A staggering amount of my clients who identify as codependent and are in a relationship with a self-centered or abusive partner have attempted couples therapy. It is also staggering the amount of times I hear that the reason for the couples therapy is that the abusive, controlling, sometimes narcissist partner feels they need it to “fix” a problem in the codependent. Yet still they go ahead with it.
Even more alarming for me is how many times the fact is reported back that “the master manipulator”, that these people can be, was given centre stage by the therapist to claim himself as the victim. I have seen this particular pattern played out many times and it is something I look for closely when taking on new clients. Couples therapy is unfortunately one of the many tools in the armory of a narcissist to put the problem somewhere else. Victims of these people need protecting, not being made to feel that they are the main issue.
I personally use my free consultation to make sure that I do not start work with a narcissist. This is my own personal preference and I prefer to work with the victims of abuse or codependents. The questions I ask and exercises I do are designed to get a real picture of personality and history. I look for the ability to genuinely empathize and take responsibility for actions and deeds. While it is not an exact science, it has worked for me so far. There are some therapists who believe that narcissists also deserve to be heard and have treatment programs aimed at such but my question would be: how do you filter out what is genuine from what is manipulation? One therapist said that at least fifty percent drop out of therapy after the first session and up to seventy percent after three. She stated that some who continued saw her as “supply”. Results were hard to evaluate, she stated.
If individual therapy with such clients is difficult, having couples therapy with the victim is doomed to disaster. Many women that I know who have attempted this have reported that they saw a person in the first session that they had never seen before. Someone who talked of “caring” and the “problems we have communicating”. They were given assurances that “I will do all I can” while the abuse continued at home. One recent case, where controlling, emotional and verbal abuse and physical violence were daily occurrences in a marriage, were told in the first session that “you just need to communicate better”. Couples therapy, in this case was against my advice but the client was convinced by her controlling partner to do it anyway with a therapist of his choice (another common tactic). This was after he came back from one session of individual therapy claiming an epiphany that she was at fault.
While you might expect this kind of behaviour from someone so self-absorbed, you may well question why a codependent would actually go along with it when their logical mind is probably telling them to stay well clear of the process. Another question might be: why this happens so often? For the answer to this, you need to look at the dynamics of such a relationship.
In terms of the codependent, given that connection was “worked” for as a child, the adult mind will be seeking a connection with a “moving target”. In real terms, that means an emotionally unavailable or emotionally immature individual who has trouble processing emotional input and is more likely avoidant of feelings and sometimes empathy. This is a mirror of events from the codependent‘s childhood and the same drive to connect is there. This is done with control measures designed to keep the object of their codependency in a certain space. Attempts at fixing, enabling, martyrdom, sacrifice, anger, victimhood are all tools at their disposal. These tools keep them highly focused on their partner and they are hypervigilant to changes in moods and behavior that might need a readjustment of their approach. It is an extremely intense process for all involved but can maintain itself over a sustained period, until it doesn‘t and that‘s where the issues really start. Codependents live in hope of being able to turn an abusive relationship around a for their own reasons.
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It really doesn’t matter whether the narcissist goes to couples therapy for manipulation or is dragged there, the result is generally the same. He will seek to be admired by the therapist and will present the best side of himself. He will turn on the same charm with the therapist that he did to hook the partner in at the start. The partner may well have, through fear, not expressed how they feel in the home environment and as therapy is a safe space will want to do so in the first session.
This is where the narcissist will likely gaslight his partner and this might well lead to frustration and maybe even an outburst from the partner, giving the totally wrong impression of the relationship dynamic. Others will avoid expressing what they really feel for fear of consequences outside of session when at home, leaving the stage to the narcissist.
Some people – namely those who have convinced themselves that they love their narcissist partner and want to try to make things work with them – think that attending couples counseling together will improve the situation. They believe that if they can convince the narcissist in their life to seek therapy with them, then they’ll magically become the perfect partner they have so much potential to become.
Therapists are only human and may not sometimes see through the games being played in front of them. I have heard of instances where therapists have labeled the victim “the problem”, due to what they have seen in the first session. It is important that therapists take their time in this instance before making judgment.
What is the advice for anyone thinking of couples therapy with someone with narcissist tendencies? The simple answer is don’t… because nothing will change. The best solution is to find the courage to leave, shut the door (never to be opened again) and go to therapy alone.
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Dr. Nicholas Jenner, a therapist, coach, and speaker, has over 20 years of experience in the field of therapy and coaching. His specialty lies in treating codependency, a condition that is often characterized by a compulsive dependence on a partner, friend, or family member for emotional or psychological sustenance. Dr. Jenner’s approach to treating codependency involves using Internal Family Systems (IFS) therapy, a treatment method that has gained widespread popularity in recent years. He identifies the underlying causes of codependent behavior by exploring his patients’ internal “parts,” or their different emotional states, to develop strategies to break free from it. Dr. Jenner has authored numerous works on the topic and offers online therapy services to assist individuals in developing healthy relationships and achieving emotional independence.