Sheltering in Place with a Narcissist: A Therapeutic Pivot

Sheltering in Place with a Narcissist: A Therapeutic Pivot

“All he’s concerned about is his f*kin’ hair! My sister can’t pay her rent, and all he talks about is how his inability to get a haircut has made him even more handsome. I’m done…Do you know a good divorce attorney?” With the COVID-19 pandemic raging seemingly without end, couples around the world are being pushed past their limits. Issues in relationships that simmered below the surface are boiling over. Many people are finding it too difficult to tolerate unfulfilling and unbalanced relationships in the midst of all this uncertainty and stress. Others are finally confronting that they are part of a toxic relationship.

According to a recent story by ABC News, family attorneys around the country are being flooded with requests for advice from stressed-out clients who want to file for divorce as soon as the dust of the pandemic settles.  Many spouses feel unable to tolerate being “trapped” in their homes with a person they suddenly realize is a real-life Narcissus.

Long-standing toxic relationship patterns, amplified  

Over the past 15 years of working in relational therapy as a licensed marriage and family therapist (LMFT), I’ve found that in nearly 90% of the cases where I’m called in to help navigate relationships that appear to be falling apart, one of the partners suffers from a narcissistic personality disorder (NPD). While it’s common in our modern lexicon to talk about people as narcissistic, and to label them as narcissists, it’s important to remember that personality disorders including Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD) are empirically based clinical terms that have clearly articulated diagnostic criterion.

Narcissism, defined.

Narcissism is a nexus of traits characterized by self-absorption, a need for constant validation, a sense of superiority, and an extraordinary capacity for manipulating others. It’s a consequence of overcompensating for a deficiency that a person endured early in their developmental path.

Historically, when we think of narcissists, we think of men. Data from 2008 indicates that the prevalence rate among men was nearly twice that of women (7.7% for men and 4.2% for women), but as I discuss in my book, Fragile Power, published just last year, women are catching up to their male counterparts in the rate at which they are displaying and being diagnosed as narcissistic.

While there’s nothing new about relationships being negatively affected by partners with NPD, the sheltering-in-place and quarantine orders that confine us with our loved ones have made many people feel they are stuck in purgatory with Narcissus himself.

There’s no cure, but there is healing and hope

There’s no “cure” for NPD, because it is not the type of disorder that can be entirely eliminated from a person’s psychic makeup; however, through ongoing therapy, a narcissist’s personality can be softened. Still, most people with NPD resist treatment and therapy—both individual and couples therapy. To a narcissist, the problem is always external to themselves. They are masters in the art of deflection, so any problem or conflict is not due to them, but rather to the people, places, and things around them.

Living with a narcissist is challenging—even in the best of times. When things get rough, narcissists provide little support to soften the hard edges of life. When the top blows off the world, as it has in the COVID-19 pandemic, narcissists drain the life force from everything around them. As is evidenced by the client who I quoted at the start of this blog, a narcissist’s inability to consider anything or anyone other than themselves is exhausting and infuriating. In addition to being masters of deflection, they are masters in what is known as the narcissistic cycle of abuse.

When people who suffer from NPD do make it into treatment, it’s usually from the threat of a significant loss, a loss that will entail a momentous injury to their grandiose and fragile ego. Once in the therapeutic process, however, they come to see how deeper, more intimate, and trusting relationships can add significant value to their lives. In seeing this value proposition, they become willing to stick with the long, reparative process that therapy provides. This ongoing therapeutic process helps them gain insight into significant issues of their past that impact how they see themselves and the world around them.

But as I mentioned above, this is a long-term process, which typically spans up to two years of consistent work. So, what’s a person to do when they need immediate and short-term help to figure out how to cope with a narcissist in the immediacy of sheltering in place? For starters, we need to be familiar with the official diagnostic criteria for NPD.

Narcissistic traits

From a clinical standpoint, narcissists suffer from key personality traits; it’s possible to think of these traits as signs of narcissism or the traits of a narcissist:

  • They are what they have. Narcissists define themselves from the outside in. Their sense of self is derived from their appearance, as well as the things and people they possess.
  • They’re an emotional hand grenade. As long as their ego is being fed, narcissists are happy and even a pleasure to be around, but the minute they are challenged or things don’t go their way, they explode.
  • They don’t care about you or what is important to you. Narcissists lack empathy and compassion. The only time they care about you is when you can help them get something they can’t get on their own.
  • They’re master manipulators. They know when to charm and when to threaten. They will say or do anything to manipulate and exploit others for their personal gain.
  • They’re grandiose. A narcissist believes they are unique and special. They are condescending and hyper critical of others.
  • They’re entitled. They feel they are deserving of special treatment and admiration from others even though they have done nothing to deserve it.
  • They need constant attention. They compulsively strive to be the center of attention and will say or do anything to be in the spotlight.

Stress amplifies narcissistic traits    

While we are all living in a state of uncertainty and a lack of control, most of us have the tools to manage the stress. Narcissists don’t.  As a result, their narcissistic traits have become amplified. The reasons for this are several. First, while a person who suffers from narcissism presents to the world as confident and full of bravado, at the core of their being they are insecure and fearful. This pandemic has brought with it a personal threat that chastises even the most grandiose individuals. Second, narcissists lack the tools to constructively deal with the challenges of life. These tools include learning to tolerate frustration, appreciating the value of humility, and—perhaps most importantly—a strong social support system to which they can turn for comfort and guidance. Not in the bailiwick of most narcissists are the tools that are highly effective in managing the challenges presented by this pandemic: cultivating gratitude for the little things in life, strategically sharing vulnerabilities with trustworthy others, and the capacity to transcend one’s self to connect with a higher spiritual or universal order.

A treatment strategy, pivoted

Traditionally, helping couples transcend the destructive force of narcissism would involve my working with them in person, over a specifically defined period of time. Today, however, neither one of these treatment protocols are practical. Instead, my longer-term therapeutic work has been replaced by short-term coaching sessions with a client who needs specific “tips and tricks” to help them get “to the other side” of this pandemic. That is, instead of focusing on how the narcissist’s development of vulnerability, humility, and empathy will enhance the quality of a relationship over time, the work must be narrowly focused on enabling a narcissist’s partner to integrate short-term strategies of individual self-care into their daily routine during quarantine. The top-three strategies that I recommend to these clients are:

  • Make the time to recharge. Everything about COVID-19 is exhausting. Therefore, it’s important to make time every single day to temporarily shut down your mind and your body. The best way to do this is to get out of the house, even for 10 minutes. By changing your physical environment, you’ll be able to calm yourself down and find relief from the toxicity of your relationship.
  • Avoid conflict. Narcissists compulsively crave attention. It doesn’t matter if the attention is found through conflict or concord. Try, as best you can, to avoid conflict. When the narcissist in your life tries to hook you into conflict, simple statements such as, “I’m sorry you feel angry, but I just don’t have the energy to engage,” will enable the narcissist to feel validated and help you avoid their drama.
  • Think long term, but act short term. It’s healthy to plan for the future, but to do it wisely, you’ll need to have short-term strategies to implement the plan. Unless you are truly experiencing a life-threatening crisis, it might be best to leave definitive decisions for a later date. Remember that a pandemic is not the best time for reactive decisions or actions. Instead, spend your time thinking through your options and discussing them with a trustworthy confidante.


Even though we don’t know exactly when or what our world will like when COVID-19 passes, it will pass. Yes, in its fury and wake we’ll have sustained enormous losses. Institutions we counted on will have become extinct or will be radically transformed. We will grieve loved ones lost and be unsure of our financial future. The externals of our lives will be altered and perhaps not for the better. For these reasons, we need to make sure we are doing everything within our power to ground ourselves rather than allow ourselves to be drained by the narcissistic people in our lives.

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