Underneath the mismatch of emotional development between spouses, which universally creates reasons for divorce, many dysfunctional relationships are complicated by characterological problems such as a narcissistic personality disorder. Short of the full blown disorder which is relatively rare, many more people exhibit narcissistic traits, which can also be damaging to relationships.
Unlike mental illnesses, which have a biological basis, personality disorders are less clearly biologically based (although advances in brain research and imaging may help to clarify). As a result, medications often do not help. Indeed, many types of psychotherapy don’t help either. This is because one of the hallmarks of a personality disorder is that it is “ego syntonic”. This means that the symptoms or traits that create difficulty, are primarily perceived by the individual to be caused by others. In other words, the so-called symptoms are in synchrony with the ego. Understandably then, motivation to receive help is diminished. This refusal to take responsibility sometimes constitute grounds for divorce, seeing as self improvement is not welcomed and most therapists find this personality type to be very difficult to treat successfully.
Obviously, this style of relating can cause all sorts of problems in relationships. Failing to recognize the locus of the problem inside oneself, leads to blaming and projection (attributing disowned negative emotions onto another person), frequently a spouse or child. Interestingly, many times a person with narcissistic traits or narcissistic personality disorder, will choose a partner (and vice-versa the partner) with a character structure that is the shadow, or the opposite. For example, the choice for someone narcissistic is a person who is easily blamed, guilt ridden, and insecure, exhibiting many of the disowned vulnerabilities of the narcissistic person. As such it is the perfect co-dependent match—that is until one or the other decides to grow and change, thus upsetting the equilibrium of the system, as dysfunctional as it is. It is at that moment of change—either through attempted growth or significant loss, in which increased conflict can occur, creating reasons for divorce–and the couple may seek treatment or coaching.
While the causes of narcissistic personality disorder are still being debated, it is fairly well agreed upon that the caregivers in childhood were extreme and inconsistent, causing a yo-yoing of reflected self-perception between grandiosity and worthlessness. Usually it is the worthless end of the spectrum which gets disowned and pushed out of consciousness, allowing the grandiose self to prevail, although in a defensive position from which to function, often quite successfully.
However, any changes to the system, such as a job loss (or gain), the birth of a child, or the growing needs and expectations of a spouse, can disrupt the marital equilibrium and lead to a possible breakdown and grounds for divorce. At these moments, the potential for abuse by the narcissistic person increases, if the fragile grandiose and controlling self is threatened. Underlying rage, at the unconscious sense of deprivation and rejection from parents can sometimes emerge as a destructive force.
Obtaining help by way of a support group, a clergyperson, a therapist, or a life coach is imperative for many spouses of a narcissistic personality disorder, in order to remain safe and to problem-solve ways to either engage the narcissist in positive and productive ways, or else to leave the situation. Many times the aftermath of a destructive relationship with a narcissist can be an opportunity for deep healing and personal growth.