How To Counter A Narcissistic Spouse’s Bad Influence On Your Kids

by Dr. Rick Kirschner on March 11, 2013

Coaching with Dr. K Coaching with Dr. K

I recently received the following comment on one of my posts about dealing with the difficult behavior of narcissism:

“Dr. K, I would be interested in doing a consult with you, if you offer that. I am married to an abusive narcissist and have only come to fully understand this within the past year, after over a dozen years of feeling crazy and confused by his manipulative behaviour.  I have been to counselling for myself and have learned ways to cope, without feeding his disorder.  My question now regards how to mitigate the damage that has inadvertently been done to my teen son.  My husband loves him and is good to him (but with some very bad behaviours already done) and I think that my son needs to know what the situation is, without feeling that I am bad-mouthing his Dad.  thank you”

Here’s my reply:

Dear ___________,
Thank you for your interest in working with me.  I do coaching over the phone, and I have an opening for one new client at this time.  If you’re interested in pursuing a coaching relationship, whether for a single session or a series of sessions, please go to this link,, pay in advance for your first session, and we’ll go from there with scheduling.   I hate to be so cut and dry about this, because I empathize with you and want you to find a way to achieve your desired outcome, but there it is.

In the meantime, I think there are three points of leverage in this situation where you can create some change for the better.

Dealing with yourself:
Whenever someone tells me of their difficult spouse, a part of me thinks, ‘Hey, you picked them!’   My experience in life is that there is a certain magnetism or resonance that draws us together, sometimes for a season, sometimes for a lifetime.  Often, it’s around shared values and/or common interests.   But sometimes, it’s an unconscious pull towards resolution of a past relationship, that recreates the conditions in order to find a new solution.   Not knowing about this option, the result is a push/pull pattern deep within you that is almost irresistible and always infuriating.   I think there is great value in taking ownership over relationships, the purpose they serve in our lives and the lessons we learn about ourselves as a result of them.  I hope this is what you are doing in counseling.
Dealing with your spouse’s behavior:
Is there any way to bring this up with him for discussion, out of his love for his son?  No.  He’s a narcissist, and abusive.   He might take this as crossing him.  Can you talk behind his back?  No, not unless you could be absolutely certain that your son would keep the confidence.  Otherwise, it would be terrible for all concerned.  So no.  What does that leave?  I base this on the idea that you have now stabilized yourself in the presence of your spouse’s narcissism, and know how to handle yourself when he is doing that.   Non verbal communication is the first thing I think of for teaching your son the difference between socially acceptable and successful behavior, and socially self-defeating behavior (his father’s narcissism).  When a bad example is being set, create a non verbal (visual) association to it with some consistent behavior of your own, one that tells your son “Here is an example of behavior that is self defeating.”   Do this with subtlety, so your son sees it and the father doesn’t.  It can be some very simple and small sign that you do repeatedly and consistently in exactly the same way.  This is a form of something called ‘anchoring,’  (a form of stimulus-response) and it can prove to be very powerful over time.
Dealing with your son’s behavior:
The more important work is to specifically identify for yourself how your son is specifically like his father, and what associations you want to create for him when he engages in those behaviors, to know how specifically you will bring these behaviors to his attention, not so he can feel bad about them but so that he can bring awareness to them (this is the best way to change generalized and emotional-state driven habits).  Then figure out what specific behaviors he already has that you want him to do more of, want to encourage, that you can catch him in the act of behaving in a desirable way and reinforcing it.  Ultimately, your son is going to respond most powerfully to your example on how to be a successful human being in this world (yes, even at his age, though perhaps on a delayed timer, he is modeling your behavior), as well as through the way you handle the narcissistic behavior in your own life,  and how you interact with your son around his strengths and weaknesses.
Comments?  Feedback?  Please, I would love to hear from you in the comments.
Be well,

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