Narcissistic Relationships: Family & Couples Therapy
Living with a pathologically narcissistic person is usually extremely difficult. They are often combative, high conflict, selfish, entitled, childish and generally abusive. More than that, they often have other difficulties that prompt their loved ones to believe that some kind of mental illness is at play. The narcissist's behavior may be so erratic, so extreme or so out of touch with reality that their loved ones believe that something is truly wrong. They might think their narcissistic loved one is bipolar or that they have multiple personalities. Regardless of how it plays out, it becomes obvious that the problems they are having are not "normal" relationship or family problems.
Desperate for a way to understand and fix the situation, people naturally turn to family or couples' counseling. Sometimes, it is even the narcissistic person's idea. Counseling and therapy can be very helpful in many situations. However, dealing with a pathologically narcissistic person is not one of them.
The problem is that the goal of a narcissistic person is usually not the same as the other person or people who are in therapy with them. Most people who go to therapy voluntarily go because they want help. Pathologically narcissistic people don't think they need help. At least, not for any problems that they actually have. Most of the time, therapy and counseling are simply another way for a narcissistic person to triangulate and weaponize other people against the victim. If it is their idea to go to therapy, the idea is probably actually for you to go to therapy. They want the therapist to tell you that you are the problem.
This is one of the reasons therapy and counseling with narcissists does not work. Good therapists will focus on what all parties in a relationship can improve and narcissistic people generally don't want to hear that. They want to hear that you are doing wrong and need to change. As soon as the focus shifts to them, they often become angry and walk out or become triggered and refuse to ever go back. They may accuse others of picking on them, including the therapist. They may feel betrayed the instant the therapist suggests they could do some work, too. Of course, therapy under these circumstances will never work.
Another reason counseling with narcissistic people usually fails is because the therapist or counselor is generally seen as just one more person to be won to their side against the victim. They are not there to work on a relationship together. They are there to win and the therapist is the prize, just as any other person always is in these situations. The goal then is to win the therapist to their side. This is accomplished by trying to turn the therapist against the victim. If attempts to do this do not succeed, it is likely to be considered a betrayal, and the victim is the one who will be accused of triangulation and of trying to turn the therapist against the narcissist. If the narcissist's attempts at triangulation do succeed, the narcissist's justifications for abuse have just been validated by a professional and the abuse often becomes much worse.
Sadly, a third reason therapy is unsuccessful with pathologically narcissistic people is because too many counselors and therapists do not understand the situation. It would be wonderful if therapists and counselors were somehow immune to triangulation or making mistakes, but they are human, too. Using traditional modalities and methods, they may insist the victim or victims validate the narcissist's feelings, not realizing that narcissists often take validation as an admission and acknowledgment of guilt, or that the things the narcissist is claiming to be so hurt by and upset about may have never even happened. In essence, therapists may inadvertently validate, reinforce and justify the narcissist's distorted perception of reality and even attempt to force the victim to exist in it, too because they don't understand how divergent from actuality the narcissist's version of reality really is.
Therapists and counselors may chalk up disagreements about what happened or why as normal differences in perception or as harmless exaggeration, even though the differences in people's recollections may be disproportionately large or odd. For example, someone may remember a calm conversation and the other insists there was a violent, screaming argument. When people cannot agree on a basic reality, this is a huge indication that something else is wrong in the situation. Unfortunately, too many counselors and therapists do not catch it or don't understand the gravity or what it means. They may instruct the victim to validate and honor the narcissist's perception without realizing this is exactly the wrong thing to do because if they are high-functioning and being deliberately deceitful, it only empowers them to continue; if they are low-functioning and have more serious cognition problems, it reinforces their skewed perception. In either situation, it only makes the problem worse--sometimes a lot worse. This is one of the reasons I personally do not work with couples. It is just too difficult to be sure of the truth and I'm not willing to gamble on somebody else's safety.
A narcissist that believes they have been validated as a victim has now been completely justified in any abuse they dish out because they have essentially been told they are acting in self-defense. They already feel that way and now a professional has validated it. Now all bets are off, and sadly many, many people come out of therapy or counseling with a pathologically narcissistic person much worse for the wear because of this.
The truth is, therapy and counseling only help if there is a commitment to wellness and a desire to change. Narcissists generally have neither of these things. Their only commitment is to their own survival and the only thing they wish to change is your refusal to get with the program. The best that would likely happen is they will go a few sessions and then refuse to go back. At the very worst, the consequences could be disastrous. If you are thinking of trying this, think hard about what you know about this person and be brutally honest with yourself. Do you really think it will help?
People often go to couples' or family therapy with the idea that it will "fix" their spouse or family member. However well-intentioned this may be and however willing you personally may be to participate and take responsibility for yourself, it is almost always ill-advised to go to therapy for other people, and it is never more ill-advised than when it involves a narcissist. If you are going to go to any kind of therapy, go for yourself.
© 2019 The Little Shaman