It seems to be the darling diagnosis in the romantic realm. “Our relationship stinks because she is a narcissist.” “We divorced because he was a narcissist.” While the armchair diagnosis may produce a pat answer to heartbreak at cocktail parties, it’s important to understand the true nature of the disorder called a Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD.)
It is estimated that 6.2% of the American population exhibits NPD, and exaggerated sense of self that is a defense against the real issue, low self-esteem. The DSM-5 criteria for the disorder includes these behaviors and thought patterns:
Having an exaggerated sense of self-importance
Expecting to be recognized as superior even without achievements that warrant it
Exaggerating your achievements and talents
Being preoccupied with fantasies about success, power, brilliance, beauty or the perfect mate
Believing that you are superior and can only be understood by or associate with equally special people
Requiring constant admiration
Having a sense of entitlement
Expecting special favors and unquestioning compliance with your expectations
Taking advantage of others to get what you want
Having an inability or unwillingness to recognize the needs and feelings of others
Being envious of others and believing others envy you
Behaving in an arrogant or haughty manner
Obviously these behaviors are rarely conducive to a healthy relationships. But there are many reasons why someone might choose to continue a relationship with a narcissist, not the least of which are children or financial intertwinement. Sometimes, if the disorder is mild, a compassionate, secure relationship can even help to heal someone with NPD. If you’ve looked at your options and really believe the symptoms are mild (i.e. they don’t involve domestic violence, substance abuse or chronic cheating that may threaten you family’s health) then here are a few tips to dealing with a narcissist:
1. Have Compassion – Remember the underside of NPD is extreme low self esteem and self loathing. The distorted ego is designed to protect the mind from negative feelings of low self worth. Narcissism is often caused by child abuse or critical parenting.
2. Kiss the Ring – The only way to connect with the person with NPD and gain trust is to collude with the inflated ego. It’s what therapists do when a patient presents with NPD. Don’t challenge the distortions.
3. Get Validated Elsewhere – Sadly, the person with NPD has major issues around love. They don’t believe anyone can love them because they don’t love themselves. Also, one of the ways they maintain their false self is to put down others, especially those they love, as a defense mechanism. I’m certainly not suggesting an affair, but the only way to survive this relationship is to have high self esteem yourself, and to surround yourself with people who love you unconditionally. Friends and family will remind you how lovable you are and help you not be so reactive to their protective defenses.
However, if you find that living with a someone with true narcissistic personality disorder is affecting your mental or physical health, the only remedy is to end the relationship.
Sometimes social education is easier to digest when swallowed with a spoonful of comedy. The writer’s of the CBS sit-com “Mom,” (Thursday’s 8:30/7:30 central) are doing it again tomorrow night when a family therapy session provokes the spilling of a big-fat family secret. Hint: Allison Janney’s character lets the cat out of the bag and her daughter, played by Anna Feris, has to do some serious soul searching.
This isn’t the first time that “Mom” has tackled sensitive topics. The show has earned an Emmy a Golden Globe and the Television Academy honored them for “programming that creates awareness, enlightens, educates and/or positively motivates audiences.” “Mom’s” risk-taking, humorous look at mental illness and substance abuse were only the beginning. Tomorrow evening’s episode looks at a topic close to my heart: the life of a family secret in relationships.
Perhaps the biggest lesson in the episode is the fact that a secret in intimate relationships is never really a secret. The reactions to hidden historic events take on lives of their own and create intergenerational relationship patterns. In other words, the elephant in the living room forces all family members to sashay around the outskirts of the problem without ever confronting it. Subsequent generations just emulate the reactionary behavior, never knowing why. This is how trauma weaves it’s way through multiple generations.
My favorite way to illustrate intergeneration psychology involves a Holiday ham. A mother is teaching her young daughter how to prepare the family ham. The little girls asks why her mother cuts the end off the ham before roasting it. Her response is “that’s how I watched my mother do it.”
“But why?” says the little girl.
The two decide to call the grand-mother. “Grandma, why do you cut the end of the ham off before roasting it,” they ask. The grandmother, thinks for a bit and then says, “That’s how my mother did it.”
Still not satisfied, the little girl and her mother decide to call the very old great-grandmother. She is living in an assisted living facility but still has a good memory.
“Great-grandma,” says the little girl, “Why do you cut the end of the ham off before roasting it?”
The great-grandmother laughs out loud. “Because I only had one small pan and it wouldn’t fit.”
If there is any silver lining to the public stone throw of media attention on Bill Cosby‘s alleged sexual assaults, it is this: A national conversation about sexual consent has begun. In recent decades the concept of sexual consent has bogged down courts and left campus officials scratching their heads as lawmakers struggle to define the line between unlawful sex and “buyer’s remorse,” (as too many police officer’s, sadly, define date rape.) We all clearly recognize a rape when it occurs in a dark alley with a stranger and a weapon. But far more often, rape happens with someone we know. In fact, it can happen with someone we really like. When unlawful sex is preceded by consensual touching causing aroused bodies or the consensual sharing of alcohol or drugs, that line between sexual assault and permissive sex becomes terribly blurry.
But the good news is this. Sexual consent now has a clear definition and laws are finally catching up. A new law in California, for instance, states that in order to have sex on any California college campus that receives State funding, both sexual partners must give verbal or written consent. Lawmakers hope that if people talk about sex — their boundaries and their expectations — before they have sex, we’ll see a reduction in reports of date rape. I’ve always been one to vote for honest words before coitus. I mean, if you two aren’t intimate enough to talk about sex, you probably shouldn’t expose your eggs or your bloodstream to that partner.
As we continue this public conversation about what constitutes legal or illegal sex, let me outline the five rules for sexual consent:
1. YES MEANS YES. In fact “yes” is the only word that means yes. Silence isn’t consent. Moaning and smiling isn’t consent. “I think so” isn’t consent. “Maybe” isn’t consent. The words, “Yes, I want to have sex with you” are the only thing that counts in a court of law. And “NO” really does mean no. It should never be used as foreplay to help preserve a woman’s reputation.
2. BOTH PARTNERS MUST GIVE CONSENT. Ladies and gay men, listen up. Just because a guy has a throbbing flag pole does not mean that he wants to have full on intercourse with you at that very moment. An erection is not consent. Both partners, no matter their gender or orientation must give verbal consent.
3. YOU CANNOT GIVE CONSENT IF YOU ARE UNDER THE INFLUENCE of drugs or alcohol. All these conversations about sex have to take place before the first drink is poured.
4. CONSENT FOR ONE ACT DOESN’T MEAN CONSENT FOR ANOTHER ACT. I know. It gets a bit awkward here. Just because someone consents to kissing, petting or even oral sex, does not mean they are consenting to intercourse. It’s important to get verbal consent at every stage, even if that means a little coitus interruptus along the way. One solution is to have a spicy conversation about expectations at the onset.
5. IT’S YOUR RESPONSIBILITY TO KNOW YOU HAVE CONSENT. Ignorance of the law is no excuse. Just like you can’t tell a traffic cop you didn’t know there was a speed limit, you can’t tell a jury that you didn’t know she had to verbally say yes.
The best solution of all? Establish emotional intimacy and trust long before you hit the hay. And have a sexy conversation when you are fully clear headed. Then enjoy some great consensual sex.
FOR MORE ON THIS TOPIC, WATCH MY GOOGLE HANG OUT WITH LEGAL EXPERTS ON SEXUALITY: How to Get Legally (and consensually) Laid.
For my book The 30-Day Love Detox, I interviewed some of the brightest minds in the country who focus on sexuality, mating strategies, and attachment. Even I had to take a deep breath and let go of some of my cherished arguments for sexual equality when I saw how solid the research ran contrary to my beliefs. Sigh. These are the sexual myths that will keep you single if you continue to believe them.
1. The Sexual Myth of The Hook Up Culture
As I mentioned earlier, the hook-up culture is more urban legend than reality. A recent National Survey of Family Growth study with over thirteen-thousand participants showed that fully one quarter of college students are virgins.
Yet, most people assume that college campuses are a hotbed of non-committed sex. And they believe this uncommitted sex happens earlier than it does. In fact, young adults who do not attend college have more sexual partners.
But, since the perceptions exist, many women feel subtly pressured to have sex before they are ready. One study showed that the vast majority of college students talked about hook-ups yet reported very few actual sexual scores. But the talk was the damaging part for women. It has the effect of “normalizing” the practice and creating more approval for hook-ups. That new false norm causes many women to engage in risky sexual behavior.4
The truth is there are two, distinct dating markets. One sells bulk sex at a low price, perhaps the price of one drink, and the other sells a select variety to a narrow market. Women who want a healthy relationship “charge” a high price for sex: attention, love, care, commitment, and social status. In today’s times, social status may not mean marriage if you don’t need it, but it can certainly mean that he changes his Facebook status to indicate he’s in a relationship with you.
2. The Myth that Sexual Chemistry Helps Relationships
Many women believe that jumping into bed in the early stages of a relationship is a way to test sexual compatibility, a way to audition a man, if you will. Someone – probably a man – created the myth that “sexual chemistry” is necessary before couples can move to a committed relationship.If this theory were true then people who do not test out sexual chemistry before commitment should have shorter, more unhappy, relationships. But psychology professor Dean Busby and his colleagues at Brigham Young University were unable to make this connection is a study of more than 2,000 couples. People with good sexual chemistry early on did not stay together longer. He explained his results to me this way. “The mechanics of good sex are not particularly difficult or beyond the reach of most couples, but the emotions, the vulnerability, the meaning of sex and whether it brings couples closer together are much more complicated to figure out.” (Dean Busby, personal communication, 2012).
“Sexual chemistry isn’t made by some effortless match, as if the couple won a lottery,” says University of Texas sociology professor Mark Regnerus and author of Pre-Marital Sex in America. “I think sexual chemistry is the title we give to the erotic novelty often found in early sexual relationships: if they’re “hot,” then chemistry must exist. But all relationships settle down into more sustainable patterns of romance, and THAT is when sexual chemistry is fashioned.”
3. The Myth That People Have Sexual “Needs”
Sex researchers have long known that women have different kinds of sexual “needs” than men. Women’s sexuality tends to be responsive, meaning that we respond to sexual opportunity, rather than seek it out to fulfill some kind of necessary quota.
When women meet someone they are attracted to, their sexual responses turn on. When they break up from a sexual relationship, they aren’t as likely as men to replace that relationship with daily masturbation or pornography. When single women feel “horny” it is often an extension of their emotional need for companionship. Some researchers have found that women often desire to be desired.
That’s a whole lot different than a biological desire for sex, any sex, with almost anyone. Men are more like that. This model of female sexuality is supported by the fact that drug companies can’t come up with a drug that enhances female libido. Women’s sexuality is a complicated mix of psychology, social conditioning and biology. Men’s sexuality is closer to basic plumbing.
But in this high-supply sexual economy where women have adopted everything male, I often hear women say, “But what about my sexual needs? I have to put my needs aside?”
I believe the bodies of those women could be responding to our highly sexualized culture, including provocative advertising, half-naked men on Facebook and sexual invitations at every turn, making women believe that sex is urgent. Rather than having a sexual response to a single suitor whom they are attracted to, women could be having a sexual response to our crazy sexualized environment. Or, they could simply be parroting men. Worse, they could be giving in to the power wielded by the shrinking supply of good men, and bowing to their requests out of fear.
These women believe the myth that sex is, in fact a human need. Granted, psychologist Abraham Maslow’s famous hierarchy of human needs puts sex at the base of the pyramid right alongside pooping, but he isn’t referring to sex as a commodity.
He was referring to sexual competition as a motivating factor for people’s behaviors. And I think it’s clear that we have enough sexual competition these days.
Can both genders control their sexuality? Of course we can! Sex is no more a need than a trip to Saks Fifth Avenue. For our human survival we need, air, food, water, shelter and companionship. Ask any priest, nun, military person stationed abroad, prisoner, or elderly widow. Is sex necessary for their survival? Nope. But it’s a nice perk that comes with freedom, prosperity and good health.
I think the important question women need to ask themselves is this: Does more sex make a woman feel liberated or trapped? I vote for trapped. By adopting a male model of sexuality we have imprisoned ourselves in a hook-up culture that trained a generation of men to avoid marriage and parental responsibilities. Is this getting our “needs” met?
4. The Sexual Myth That Sex Leads to Love
While slightly more than half of college women believe that a sexual hook-up can be a stepping-stone to a relationship, the research points to a more ominous outcome. According to the author of Pre-Marital Sex In America, “It’s a race to the bottom. By having sex early in a relationship– or worse, before it even starts — is a guaranteed failure. It’s just a matter of time. Men won’t sacrifice for someone who’s easy. They don’t work that way.”
Or, how about this little jewel of research? Renowned evolutionary psychology professor David Buss at the University of Texas at Austin and Martie G. Haselton at the University of California, Los Angeles found that the more previous sexual partners a man has, the more likely he is to quickly perceive diminished attractiveness in a woman after first intercourse.
Diminished attractiveness. Sex doesn’t lead to love for men. If the guy is a player, sex more often leads to distain for you.
My Facebook page, like yours, is crammed with visually wired men who click on any cute photo that might mean a sexual opportunity, thus the majority of my Facebook “friends” are men. When I posted the Buss & Haselton study on my Facebook page, one guy summed it up perfectly. “Sure…. It’s a test. We see how quick we can get you in bed. The quicker you are, the less wifey material you are.” Sigh. Feminism has yet to reprogram men’s brains in the area of sexuality.
5. The Myth that Promiscuity Can be Turned Off
Plenty of people believe that sex is a behavior that is very malleable, that sexuality can be turned on and off, like a light switch. Many of the women I spoke with told me that they are hooking up as a way to audition mates, but they are quite sure they can be faithful when they decide to be. But research doesn’t support this. More likely is the scenario that these women are training their body to be a future cheater. We can train ourselves for most anything. And the only way to train for monogamy is to either abstain or to be monogamous.
“Many will say, ‘when I get ready to settle down I’m going to take things more slowly,” says Dean Busby, Ph.D., whose work studying thousands of singles and couples has produced relevant and timely data.“Unfortunately, some of our more recent research seems to suggest that the patterns that develop in young adulthood, and their relational consequences, can’t just be turned off or avoided once a person decides it is time to marry. Every relationship we have, however brief and insignificant, influences every other relationship we have, and the patterns that we repeat across relationships become very difficult to change.”
Exiting the High-Supply Sexual Marketplace
I hope by now you’ve gotten the message that you have mating control but you are in a race against your fertility clock and an ever-increasing competition for a narrowing market of good mates. I hope that those fears will out weigh any fears you may have of dealing with the after shock of pulling yourself off the high supply sexual market. Think of it this way. Even in a tomato bumper crop year, when high supply forces the price of tomatoes down to a nickel a head, there will still be a market for an artisan grown, organic, heirloom tomato that sells for a dollar a head. So which are you? A mass market, low “priced” date? Or, a woman who sets the price of intimacy with her? And the price should be love, care, commitment and financial partnership if you plan to become a mother. It’s time to purge low-criteria relationships.
MORE ABOUT SEXUALITY: WATCH MY VIDEO: IS THE SEXUAL DOUBLE STANDARD GONE?
Recently a woman wrote me to ask my opinion of the “empowering” lyrics of Taylor Swift’s new single BLANK SPACE. She hoped it indicated that women as sexual aggressors demonstrates some sort of positive advancement in the current high supply sexual economy (the one that’s hurting women.) I was intrigued.
So I read the lyrics carefully. I read them three times. Then I watched the music video and my heart sunk.
The only thing female empowering about Taylor Swift’s Blank Space is the economic superiority she holds over her playboy. Otherwise she’s losing the mating game. Big time.
Blank Space is the story of a roller coaster love affair with a player. And it says more about attachment style than anything else. The song and video chronicle the abrupt female switch from infatuation to hate that comes when someone with an anxious attachment style meets someone with an avoidant attachment style. In the video, Miss. Swift plays a gorgeous sex kitten living alone in an impossibly large English country manor. In drives her latest par amour, a young hot man whom she is smitten with and lyrically prophesizes “Look at that face. You look like my next mistake.” Then the two embark on a fantasy union — no courtship. Just cut to lust. But her stomach knows the truth as she repeats the chorus:
It’ll leave you breathless
Or with a nasty scar
Got a long list of ex-lovers
They’ll tell you I’m insane
The end is predictable. She sees another woman’s text on his iPhone (did Apple sponsor the video?) and goes into a female rage of rampage and destruction, the likes of which many, many women have fantasized about. She even attacks his car with a golf club in a not so subtle reference to Tiger Woods infidelities. Finally, Taylor kicks him out of her castle, only to see him coming back for more and the roller coaster begins again.
But this is no story of female empowerment. This is how an anxious attachment style plays out in relationships. Those who are prone to fear and pre-occupation in love relationships idealize love. They are, sadly, usually attracted to people who can’t give love back. In an effort to “make him love me,” they move way too quickly toward intimacy as a way to fuse the attachment. But it is all one big fantasy. Before long, real life steps in, (partly because the anxious attachers are vigilantly looking for threats of abandonment, checking iPhones texts, smelling shirts, etc.) With poor ego strength and an inability to tolerate thoughts of rejection, next comes the emotional flip. The partner who was all loving becomes the partner who is all hating. At that point, she can’t even see the good in him. She can’t tolerate holding the duplicity of her man, that all humans are good and bad. We all have strengths and faults.
The saddest message in the lyrics of Taylor Swift’s Blank Space, is that low self esteem is inevitable with repeated toxic relationships. Our traumatized heroine actually believes she is insane. In actually, she is a victim of some early life attachment injuries and replicating them in her adult life.