If you find yourself in a relationship with someone who you identify as possessing the traits of a narcissistic personality disorder, then you probably have lots of questions about how your partner ended up this way! You also probably wonder how they can seem so inconsiderate, self-centered, and insensitive to your needs and feelings. You may have tried to convince yourself that your person must have experienced a traumatic event in life that left them horribly and emotionally scarred in some way to create this behavior. You likely also fantasize that if you just love them enough and are patient enough, then they will turn their behaviors around.
The sad reality is that if you are involved with a person who fits the criteria of being clinically diagnosed as having a personality disorder like narcissism, then the probability of their suddenly becoming insightful about why they are the way they are is slim to none. When someone experiences what we in the therapy world refer to as a personality disorder, it means the behaviors and thinking the person exhibits have been with them for a very long time – probably since birth. This is often the way they sprang into the world.
Many therapists view the behaviors of someone who is labeled as being a narcissist as being that person’s response or coping skill to an early trauma that taught them to turn inward and to become overly self-reliant. The theory is that because it feels too scary to depend on other people for their sense of self or to view others as a safe place to self-reflect in ways that allow for growth and develop empathy, they shut off their need to connect or relate to others.
What that means is that these hurtful traits are congruent with the way the person has always viewed themselves and the world they inhabit. As a result, there is a very unlikely probability they think they are doing anything weird, odd, hurtful, or out of the norm for the way they have always existed with everyone in their life prior to you.
A recent study in 2020 from the Cleveland Clinic found that only 5% of the population actually meet the criteria of being diagnosable as having a narcissistic personality disorder.
While the topic of narcissism is hot right now and there are tons of social media articles that suggest your partner’s unkind behavior must be due to their being a narcissist, the probability of your ending up in a relationship with one is very small.
That’s good news from a therapy perspective because most truly diagnosable narcissistic personality disordered people are not interested in going to therapy, working on behavioral changes, and don’t attribute their relationship problems to having anything to do with themselves. It probably doesn’t feel good, but if your partner is just being insensitive, dismissive, or arrogant because they don’t know any better, then there is still hope for things to turn around.
If you are in a relationship with someone who truly is narcissistic, please remember that your partner has a mental health issue, not a personality flaw.
Believe it or not, your partner may not even be aware that they are doing something hurtful or that their words and actions are rubbing you the wrong way. Consider seeking support from a couples therapist to help learn tools that you both can use to navigate conversations in productive ways. Learning new ways to communicate can help avoid one or both of you becoming defensive or critical so that you can learn how to best ask for your needs moving forward.