Taking a Narcissist to Couples Counseling
Tina and I had visited my therapist together to figure out our best course to move forward on relationship counseling.
At the time, Tina appeared committed to repairing the critically damaged trust between us. Jeff, my therapist had asked her about why she had lied to me when she snuck off with Nate to spend three nights in his hotel room. She insisted that their relationship was platonic, and said at the time that she reasoned it was “easier to ask for forgiveness than permission.”
That was a pretty significant mis-estimation.
Her narcissistic brain didn’t really grasp boundaries or consequences well. The truth was Tina simply felt that she could do anything she wished and whatever my objections may be were of little consequence. I’m sure she was supremely confident that I’d suffer endlessly, with minimal fuss for her. The idea that I might leave her probably never seriously crossed her mind.
Jeff had suggested that while we were sorting all that out, maybe it would be a good idea to put her friendship with Nate on hold. That seemed like the most obvious first step, to me. Tina didn’t commit to it, there and then, in Jeff’s office, but later raised it at home, as though it was her idea.
“I’m thinking I should stop talking to Nate for a while,” she told me when we were getting ready for bed that night.
“Well, you know, I wouldn’t ever ask you to cut him out of your life forever, but right now, I think that would be a good idea. We can’t afford to have disruptive, contentious or unsupportive people in our lives, right now. If we’re going to get through this, we need to surround ourselves with positivity and get rid of distractions that could divide us.”
Tina agreed. I felt optimistic. In fact, I felt supremely confident that our love would triumph over this temporary adversity and we’d come out of it stronger and wiser. I did not understand what forces I was contending with. I hadn’t even the faintest notion.
Ultimately, Jeff had recommended that Tina begin seeing a therapist of her own to deal with anxiety and depression. Tina urged for someone who was experienced in dealing with chemical dependency. Jeff felt he had the perfect match in mind and scheduled Tina a recurring appointment with Aljandro that coincided with my regular appointment with Jeff, so I could easily drive us both every week.
For relationship counseling, he recommended Adeline, who specialized in couples therapy. She was in demand and it would be a couple weeks before we could get in for our initial consultation with her.
Tina seemed initially excited about our path forward. I felt good about it, myself. “We’ll have advantages other couples don’t,” I mused aloud. “With both of us working independently on our own issues and the opportunity to check in regularly in couples counseling, I think we’ll be stronger than most anyone else.”
In retrospect, my thinking seemed delusional, but again, I did not understand the inexorable power of a personality disorder, or even that I was up against one.
A day had passed since Tina had proposed suspending her relationship with Nate. I got home from work in the evening and made my way down the graffitied bare steps into the Farmington apartment. I sat at the bottom to take my dress shoes off. I could hear Tina’s voice coming from the bedroom. The door was closed and I couldn’t make out what she was saying, but it sounded like she was talking on the phone.
Tina’s voice became more distinct as I neared the door. I could hear her laughing heartily. “OK,” she said, mirth still in her voice, “Thank you for everything. Talk to you later. Bye.”
I opened the door and strolled into the room with a “Hello, my love.”
I pulled my tie off and hung it up. “Who were you laughing with?” I asked casually as I put my suit coat on a hanger. I had a suspicion, but hoped I was mistaken.
There was a long silence before Tina sheepishly replied, “Nate.”
I froze, still facing away from Tina, into the closet.
“I was talking to my Mom about it and she doesn’t think I should have to give up my friendship with Nate,” she went on to explain.
I didn’t look at her as I resumed stripping off my work clothes. I didn’t have anything ready to say, either.
“I have few enough friends as it is,” Tina continued.
My former optimism flagged. “Yesterday, we were in agreement on this. My therapist agrees. If we asked anyone on the street, they’d agree. After what happened, your continued contact with Nate is hugely detrimental to our relationship. What are you going to do if our couple’s counselor also agrees?”
“I don’t know,” Tina said. “I’ll evaluate her advice after I hear it.”
I couldn’t fathom how Tina could think this was anything close to OK. How could she possibly think that after being caught lying to sneak away to another man’s hotel room for three nights, she could just carry on seeing and talking to that guy unabated, and keep her relationship with me in tact? I could not imagine that any sane person would see things her way, but Tina and her mom waged a campaign to try to convince me that I was the one who was out of step on this. I let it drop for the nonce, hoping it could be settled in therapy.
August 10th, 2018 was the big day for our first consultation with Adeline. Tina had been staying at Amber’s, ostensibly to watch her pets while she was away attending the nuptials of her roommates. I picked Tina up there early that Friday afternoon. She seemed a bit sluggish and said she was nervous.
“Don’t be nervous,” I said enthusiastically. “Just remember we’re doing this because we love each other and our therapist only wants to help us. What’s to worry about? This will be a good thing.” I was painfully naive.
Adeline was a young black woman who came off immediately as a no-nonsense person who spoke plainly and with a blunt air of authority.
I started out, saying that we’d been having some difficulties, but that we both loved each other so much that we were willing to do anything to make it work between us.
“He’s my best friend,” Tina added. “I’ve never felt so close to anyone else before and he’s the only person whose company I never get tired of.”
I nodded and squeezed her hand reassuringly. My feelings mirrored that sentiment, exactly.
Conscious of how quickly an hour can go by, I tried to be efficient with our time and summarized events that led to us deciding to seek professional help.
Tina explained that she felt a lot of her troubles stemmed from her upbringing. “I think all the lying my mom used to make me do really screwed me up,” she said.
After hearing a bit of our story, Adeline said, “I think I can help you, but you both need to do exactly what I tell you,” she said. She explained her rules for couples therapy. Secrets were out. Open communication between the three of us was key.
Tina’s recent disappearing act with Nate was the primary reason that we were in counseling, so that was the first order of discussion.
“You can’t be talking to Nate anymore if this is going to work,” Adeline eventually told Tina.
“I don’t have many friends,” Tina said. “He’s been helping me with all of this. He’s my best friend,” Tina objected.
“I thought Dan was your best friend,” Adeline observed, “and that sounds like a self-esteem issue that you should start working on with your own therapist. You have an appointment with Aljandro coming up, right?”
“Well, Dan’s the one who almost cheated on me with his ex-wife,” Tina’s tone became defensive and I was fairly surprised to hear that come up. She was talking about an incident from the very beginning of our relationship, three years prior, that I considered long behind us.
“That was years ago,” I said. “I told you about it – it’s not like it was a secret and I took steps to remedy the situation.”
“OK, is this a tit for tat thing?” Adeline interjected.
Tina shook her head. “No,” she said rather quietly.
We discussed Tina’s other suitors. Besides Nate, there was Cassidy and Doug. Since both were former romantic interests and sex-partners, I had misgivings about discovering recent surreptitious communications between them and Tina.
“That’s another thing, though,” Tina interrupted, “I feel like I can’t have any privacy, because Dan was looking at my phone.”
“I am all about respecting your partner’s privacy,” Adeline began. Tina’s expression immediately looked more receptive, but “Adeline went on to say, “until something is done that betrays your trust, then all bets are off, because you have a right to know what’s going on. My husband and I don’t have any problem answering each other’s phones because we both know we don’t have anything to hide.”
I could tell Tina wasn’t happy with that statement. She was becoming more defensive and complained that I “wouldn’t let her” talk to her “friend,” Cassidy. She tried to make it out like I was controlling, but failed to mention that Cassidy was a former lover. I had to reiterate that detail. I’m hardly in the minority, being uncomfortable with my future wife buddying up with exes – especially when she was trying to hide it from me!
Tina made a few confused attempts at explaining her actions, but what may have seemed like righteous justification in her own mind completely fell apart when put into words.
At the end of the session, Adeline admonished us both, “No contact with any former boyfriends, girlfriends, ex-wives, sex partners or whatever. That includes on social media. Start with that and we’ll talk again in a week.” She looked over her calendar. “Is that how we’re doing this? Once a week?”
“Yes,” I said. We figured we’d start with weekly while we’re kind-of in crisis, and maybe go down to every other week or once a month once we’re on more stable ground.”
“That sounds like a good plan. I think that’s exactly how we should do it,” Adeline agreed.
Tina wasn’t very talkative after we’d left Adeline’s office. She was yawning a bit.
“What do you think?” I asked her.
“Well, Mrs. Adeline Taylor seems like a no-nonsense kind of person who will call you on your shit,” she said. “I guess that’s good.”
“I suppose it is,” I agreed.
On the way to the clinic, We’d passed by a little Italian sandwich and pizza joint Tina mentioned she was interested in trying sometime, so I stopped there on our way back to Amber’s. It was a sleepy, dim-lit restaurant with sticky, red and white checkered plastic tablecloths. It was a pretty old-school hole in the wall that made generously portioned, delicious, yet inexpensive hoagies.
We ate, mostly in silence, with Tina yawning more frequently and avoiding eye-contact. I thought it was pretty important we discuss our first counseling session, but Tina plainly wanted none of that.
We left, with Tina taking about 3/4 of her sandwich with her in a box and I dropped her back off at Amber’s to resume her pet-sitting duties and presumably, to take a nap. I was anxious and felt uncertain about the future.
At first, I wondered if a gentler approach from the no-nonsense Adeline might have produced better results, but after hearing the stories from so many other victims of narcissistic abuse, I realize there could be no good outcome from taking Tina to therapy.
Getting a narcissist into counseling is no small feat, because they generally don’t believe there is anything wrong with them. If they do go, it’s either to deal with problems other than a cluster B personality disorder, like depression and anxiety, or it’s simply a ploy.
It appears that couples counseling with a narcissist goes one of two ways. Therapists are only human, too and often, a clever, charming narcissist can win them over. Weaving tales of difficult childhoods or traumatic events can garner sympathy and a therapist may be used as narcissistic supply and can even end up being used to triangulate and help gaslight the narcissist’s victim. That outcome is frequently reported by survivors of narcissistic abuse.
The other way it goes is how it did with Tina. The therapist wasn’t won over and Tina was forced to confront the flaws in her internal justifications. She didn’t like it and ultimately rejected the entire endeavor. Overt narcissists might respond by raging when they get home after a session like that. They might swear, threaten, possibly even become violent. A more vulnerable, or “covert” narcissist like Tina would be more inclined to passive-aggressive retaliation or withdrawing into a silent treatment or ghosting – which is exactly what Tina did.
I spent the rest of the day fretting about our next steps. Fortunately, I had a task to complete that kept my mind occupied for a while and I got to work on replacing the side-view mirror on my van. That helped pass some time while I waited on word from Tina.