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.)
Read Part 3: What to Do if You’re Married to a Narcissist