Narcissism & Affair Recovery
Narcissism is one of those loaded words that has made its way into pop-culture and generally elicits negativity and judgement in the minds of those who hear it. Like addiction, the word has come to take on in terms of pop-culture, a very narrow, negative and depressing meaning. I used to be a corporate marketing director, and spent a few years in sales, I grew up with a father who was a CEO of a 750-million-dollar international company. So, I grew up learning a lot about business, marketing and how to strategically maneuver consumers and clients in a certain direction whether in a sales or marketing environment.
When I decided to do a career switch after my own journey through affair recovery and trauma therapy, I started to recognize the similarities between macro and micro psychology. Macro-psychology (advertising, marketing, public relations) is used to shape an entire group or culture’s view. And this my friends, is what happened with narcissism, and addiction. In the case of narcissism, the two competing psychological minds at the time were Kohut and Kernberg. Long story short, Kohut had a more positive and empathetic clinical theory around narcissism, Kernberg’s theory was considered negative and focused heavily on malignant narcissism. Kohut died, Kerberg had the market to himself. Advertising and marketing at the time were coming to know new, more powerful and far reaching media avenues and Viola!, macro-psychology took place. Kernberg’s fatalistic view of narcissism as being negative, rageful and most importantly, not treatable, became the pop-culture’s cemented opinion as “truth”.
Narcissism As A Spectrum
What does any of this have to do with infidelity recovery? A lot. When couples or individuals come to see me along with a general assessment of the affair situation, trauma history, assessing for sexual addiction, I also am ticking off in my head where the couple falls on the narcissism spectrum. Kohut’s view was that there was healthy narcissism (around a 5 on a scale of 1-10) which was correlated to lots of positive traits and outcomes. Positive narcissism equates strong ego-strength and can make treatment from an affair and/or betrayal trauma (and trauma in general) much easier. But when I pick up either a 1-3 on the scale (echoism or high degrees of self-care and self-abandonment for others), covert narcissism, or overt “typical” narcissism (7-10 on the scale) my treatment plan takes on an entirely different form. As does my therapeutic demeanor and expectations for how fast the couple or individual is going to move and respond to me, and my treatment plan.
Along my own journey through recovering from sexual betrayal, I noticed the different degrees of anger, self-righteous indignation, resistance, shame, lack of empathy and self-pity we all struggle with when trying to heal after an affair. In my work with sex addicts & sexual addiction, I also would notice a difference between clients who would embrace recovery and counseling and really sail into health and healing. But then many did not. I later learned this often had to do with the degree of narcissist wounding a client brings into my office in the aftermath of an affair.
The devastation of being sexually betrayed blow up their lives, their marriages, their self-esteem, and their image, but I couldn’t help some reacted much stronger, for much longer, than others. I was one of those…when my counselor told me I had complex PTSD and discovery of my spouse’s multiple affairs merely was the icing on the cake for me, he may as well had been speaking Greek. At the time, it made zero sense to me. Not that I could think straight anyways, the pain & trauma caused by the infidelity was all consuming.
Common signs narcissistic wounding as applied to affair recovery:
- An unfaithful spouse who continues to drop into self-pity or defensiveness every time his betrayed spouse rages, cries or emotionally connect.
- A betrayed spouse who spends months or years in a mind-set of retaliation and refusal to leave yet refuses to be vulnerable, re-attach or go all in emotionally, physically and spiritually.
- A client with a low level of trust in others and a strong level of resistance to treatment and argues with solutions or assignments presented to help heal, relate to their spouse, face the recovery process or own up to their own destructive/avoidance patterns of relating.
When the above, and this is a sample short list, what’s being indicated is that there may be deep narcissistic wounding which correlates often to underlying complex PTSD. Complex PTSD is often comprised of some mixture including family of origin trauma, neglect, stunted emotional development, abuse, traumatic social and/or cultural wounding.
Expert Affair Recovery Help
If you feel you’ve been spinning your wheels trying to recovery from an affair, then you and/or your spouse may have some deep narcissistic wounding to address. Often here individual therapy is needed, trauma work, attachment and family of origin work alongside couple therapy where I can mirror or role-play what healthy empathy, warmth, emotional intimacy and connection look like in coupleship. It also gives the opportunity for me to coach and interrupt their dysfunctional narcissistic reactions to each other that are usually trauma responses from childhood and have little to do with the present discussion. It’s intense. But I enjoy it, and I subscribe to Kohut’s more positive, treatable view of narcissism as on a spectrum, where with the proper attunement and intervention, even the most narcissistically wounded clients can heal not only from infidelity, but also from past trauma, so they can have healthier, healed, fulfilling, connected and integrated relationships in their present and future.