Is your spouse a narcissist?

Is your spouse a narcissist?

I wish I had a nickel for every time someone accused their spouse of being a narcissist.

Narcissism (or Narcissistic Personality Disorder) is a mental health diagnosis based on certain behaviors. This is true of most diagnoses in the mental health field; that is, they’re based on behaviors.

As opposed to a medical diagnosis, which is based on a physical condition.

The distinction here is important.

If I have cancer (God forbid), that’s not my fault. I didn’t do it. It wasn’t my choice. And I can’t do anything about it. I need a doctor to treat me. And whether my body responds to the treatment is also not up to me.

In medicine, there’s fate and reliance. I have to pray and find a good doctor. In the end, the outcome is not up to me.

But it is up to me how I behave. How I treat you in our relationship is my choice. Prayer can be useful, a mentor might help, a prescription might improve my chances, but in the end it’s up to me. I control my choices. I decide how to behave in each moment. And if I choose, this moment can be different from all the previous ones.

There might be factors adversely affecting my choice. My inclination might be selfish. It could be that my father and grandfather were selfish. Maybe I only saw selfishness growing up. Maybe I’ve been selfish for 20 years. Maybe there was some past trauma in my life. There are various factors (genetic, environmental, social, historical, behavioral) all piling on to influence my behavior, but in the end, there is one factor that trumps all of them—my choice. I have the freedom to choose the person I want to be.

The mental health industry is highly influenced by the ways of medicine. We have classification criteria, diagnostic codes, and treatment procedures. Sounds very scientific, doesn’t it? It better be or the insurance companies won’t pay. But is it that black and white? Is the working of our mind and the choices we make really that scientific? Is character as predictable as chemical?

Usually, when someone tells me that their spouse is a narcissist, they’re not just saying that they’ve behaved in controlling, selfish, and insensitive ways; they’re saying that their spouse is sick and there’s no cure. They’re saying their marriage is doomed.

Now it could be that they’re spouse will continue to be controlling, selfish, and insensitive, in which case they should probably exit the marriage. But it could also be that their spouse will change. And it could also be that they could inspire that change.

A story…

A man once came to a town and asked the local sage, “I’m thinking about moving here. What kinds of people live here?”

The sage asked the man, “What kinds of people live where you came from?”

“Where I’m from the people are liars, cheaters, and mean spirited,” the man responded.

“The people are the same here,” said the sage.

Then another man came to same town and asked the same sage the same question, “I’m thinking about moving here. What kinds of people live here?”

The sage asked the man, “What kinds of people live where you came from?”

“Where I’m from the people are wonderful, kind, and courteous,” the man responded.

“The people are the same here,” said the sage.

People are as they are. That’s true. But they also are as we are.

What do you get when you smile at someone? Usually a smile back. And if you stare at someone? A stare back.

Of course our spouse has problems and of course they have to change. But so do we. And our change could be the catalyst for theirs.

Your marriage is not simply a function of who you picked; it’s also a function of who you are.

In my experience, every time someone accuses their spouse of being a narcissist, the accuser is a people-pleasing conflict-avoiding passive personality who lacks self-esteem. In other words, the dysfunctional dynamic between them was the result of dual responsibility.

It’s easy to confess our spouse’s sins and pronounce our marriage dead, but before we do maybe we should work on our fixing and see if that impacts our spouse and the dynamics of the relationship. If it does, you will have transformed yourself and led your family to healing and reconciliation. If not, you will still have transformed yourself and be well positioned to exit your marriage with a clear conscience and enter the next chapter of your life a healthier person.

In either case, I wish you well.

Mort Fertel

P.S. I think it’s important to note that some illnesses, which may be misclassified as mental health issues and based on behaviors, are actually medical conditions. In this case, a person should visit a doctor and seek medical treatment, which might include medication. To be clear, in these cases the problem is biological, not behavioral.

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