Christian Counseling: Codependency in a Narcissitic Marital Relationship

Inquiry:

Can a person recover from codependency while staying in a marriage with a narcissist? What are the challenges? What increases the odds of success, other than individual therapy?

My husband is in therapy for porn addiction. I struggle with knowing how to be a "good Christian" wife vs. enabler vs. healthy individual.


Therapist’s Response:


Let’s be sure we are speaking the same language. By codependency I am referring to a dysfunctional, mutually emotionally dependent relationship where often one of the persons has an addiction, such as pornography, as you mentioned. Also, there is a difference between a diagnosable narcissistic personality disorder and a selfish or self-centered person. The first refers to certain criteria which distinguish serious, deeply ingrained personality attitudes and behaviors versus traits that vary in degree of intensity. We all have some shellfish traits. A diagnosis of narcissism should be made by a professional. According to your information, I am unsure who made the determination, but I’ll assume it was made by a professional.


There are varying degrees of severity of narcissistic personality disorder, which accounts somewhat for the successful outcome of treatment. Those with severe, long-lasting narcissism do not usually come in for therapy, but if they do, they don’t often remain for long. Symptoms of this disorder are mostly life-long, though they can be lessened and some overcome. Narcissism will deeply challenge a spouse’s willingness to remain in the relationship because symptoms can be intractable and it often takes years to change. I don’t mean to imply your relationship is near hopeless, but do you have what it takes to go the long-haul?


What you can do for him and for yourself is first to enter your own individual therapy to help you avoid many common mistakes, learn to take care of yourself, give your marriage every chance possible and gain needed confidence that you have done everything you could to save a very troubled relationship. Treatment will, in good measure, center around self-awareness, understanding narcissism, learning the art of healthy assertiveness, setting proper relational boundaries, establishing your own identity (good Christian vs. enabler vs. healthy) and emotionally recovering from martial wounds. Awareness, action and consistency in those behaviors are absolutely critical. Of course, in the beginning you can expect things to get somewhat worse in the marriage, but that is usually temporary, unless your husband unwaveringly demands you do as he says and he escalates the conflict between the both of you to a point you cannot or should not tolerate. I don’t believe there is much a spouse can do to help their significant other to heal or have a heart change. Lasting change for a narcissistic person is more the result of the safe, yet mildly challenging interaction with a trustworthy and experienced professional who is willing to spend years caring for the client’s welfare.


May the Lord give you clear direction.


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