The Narcissistic Family: A Narcissist, an Exhausted Spouse, and an Anxious Child

By: Christine Hammond, LMHC

The level of stress surrounding a narcissistic family is intense from the inside and picture perfect from the outside. As a member of the family (narcissists excluded), there is a constant state of walking on eggshells, questioning what did or did not happen, and minimizing personal feelings while elevating the narcissist’s feelings. From the outside looking in, the family seems to function perfectly in-tune and any hint of issue is immediately discounted. The extreme divide between the two existences is rarely addressed and almost always is denied.
This leaves the family in a continual state of uncertainty, insecurity, depression, and fear. But the narcissist won’t hear of any such negativity and most definitely won’t accept any responsibility for the issues. Any attempt to reach an outsider is quickly met with further alienation from the narcissist, accusations of betrayal, or gaslighting. So what can a person in such a family do? It must begin by taking off the narcissistic colored glasses and seeing things the way they really are.


The Narcissist. A narcissist is narcissistic. They have been that way in the past, are that way now and will most likely be that way in the future. Not that someone cannot change, they can. They just have to believe that they need to, listen to the advice of others, and then do the work to get there.
Real change happens slowly over a period of time. Anyone claiming an instant change in personality without allowing long periods of time to prove the change has not really changed. Stop expecting or hoping the narcissist will change, it is not that likely.

The Exhausted Spouse. Usually the exhausted spouse is a co-dependent or dependent personality disorder. These are the two main types of personalities who will even put up with a quick-sand type of environment. The narcissist needs a regular feeding of attention, affection, admiration and adoration. These two personalities are the ones most likely to give such a high demand with expecting it in return.
Most spouses spend significant chunks of the day cleaning up after the relational mess the narcissist leaves behind. There are friends to apologize to, children to console, neighbors to minimize the overheard outburst, and family to discount the latest narcissist rant. Then there are excuses to be given for insensitivity, employers/employees to mitigate any conflict, and forgiveness on behalf of the narcissist to be sought. After all that is done, the exhausted spouse pulls themselves together to maintain the perfect storybook image the narcissist demands.
Eventually this task becomes too great and the spouse stops cleaning up the messes. This angers the narcissist even more with threats of leaving because the spouse is no longer living up to the narcissistic standard. The spouse must choose a boundary and stick to it. Despite the ranting of the narcissist, they are not that likely to leave unless they can look like the victim.

The Anxious Children. The children of a narcissist are divided into two categories: the golden one and the others. There really is no rhyme or reason the narcissist singles out one child over the other. It can be because of personality similarities, a willingness to admire the parent unconditionally, the same gender or similar interests.
The golden child is perfect and can do no wrong in the narcissist’s eyes. For some reason, the golden child feeds the ego of the narcissist, either consciously or subconsciously. The golden child is often elevated to an unhealthy level than can encourage future narcissistic behavior. Even when the exhausted spouse corrects the golden child for a real error in judgement, the narcissist will come to the child’s rescue and bash the spouse. The child knows they are chosen and becomes anxious at the thought of losing the status and being reduced to the other child.
The other child knows they are not the favorite. Some form their identity around not being chosen and even relish in a change to embarrass the narcissist. For the most part, they are in a constant state of depression, vengefulness, resentment, anger, and anxiety. The more outward they can express it and hopefully humiliate the narcissist as a result, the better they feel. Ironically, by trying to be the anti-narcissist, they can become more like them. They also tend to be hyper protective of the exhausted parent, even beyond the parent’s self-preservation nature. The other child is on constant guard which breeds excessive anxiety.


Understanding the dynamics of a narcissistic family is only the beginning. Next comes identifying the individual roles each member plays and learning how to counteract the negative impact of narcissism.

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