2. Features & Criteria - RonaldMah

Ronald Mah, M.A., Ph.D.
Licensed Marriage & Family Therapist,
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2. Features & Criteria

Therapist Resources > Therapy Books > Scorpion Narciss-Cple

Scorpion in the Bed, The Narcissist in Couples and Couple Therapy

"Whereas overt narcissism is characterized by overt features, such as external grandiosity, exhibitionism, and arrogance, covert narcissism is characterized by personal self-centeredness that is accompanied by the feelings of vulnerability and sensitivity, but without overt, exhibitionistic expressions (Hendin & Cheek, 1997; Wink, 1991). Although the two kinds of narcissism tend to be independent, both are characterized by core narcissistic features, such as conceit, self-indulgence, and disregard for the needs of others (Wink, 1991), as well as resentment of authority, deceitfulness, and an unrealistic evaluation of oneself (Rathvon & Holmstrom, 1996). At the core of both kinds of narcissism, therefore, seems to be a strong sense of personal self-centeredness and self-importance, which can be expressed in both an overt and covert way" (Bizumic and Duckitt, 2008, page 440).  This is hardly the description of a great candidate to spend the rest of ones life with.  Buss and Chiodo (1991, page 182) identifies seven core dispositions of the personality disorder: exhibitionistic, grandiose, self-centered, sense of entitlement, self-aggrandizing, lack of empathy, and exploitative.  The acts or behaviors that accompany each disposition are not ordinarily supportive or caring of a potential partner.  In chart form:

Jaymes showed a pervasive pattern of grandiosity (in fantasy or behavior) throughout his life.  While it was acceptable in his profession as a salesperson, it wore thin with his wife Cheri.  He boasted of his sales successes to get others acknowledgement and fulfill his need for admiration.  He did not seem moved by Cheri's stresses at her job.  Previous wives and girlfriends had criticized him for his lack of empathy as well.  Jaymes exhibited many of the following characteristics described by Buss and Chiodo:

"Narcissistic acts. He looked in the mirror constantly; she baited others for compliments; he asked others how he looked; he bragged about his academics and other accomplishments (e.g., athletics); she asked others questions, insulting their intelligence; he compared himself favorably to others; she put others down (e.g., accomplishments, appearance); he told people he could date anyone.

Exhibitionistic acts. He became the life of the party; she flaunted money to impress someone; she talked loudly so that others would hear her story; he disagreed for the sake of attention; she became wild at the party; he walked around with no shirt on; she kissed passionately in public; he showed off his possessions.

Grandiose acts. He expected others to step aside when he walked by; she avoided talking to people she considered to be "low life"; he said that he was great; she took charge of the meeting; he claimed that he was the best at something; she exaggerated her role in the sporting event; he nominated himself for a position of power.
Self-centered acts. He did not ask his partner what she wanted before making the decision for the two of them; she assumed that someone else should pay for dinner when she was low on cash; he insisted that he be heard, but would not listen; she refused to share her food with others; he cut into a long line ahead of his turn; she turned the TV to her channel without asking what the others wanted; he asked others to conform to his schedule.

Acts of entitlement. He used something without replacing it; she asked a large favor without offering repayment; he showed up at an odd hour and expected to be entertained; she invited herself to a social event; he demanded sexual favors because of love; he made a collect call to a friend; she took the last piece of dessert without asking if anyone else wanted it; he told his parents that they should do things for him because they were his parents.

Self-aggrandizing acts. He pulled rank on someone to make a point; she played up her achievements; he discussed how much money he had; she associated only with people of high status; he talked about his good points; she pointed out the faults of others; he appointed himself director when he saw what was needed; she arrived late to make a grand entrance; he talked about his success with the opposite sex.

Lack of empathy acts. He did not show much feeling when his friend was upset; she did not get upset over the death of a friend; he did not listen to other people's problems; she did not understand someone because she kept interrupting them; he refused to have pity for people with economic problems because he figured it was their own fault; she threw stones at an animal she didn't like; he ignored a friend who was sad.

Exploitative acts. He used his friend to gain a better social life; she asked her parents for extra money; he insisted that his friend drop everything to see him; she did the favor only when twice as much was promised in return; he spent time with her only when no one else was around; she used her friend for her wealth; he asked someone else to do his work for him" (Buss and Chiodo, 191, page 187-88).

While these behaviors would seem to disqualify him as a candidate becoming a long-term partner, Cheri not only selected him, but also kept him despite being ill treated.  Cheri would commit unwitting transgressions for which Jaymes felt entitled to punish her for.  Underlying the characteristics is a great vulnerability.  When Jaymes feels attacked or otherwise harmed, he has a hypersensitive reaction.  He experienced his stinging responses as necessary actions to protect against, deflect, and repel attacks upon his vulnerabilities.  "Indeed, for such an individual, loss, deprivation, or even penetration of any of this self-terrain is experienced as an acute hardship of very intense character. It is as though a part of the body were removed, or thrust into; the ensuing wound is likely to be permanent, and forever painful. Nothing compensates for it. For example, if a person were to lose a finger, he could be given ever so many worldly possessions instead, but ultimately the loss persists. He is personally diminished in a way that is peculiarly powerful and immediate. And he may harbor the grudge forever. Hence regardless of the fact that it was grandiose pretentiousness that initially led the child to lay claim to it, the taking away of some portion of his territory is experienced in this way. And the invasion of one's territory is always a kind of rape. Indeed, the very concept of rape hinges on this aspect of the experience; it is not so much the sexuality that is damaging, it is the overwhelming sense of the violation of self...  It is the fact of being a victim, of being forced, which in itself constitutes an almost irreversible damage to self-respect and one's inner sense of personal integrity" (Noshpitz, 1984, page 27).  Cheri committed seemingly insignificant acts that can be easily interpreted as accidental or benign.  She does not know that she has done "it"… the acts of intrusion and violation.  More than that, she has done it "again" even though she had no part in the original assaults upon Jaymes.

Cheri, who is quite accomplished as an executive has to deal with the political complications to what she had thought would be more of a meritocracy in her workplace.  When she shares her frustrations over hitting a gender "glass ceiling" at work despite her accolades and accomplishments, Jaymes can be supportive.  He supports "his" wife.  An affront to her who is a part of him is an affront that he can get on board about.  He both connected to Cheri as her husband to align with her, but also disconnected from it because he is not personally attacked.  Her issue at work is about his Cheri criticizing someone at work, while her issue in the relationship is Cheri criticizing him.  Thus, it becomes intolerable. When he has issues in his relationship with Cheri, he will revert to a sarcastic style honed since childhood.  A verbal sting is less obviously aggressive or abusive than a physical assault others would see and result in negative consequences.  Sarcasm also has "plausible deniability" if confronted as hurtful.  Other aggressive people are important to keep at bay.  "One of the major ways to defend a sensitive perimeter is to turn the tables on the environment, to take the offensive. Hence, such children often show the most remarkable propensity to attack the narcissism of others. Sometimes they become extraordinarily skillful at this; they know how to say humiliating things, penetrating things, and to cut people down in ways, which show up the other fellow's weakness or pretentiousness. They are skilled marksmen for vulnerable places on the periphery of the self next over, and they are always ready to shoot. In the most extreme cases only invading and diminishing the self-esteem of others can maintain the sense of self, and this becomes a constant facet of their interaction. It is as if there may never be enough room for the self if there are any other selves in evidence; everyone else must shrink so that the truly important self can expand fully. In more complex cases such youngsters' tyrannical tendencies lead them to become gang leaders. They then act to protect (sometimes to terrify) their own group (because, after all, it is part of the self) while invading and attacking other groups" (Noshpitz, 1984, page 23).  

In the group of the couple, the narcissist may be extremely protective of the couple as a unit or the unit's components when assaults come from the outside, while simultaneously terrorizing his or her partner.  Jaymes may be angered that Cheri has been overlooked for promotions at her work, yet condescending towards her assertions of her competence.  Protecting "his" wife serves protecting the unit of the couple, but allowing Cheri to claim merit threatens his omnipotence in the couple.  Jaymes interprets Cheri's rendition of her professional journey as competitive with him and therefore, minimizing him (he is a non-professional as a salesman without a college degree).  His narcissistic radar senses an incoming ballistic missile attack.  Cheri is often devastated when his incisive cruel thrusts against her target the most vulnerable areas that she had previously shared with him.  Cheri had supported him and respected his vulnerabilities, but he does not respond in kind.  That is a fundamental couple's violation.

When Jaymes feels injured, he often does so at a sub-conscious level.  Admitting injury would acknowledge frailty that is ego dystonic to his grandiose sense of invulnerability to the actions or words of mere mortals- even a favored mortal such as his wife.  His instantaneous counter-attack may be so subtle that Cheri may not recognize the beginning of the campaign much less what she may have done for it to have been instigated. Moreover, Cheri would be subject to a demand that she neither understands nor recognizes.  "Narcissistic injury has a special character; it requires some kind of overt action for the hurt to be assuaged. Each slight, each 'insult,' each devaluation or penetration leaves behind it a continuously clamorous set of signals. It has the quality of a 'bone in the throat.' The pressure for action to remove the discomfort is unrelenting. And the typical action is to expel the intrusion by forcing the person who is the source of the pain to undo what he has done."  Since Cheri usually has no idea what she had done or what he had experienced, she would be mystified what to do or undo.  She would only know that Jaymes is relentless and demanding no matter what she does.  Jaymes would purposefully, skillfully, and artfully skewer her for her hurting him.  He would go after both her most cherished qualities and her most shameful vulnerabilities.  He would "balance it by doing to that one's narcissism what has been done to one's own—only then does it seem possible to achieve a measure of equilibrium. Such hurts can be deep and persistent; when they are, then indeed, the need for reaction becomes a smoldering passionate force. Oftentimes, this takes the form of endless embittered fantasies of revenge; one must 'get even,' and that means balancing the indentations in one's own sense of self by inflicting the same, or more, on the other" (Noshpitz, 1984, page 25).  Over the course of their relationship, Jaymes accrued a pile of resentments against Cheri.  As a result, any act deemed hurtful ignited the full array of anger and retaliation deeply simmering within his psyche.  

Many couples struggle with their balance of power between partners.  Personal history, family models, cultural models, and economic/financial realities create expectations within the couple's relationship.  If the two partners' models are not in sync, the relationship may become dysfunctional.  "Both AdIer (as cited in Ansbacher & Ansbacher, 1956) and Dreikurs believed that dysfunction occurs when partners act out of lifestyle beliefs centered on imbalances of power. In his discussions of the masculine protest, Adler pointed out the destructive effects on marriage of belief systems that view masculine as superior, dominant, and powerful, and feminine as inferior, submissive, and weak. Dreikurs cited this belief system as the decisive factor in the widespread 'war between the sexes' (p. 20)" (Boldt, 2007, page 46).  Male partners with narcissistic tendencies are validated by their subscription to masculine domination.  Jaymes felt confirmed by societal models of the male leader of the family.  He needed to be the primary breadwinner.  He "let" Cheri work but became threatened by her professional success and financial progress.  His aggressive entitlement ebbed and waned depending on whether Cheri brought more or less income than him into the family.  Jaymes thought that he needed to keep Cheri "in line."  That did not mean barefoot and pregnant, but she needed to submit to him.  Cheri dealt with sexist attitudes all her life.  Women, in general have struggled with cultural models of masculine domination throughout their lives, and often have psychic scares.  Female partners with strong narcissistic tendencies may be highly triggered by male dominance.  Narcissistic tendencies may become even more heightened dealing with societal prejudices, and make the female partner hypersensitive and hyper-vigilant to perceived slights from a partner.  Heterosexual mating or marriage may in of itself be ego dystonic for a female narcissist.  Accepting a male partner as equal from a modern gender equality model may be as intolerable for a narcissistic female as a feminist accepting a male partner as superior from a traditional model.

Egalitarian oriented partners still must resolve issues around equality and equity.  Thus, "…most couples remain in an ongoing struggle with power and the pursuit of individual superiority. This pursuit of power and superiority is most evident in relationships that include a partner who must be superior, usually one diagnosed as having narcissistic personality disorder (NPD). The individual with a narcissistic personality disorder pursues a goal of superiority, a central theme of personality first described in social, dynamic terms by Mosak (1971) as the person-who-needs-to-be-superior. As this goal becomes more intense, rigid, and fixed, he or she becomes the person-who-must-be-superior, usually at the expense of intimate others. The central theme of the lifestyle, in this case superiority, is the final fictional goal around which personality is structured, developed, and can be understood" (Ansbacher & Ansbacher, 1956; Mosak) (Boldt, 2007, page 46).  As a modern educated American woman, Cheri expected a relationship of equality.  Her expectation was that while balancing personal quirks and needs, she and Jaymes would work towards a central theme of mutual reciprocality.  Instead, as Jaymes asserted his superiority, Cheri felt oppressed in a lifestyle of submission and inferiority, where her needs were denigrated or ignored.

"Narcissists ascribe a higher value to themselves than to others, who are described as being incompetent or inept (Akhtar & Thomson, 1982). The characters on stage are contemptuous and contemptible (Gabbard, 1998; Ryle & Kerr, 2002)" (Dimaggio et al., 2007, page 33).  Jaymes' desire for a dominant role required Cheri to be submissive.  Although often functioning as an omnipotent tyrant, Jaymes' dynamics are rooted in fear.  "When narcissists feel weak, they become afraid the other might subjugate them, expel them from the elite, or punish them for something they fear they have done. This can cause them dissociated fantasies about aggression or hypochondriac worries, states that are so unpleasant that they fight to avoid experiencing them, the simplest way being to remain in the grandiose state or to switch off their emotions (Dimaggio et al., 2002; Horowitz, 1989; Young, Klosko, & Weishaar, 2003). The other does not like feeling despised, and this is likely to reactivate the competition between self and other. When the other fails to reflect the self's grandiosity, the fragile characters take the place of the superior ones in the I-position and leave the subject at the mercy of the tyrant" (Dimaggio et al., 2007, page 34).   

If Cheri refuses to submit to Jaymes, or contests his superiority, Jaymes experiences that as potentially being exposed as being needy or fragile.  The narcissist may not tolerate these feelings or being seen as weak to the degree that he may disassociate, triggering subsequent negative reactions and choices.  Dimaggio in discussing psychoanalysts who tend towards narcissism said, "When narcissists find themselves in difficult situations, they experience an unpleasant arousal, which automatically drives them to get close to the other for protection. In normal individuals, this activation of the attachment system surfaces in consciousness in the form of appropriate emotions (weakness or a need for consolation). This is not the case with persons with narcissistic features: With the activation of attachment, they appear cold, tense, and self-reliant and are not consciously aware of any emotions connected with their need for attention (Bowlby, 1988; Dimaggio et al., 2002; Jellema, 2000). The pattern most likely to emerge is symmetrical to the one just described: Self-reliant self/Distant and indifferent other. Gabbard (1998) noted that analysts frequently react with boredom, as they see themselves restricted to a satellite role by a client claiming to be self-sufficient. Modell (1984) observed how such clients seem to be enclosed in a cocoon and protect themselves from psychical distress with a nonrelationship defense. It is difficult for the 'vulnerable child' (Young et al., 2003) aspect of the self to surface in consciousness; while looking unconsciously for support, an individual will paradoxically claim to be self-sufficient (Dimaggio et al., 2002). The result is that others fail to provide the self with the necessary attention (which, in any case, it denies wanting), and this confirms its tacit expectations about being rejected. The self now feels neglected and angry, and this results in the other being less able or less motivated to provide assistance, which leaves the self in the initial state of neglect (Fiscalini, 1994)" (Dimaggio et al., 2007, page 34-35).  Cheri often senses Jaymes wanting nurturing from her, but is put off by his cold icy disconnection.  Other times, when she tries to be supportive or soothing, he pushes her away or shuts down.  Jaymes gives her the silent treatment.  As he stonewalls her, eventually Cheri decides that slamming herself against his emotionally stoic barriers is too pointless and frustrating.  Her subsequent withdrawal confirms Jaymes' expectations of not being understood or cared for.  

Yet there are other times for Jaymes and Cheri when they seem very much in sync.  This happens when the partner meets the narcissistic needs of the individual.  In this dynamic, Cheri is a "good" partner to Jaymes.  Jaymes values her and Cheri basks in his appreciation.  "Mutual idealization and recognition, a sort of ideal cohabitation enhancing the worth, power, and omnipotence of both the self and the other (Kohut, 1971, 1977; Ornstein, 1998). Ryle and Kerr (2002) defined this interactive procedure as going from admired to admiring. The self feels admired by the other, and this ensures cohesiveness and boosts the idea that the self is exceptional. The self is able to admire the other, who takes on the functions of an ideal mentor and helps the former to achieve a high standing. In an initial phase, therefore, the self admires the other and grants him or her a special status, while the other lets the narcissist feel reciprocated. A leader might, for example, let him or herself be idealized by a follower, who, in turn, convinces him or herself that he or she is the leader's favorite disciple… If the other stops admiring or expresses detachment, criticism, or its own needs, however, the self feels betrayed and humiliated and reacts angrily with a claim to the attention that it is now missing. At this point either the other becomes submissive, there is a return to the same ranking as before, and the self reenters the grandiose state, or else the other shuts out and rejects the self. For example, when a boss favors a third person professionally, a person with a narcissistic trait will demand a recognition that the boss is no longer prepared to give, and the scene is set for the relationship to break up. As a result, the idealizing cycle generally lasts only a short time" (Dimaggio et al., 2007, page 35).

Cheri reminisced about how she was so taken by Jaymes' personality and energy when they first met.  She felt that she had been very supportive of Jaymes, and that she had contributed to his becoming successful.  Jaymes admitted begrudgingly that Cheri had been supportive of him.  His reluctance to fully acknowledge Cheri's involvement and contributions to his success come from his grandiosity and entitlement.  Although he could identify or confirm the ways she had helped, overly effusive acknowledgment of her role diminished his specialness.  That is, he has achieved because he deserved it- not because of others actions.  Cheri had been awestruck by his charisma early in their relationship.  While she still admired Jaymes' energy and personality, she was now aware of his darker and less attractive aspects as well.  In addition, her positive sense of self had grown a great deal, so her awe had been replaced with a more realistic perception of Jaymes and her self-evaluations.  Jaymes reminisced longingly of how much more "supportive" Cheri had been without admitting that she had been unsophisticated and undemanding.  He spoke of support but he actually wanted her to be unconditionally accepting and deferential again.  As Cheri wanted to integrate her evolving self into the relationship, Jaymes wanted to reverse time and go back to the early relationship.

3056 Castro Valley Blvd., #82
Castro Valley, CA 94546
Ronald Mah, M.A., Ph.D.
Licensed Marriage & Family Therapist, MFT32136
office: (510) 582-5788
fax: (510) 889-6553
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