Narcissism in a Blended Family: Ron Deal
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Ron DealRon L. Deal is one of the most widely read and viewed experts on blended families in the country. He is Director of FamilyLife Blended® for FamilyLife®, founder of Smart Stepfamilies™, and the author and Consulting Editor of the Smart Stepfamily Series
Is narcissism a reality or a label in your blended family? Therapist Ron Deal helps you look deeper and know how to deal.
Narcissism in a Blended Family: Ron Deal
Ron: If you’ve been living or in a relationship with somebody with narcissistic personality disorder, you’re going to walk away with some bruises on your heart. You’re going to walk away feeling beat up and hurt. When you begin to really step back and look at that, there were moments when you felt like, “I must be going crazy. I’m the one who’s messed up.” Then you step back and realize, “No, there was this manipulative environment going on, the way they interacted with me and the way they interact currently with me makes me feel small or insignificant and it’s always their way, and so yes, this is not me. But it certainly left a hurt on me.”
Shelby: Welcome to FamilyLife Today, where we want to help you pursue the relationships that matter most. I’m Shelby Abbott and your hosts are Dave and Ann Wilson. You can find us at FamilyLifeToday.com or on the FamilyLife® app.
Dave: This is FamilyLife
Dave: Well, I say it’s a really good day today because-
Dave: -you know why?
Ann: I do know why.
Dave: Because I’m with you.
Ann: Because Ron is with us.
Ann: –is with us.
Ann: It’s like the Holy Spirit being with us.
Dave: Yes we’ve got Ron Deal. What? You’re comparing Ron Deal to the Holy Spirit: [Laughter] Did I just hear that? Anyway, Ron Deal, welcome to FamilyLife Today.
Ron: Thank you very much. It’s always good to be with you guys and no, I am not the Holy Spirit. [Laughter] That’s quite a compliment but let’s not go there shall we.
Dave: Let’s just ask Nan, [Laughter] that’s all we’d have to do is ask Ron’s wife.
Ron: It would be a quick response. [Laughter]
Dave: As many of you know, Ron is the Director of FamilyLife Blended and it’s always a joy to have you with us, not only because you give a perspective on Blended but you have a sharp mind and a counselor-therapist insight into things - and as you know we’ve spent a couple days with Laurel Slade-Waggoner who’s also a therapist. You know she’s written a couple of books on Don’t Let Their Crazy Make You Crazy on marriage and then Don’t Let Their Crazy Make Your Kids Crazy on parenting. It’s really as you know as you’ve been listening, really talking about narcissistic tendencies in our spouse and bringing that in our home. It was a very interesting discussion, but I really am excited to hear your perspective on some of the things we talked about.
Ann: Well my fear Ron, I guess I wouldn’t say it’s a fear, but it could be a tendency that we all have, is after listening or reading about narcissism that we automatically can label people, “Oh, you’re a narcissistic,” you know?
Ann: Is there a danger to that and can we over label someone?
Ron: Ann I’m remembering in graduate school studying all these different personality disorders and every other page going, “Oh, I have that. Oh no. [Laughter] That’s me. Oh, my goodness. I’m the most screwed up person in the history of the universe.”
Dave: And what–here’s the other side of that is [Laughter] I can tend to do the same thing and say, “Oh, she has that.”
Dave: “Oh, he has that.”
Dave: You know I think somebody else, I think my spouse, I don’t see it in me-
Dave: –but I see it in them.
Ann: And they can think, “This explains everything.”
Ron: So let’s just delineate. There are traits among a lot of what we call mental disorders that all of us have a trait or two. There are moments in my life where I am exceedingly selfish. Guess what, that’s sort of the heart of narcissistic personality disorder. That does not mean you have a personality disorder as she talked about so aptly.
It’s a pervasive character quality trait that lasts for an extended period of time. There are a number of traits you have to hit and so the point is this. When you hear something like that sometimes we can over diagnose ourselves but really over diagnose our spouse, our kids, our mother-in-law.
Why do we do that? Well, in part because we all love labels. We sort of love labels because we sort of want to know, “Okay this is where I fit. This is where the type of person you are, and this tells me everything about you.” I call that freeze framing. You know, you are now this picture for the rest of your life. This is the only image I have of you in my heart and now I treat you as if you’re that picture all the time.
Okay, that’s a little dangerous. If we were to weaponize a label and say, “Oh, you’re that, therefore I have no responsibility to you. I don’t have to open up to you because you’re going to abuse me and use it against me or whatever.” Now all of a sudden, you’re letting yourself off the hook because of a label you’ve made up about somebody else. So yeah of course be careful. Don’t over diagnose. Certainly, don’t use labels like that as a tool against someone. But instead see it as, “Okay, what can I learn about me, about them, about how we interact,” and let that be it.
Dave: Yes, I did think, you know, a couple points Ron, as I was listening to Laurel, I thought you know if my spouse exhibits some of these narcissistic tendencies I can easily think, “What am I supposed to do? She said they don’t change.”
Dave: So, does that mean divorce is my option. Should I leave? I’m not talking about me personally but I’m thinking a listener could have easily made that deduction based on some of that conversation. Of course, Laurel would not want anyone to do that. In fact, she agrees as we do. Do everything you can to make this marriage work.
Ron: I want you to hear just how debilitating that thought is. “Oh, they’re never going to change. This is who you are. Therefore, I’ve got to make some extreme decision over here in light of what I now know about you.” You see, that’s debilitating. And in many ways, I think it’s self-sabotage.
Ron: Let’s just stop for a minute. When we think about quote “personality disorder” and all sorts of mental disorders and conditions that we have in life, a void of God, as you guys so aptly talked about with her, void of God and the Holy Spirit working in our lives yeah we’re all a little hopeless. But with God, my goodness all kinds of things can change and grow within us. That’s the redemptive work of God. That’s His grace for us in our lives and so we never, ever really have to feel stuck I don’t think. Now we can be in really hard situations and the path forward is not always clear. But there’s always a reason to have hope.
Ann: Hmm. What do we do when we’re confronted or we even listen to a program with Laurel and think, “Okay, I’m seeing some signs?” What are the next steps that we should make if we’re starting to think that? Do we start calling our friend and say, “I’m married to a narcissist?” Or what do you think we should do?
Ron: No. Again, I would avoid the labels.
Ron: That’s not productive or healthy. What is healthy is saying, “Oh I just learned something.” My wife and I had a conversation the other day about enneagram and we’re like, “Oh, yeah. Ron’s forward thinking about time and Nan’s past thinking about time. How do we ever meet in the present?” [Laughter] There’s a little challenge for us.
Now that doesn’t mean I’m always stuck in the future or she’s always–that’s the point. We look at the tendency. We say, “In light of that what does it now mean?” We take it with a grain of salt. There’s a balanced understanding there of people and personality and I want to just add this. Sometimes the context sort of determines or drives when somebody is a certain way. So, somebody has a narcissistic quality about them, that might really pop out in moments where they feel they’ve got to perform well. It’s only under pressure-
Ron: -that you see that piece of them. It’s not there 24/7. That’s a distinctive by the way. Somebody with a personality disorder is that 24/7. That’s one of the real differences between somebody who just has a little of this and somebody who has a, a great quality of it. So, knowing the context is really helpful. Everyone one of us, like I said, is selfish at certain moments in our life. Everyone one of us is
Ron: –determined, controlling, rigid about certain things at certain moments in our lives. Well, what are those moments and what’s that about? Now reflecting on that for yourself and for the other person in a relational dialogue with them like, “Hey, I think I learned something the other day about you. I’m wondering if this is the way this works for you?” That’s healthy. It helps both of you have some insight and shared insight that you can now use to strengthen your relationship. But never create a weapon out of it.
Dave: You know Ron, one of the things that Laurel said several times in the two days we talked to her was that a fool, which she often compared to a person with narcissistic tendencies, a fool doesn’t say they’re sorry.
Dave: I mean I definitely picked up this theme that people that grow, that people that are humble at some point they’ll say, “I own this. I’m sorry. I need to grow.”
Dave: But a narcissistic person is a fool, and they don’t see it and they don’t say they’re sorry. Is that what you’ve seen?
Ron: Yes. That’s one of those again pervasive qualities about somebody with a true personality disorder. That’s them 24/7. In the case of narcissistic personality, they really have a hard time owning who they are, owning mistakes. Some people say that a true narcissist just really believes the world should be in love with me the way I’m in love with me. [Laughter] Some people would say that they have some insecurity in them and they’re trying hard to get everybody to love them. Because really inside they feel insecure about themselves. Maybe it’s a combination of the two, who knows it could be different in any particular case.
I think here’s the takeaway from that observation. That they have a hard time changing. The spouse let’s say if you’re the partner of someone that just refuses to repent, you can drive yourself crazy just trying to figure out how to help them, how to get them, like what is it I’m not doing that’s keeping them from owning up to this piece? Am I crazy? Did they really say that, or did they not really say that? They’re telling me they didn’t really do that but I think they did that. And so you start invalidating your own experience-
Ron: -and pretty soon you don’t know what you believe. You don’t trust yourself, as well as trusting anybody else. I think it’s really important for that person to say, “You know what, you did do that. You do act this way. You are mean in this fashion on a regular basis. I’ve now got to face that because I’ve got to make some decisions and I’ve got to figure out what I do with it.”
Dave:I mean do you find it hard for followers of Christ to do that as compared toothers? Because in some ways it seems like we want to be grace givers, we want to be lovers, we quote-
Ron: –we give the benefit of the doubt
Ann: –we want to see the best in one another
Dave: –yes and I think I hear a lot of us quote Ephesians 4:15 we know it, “speak the truth in love,” we don’t like the truth. We like love. We [Laughter] think that’s what Jesus would do-
Ron: Mmm hmm
Dave: -even though we read the gospels and we think, ”Jesus was really a truth teller,”
Dave: -and so do you find that it’s harder sometimes in Christian relationships to actually confront the sin of our spouse?
Ann: I haven’t found that hard honey. [Laughter]
Dave: Yeah, Ann’s pretty good at it.
Ron: Absolutely, because again we want to give people the benefit of the doubt. We assume they have goodwill and that their goodwill will eventually show up and something in them will change. When you’re dealing with a narcissistic personality disordered spouse, it’s unreasonable for you to assume they’re going to be reasonable.
Ron: At some level you’ve got to understand they just can’t.
Ann: Let me ask you Ron based on this same idea of repentance or apologizing or saying, “I’m sorry,” I mean narcissists are all raised in a home and so I’m thinking as a parent, as I’m listening to this - I’m thinking teaching our kids how to apologize, how to go to one another in repentance, and before God, that was a value for us. And so can we thwart that as parents, is that helpful to teach our kids-
Ann: –or are you saying it’s just a personality disorder that’s always there?
Ron: There’s a big argument behind that, you know. A personality disorder, are you born with it-
Ron: –is it going to be in a person? I think often it’s a combination of genetics and environment, and nurture as well as nature. I lean towards the nurture more than I do nature. I don’t really know the answer. I don’t know that anybody knows the answer to that. I think what we need to take away is yes, we should teach and train and encourage and foster humility in our own hearts so that our children can see that demonstrated and hopefully they too will have humility. I mean at the end of the day guys, if I am willing to get on my knees before an Almighty God and say, “Teach me–
Ron: –show me. Help me.” That is going to counter a whole lot of sinful behavior in our life. And stuck patterns and behavioral habits as well as even personality deeply ingrained behavior patterns that we need to work on. God helps in those situations. And so, fostering that in our children, absolutely. It’s an ounce of prevention that’s worth a whole lot of cure later on.
Ann: And let’s say Ron you’re married to someone with a narcissistic personality disorder. As the mom or the dad who’s living with this person, do we explain this to our kids?
Ron: You know Laurel talked about that and she recommended in fact that you do have to at some point in time talk to your kids and be candid about what they’re seeing in the behavior of their other parent. I want to echo that. I also want to just add and be careful how you do so.
Ron: By the way, somebody’s listening right now and they’re going, “Yes that was my former spouse and my kids still go to their house on a regular basis and you know I’m trying to co-parent with that person.” Somebody listening right now says, “That was a friend or a family member, man that’s the pastor at our church.” [Laughter] We all know that happens too.
Ron: I do think we have to be candid about the realities and choices and things that other people are doing when our children love them. But we can’t become hostile or aggressive or again, we talked about weaponizing. You can weaponize that, “You know your mom, she’s a crazy person–
Ron: –don’t you ever listen to her because look at what she does.” Like that is not the heart of Jesus. Even in a very difficult situation where a parent is making decisions where you know are not exemplary of what you’re trying to teach or train or help your children to see and understand. Or they’re just confusing choices, like narcissism, where your child’s constantly trying to figure out, “How do I make mom happy? She just never seems to be happy. I don’t love her as much as she thinks I ought to love her.” Well, you do have to put words on that for your child and say, “I love your mom. Let’s talk about how we can love your mom well.” What you’re doing is you’re talking candidly about a parent’s behavior and choices but you’re doing it in a way that’s grace filled.
Dave: Hey Ron, how does that play out in blended situations because you might have a child going from one home, where maybe there’s narcissistic tendencies of one or both parents, to a home that doesn’t, do they confront it? Do they spend only their time with the home thats, you know, seems to be balanced and emotionally healthy and they avoid the other? How do you navigate that?
Ron: You know we’ve talked about this many times on the FamilyLife Blended podcast because it is such a regular question that we get in to our ministry. We did an episode called, “Bi-polar Values” you know, when your values you’re trying to teach Christ and the other home is totally opposite and your kids are experiencing both of those things. I think this is like what every parent does.
We send our kids into the world at some point. It’s called junior high, you now.[Laughter] We send them into their phone. That’s sending them into the world, right, when you hand them that device. So we better all be training our kids to take a godly worldview with them wherever it is that they go, the neighbor’s house, their phone, or school. The same thing has to apply in a blended family when there’s another home and children are going for four days a week into the other household and they’re getting those bi-polar values over there. You just hope they’re taking Christ with them.
But what you cannot do is you cannot become somebody that denigrates the other parent. You cannot speak hostile or negatively about them because in that situation now you’ve become the violator of their, of your child’s trust. You’re the one who’s not now being godly and that’s never, ever helpful. Is this clean? Are there guarantees that your children are not going to go over there and not watch the tv shows that the other home lets them watch? No. There’s no guarantee in any of this. We just have to continually stay in touch with our kids, talk, train, teach. When they come back, spend more time fleshing that out, living that out in our home hoping that those roots will take root and they’ll carry it with them when they go into life.
Ann: Hmm. That’s so good. Like as we talked to Laurel, even the titles of her books Don’t Let Their Crazy Make You Crazy or Make Your Kids Crazy, as you’ve talked to parents or the spouse that’s living in that atmosphere, I know that they can feel like, “Am I–” they’re asking themselves, “Am I crazy?”
Ron: Yes, right
Ann: What would you say?
Ron: I loved what she said. She said you know, “You’re not crazy. You’re traumatized.” If you’re been living or in a relationship with somebody with narcissistic personality disorder, you’re going to walk away with some bruises on your heart. You’re going to walk away feeling beat up and hurt and when you begin to really step back and really look at that, there were moments when you felt like, “I must really be going crazy. I’m the one that’s messed up.”
And then you step back and realize, “No, there was this manipulative environment going on, the way they interacted with me and the way they interact currently with me makes me feel small or insignificant, and it’s always their way. And so, yeah, this is not me. But it’s certainly left a hurt on me. I now have to deal with that. I have to wrestle with that. I have to try to heal, ask God for His help, uh, have conversations about this with somebody who can help me understand what was going on make sense of who I was, what happened. Should I feel guilty about this? No. I don’t think I need to feel guilty about that.” And make sense of it so that you’re making stronger, better choices in the future.
Dave: Even after our program we met Laurel’s husband-
Dave: -and you know, I had this sense when I met him, just a great guy, Tim and I thought, “Man, what a gift God brought to her and her kids.”
Dave: They were traumatized in that home and yet she made a hard choice, a really hard choice. It was a really messy journey and yet you can see God in the middle of it saying, “I’m going to protect you and I’m going to bring a good future to your home and to your kids.”
Ann: She also said, which was interesting, is that one of her children felt sorry for their dad.
Ron: Mmm hmm.
Ann: You know because she had moved on and she has this whole group of church people and small group people and a job - and he felt so bad because his dad was alone. Can that be typical as well?
Ron: Yes. As I was listening I was thinking yes that’s pretty common. Somebody in the household is sort of like calling you on the carpet. “No, that’s not right. You can’t act that way dad.” And another child’s going, “Yes, but you’re my dad and so I’m just sort of blindly in love with you, and I move toward you even in the midst of this dysfunction.” That’s really hard on a kid because you know, they you know, can adopt some of those same qualities or attributes. Not that they’re necessarily going to repeat every single thing that they’ve seen or experienced, but it really does make a difference.
Dave back to what you said. I think it’s a great observation. Let me tell you, we here at FamilyLife say to people all the time, “Stay in the marriage you’re in. Honor the relationship you have as best you can within your power to live up to your vows.” Sometimes you can’t when you find yourself in a situation where enough is enough, God will go with you, and often as we saw in Laurel’s story with her now blended family husband, that is a redemptive marriage, redemptive family situation for she and her kids.
God brings blessings to us in the midst of hard, and we can’t always prescribe that. We don’t always know what the future holds, but I’ve seen that so many times, which makes me think a little about our next Blended and Blessed® Event that’s coming up right around the corner on Saturday, April 29th. That’s an opportunity for people to be refreshed, to be encouraged. We’re going to spend time talking about building a healthy blended family marriage, how you can launch your children into the world well and bless them. Dr. John Trent, great hero of mine, is going to be talking about blessing our kids in blended family situations. We’re going to be talking about living kingdom, the kingdom way so that you can experience God’s kingdom blessings for your family. I hope people will look up BlendedandBlessed.com and learn how you can be involved in that worldwide livestream Saturday, April 29th.
Dave: Yes and I would just add you weren’t able to sit here in the studio with Laurel, but she sang your praises.
Dave: Now and it’s because of your content has literally, she feels, saved their blended family. So, I would just say to anybody thinking, “Should I go?” Yes!
Dave: This will change your future, change your legacy. Thanks Ron.
Ann: Thanks for everything Ron.
Shelby: Hi I’m Shelby Abbott and you’ve been listening to Dave and Ann Wilson with Ron Deal on FamilyLife Today! Such great stuff today with Ron. Personally, I come from a blended family. I was raised by my mom and stepdad, who I’ve always called my dad, and I know our family would have benefited so much from the solid biblical teachings that are front and center with Blended and Blessed.
The Blended and Blessed Event is the only one-day live event and livestream just for stepfamily couples, single parents, dating couples with kids, and those who care about blended families. It’s next week and you still have time to sign up for the April 29th event. You don’t even have to go physically. You can just watch from home. We use DVR technology so maybe you have to run out to a soccer game but don’t worry, you can just catch up when you get back on all the stuff you missed. Head over to FamilyLIfeToday.com and click on the Blended and Blessed Event.
Be sure to join us next week when Dave and Ann Wilson are joined by Rachel
Faulkner-Brown. She’s going to talk about the time in her life when she lost her husband, as his heart suddenly stopped on the basketball court. She’ll talk about that and also the hope she has in Jesus despite the grief of loss. That’s next week.
Shelby: On behalf of Dave and Ann Wilson, I’m Shelby Abbott. We will see you back next time for another edition of FamilyLife Today.
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