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The Challenge of the Narcissist in Relationships

Narcissists look at the world through a lens that has him or herself at center. Their needs and wants tend to supersede those of others. Others are typically there in the service of their needs.

Niceness and charm to the narcissist are but tools to disarm the other towards the service of meeting one’s needs.

As the niceness and charm flatter the other by way of positive attention, the other feels attracted and beholding to the narcissist. As the superficiality of the niceness and charm fade against the ongoing subordination of the others needs, that sense of feeling attracted and beholding is supplanted with consternation.

Consternation is the outcome of feeling taken advantage of in lop-sided relationships.

Consternation is the outcome of feeling manipulated by being lulled into a sense that the other cares when their positive attention is really a guise for meeting self-serving interests. Consternation is that mix of emotions that includes anger, bewilderment, confusion and dismay. Consternation stifles the will of the person to continue to meet the needs of the narcissist which then drives anger singularly from the narcissist, the result of feeling thwarted when seeking self-interested gratification.

Upon the narcissists needs not being met, particularly in view of a relationship where from the outset his or her needs were met fully on the basis of niceness and charm, the narcissist then projects blame upon the other, proclaiming their change of heart as the root of the now burgeoning relationship turmoil. This would be typical of the narcissist who is otherwise pleased with him/herself, views others as being there in the service of their needs and who cannot cast negatively upon him/herself to see him/herself as selfish and self-serving. As such, the credo of the narcissist would be, “If not for how you have changed, all would be well (for me).” This with nary an appreciation of his/her role in the dynamic. It is all about projecting blame because the narcissist is never wrong.

Of course this is crazy making for the partner of the narcissist who now may be dependent upon the positive reflection previously received through the niceness and charm of the narcissist. If that other person has an already fragile self-esteem, the positive attention of the narcissist may have felt like the elixir of life. Now the narcissist, having developed a dependency of the other for that elixir uses the withdrawal of positive attention as a weapon in the furtherance of his/her self-interest and personal gratification over the needs to the other. Oh what a tangled web.

How does the therapist intervene? What can be done to restore some semblance of order? Can the needs of both be met simultaneously?

The answer depends in part on the disposition of the partner.

If the partner does have a fragile self-esteem, that partner will likely seek to maintain the relationship but will seek some degree of reciprocity. At least some of the partner’s needs must be fulfilled. The credo of the partner dependent upon the narcissist is “Throw me a bone here.”

In these circumstances, I appeal directly to the narcissist’s interests. Getting a narcissist to be altruistic is quite a stretch. Getting a narcissist to appreciate the value for themselves in achieving a quid pro quo (this for that) with others may be within his/her grasp.

The challenge is one in helping the narcissist appreciate it is in his/her own self-interest to better meet the needs of their partner so their own needs can be more easily met. To the degree to which this can occur, the narcissist learns to throw their partner a bone. This may be felt as satisfactory to the person whose self-esteem is low or fragile. From the partner’s perspective, it may be all they are seeking to keep themselves emotionally afloat. But is this an inappropriate outcome? Again, it depends.

If this is sufficient to the persons involved, this remains their choice. If it is not sufficient to either person, then one or other may choose to work more intensely on him or herself.

If the person who has low or fragile self-esteem develops a more independent sense of self and worth, it may come to pass that this person finally initiates a separation from the narcissist partner, no longer feeling dependent upon him/her for scraps or bones. If the narcissist comes to appreciate the needs of others, develops empathy and acts altruistically, then a better outcome may be had as a couple.

If the partner of the narcissist already has a strong sense of self and is not dependent upon receiving a positive reflection in the eyes of others in order to feel whole or worthy, then the relationship will likely end. This person will have a more realistic appraisal of the situation, will see the narcissist as a narcissist, lick their wounds for time and energy wasted and the fantasy of love lost and then move on.

As for the therapists, we need reasonable expectations of what we hope can be achieved and not get inducted into thinking we can rescue clients on the basis of their wish fulfillment.

Challenging situations indeed.


Gary Direnfeld, MSW, RSW
(905) 628-4847


Gary Direnfeld is a social worker. Courts in Ontario, Canada, consider him an expert in social work, marital and family therapy, child development, parent-child relations and custody and access matters. Gary is the host of the TV reality show, Newlywed, Nearly Dead, parenting columnist for the Hamilton Spectator and author of Marriage Rescue: Overcoming the ten deadly sins in failing relationships. Gary maintains a private practice in Dundas Ontario, providing a range of services for people in distress. He speaks at conferences and workshops throughout North America.




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Gary Direnfeld, MSW, RSW
(905) 628-4847  


Gary Direnfeld is a social worker in private practice. Courts in Ontario, Canada, consider Gary an expert on child development, parent-child relations, marital and family therapy, custody and access recommendations, social work and an expert for the purpose of giving a critique on a Section 112 (social work) report.


Call Gary for your next conference and for expert opinion on family matters. Services include counselling, mediation, assessment, assessment critiques and workshops.


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27 Sina Street, Georgina, ON, Canada L4P 3E9 Tel: (905) 628-4847 Email: gary@yoursocialworker.com