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Narcissism and the Couple

Over the past few weeks it has been difficult to ignore the amount of publicity and hype being given to ‘Killing Eve’.  Prior to the launch of the second series Jodie Comer and Sandra Oh featured in numerous articles and chat shows with huge speculation surrounding their relationship.  How attracted are they to each other?  Whilst ‘Eve’ may have stabbed ‘Villanelle’ at the end of the first series was this an end to what attracted them to each other, or was it a prelude to something ‘deeper’?

Although I’ve been watching the whole series on i-player I won’t spoil the story and I’ll leave you to speculate on the answer.  However as a therapist I am fascinated by their relationship to each other.  Clearly on one level Villanelle (Jodie) is portrayed as being the psychopathic assassin (or is it a sociopathic one) whilst Eve (Sandra) is a desk bound British Intelligence officer intent on bringing Villanelle’s killing to an end.  But dig a little deeper – ask the question about the narcissistic traits of both of them and the picture becomes more complicated.

Classically narcissism is defined in terms of the self-absorbed personality who always knows they are right, with a grandiose sense of their self-importance, and with fantasies of unlimited power, brilliance and achievement held in the face of contradictory evidence.  Villanelle qualifies superbly for that as a diagnosis.

However there is also another form of narcissism which is less well recognised that again focuses on a deluded self but which is bounded by vulnerability, fear of exposure and the need for attention and care.  

Of course it does not take much thought to realise that elements of both these descriptors exist in all of us.  ‘Normal narcissism’ is healthy in that it gives us a degree of self-belief and an ability to create a boundary between ourselves and others in social settings.  However it is in its extreme forms, at each end of the spectrum that things become more unhealthy and can lead to a difficulty in relating amongst other things.  In the case of Villanelle and Eve I’m not sure if either of them are capable of making the compromises and adjustments that are essential to any lasting relationship.   

As couple therapists we see not so much the pathological extremes of Narcissistic Personality Disorder, but the more troublesome elements of narcissism that get in the way of relationships.   For example a client may say: nothing is ever his fault; he’s never there for me: it’s always about him: he will never admit he is wrong. 

The challenges are about being able to allow a degree of vulnerability into a close relationship.  To the grandiose type narcissist this is about not always needing to be right and the best, but developing empathy and allowing the wisdom and value of their partner to take its place in the relationship.  For the vulnerable type narcissist it is about discovering and growing their sense of agency in the relationship and not always seeing themselves as victims.  For both types it’s about valuing ourselves in relation to another – being able to hold another person in mind.  This often stems from an insecure attachment in our early lives and the resultant struggle to practice relational thinking: of me in relation to you.

So what in practice does this mean? From my experience as a therapist I often find it’s the vulnerable type narcissist who presents in my consulting room as having problems with their partner.  The key intervention at that point is to explore as much as possible about them rather than focusing on the perceived shortcomings of their partner.

The same principle largely applies when a couple comes together to therapy.  It’s too easy to get locked into a blame scenario with each other avoiding their contribution to the breakdown of the relationship.  Changing the ‘dance’ does happen but only if each begins to recognise the part they are playing.  Of course the very nature of the more classical narcissistic personality means that they are not always very open to reflect about themselves in this way.

However, whilst we don’t change our personalities in therapy, significant and profound shifts can take place in our relationships as we change the way that we relate to others and the way that we think about ourselves.

Sarah Fletcher