They appear at just the right time: a broken family is torn apart by divorce or death in desperate need of emotional security and starved for normal amounts attention. Enter the narcissist, hidden by a veil of perfection, who immediately endears themselves to every family member (pets included) navigating the personality differences with ease. They are charming, caring, generous, kind, and seem to have it all together. They anticipate the needs of others and come willingly to the rescue without complaint.
The broken family instantly falls in love and adores the narcissist for the lavish gifts and the net of protection they seem to provide. The narcissist feels the family’s admiration and is drawn in even further. For the narcissist, this family gets just how special they are and fully appreciates them for all they do. Finally, they have found what they were missing in their other relationships.
The marriage often happens quickly with everyone still wearing rose-colored glasses. But something happens when the vows of commitment are made. It is as if the magic spell has been broken and a new harsh reality is established. The family comes to expect the attention of the narcissist as normal so they no longer show appreciation for the little things. The narcissist feels unacknowledged so they withdraw or lash out in anger. And thus the downward spiral begins.
But how does a family know that they are dealing with a narcissistic step-parent? Here are some characteristics:
- Once the rescuer, always the rescuer. The narcissist believes that when they entered the family’s life, they rescued them from devastation. From this point into all of eternity, they expect to be recognized and appreciated for this one act regardless of their current behavior. When the family forgets, they are reminded and immediate gratitude is demanded.
- Picture perfect. Watch out Facebook fans, the narcissist will post picture-perfect photos of just how wonderful everything is. They expect the family to live up to their strict standards of appearance, especially in public, without taking into account how the family was before the marriage. The narcissist doesn’t fold into the family unit; they expect the family unit to conform to them.
- Friendship shift. As time progresses, the narcissist will find fault with the family’s friends. Anyone they knew prior to the narcissist becomes a threat and therefore must be eliminated. The new friendships are frequently shallow and short-lived because few people live up to the demands of the narcissist. The family feels alone without their previous support.
- “It’s my way or the highway.” There is no negotiating with a narcissist. It’s either all their way or they will leave citing the family’s lack of appreciation for their efforts. Threats of abandonment are frequent and inappropriately timed especially when done in front of the children. Already struggling with the abandonment of one parent, the kids will do nearly anything to keep it from happening again.
- Emotional blackmail. The downward spiral has the potential for re-traumatizing the family who already experienced the loss of one parent. So in a desperate attempt to keep the same mistake from happening, they willingly conform to the narcissist’s unrealistic expectations. The narcissist knows this and uses it whenever their needs of attention, affirmation, appreciation, and affection are not being met.
- Shifting compassion. At the beginning of the relationship, the narcissist seemed so empathic about the family and their needs. However, as time progressed after the marriage, that compassion shifted from the family onto the narcissist. Now there are frequent demands that the family is not sympathetic enough of the narcissist.
- Missing parent jealousy. One of the things the narcissist will claim is that they are constantly being compared to the missing parent. They will even admit to being envious of how much everyone idealizes the absent parent regardless if that statement is true or not. It becomes a self-fulling prophecy. Once the narcissist has brought this to the family’s attention, it is impossible to not compare the two and secretly wish for the issues of the past over the present.
- Condescending remarks. The downward spiral and condescending remarks eventually escalate into a family verse the narcissist battle. Unless the narcissist has successfully alienated each family member and turned them on each other. In this case, it becomes the family versus family minus the narcissist. Nevertheless, it is the constant nick-picking that deteriorates the family unit.
All is not lost, however. Even when it is apparent that there is a narcissist step-parent, there is still a chance for hope and healing. The key is early identification and intervention.