more cheating and you need to go to couples counseling), and also work on your own issues, whether they are co-dependency, enabling, lack of assertiveness, or whatever else you realize in your own therapy and from self-reflection. I am assuming you're not great at asserting boundaries or expressing your own needs directly, and whether or not you stay in this marriage, these are skills that would be very beneficial for you to learn.
If you decide you don't want to remain in this marriage anymore, divorce will not irreparably mess up your kids, but it is of course a very hard and stressful road. However, so is being in a marriage with someone you don't trust or feel connected to. This is a tough choice, and one that will require deep reflection about what you need, how you envision your life, what your and your husband's limitations and potential may be, and how hard you and he want to work on your marriage and yourselves.
Good luck with this very complicated and difficult situation. I'm sorry there is no one clear answer. Till we meet again, I remain, The Blogapist That Thinks Anything Can Work If Both Partners Try.
This post was originally published here on Dr. Psych Mom, and here on SW Experts. Follow Dr. Rodman on Dr. Psych Mom, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and Pinterest. Order her book, How to Talk to Your Kids about Your Divorce: Healthy, Effective Communication Techniques for Your Changing Family. This blog is not intended as diagnosis, assessment, or treatment, and should not replace consultation with your medical provider.