Can You Fix A Narcissistic Relationship?
Many people in narcissistic relationships – whether those relationships are with a boyfriend, girlfriend, spouse, partner, mother, or father – want to know if the narcissistic relationship can be fixed. By the time someone has sought me out for support, they usually have already 1) discovered that the person they are in a relationship with is a narcissist, and 2) reached some level of acceptance that this person is unlikely to change.
Yet, for many different reasons, people will often want to stay in relationship with a narcissistic person. This is most often the case when working with the adult child of a narcissistic mother or narcissistic father. When these adults realize the parent is unlikely to change, they start to wonder what other options are available. This will often show up in a question like, “What can I do so that I won’t get upset when I talk to my narcissistic mom?”
Yes, you can learn to be in relationship with a narcissist and not get upset. But most likely you will need to change some of your assumptions about what that means and what that relationship is going to look like. Since our assumptions often shape our view of the world and what is possible, I wanted to list below the three most common assumptions I see underlying this question and others like it.
Assumption #1 – You can control your emotions.
TRUTH: You can’t control your emotions.
Emotions have a life of their own, coming and going as they please. They ebb and flow, in response to people, places, things, and circumstances. Emotions aren’t rational. You can have multiple emotions at the same time. Your different emotions can conflict with one another. Your emotions are oblivious to anyone’s opinion – including your own – about what is the “right” or “wrong” way to feel in any given situation. Sometimes emotions feel like they are yours but actually originate with someone else.
Your psyche will tell you to control your emotions to protect you from feeling emotional pain. It’s a strategy that has a certain wisdom to it. These kinds of strategies are usually developed during childhood, a time when you really didn’t have the capacity to deal with painful emotions. It is often the case that denying the expression of certain emotions in childhood was genuinely to your benefit.
So you can control the expression of your emotions – that’s called repression – and the majority of my clients have realized that repressing emotions doesn’t serve them in adulthood. It causes all kinds of problems with self-esteem and relationship dynamics. Underlying many of the reasons adults seek therapeutic support is the desire to feel good about themselves and the desire to experience closeness and intimacy in relationship with others. Expressing your emotions, or NOT controlling them, is a key aspect to achieving these goals.
While you can’t control your emotions, here is what you can control:
• Your actions.
• What you say and how you say it.
• Your willingness to feel your emotions (even if you feel numb right now).
• Your commitment to showing up for yourself in this way over and over again.
In other words, the truth that you can’t control your emotions isn’t an excuse for treating other people poorly. We just need to make the important distinction between feeling emotions and acting on them. They are two completely different things that frequently get confused.
Assumption #2 – Getting upset is a problem.
TRUTH: You MUST get upset in order to feel better.
A huge part of the recovery process is allowing yourself to get upset. Allowing yourself to get REALLY REALLY upset. My experience is that you can’t skip this part. The benefits of getting upset are usually hard to understand if you are just looking for a short-term fix to an uncomfortable situation.
My clients who are tired of living with unbearable emotional pain, and who are seriously ready to begin living differently, take a long-term view. Meaning, on some level they know that this process is necessary. If they can’t consciously access that knowing, they are willing to take the necessary steps forward with trust or faith. I support these clients to access their genuine emotions. Often sadness, anger, rage, resentment, and heartbreak come to the surface first.
Yes, painful feelings are painful. But we suffer because we try and run from these feelings. Running is a losing proposition. Freedom comes from turning towards feelings, over and over again.
Assumption #3 – If I change what I say and do, I’ll start getting what I want from the narcissistic person in my life.
TRUTH: Maybe, but probably not.
This is another tough part of the recovery process. You’ll need to start taking a very honest look at this person and what you can realistically expect from him or her. Part of the pain of narcissistic relationships – which is actually painful for both parties, the narcissist and the other person – is that the narcissist isn’t capable of providing genuine connection, empathy, or support.
At a certain point you’ll need to take stock of what is happening right now, alongside what this person has shown you historically about themselves, to make the best decision you can given the information you have. Waiting and hoping for change keeps many people stuck. I’ve found that the amount of time it takes someone to accept the narcissistic person in their life for who they are varies from person to person. It’s not an easy process and one that brings up difficult and complicated emotions.
About the Author
Diana Calvo is a psychotherapist and coach who helps people get unstuck and transform their day-to-day experience of work and life. After 20 years successfully climbing the corporate ladder, Diana experienced her own journey of healing and awakening. She discovered her true calling to guide others on their journey out of suffering and into a life of purpose and joy. Diana left the corporate world to start her own coaching business. She lives in Denver, Colorado with her dog Joey and a beautiful view of the mountains. She works with clients across the globe.