What the Church and Counselors Need to Understand About Narcissistic Abuse

One of the most difficult things about being married to a narcissist who is abusive (and no, I am not), is finding people who will not only listen to your plight, but understand it. And sadly, even if you find those people, they may not always know what to do to help.

Is is my hope and prayer that church leaders and counselors begin to be educated about how to help people who find themselves in these emotionally abusive situations. When they do not, so much damage can be done.

(As a side note: I’m so grateful for my church who understands this better than some, and is currently sustaining one of our members and her children who have left an abusive marriage. Some churches do get it.)

Should we use the word?

There is quite a controversy among Christians about even using the term “narcissist.” The reason is that Christians generally believe that all dysfunction and sin can be addressed from a biblical viewpoint, and to use a term like narcissism is to embrace a worldly philosophy that chalks it up as a disorder (thereby dismissing the root of sin).

My belief is that sin is certainly at the root of narcissism (more particularly, utter depravity) and any form of abuse. However, without the term we have a cloudy understanding of this particular set of behaviors which undermines our approach to helping.

Why a normal approach to counseling doesn’t work.

When a counselor attempts to address a couple in this situation with typical (good) marriage counsel, what happens is that the normal spouse hears, determines to work on his part and the narcissistic spouse only hears what the normal spouse is supposed to do and focuses in on that. So it might sound like this once they get home: “Didn’t you hear the counselor? He said your job was to submit to me and until you do that it’s obvious nothing’s going to change.” He successfully tuned out his own laundry list of things he is to be working to improve.

It is crucial to understand that the narcissist simply does not function like a normal human being. He is incapable of seeing his faults, much less owning them (unless it serves him, for a time to be able to manipulate). So a normal approach to counseling will not be effective. Even if he pretends to go along with it, care must be given to spot manipulation and lying.

Additionally, if a counselor doesn’t understand the depth and skill with which a narcissist is capable of manipulating, he will be easily taken in by it, leaving the other spouse possibly feeling ganged up on. The problem has now been compounded.

The Bible does address narcissism, using the term “fool” or “scoffer.” But because of so much research and resources available in the study of narcissism which helps us to comprehend its nature in depth and detail, I think counselors do their counselled a grave disservice when they refuse to acknowledge and tap into those resources. The bottom line is that if you don’t have a solid, deep understanding of the specifics of narcissism (even if you don’t believe in the word itself) you will likely only exacerbate the problem when it comes to you.

The abuser is not a Christian, regardless of claiming to be.

“Wow. That’s a pretty bold statement.” You might say. But it’s not really, if you believe Scripture. It is not a person’s verbal claim that makes him a Christian. It is his behavior.

“Many will SAY to me on that day…..then I will say, ‘Depart from me you who break God’s laws.” Matthew 7:23

“If anyone says, “I love God,” and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen.” 1 John 4:20

“Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ravenous wolves.  You will know them by their fruits.Do men gather grapes from thornbushes or figs from thistles?  Even so, every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a bad tree bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Therefore by their fruits you will know them.” Matthew 7:15-20

If someone consistently, habitually shows hostility, anger and a lack of love and concern toward his spouse (or others), the Bible says that person is not a follower of Christ. Understanding this is also important for both the spouse and those counseling.

If “judging another person’s heart” makes you feel uncomfortable, just remember Paul’s command in 1 Corinthians 5:12-13: “What business is it of mine to judge those outside the church? Are you not to judge those inside? God will judge those outside. ‘Expel the wicked person from among you’.”

If we are to expel the wicked, we must then determine who they are. We do that by the measures given to us in Scripture and are actually commanded to put out those claiming to be Christians but who are living wickedly.

Different counsel must be given and it’s not easy.

For the record, if the abuser is the husband, telling his wife she needs to submit more, or try harder will make matters worse. The narcissist thrives on having control of those around him. He will use the Christian command for wives to submit to his advantage.

This does not, in my opinion, make the teaching wrong as many have concluded. But it does make counsel a matter of extreme discretion and wisdom, since these people are operating in a completely different realm. Biblical counsel is intended only when both spouses are fulfilling their duties (albeit imperfectly) or at least have rational capabilities. With narcissistic abuse, another approach must be taken.

Narcissists typically will either go along with counseling to appear they are trying, ignoring it when they get home, or they will kick back entirely against any attempts at pointing out their faults. Often the narcissist will just move from church to church, or friends to friends, dropping those who have tried to reach in, like a hot potato.

This makes even the effort to seek counseling quite difficult. (And you never know how the abuser will react at just the mention of seeking help.) It might be that one has to go through the painful process of separating before the abusive spouse realizes the seriousness of the other’s intentions to find help.

As a word of caution, if you are thinking about separating from your spouse, get a “safety plan” in order before you do, which involves other people who can help protect you. Sometimes when control is removed from the narcissist (i.e. you leave) they become physically violent.

I urge anyone reading this, if you are in the role of counseling or leadership at your church, to educate yourself about this particular type of abuse. One commenter sent the link to a fantastic site, Unholy Charade, written by a pastor of 18 years, former police officer, and anti-abuse advocate. He has some solid resources that really help explain this phenomenon.

And let me stop and say, if this describes your marriage, especially if you are just now piecing things together, I am so sorry. Sadly, you are not alone. Not even close. I’m astounded at how many are living in this type of situation. May the Lord give us all clarity, compassion and wisdom. My immediate advice to you is to find someone who understands. 

(Note: My husband gets my newsletter so when the first post in this series came through he said, “Are your readers going to think I’m a narcissist? 🙂 Let me assure you, he is not. The farthest thing from it, and I’m truly grateful for his servant-hearted leadership.)

 

 

14 Responses to “What the Church and Counselors Need to Understand About Narcissistic Abuse”

  1. Angie Martin says:

    Kelly,

    Thank you for writing this. The church has fumbled this ball for SO long. Thankfully, I am now part of a church that gets it but for many years I was in a church that did not and does not. I’m always thankful when I see this topic addressed. It’s the reason I went back to school to become a marriage and family counselor. I want to go into the church armed with skill and expertise, and be that someone who understands, walks alongside, gets messy, and offers hope and healing to hurting victims of of abuse.

    ~Angie

  2. Robin Tessin says:

    Oh Kelly, thank you for publishing this! I and my children are personally going through this situation. The book “Unholy Charade” is the only biblical book out there that makes things crystal clear as to what we have been dealing with and what the church needs to do. I can’t give enough praise to the author for this book!

  3. Sarah says:

    Someone with narcissistic traits comes from a background of horrific abuse. Typically a rejection from their mother. Their brain has literally changed from this abuse. You can actually do a brain scan to see parts of the brain that are not activating. I feel that it is unfair to call this sin, or to put onto the narcissist that it is something they can control. I’m not saying the spouse or kids should stick around for this type of abuse, but I am saying, it seems unfair to hold someone who has documented brain damage accountable for their actions to the point of calling it sin. I grew up with a bpd mother – borderline personality disorder is a cousin to narcissism – and she loves Jesus. The way she hurts/try’s to control is a reaction to her abuse that has physically changed her brain. To me, if God we’re to judge her for this I could not worship him. It would be cruel. To me, it’s like faulting someone with one leg for not walking on two legs, when we know they can’t. And there was a time, when the church viewed blindness, deafness, birth defects as a form of punishment for sin. Now we call those people born with defects a ‘gift’ from God. Counseling doesn’t work for the narcasstic – they need meds to help their brains work properly. Once on meds, counseling can help- but only if it’s focused on the Marist is past trauma. Until they can process that amount of pain/loss/grief there is nothing to be done, as far as I know.

    • Kelly says:

      Sarah,

      While it might be true that some narcs are victims of abuse, I emphatically disagree that all are. I personally know some who grew up in loving, healthy homes but displayed difficult behavior from very young. I may agree with you that their brains are impaired just not necessarily from outside influences.

    • And even if their brains are different, you can’t compare them with those born with birth defects.The reason is that people with birth defects don’t harm other people. Scientist have concluded many criminals have differences in their brains that keep them from being able to associate behavior with consequence. (We kept a foster child like this for 6 years.) Still, they have to pay for the consequences of harming others. That’s the only way a free society can work.

    • Carissa says:

      I have known quite a few narcissists who were not victims of abuse at all or any serious trauma’s… So, although your statement may be true for some, it most certainly is not for all.

  4. D. says:

    This is a super tough area to delve into. It’s easy to spot some narcissistic people (overly loud,unashamedly arrogant, always wanting their way without apology, wanting to be the center of all conversation), but it’s not so easy to spot the more subtle ones.

    The church has really done away with the idea of confronting sin and Christians have learned well to outwardly play the right role, pretending all is well. We are afraid to judge another’s character and I believe many families are struggling, but few know and even less know how to help. Women are usually told to submit and wait for God’s blessing through obedience.

    How do you actually identify a low profile narcissist? Of course in marriage there will be conflict. Some of the specifics you mentioned in one of your posts are common in our home, yet I don’t necessarily feel I am oppressed. I have freedoms (with spending money, how I dress, what activities to chose for the kids), but a lot of the other ares you listed ring true. Blameshifting, refusing to seek outside advice, anger at situations that don’t turn out in their favor, relationships are chosen based on what they can get or if they feel comfortable (mostly relationships are not pursued as it means accountability and beyond surface). I was even told that if I just focused on my part in marriage our marriage would be fine. Asking for help with the children or a time to get away without them is usually a big problem in our home; a big inconvenience to their agenda.

    How do we go about defining a certain personality, taking into account we are all created differently and struggle with different areas of sin. When do we leave room for God’s work in theirs and our lives and simply pray, pray, pray verses seeking help and possible separation? I struggle with reconciling the biblical meaning of love (which seems to bear so much in meekness) yet the boldness of calling sin what it is and not sweeping it under the rug. It’s true that our home is way more stable when I say less and go along with all the plans without making a stink. But inside I am burning with anger (my sin for sure) and wondering if this is simply the long term plan God has to refine me.

  5. Kelly says:

    D,

    Your questions/comments sound very familiar. And navigating through this is NOT easy at all and there are no easy answers. Which is why I still haven’t written a post about “What do I do if I’m married to a narcissist”….fear and trepidation.

    As far as figuring out if you are experiencing abuse, even that is very tricky. For one, being married to a narcissist creates confusion and often the narc. spouse has done such a good job of blaming the other, that he/she can’t even see that what’s happening is wrong. My friend who has left her husband has told me a number of times how the longer she is out of it, the clearer she can see how wrong it was. It becomes normal to you if it’s all you know.

    I will say, about your question/comment “we all sin”…narcissism (on the extreme end) is VERY different from simply having a sin nature. Normal Christians sin, but they recognize it, repent from it, and strive to improve. Narcs justify it, defend it, refuse to admit it or repent. People with classic narcissistic “disorder” do not think, behave or respond like normal people. They will defend themselves to the death over what they want.

    Also, there is a spectrum. This might answer some of your questions. It’s true many narcissists have the loud, charismatic personality. Some, though, are called “covert” and are on the lower end of the spectrum. This article was very helpful in explaining that. https://couplestherapyinc.com/the-signs-of-a-covert-narcissist-husband/

  6. D. says:

    I’m a bit wary of clinical physiologists, knowing that their studies and research do not ultimately seek to bring it back to the heart, but to dig deep into a twisted mind and come up with a diagnosis.

    Is not the only answer for these covert and non-covert to be completely renewed by the transforming of their minds? Little else will be a lasting solution. During that period of waiting for these supposed Christian husbands or wives to be truly broken and repentant is the time that seems to cause so much damage to the recipients.

    So as I read the article link you posted, there really was a lot of similarities I identified in our home. Can some of this frame of mind also come from either cultural or other ways of upbringing? My spouse was raised in Europe, his mom did everything for him and was generally seen as the one who should tend to all domestic duties. This mindset has seemed to cross over now into our home where if interrupted from YouTube or cellphone and asked to help out it becomes an argument or great inconvenience. Anything other than topics of their interest seem to lead to boredom and then right back to their preference of discussion.

    I wouldn’t say there is a lack of any empathy in our home, but there is usually a dismissive tone when confronted or when I try to share what I find challenging. That’s why I personally feel confused because I’m not being violently verbally or physically assaulted, but it’s this general undertone of he does as he pleases, doesn’t really want my input and isn’t all that concerned about where our marriage is at or that a women actually has feelings!!!

    I have to admit though that after years of this I am the one who is eye-rolling or responding sarcastically and struggling to extend an attitude of grace and forgiveness. I have a hard exterior, not wanting my emotions to take over and while I serve and make sure of the mom/wife duties, I admit I am not doing them in a spirit of joy and saintly sacrifice, wanting nothing in return.

    • C says:

      D, as one who is in this situation, it sounds to me like you are married to a narcissist. The hardest thing for me was to admit that I was married to a narcissist. After I admitted it, to myself, I could take a step back and really observe the situation. I don’t have any answers, but I will pray for you.

  7. Christine says:

    I have recently separated from my narcissistic husband. One book that has really helped me is « When loving him is hurting you » by Dr. David Hawkins.
    You can also find many great articles and videos on the Marriagerecoverycenter.com website. Through the marriage recovery center I also participated in small group counseling sessions specialised in healing from emotionally abusive and narcissistic relationships. Not only did it really helped me in my own healing but also to be able to journey with my 8 children through all this.
    I still have a long journey ahead of me but I am much better equipped now.
    I pray that these resources can help others.
    Thank you for addressing this subject.

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