Losing Direction: With Narcissistic or Demanding Partners

It is awfully easy to lose direction when working with narcissistic partners in couples therapy. They bring a dominant energy into the session and often make demands on you as well as their partners. They may have a loudly articulated direction they want you to go. My husband Pete likes to say, “they need what they don’t want and want what they don’t need – and don’t know the difference.”

They want loving adoration from their husband/wife and need to expose vulnerability that is abhorrent to them.

These clients may force you to question yourself.  You might come out of a session wondering:

  • Can I hold up if the narcissist consistently challenges me?
  • Is it okay to confront them or not?
  • Are my confrontations too hard or too gentle?
  • Am I too patient or not patient enough?
  • How much mirroring do I need to do?

With all these uncertainties running through your mind, it is difficult to plant your feet squarely and stay on course after you’ve chosen a direction.

The following vignette is some work I did with a narcissistic husband in couples therapy. This couple has a 10-year long very aggressive, volatile relationship. As you read through the transcript, watch for the many dangerous points at which I might lose my direction. Also note where I was successful and where I was not.

Vignette: Vulnerability is not weakness

Ellyn: Bill, it is time for us to understand better what motivates your demands and your criticism of Jane.

Bill:  You mean I have to try to figure out what motivates me to be critical?

Ellyn: Yes. There are other emotions when you are being critical.

Bill: But those are weak emotions. I don’t build my relationships around weakness. And don’t forget that Jane doesn’t pull her weight.

Ellyn: Today I’d like to talk about your part. Will you go there with me?

Bill: Only if you do something about her whining and sniveling.

Ellyn: Bill, I know you would be more comfortable if I focused on Jane. It’s time to focus on your part. I’ve described the pattern that when you feel hurt or when you feel some kind of loss or pain, you strike out angrily and you attack. I say that descriptively, not with judgment about what you’ve done.

Bill: How can I recognize what I don’t seem to recognize? I can’t ask someone else to recognize my feelings, can I?

Ellyn: You can ask me for help. You can search for what motivates your criticism. You have functioned so independently. You can risk letting me help you.

Bill: I have made an effort for as long as I can remember not to depend on others.  That isn’t me. I am not weak.

Ellyn: In not being weak, you push your wife away.

Bill: I don’t get why a relationship needs to be built around recognizing weakness.

Ellyn: I’m not suggesting that your relationship be built on weakness. I am suggesting you have a broader range of feelings than you admit to yourself and to Jane. For example, how weak will you feel if you let me help you today?

Bill: What kind of help? I quite consciously deal with whatever arises by not allowing it to take me over. I don’t let emotions control me.

Ellyn:  That’s right. And that promotes distance rather than connection.

Bill: Whatever event happens I have to deal with it in a way where I retain control and responsibility for my behavior. I can’t let my emotions get the best of me.

Ellyn: I think you are feeling uneasy today. I am coming towards you. As we are talking I think you are doing a cost-benefit analysis, asking yourself, “Do I dare let Ellyn any closer?” Admitting vulnerability and your desire for kindness from Jane would run counter to how you protect yourself. And It runs against many years of conditioning.

Bill: The whole point is that this is what I have done to avoid being depressed and angry in all other settings. I can deal with crises very well. And now it becomes dysfunctional here.

Ellyn: That is right.

Bill: The same thing that keeps me from being angry and depressed elsewhere keeps me angry here.

Ellyn: I am glad you can say that and recognize that. I’m glad you are starting to let Jane and me know.

Ellyn: You’ve had many years in which it has basically worked for you to put up walls and maintain a set of beliefs.

Bill: The way I grew up, there isn’t supposed to be anyone inside but me.

Ellyn: So, as you open up, I know it is not easy. It’s important for Jane and you to recognize this is an act of love. It’s not an easy thing Jane is asking you to do, and it is an act of love for you to say, “I care about you enough and I care about our relationship enough that I am stretching. I’m struggling to change this and let you come behind my wall.” I will continue to help. There will be times you open up and Jane doesn’t notice. And times you run away that are painful to Jane. All of this is part of what happens as the two of you are learning a new way to be with each other.

One thing that helps me maintain clear direction is, whenever possible, to decide before the session what I want to accomplish in a specific session. Here I wanted to confront Bill’s narcissistic defenses.

I know how defended the narcissist is from their core vulnerability, that core loneliness. I internally encourage  myself through the session saying  “Hang in there.” I just keep coming back to, “I know there is more to him than his angry, demanding criticism. I know inside there’s a part of him that doesn’t want to be so lonely. I know he’s not going to let me see it easily. He’s going to be intellectual, he’s going to hide and I just keep telling myself to keep coming back over and over again. He has not had the experience in his life of showing vulnerability and having something positive come of that. His experience is about safety in not showing weakness. So he’s spent most of his life being very hard driving and being emotionally shut down with people.”

I will also remember the entry Bill gave me. What is depressing about the other places he spends time? What is the grief/disappointment that he runs from?

  1. Please comment below on which of my interventions were effective. And where did you notice I got caught?
  2. Of course, this is only the beginning. In the Developmental Model training program, you will learn a repair process to calm the couples system when there are narcissistic partners. You’ll also learn how to build the capacity for empathy and why repair is not enough to create lasting change. Click Developmental Model for more information or to register.

This blog post is from a 9-part series called “Avoid Losing Control, Momentum or Direction in Couples Therapy.” Click here to see the other articles in the series.

Please read what one of our participants had to say.

“I was frustrated to see how the attachment and differentiation models were often pitted against each other. Eventually, I discovered Bader and Pearson’s work at The Couples Institute. Finally, this seemed like a comprehensive approach, and I knew I wanted to commit to being trained in the Developmental Model. Incorporating differentiation, attachment, and neuroscience as well as the developmental stages seemed to have it all and I was right. I feel refueled as I continue to engage in the lessons, the blogs, the calls and my peer group. I am so grateful for your training and especially the gifts that you bring to it.” Meg Luce, LMFT, Grass Valley, CA

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Deb Hecker
Deb Hecker

Excellent work, Ellyn. Maybe you can help Donald Trump!


Have you done work recognizing aspergers impact on couples?

Della Fernandes
Della Fernandes
Reply to  Anonymous

Nice work with the couple Ellyn. Thanks for sharing this with us. I appreciate it. I like how you kept reframing the issues for Bill – till he could let some of exterior defensiveness rest and allow himself to consider what you were saying. I was wondering what you do if the partner keeps resisting – are there other techniques besides reframing that have worked in this kind of dynamic?

To the anonymous poster on aspergers couples – i hope this helps :
There is a fine line between asperger’s behaviour that impacts couples and narcissistic behavior -it can be easily misunderstood – the underlying piece that stays the same is the fear/anxiety that is the foundation of the issues. There are many ways to work with Asperger/neurotypical couples that can help with bringing safety into the relationship and help to interpret each other’s behaviour towards the relationship’s good. Most of the work that helps is structured and directive . My website has referrals to books that are some of my favorites – I came across them in my work with couples and I hope they help you as well. Della Fernandes LMFT – wwwdellafernandescom


Fascinating to read. I thought however that narcissistic traits are fairly hard to treat in psychotherapy. So I am wondering what kind of outcomes one can expect? Not easy to tell I find which interventions were more or less useful. However I noticed myself bristling when the derogatory comments about Jane went unchallenged. I wonder how you felt about them? Honestly, I can’t imagine doing couples therapy and not feeling overwhelmed or ill-equipped to challenge people assertively enough without ‘amygdala hijack’. And yet this series has been absolutely fascinating and thought-provoking to read about.


Great conversation. I noticed that you didn’t confront the narcissistic behaviour but instead you used it to the benefit of different outcomes away from being defensive to becoming aware of a different emotion that could be assessed, incorporating the client’s need to always be ‘right’..

Patrice wolters
Patrice wolters

Good morning, wow what a great job working with this guy. I had one just like him and very difficult work. The one place I think you got off a bit is when you said “In not being weak you push your partner away.” i THINK he needs to understand that being vulnerable with Jane is a sign of strength and his ability to discover he can be vulnerable and come back to more strength. There is strength in closeness and it is because of his strength he can open up. I could say more but just got up. I would like to see more of the vignettes as they provide a great learning experience! Maybe you can help Hilary also! Patrice

Annie V
Annie V

I often share the quote: “In my vulnerability my strength lies” to help partners understand that there is a real choice to be vulnerable and share our perspective, thoughts and feelings with out partners in a non attacking, non blaming way, that creates intimacy, (into -me -see), which actually brings them closer, making them more ‘real’ to their partner, vs the ‘arrogant ass’ they can appear to come across as when no vulnerability is shared. Creating safety, security and a move toward vs a move away from their partner which is often the goal.


Have you ever had to navigate working with a narcissistic co-worker? Is it worth the energy when they are not your client or friend?


This was awesome! You really navigated his defenses beautifully without compromising his sense of self. You also explained and made relevant, his perspectives of his positives actions having a negative effect on his wife and how what he viewed as a strength actually was creating distance not developing or strengthening the bond with his wife. Do you feel that “couples therapy” when one of the parties is a narcissist, will work in platonic relationship? Have you done couples therapy with friends?


One of the many things that makes a narcissist challenging is they have no aspiration goals to become different/better/more evolved. There is little motivation to change – the pressure has to start externally – usually from spouse or therapist.
Because there is such little self-motivation to change the spouse or therapist will almost always get serious push back.

This seems to be true of almost any egosyntonic attitude or behavior on any problem area, It just shows up dramatically with the narcissist.
It is one reason why many therapists are not strongly drawn to work with narcissists or passive aggressive personalities.


I love this Ellyn!
Your sensitivity with this man was enormous. It would have been so easy to be de-railed by his jabs at his wife yet you kept bringing it back to him. This has inspired me to learn more about working with narcissists in couples therapy. It is so easy to just give up on them.

Phebe Fletcher
Phebe Fletcher

Did you get off track with, “How weak would you feel if you let me help you” …since a narcissist isn’t very motivated to change?


I was very impressed with your work with the narcissistic husband and resonated with almost every comment from the group. maybe a discussion about the healthy progression Fom first being wise enough to guard oneself from hurt out there in the world by keeping ones feelings and weaknesses to oneself – to finding the select few you can open up to and be cherished for it, – pwould be useful. And then segueing into the strength involved in testing the waters and opening up to a person you want to be close with…

Susan L
Susan L

I am wondering how close/similar are the Narcissistic and BPD traits/behaviour? I have a client who’s partner’s daughter is displaying these traits. How can I help her deal her emotions and confusion with her partner who seems to be drawn in by his daughter’s behaviour? The repercussions are ruining their relationship. Any insight would be greatly appreciated for me as a therapist!

Andre Lampa
Andre Lampa

Just reading each of Bill’s responses is frustrating and exhausting to me. I have a lot of work to do to keep from being derailed by responding to every single thing he says.

Keeping my focus as a therapist in this case goes against what I thought of as an empathetic response, to want to know more about what he is saying, to track where he is. But I see now this is a cognitive trap, getting involved in his content in the moment, his deflections and argumentation, rather than feeling out where he is coming from and reassuring and encouraging him.

I loved how you found ways to agree with parts of what he said, and ignored being drawn into debate or correcting him. But when I first read you saying “In not being weak, you push your wife away”, I did cheer for you because I felt you had scored a valid point against him. Now I see how you were caught by engaging him on his terms of “weakness”, allowing him to set up an argument with you.

An amazing example of a challenging client.

Dr. Ellyn Bader

Dr. Ellyn Bader is Co-Founder & Director of The Couples Institute and creator of The Developmental Model of Couples Therapy. Ellyn is widely recognized as an expert in couples therapy, and since 2006 she has led innovative online training programs for therapists. Professionals from around the world connect with her through internet, conference calls and blog discussions to study couples therapy. Ellyn’s first book, "In Quest of the Mythical Mate," won the Clark Vincent Award by the California Association of Marriage & Family Therapists for its outstanding contribution to the field of marital therapy and is now in its 18th printing. She has been featured on over 50 radio and television programs including "The Today Show" and "CBS Early Morning News," and she has been quoted in many publications including "The New York Times," "The Oprah Magazine" and "Cosmopolitan."

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