Love in the Age of Narcissism

Tucson group provides support for survivors of narcissistic and sociopathic abuse


When Katie sees news stories about sexual misconduct allegations against famous men—the ones that are usually accompanied by fierce denials on the part of the accused or their legal counsel—or hears politicians lying about past statements, it reminds her of the time her fiancé lied about spending the night at a strip club with a group of his female coworkers.

Or it reminds her of how she found out, at the end of their six-year relationship, that he was not fully separated from his wife when he and Katie started dating, as he told her he was. A series of old emails revealed that he took Katie to see a musician in Phoenix one night that he'd invited his then-wife to see in Tucson the night before.

Sometimes it makes her think about, after they were engaged, her fiancé used to tell her she needed to take better care of her engagement ring, railing at her daily that he'd spent $30,000 on it, and she didn't seem to appreciate it or to keep it clean. Once, she left it out on the counter to do dishes and it was gone when she went back to get it. Frank was the only one in the house with her who could have moved it, so she asked if he could have it back. After hours of fighting, him insisting he hadn't taken it and that she simply needed to take better care of it, he handed it back to her, telling her one last time that this was her fault for being careless with something so valuable.

Everyone lies. As University of Arizona researcher Jake Harwood wrote in his article "Easy Lies" for the Journal of Language and Social Psychology, there are some situations in which pretty much everyone but a sociopath or someone with no sense of social norms would lie. "Did I play well at my violin recital, Daddy?" asks the little girl who screeched her way though the aforementioned recital. "How does my new haircut look?" asks the sensitive sister-in-law.

"The normal thing to do in that situation is to lie," Harwood says.

"It's a very easy lie to tell."

But there are some lies, like the ones Frank told to Katie, that aren't the socially acceptable kind to tell. They're the kinds told for personal gain, often at high cost to the people they are told to. About a year and a half out of her relationship with Frank, Katie believes his lies and larger pattern of behavior were signs of narcissistic personality disorder. The Mayo Clinic defines NPD as "a mental condition in which people have an inflated sense of their own importance, a deep need for excessive attention and admiration, troubled relationships, and a lack of empathy for others."

NPD is one of the 10 clinically recognized personality disorders listed in the American Psychiatric Association's Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition, or the DSM-5. The official definition contains a number of caveats and specifications, such as that NPD causes impairments in both self and interpersonal personality function, that the impairments must be stable over time and that they must not be due to substance abuse or able to be better understood as normative based on the person's age or socio-cultural environment.

"Narcissists do not have empathy," says Kris Godinez, a licensed professional counselor based in Mesa, Arizona who works frequently with targets of narcissistic abuse. "They cannot feel love, really as you and I know it. They don't feel happiness or joy; they don't have that empathy for another human being."

Individuals with NPD do things like monopolize conversations, belittle the people around them, take advantage of others to get what they want and insist on having the best of everything—from significant others to cars to jobs. Lying, even in the face of heaps of evidence to prove them wrong, is also common.

"When they're wrong... they're never wrong," says Katie, whose name has been changed for this article. "You can have it in writing, but it doesn't matter because it's just, 'I didn't say that.' I think one of the things that has been especially triggering for me is—not to be political—but listening to Donald Trump when he talks. It's like we are gaslighted over and over and over again, and I'm just like, you hear him say this and a week later, 'No that's not what I said—I didn't say that.' But you did! You literally said this! It's on video!"

Survivors Assemble

Because people exhibiting narcissistic personality traits tend to have an inflated sense of importance, they don't often see anything wrong with themselves, making NPD tricky to diagnose. Oftentimes, children and significant others, or ex-significant others of narcissists, will start looking into the term when they are grown up, or out of the relationship. Excessively controlling? Check. An exaggerated sense of self-importance? Check. Frequent gaslighting? Check.

In 2016, Bree Bonchay, a psychotherapist and author of the book I Am Free: Healing Stories About Surviving Toxic Relationships With Narcissists And Sociopaths founded World Narcissistic Abuse Awareness Day on June 1 to raise awareness of the way people are affected by NPD. The day features a free telesummit with more than a dozen of the world's experts.

"I started WNAAD because narcissistic abuse negatively affects millions of people, but, because the wounds are invisible, so many people—including mental health professionals, law enforcement and family court judges—have no idea what it is and how to identify it," Bonchay says.

Survivors are often left to their own devices: They'll connect on social media, or share notes, which tend to sound eerily similar. There's even a language that has developed around the way a narcissist works, with phrases like "love bombing" to describe the beginning of the relationship where a narcissist seems like an ideal companion, "narcissistic supply," to describe the type of admiration and support narcissists feed off (that one came from early 20th-century psychoanalyst Otto Fenichel) and the "discard" to describe the way many narcissists end their relationships when they're "done" with their partners—cruelly and abruptly.

Katie and the other members of the Tucson Meetup group Narcissistic/Sociopath Support Group, have found solace in the ability to confide in one another. When its founder created it to connect with other survivors and (to some extent) share her story with people who wouldn't think she was crazy for putting up with what she did in a relationship, her therapist said it was making poison into medicine. Today, the group has more than 200 members.

Godinez says people who ask narcissistic abuse survivors questions like "why did you stay so long?" don't understand the nature of this abuse: It's interspersed with occasional kindness and generosity in what behavioral psychologists call "intermittent reinforcement" or "intermittent positive reward," giving their partners hope that, if they try hard enough, they'll do something right and earn another dose of being treated well. It's that hope that carries them through the accusations, the unrealistic expectations and the lies. Katie's reaction to the news and the state of American politics, in Godinez's experience, isn't unusual.

"Every single target of abuse that went through gaslighting and lying and manipulating and intermittent positive reward, and 'up is down' and 'green is yellow' and all of that: When Trump got elected, I literally was working 80 hours a week in crisis with all of those victims, because they felt like they were reliving their abuse. I have had clients completely retraumatized by what's going on in politics."

Positions of Power

The Washington Post has a database of false or misleading claims President Trump has made since assuming office, with a total of 10,111 as of April 27, and an average of 15 false claims per day in 2018. A slew of statements on the campaign trail, including that the Mexican government sends "the bad ones over," and that he watched thousands of people cheering as the World Trade Center burned to the ground, won him Politifact's Lie of the Year Award in 2015. His claim that the "Russia thing with Trump and Russia is a made-up story" won him the same honor in 2017. A statement that the recently released Mueller report was a "complete and total exoneration" was a mischaracterization, as the report states "while this report does not conclude that the president committed a crime, it also does not exonerate him."

Research published in Psychological Science in 2013 by psychology experts at Emory University found that the 42 presidents up to and including George W. Bush exhibited elevated levels of grandiose narcissism, and that presidents' grandiose narcissism has been rising over time. From an intuitive standpoint, this makes sense: A person has to be pretty confident—perhaps abnormally confident—to believe he or she is the best person to run an entire country.

But there are narcissists in all sorts of roles. The three women I spoke to for this article all said that their partners—one of whom was a doctor, another a PhD in literature and a third in the construction business–-spoke often about how important their jobs were. (The support group is made up mostly of women, and the men in the group are often more shy about sharing their stories. The one man who did speak to me wasn't comfortable sharing much, but did say he wouldn't be alive today if it weren't for the help of his therapist.)

Hands clasped and voices quiet, all three women tell me about their partners being fixated on their whereabouts—obsessively texting and calling, leaving the women feeling like they didn't dare go out with friends without keeping their phone constantly in view to avoid missing any messages. The silent treatment was a common tactic for when the narcissistic partner was upset.

"They do make you feel crazy," said Alice, who is in the process of divorcing her husband of 34 years. "My husband is a master at being able to take my words and twist 'em and turn 'em, so then after a two-hour fight it's so turned and twisted that I can't remember what the fight was about. It's classic gaslighting."

Another woman, Megan, said she was raised by a narcissistic mother who kept her closed off from making friends or forming many relationships. Her first serious relationship was in college, at age 23. She was married at 24, and stayed married for 20 years to a man who she now believes also has NPD.

"I have spent my entire life trying to justify my existence," she says. "It's kind of like you lose your voice when you're around them."

Her husband left her for another woman, another story that was common among the women I spoke to. She'd have to ask him for permission to have friends over in the house they shared. He texted her at the end of every single work day to ask when she was coming home. While he was in graduate school for 10 years, he took summers off while Megan worked full time, and did all of the cooking and cleaning.

"My job is really important," he'd tell her. "I'm really tired. I don't have time for those things."

Fairy Tales Gone Wrong

There were similar issues in Katie's relationship with Frank. The two met while he was working as a doctor, and she as a nurse, at the same hospital. She was in the process of a divorce with her husband, who she'd been with since she was 16 years old, despite his physical abuse, problems with alcohol and, toward the end, cocaine usage—their 12-year-old daughter had to call the police one night because her dad had a knife to Katie's throat. He'd cheated on her, and a few times, desperate for the fulfillment she wasn't getting in her marriage, she'd cheated on him.

So when she met Frank, who was incredibly charming and successful, and treated her like a queen, she was swept up by the excitement: Was this what love was supposed to be like? When they moved in together after a few years of dating, both Frank and Katie were sharing child custody with their exes: Katie of her daughter, then a teenager, and Frank of his three younger children.

Katie went back to school to be a nurse practitioner shortly after they got together, and she and Frank talked often about how they should work together once Katie finished her degree. When they did start working together, she did administrative work for him: setting up his website, helping him run the office, doing marketing.

"At the time, it didn't bother me because what I thought was that we were partners, and I thought that we were contributing to making us successful," Katie says. "I didn't realize that I was contributing to making him successful."

A successful image was important to Frank, for himself and the people around him. He wanted Katie to wear more expensive clothes, have a more expensive car, start going to the gym. He'd stare at her while she was eating and tell her not to eat certain foods, or grab the fat around her stomach, and when she told him it made her uncomfortable, he'd say "If you don't like it, you should lose it."

Katie agreed to start going to the gym, with the caveat that she'd have to go very early in the morning, around 4:30. She preferred going to the gym before work, and this would give her enough time to get the kids ready for school. The alarm would go off, she'd head to the gym, and she'd get a call from Frank on the way there.

"Why do you have to go to the gym at 4:30? Don't you know that when you get up and you leave that it wakes me up? You're probably not even going to the gym. You're probably meeting your boyfriend right now."

Katie felt cornered, like she couldn't do anything to make Frank happy. One night, Frank tried to initiate sex with Katie while she was asleep. She later woke up around 2 a.m., wondering why Frank wasn't in bed.

"What he says is that I said my ex's name while I was asleep, which then pushed him over the edge and then he went and started drinking, and he started texting, sexting with another woman," Katie says.

Katie saw the texts—the graphic pictures of the woman, suggestive texts from Frank, and a pattern of messages that suggested he'd sent some photos himself and deleted them. She was furious. She got up and left in the middle of the night, slept in the parking lot of a Wal Mart. He called her in the morning to ask where she was, and she said she was done. She wasn't going to put up with this anymore. Then, he had his children call her, asking when she was coming home.

"He knew my weak spots, and he learned how to use that kind of stuff against me, so not only at that point of time am I feeling like, 'Well he felt bad because I said somebody else's name; it's my fault. And how am I going to do this to these kids?'"

The ups and downs of the relationship were so dizzying and extreme that Katie and Frank went on to get engaged after this incident. But at the end of their relationship, at the point where Katie was digging through old emails between Frank and his ex wife (she'd always had access to his email because of work), when she started to piece together evidence about where he'd been on nights he'd claimed to have been out with friends, Katie began to realize she was dealing with a pathological liar. She called a jewelry appraiser in tears and asked her to take a look at the engagement ring Frank had given her—the one worth $30,000 that he always accused her of not taking care of. The appraiser's estimate: Frank had paid about $6,000 for it.

"I'm not materialistic," Katie says. "I didn't care about the cost of the ring. It never really mattered. it was just being lied to and having something like that used against me when it was supposed to be a symbol of our love."

A Light at the End of the Tunnel

One way or another, all of the people I spoke to for this article are now out of their relationships with their abusers. After 34 years, "Alice" is learning how to put herself first, to take care of herself, for the first time in her life. Both Katie and Megan are in new relationships they feel are much more healthier and fulfilling, and are on the lookout for the red flags they missed in their last relationships.

Megan said the debilitating back pains she used to get "pretty much evaporated" the moment her husband told her he was cheating on her. Her new boyfriend provides a calm support system she never realized she was missing.

"It's really strange," she says. "Like, I don't want to spend all my time comparing him, but a lot of times I'm like, 'He asked me how my day was and meant it? He actually had sympathy for me when I said that thing? He got up and got me a cup of coffee without my asking for it, and didn't tell me I was a terrible person for wanting it?'"

Katie admits that it's not always easy.

"There's this residue," she says. "That's the best way that I can explain it. There's this like feeling of this thing you just can't get rid of. Some days that film is super light, and you don't even notice it. Then there are days where you're like triggered by something and it is—it's this form of PTSD."

The light at the end of the tunnel doesn't always feel like a good thing—especially for people who didn't realize they were shrouded in darkness in the first place. The first few moments in the light can be disorienting, unsettling, and even, in some ways, unwelcome. But with the support of fellow survivors and the lessons they've learned to light the way, these men and women are making their way toward happiness and health.

Find more information on joining the group here.

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