Narcissistic Abuse 101: How to Recognize It in Your Marriage and How to Heal

Narcissistic Abuse

No one plans on marrying a narcissist. But it may be more common than you think. Sandra L. Brown, the founder of the Institute for Relational Harm Reduction and Public Pathology Education, estimates that over 60 million people might be affected by a narcissistic relationship. Which is a startling reminder that all too often, emotional abuse such as narcissism is overlooked and underreported. But it doesn’t have to be. Here’s how to recognize narcissistic abuse in your marriage and how to heal from its impact.

Understanding Narcissism

First, let’s clarify some things about narcissism. The term is regularly used today to describe self-involved behavior. It’s essentially a personality trait that should be considered on a spectrum. All of us have likely exhibited this behavior a time or two (consider this one end of the spectrum), but it becomes an issue when a person shows frequent disregard for others. As such, at the other end of the spectrum is narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) which is a diagnosed mental health condition. 

However, it is rare. Per the Cleveland Clinic, up to only 5% of people who exhibit narcissistic behaviors truly have (NPD) and it is diagnosed when a person has at least five of these characteristics:

  • An overinflated sense of self-importance.
  • Constant thoughts about being more successful, powerful, smart, loved, or attractive than others.
  • Feelings of superiority and desire to only associate with high-status people.
  • Need for excessive admiration.
  • Sense of entitlement.
  • Willingness to take advantage of others to achieve goals.
  • Lack of understanding and consideration for other people’s feelings and needs.
  • Arrogant or snobby behaviors and attitudes.

Signs of Narcissistic Abuse

Regardless of whether your spouse has NPD or not, their behavior may be far enough toward that end of the spectrum to be considered narcissistic abuse. Here are the signs to watch for in your marriage:

  • They try to control your life – Keep you from friends, family, and hobbies by accusing you of putting yourself and others before them.
  • It’s never their fault – Whenever anything goes wrong or something happens that they dislike, it’s blamed on someone else, most often you.
  • They manipulate – Making you believe you’re the selfish or demanding one when really they’re the one with those traits.
  • They create double standards – They have rules for you that they don’t believe should apply to them and they’re always making up new ones (or changing them) to suit their needs.
  • They gaslight – Regularly making you doubt your perceptions and feelings to the point you think you’re the flawed one and they are right to find fault with you.
  • Revenge is their go-to – When they feel challenged or wronged, they get even by lashing out at you, trying to turn others against you, and/or even punishing you financially.
  • It’s a cycle – There is a pattern in your relationship where they idealize (lift you up), devalue (bring you down), reject you (end things), and then repeat (charm their way back). 

The Impact of Narcissistic Abuse

Victims of narcissistic abuse can be impacted both mentally and physically in the short term. However, depending on the length and intensity you’ve been subjected to this behavior, it can have long-term effects as well. It’s common to experience:

  • Shame/guilt
  • Anxiety/depression
  • Mood swings/irritability
  • Post-traumatic stress
  • Feeling powerless
  • Inability to concentrate/focus
  • Loss of self-esteem
  • People pleasing
  • Difficulty sleeping/nightmares
  • Headaches, stomach, and/or body aches
  • Inability to trust in relationships
  • Self-destructive habits

Moving Forward

The unfortunate reality is that most narcissists don’t believe they are doing anything wrong and don’t intend to change. That’s why often the only thing you can do is to leave the marriage altogether, and then work toward healing. These tips can help you move forward.

Leaving a Narcissist

  • Don’t tell them you’re leaving. 
  • Make your plan of where you’ll go and how you’ll get there.
  • Get your important documents and get cash or open a new account ahead of time.
  • Minimize contact as much as possible.
  • Minimize your digital trail so you can’t be followed, log out and change the passwords on social media and financial accounts, and clear browser history on any shared devices.
  • Enlist the support of friends and family.

Healing from Narcissistic Abuse

  • Recognize and accept your feelings.
  • Join a support group.
  • Reach out to a counselor or therapist.
  • Make self-care a priority.

BONUS TIP: As you begin the divorce process, you’ll want to find an attorney with experience in high-conflict divorces. If children are involved, you’ll also want to work out a legal parenting plan as soon as possible. We recommend going through an intermediary during this process. For example, our experienced mediators and Certified Divorce Specialists™ can help with child custody, child support, and divorce mediation. Not only is divorce mediation, where a neutral third party works with you to negotiate a mutual settlement agreement, often less combative than court litigation, but it can also save you time and money. Even better, you and your spouse don’t even have to be in the same room during mediation as our services are 100 percent virtual!

For more information on how our mediation services and coaching can help you leave a narcissistic abuser, contact us today.

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