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If you’ve ever been with a partner who can’t seem to tune into your feelings, does everything for their own ends, and requires constant admiration and attention but can’t give the same to you or your kids, you’re likely sharing your life with a narcissist, characterized as someone who lacks empathy and the capacity to love.
“A narcissist is only concerned with how things look to others and is all about what you or the kids do rather than who you are as people,” says Karyl McBride, PhD, a Denver, Colorado-based licensed marriage and family therapist, a leading authority on narcissism and author of Will I Ever Be Free Of You? How to Navigate a High Conflict Divorce from a Narcissist and Heal Your Family, published this month.
There’s a whole spectrum of narcissism, from a person who has narcissistic tendencies, like being selfish and arrogant, to someone who has been fully diagnosed with narcissism, a personality disorder.
There’s a fair amount of judgment that comes into play during daily life with a narcissist. “They need to judge and be critical to make themselves bigger and more important,” she says. “This takes a huge toll on the self-esteem of their loved ones.”
So, say, your baby is up all night. If your partner is a narcissist, he or she will want you to take care of it. “A narcissist views the baby being up all night through the lens of ‘how it will affect my life,’” she says. “He or she is thinking only of what has to be done, how much sleep they need and, ultimately, how their life is more important than yours.”
Over time, co-parenting with a narcissist will end up having a grave impact on your children.
“A narcissistic spouse is way more concerned about how your child’s behavior reflects him or her than who the child is as a person,” she says. “If your child isn’t getting good grades or didn’t win a basketball game, rather than tune into the child to help him or parent him, a partner with narcissistic tendencies is way more worried about what other people think and how this reflects on them.”
All of which makes it that much more important for you to offset your partner’s behavior, which can range from diminishing to abusive.
“Your goal should be to focus on empathic parenting,” she says. “You’ll need to be the parent who tunes into your child’s feelings, validates them and lets your child know that you are dependable and right there in their emotional world.”
And, if you’re considering uncoupling from a narcissistic partner, the first thing you must do is accept the fact that your relationship hasn’t been about real love. “It’s often difficult—and painful—for the non-narcissistic divorcing spouse to realize this and accept it,” she says.
Realize, too, that the actual process of divorcing your narcissistic spouse will likely get heated—fast.
“High level narcissists unilaterally create high-conflict divorces that go on for years,” she says. “They tend to find an attack dog attorney and think about the process like it’s a battlefield, focusing on performing in court and, ultimately, winning.”
Your best bet: Find experienced professionals who can help you navigate.
“This includes a therapist who can help your children comes to grips with their parent’s behavior as well as a family law expert with a familiarity with narcissism,” she says. “This way everyone will be prepared should your narcissistic partner use your child as a pawn in the courtroom, which often occurs.”