This is a big topic, and I fully intend to flesh it out in future posts. But allow me, here, to consider this question from the perspective of the work I do with couples. It is often surprisingly easy, from a couples therapy perspective, to weed out the narcissists from the non-narcissists; and more importantly, the salvageable from the unsalvageable narcissists.
Narcissists, as we know, will struggle to see things from their partners’ perspective. But let’s be clear: it is the reasons they struggle with this, not that they struggle with it, that signals their narcissism.
At the risk of oversimplifying, narcissists struggle to appreciate their partners’ perspective fundamentally because they are deeply self-centered; and their self-centeredness does not arise from a neuro-developmental disorder.
But why do narcissists struggle to see things from their partners’ perspective? Mainly, because to do so, in their experience, would concede the primacy—the overwhelming significance and importance—of their wants and needs.
For narcissistic personalities, the mere notion of others questioning the primacy of their experience is felt variously as insulting, outrageous, unacceptable, threatening and punishable.
In contrast, less narcissistic personalities are less threatened to consider their partners’ perspective, because they have a more equitable view of whose perspective matters. To be clear, for less narcissistic individuals, their perspective matters a lot, but their partners’ perspective also matters a lot.
But I want to be very clear: it’s not that less narcissistic personalities don’t take their own perspectives seriously, maybe even more seriously than their partners’; it’s just that they’re not inflexibly wedded to the idea that their experience—how they feel, how they think, what they want, what they need—is always, by definition, more important and valid than their partners’!
Believe it or not, this is a virtual litmus test for problem levels of narcissism. When I work with couples, I am interested to encourage, and then see, something very important. I’m interested to encourage, first of all, the idea that “validating” your partner’s experience is not the same as endorsing it, agreeing with it, or even, necessarily, fully understanding it.
And “validating” your partner’s experience certainly doesn’t obligate you to abandon your own, possibly very different perception of the situation.
And so I often discuss this model of validation with couples in some depth—especially, the idea that you can recognize your partner’s experience; be willing, interested and curious to appreciate, and better understand, your partner’s experience, from her perspective; and recognize the sanity and sense of your partner’s experience, again from her perspective, without any of this effort and interest requiring you to concede your own, and perhaps very different, experience of the situation.
As you can see, validating, in this model, is the process of recognizing your partner’s experience from her perspective. It is not a process, as noted, of necessarily agreeing with, or even fully understanding your partner; and most certainly—and I can’t stress this enough— it is not a contest of whose perceptions of any given situation are more accurate and right, versus less accurate and more wrong.
Many find this a liberating concept, as it can allow for a relaxation of a common and unhelpful defense: I can’t validate what you’re saying or feeling, because to do so would effectively invalidate my experience.
In other words, from the perspective I’m describing, it’s possible—indeed, with motivation and practice, surpisingly easy—to validate another’s experience without in the least invalidating your own. In fact, this is a model of validation that’s relatively easy to practice because it respects the integrity of one’s own perceptions and experiences.
Once the need for the above defense is removed—and I work hard with couples to remove it—the couple’s capacity to appreciate each others’ experiences of each other often improves significantly.
Partners discover that, because the integrity of their personal experience is preservable, they can actually listen to each others’ experiences with more interest, curiosity and less defensiveness.
In marriages in which some goodwill remains, partners who buy into the model of validation I’m describing often find themselves striving for even more—that is, more than merely endeavoring to listen to each other more effectively, they often find themselves striving to make their partner’s experiences less frustrating and more satisfying.
Conversely, where no goodwill remains in the relationship, everything I’m discussing becomes pretty much moot. Narcissist or not, the marriage, with no goodwill left, is almost certainly dead. It’s just awfully difficult to recover goodwill in a relationship when the “goodwill tank” begins in the therapist’s office with the arrow on empty.
In any case, what happens in my office is often very interesting. The highly narcissistic and, in extreme cases, sociopathic client, cannot do what I’m discussing. Specifically, he is unable, with sincerity and effectiveness, to apply the model of validation I’ve described.
I suggested above the reason for this: he is simply too deeply, inflexibly invested in the significance, if not superiority, of his experience to make enough room for genuine interest in his partners’ experience, even after he’s been introduced to, and given ample time to digest, the proposed model of validation.
That is, this model of validation still falls well short of his demands. Sure, it’s nice that his partner is making efforts to recognize and appreciate his experience from his perspective. He’ll certainly take that, but he wants more than that.
Not surprisingly, what’s necessary—that is, what he still insists on and continues to demand—is his partner’s total capitulation to his way of seeing things.
This is the essence of his narcissism or, if you prefer, his deep, immutable self-centeredness.
Will these individuals show their cards immediately? More often than not, yes. More often than not, whether in my office or outside it (between therapy sessions), they’ll demonstrate, sooner than later, their inability to apply the kind of mutual validation under discussion.
But what about the smooth manipulator? It’s true that a smooth operator, a sociopath, for instance, can fake this process for some time, if he perceives it’s in his selfish interest to do so. (By “fake it,” I mean that he may seem to grasp it, apply it, and be invested in it.)
Yet, in my experience, even the manipulative individual masquerading as sensivitely invested in this form of validating communication, will almost always, sooner than later, reveal chinks in his mask; almost always, sooner than later, he’ll lapse into the highly self-centered attitudes and behaviors of the classic narcissist—attitudes and behaviors characterized by high, rationalized levels of under-accountability and non-transparency.
And so, while the slick manipulator may “get over” for a while, it’s usually not for long. That is, while he may present, initially, as reasonable, flexible and motivated, sooner than later his disguise will fray, revealing his true agenda in the forms of his usual presumptions and entitlement to ongoing gratification.
And so who is the salvageable partner? Narcissist or not, I’d venture to suggest he’s the partner capable of understanding, and appreciating, the concept of validation I propose.
He will be highly motivated to apply it, which is to say, willing to work hard, consistently and sustainedly at applying it; and, of course, he must be capable of applying it.
But the nice thing is, if he’s willing to work hard at it, he’ll definitely succeed.
In which case he won’t be a narcissist or, at the very least, his narcissism will prove to have been less extreme, and less emotionally crippling, than we might have feared.
(This article, the first of several impending articles on this subject, is copyrighted © 2010 by Steve Becker, LCSW. My use of male gender pronouns in this article was purely for convenience’s sake. Females are also capable of the attitudes and behaviors discussed.)