By Esther Mann, LCSW
This week’s letter is being answered by Jennifer Mann, LMSW.
I am writing in to you about a complicated situation involving my wife, Bracha. I have changed some facts to protect the identity of my family, but the heart of the problem is the authentic truth. When I met my wife a handful of years ago, I was incredibly attracted to both her incredible good looks and her incredible personality and self-confidence. I was struck by how little she cared what others thought of her.
But as the years began to pass, I noticed that what I initially thought was self-confidence was more akin to a complete lack of regard for other people’s thoughts or feelings. She never made any effort to include my family in our lives. My needs and wishes are useless to her. She has decided where we should live, what job I should have, the schools our children should attend, and who visits the house. You may ask why I haven’t spoken up for myself or why I have let her make the decisions. I have learned that speaking up for myself is not worth it, and I realized almost immediately that if I were to stay with her, I would have to keep quiet and go with Bracha’s program. I asked Bracha why she married me. She retorted, “Because of your good looks.” I don’t think she was kidding.
My wife is an incredibly charming woman. Outside the house, she is generous, kind, and hilariously funny. No one would guess that inside the house she is a nightmare. She can never admit she is wrong, to the point that she will contradict herself and deny it. I have caught her in lie after lie. She never softens; she is never empathetic to the plight of other people, even her own children.
Countless times we have been out with friends, or at simchas, and she seems to be enjoying herself and treating me nicely. When we come home, it is as if someone has turned off the switch and a beast is unleashed. At times, she becomes so angry her face turns beet-red and I worry she will hurt someone. Clearly, this behavior affects our marriage.
What I find curious is that she cannot handle when someone else looks as good as her, but when it comes to our daughters she demands that they look as perfect as she does, and they are so young. She drives them crazy about what they eat and what they wear. She is critical of my girls to the point that they worry about their weight. They are too young for this.
My parents have advised me to run for my life and get a divorce. Is there anything I can do to save this relationship? She will not go for therapy with me.
I can’t be certain without having met your wife, but from your description it would seem that Bracha is either extremely self-centered or has narcissistic personality disorder. Most people are somewhat selfish, whether through action or merely having thoughts or desires to fulfill their needs first. Selfishness is normal and is part of the human experience. Being argumentative, selfish, or self-important doesn’t make a personality disorder. It is when it is chronic and relentless, with a complete lack of regard for another human being, that you’d begin to think of narcissistic personality disorder (NPD).
Narcissists have three main requirements: attention from others, admiration from others, and subservience by others. Narcissists are known for their charm. They often are the life of the party, intelligent, well liked, bursting with confidence, or quick with a joke. Narcissists can feel entitled, be seductive, and be critical of others but never of themselves; they can be self-contradictory and self-obsessed, and hate to live alone. They are controlling and hypercritical, and completely lack empathy—though they can fake it when they need to, making it all the more confusing for the people in their lives. A narcissist will deny something she said ten minutes ago, leaving a loved one feeling like he is going crazy.
A narcissist will make you feel bad about yourself for not living up to her standards, and when you finally do live up to the standard, the rules changes and she no longer requires it of you. A privately “unleashed beast” is the foil to the narcissist’s public charm. It is typical of female narcissists to demand that their daughters look as perfect as they do because they are a direct reflection of them.
Oftentimes a narcissist has lived through one or multiple traumas. She learned at a young age that people cannot be trusted and so unknowingly she created another persona immune to the inevitable pain that would be inflicted upon her should she ever trust another again.
Whether Bracha is a narcissist or not, her behaviors are deeply impacting the children, the marriage, and you.
I wonder how you have been holding up, having to live with these dynamics. Your feelings have been omitted from your letter. It seems as though you have been coping with Bracha’s behavior by going with the flow. But there is a price to pay. It is common for people living in similar circumstances to feel a sense of depletion. Self-esteem suffers. People have described it as feeling completely alone and are sad or depressed. Others develop anxiety, never knowing when the other shoe will drop. Some begin to question their own sanity. Do any of these descriptions hit home with you?
You ask if the marriage can be saved. If Bracha does have NPD, the research is conflicting as to whether true narcissists can change. Regardless of Bracha’s issue, the change has to come from within her. You can’t change her. And even then, there would be no quick fix or magic elixir. From your description, it seems there is nothing you can do to please her.
I suggest that you speak to a therapist. You’ve got a lot on your plate and may benefit from speaking to someone. For the moment, learn and implement some crucial coping skills to survive living with Bracha. First and foremost, do whatever it takes to build up your self-esteem and the self-esteem of your daughters. Shower them with compliments; tell them how beautiful, smart, and kind they are. Surround yourself with people who make you feel good about yourself. Pursue a treasured hobby, go to an inspirational shiur, or meet a good friend for dinner once a month. Keep a journal. When Bracha criticizes you, write your rebuttal in the journal.
If she truly is a narcissist, you will have to consider adjusting your expectations for your marriage. There will be no apologizing or taking your feelings into considerations. When you need emotional support or a shoulder to cry on, consider turning to someone else—a best friend, a sibling, parents. Refrain from trying to please her if nothing you do pleases her. Consider reframing your desires and wishes.
You wrote that you are concerned about your two young daughters. Instead of saying to her, “Bracha, I am concerned that you pressure the girls about their weight,” you can say, “Bracha, everyone tells me how gorgeous the girls are and how beautifully dressed and thin they are.”
If you stay with her, be prepared to stroke her ego often. Find your bargaining chip. Is there something that you do for her regularly that you know she needs? Let her know you will withhold it if she doesn’t come through with her end of the bargain. And no bluffing! This may sound as if you are raising a child and not very much like being in a mutually satisfying relationship with an adult. That’s the truth of living with a narcissist.
I wish you much strength, perseverance, and warm wishes on your journey.
Jennifer Mann is presently working as a psychotherapist at Ohel. In addition, she cohosts “Talk to Me with Jen and Becky” on www.syrealradio.com, Wednesdays, 9:00 p.m. She also works as a relationship coach and can be reached at 718-908-0512.