November 14, 2017

Self-Obsession and Marriage

Gary Thomas — 

Your marriage isn’t about you.

It’s not even about your marriage.

Ultimately, your marriage is about proclaiming the power and glory of Jesus Christ.

The problem for most of us is the bent of our lives. Christianity is an extreme religion, but we try to live it in the margins. Jesus said to love the Lord our God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength, but we pass this off as hyperbole. We think, surely half is better than none.

The Christian life is about becoming centered on God (Matt. 6:33). We seek to love with His love, think His thoughts, and live for His will. When a soul is surrendered to God, it is focused on worship and service: Love God and love others. Praise God and be devoted to good works (Titus 2:14). Those are the two hinges on which the Christian life turns.

Where marriage crashes is when we stop asking, “What does it mean to worship God in this situation?” and “What good works can I do in this situation?” and start asking, “How can I get my own way?”

Asking myself, do I view my wife as God’s daughter or as my servant is the same as asking myself, am I Christian or a spiritual narcissist? (I’m using the word narcissism not as a professional diagnosed mental illness leading to abusive behavior, but the way it has been used in literature for centuries, as a spiritual self-obsession, something we all fall prey to.) If I view my day primarily as an opportunity to be pleased and am happy when I’ve been pleased, I’m a narcissist. If I view my day as a season to serve, I’m thinking like a Christian.

The only “fix” for this spiritual narcissism is for one or both spouses to re-center their lives around worship of and service for God. When I wake up and worship, I rise from worship eager to do good works. I ask God what good I can do this day. My whole mindset is centered on two certainties: there is nothing more fulfilling than worshiping a glorious God who deserves to be worshipped (which makes disappointment an impossibility), and I’ve yet to live a day in which there isn’t some opportunity to do good for someone else, so I’m never without purpose. Even if I’m sick in bed, I can pray for others.

So if I live my life rightly—worship and service—every day is a fulfilling day, a day of joy, a day of contentment. If, instead, I focus on pleasing myself, I have succumbed to “spiritual narcissism” and every day is frustrating because others won’t or can’t appreciate me enough, notice me enough, or praise me enough, because I’m not worthy of such praise. If husband and wife wake up with a commitment to worship and serve, they will be delighted in their marriage. If only one spouse wakes up with a commitment to worship and serve, that’s the spouse who will have the most joy in their marriage and be less vulnerable to disappointments within it.

Think of it this way: Has anyone ever lived with more peace, more joy, and more contentment than Jesus? Of course not. Yet his closest companions included a doubter, a couple of zealous hotheads, and a thief who became a traitor. None of their self-centered narcissism colored his days or his attitude, because Jesus lived a life of worship and service.

Thus the best antidote to living with a spiritual narcissist is to not become one ourselves.

The theme of a sacred marriage is the same as the theme of life: “And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him” (Col. 3:17).

Whenever marriage becomes about us, it becomes bent. Whenever it focuses more and more on Him, it becomes whole.

[NOTE: What happened to the previous version of this blog?

We all have gaps in our knowledge, and the previous version of this blog revealed a big gap in mine: I did not think of narcissism as a professional psychological diagnosis of a mental illness that leads to abusive behavior. To me (and most of those outside the active anti-abuse community), “narcissism” is a word that has been used in popular literature for centuries based on the myth of narcissus. While that’s still the most common usage, I agree we need to be careful that we don’t further traumatize women who have already been hurt by abusive husbands, and thus we have decided to rework this blog post. And I apologize for my lack of education and knowledge here. I probably read more marriage books in a year than ninety-nine percent of the population, but this one still escaped me.

I have made it abundantly clear many times over that I stand with the anti-abuse advocates (though a few have become cyber bullies in their own right, I still support their aim, even if I question their methods). I don’t want anything I write to be used to increase potential abuse or to excuse an abuser. Thus the total re-working of a post that had already started to go viral.

Let me take this opportunity to once again state that because my focus is on saving and renewing marriages and challenging both husbands and wives to pursue consecration before God—which requires searching our own hearts, owning our own sin, and dealing with our own issues before we deal with our spouse’s—I don’t recommend this blog to a woman in an abusive marriage or to a woman who hasn’t had sufficient time to heal from an abusive marriage in the past.]

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42 responses to Self-Obsession and Marriage

  1. Thank you so much for being open & re-writing this blog post. I was hurt by the first one but am so encouraged that you changed it.

  2. Great article, I totally agree with it.
    I have been through this and it is always shocking to realize what kind of husband I was to my Wife in the past year.
    As she was walking with the Lord, I started turning my back to Him. The devil was just waiting for this opportunity to get me.
    This then ended up almost destroying our marriage, but God has rescued me from the devil and He also saved our marriage.
    We are now waking up with the Lord an we are going to sleep with His words and prayers.
    May all men realize narcissism before taking wrong steps and making wrong decisions.
    God bless you Gary!

  3. Thank you so much for reworking the article. As someone who dealt with a very covert abuser with real narcissism, I really appreciate you listening to our community and doing your best to be more sensitive to the manipulation that our spouses have put us through (often using biblical marriage books, articles and scriptures).

  4. We can train someone to be narcissistic. I remember when I realized my ex husband was a classic (perhaps clinical) narcissist. I also remember how I idolized him during our courtship and into our marriage. To a narcissist, I was exactly what he needed. I fueled that insatiable desire he had to be worshipped.

    We are created to worship our Creator, not man or object, as you point out, with ALL of our hearts! What a stark difference proper worship makes in a marriage.
    Thank you for touching on such a real topic. You always point your readers to the One True King!

  5. Thank you for this Gary! So good.

  6. Colleen MacDonell November 15, 2017 at 11:43 pm

    Thank you so much. Will make God the center of my life and then he can do his will.

  7. Mulenga Charity Nga’ndu Tembo November 15, 2017 at 1:20 am

    Thank you. This is discernment for me. Thank you.

  8. How can I recognize narcissism in a sibling relationship? I have a brother who I always thought was a strong believer but who over two years ago hung up on me and hasn’t spoken to me since. It was an uncomfortable conversation about him wanting to borrow money and me trying to set up a little accountability around the amount. He accused me of not trusting him, even though I was willing to help. He’s divorced twice and in both cases it due to his former spouses’ mental disorders as he says. I’ve reached out to him with text, email, and voice mail several times since May 2015 and he doesn’t respond. He told one of his daughters that I am manipulative. He’s bad mouthing me to family members. If I allow myself to analyze the whole thing, and his inability to interact with me and forgive what made him angry, I fear that he has deeper issues and is not facing them and at this point is in disobedience to the Lord if he cannot try to reconcile with me. There’s another sister he won’t talk to either…narcissism? I’m praying for him, for our relationship and hope something breaks soon. Mary P

    • Mary,

      This may not be narcissism, but it’s certainly toxic. And in my view, when people become toxic and distract you from Kingdom work of entrusting the Gospel to reliable and qualified people (2 Tim. 2:2), you let them go. Even if it’s a brother. There are a lot of people to love and a lot of truth to be shared. Rather than trying to make sense of the chaos and charges toxic people spew, I’ve found it best to focus on healthy loving relationships and productive ministry with people who have soft hearts.

    • Mary,
      The way you describe your brothers behavior and actions points to narcissistic traits. People affected by narcissism refuse to be held accountable, by anyone. Devaluation and discard is a tactic they use, and it seems that was done to you when you tried to set boundaries. The other red flags mentioned were his divorces, and the fact he claimed his ex’s had a mental illness; and he told his daughter you were manipulative. Those are both traits of projection, when narcissistic individuals project on others what is really a trait within themselves.
      You can pray for your siblings that this stronghold is broken. In the meantime, keep your distance to avoid anymore narcissistic injury.

  9. Thanks so much Gary!! A powerful reminder for all of us!

  10. My goodness…what an eye-opener. Having been in an emotionally absent abusive marriage for many years, I have only now started finding out that it REALLY does take 2 to tango. I have found that by changing my attitude to any emotional abuse that I PERCEIVE, immediately changed his attitude towards me. And this has left me wondering and doing my own soul searching as to who initially started being the narcissist. May the Lord forgive me if it was me.

    • I am also experiencing this enlightenment. My husband and I are separated right now. The only benefit of this separation is that it has given God an opportunity to show me where my heart and mind has been focused. For 25 years, I consumed so much of myself to my husband…reading his moods, counting his alcoholic beverages, checking his phone records for proof of a second act of infidelity or allowing my whole day be stipulated by his behavior (both good and bad).. This is my fault and God has really been shaping my heart.

    • Isitme, it takes two to tango, but a tango is an orchestrated dance in which both partners are following the rules of the dance. It takes only one to ruin the dance, just as it takes only one to ruin a marriage. Both partners in a marriage may be self-centered, but if one is self-centeredly demanding that attention and service be focused on him or her, and the other is trying to please the Lord, that marriage will become very sick in very short order. One way to tell for sure that you’re not a textbook narcissist: If you’re wondering if you’re a narcissist. People with narcissistic personality disorder never ask that question. Yes, continue seeking the Lord, but also seek truth, and if you really are being abused, seek help.

  11. I love this. Just a few thoughts on what I have found on this topic through my couples and trauma work with clients…. Narcissism is a reaction, a reactive positioning to deep shame. When I react by shutting down when spouse acts narcissistically, it increases his or her shame which turns the dial up to his or her selfish behavior. When I reach out with grounded in God love to a narc spouse, and stay grounded to God despite his or her actions, it reduces his or her shame and turns the dial down to his or her selfish behavior. Narcissism is more than just being selfish. Narc’s can act nice and kind when they want something. God is the one who gives each of us a heart of flesh. God can change us… I do not believe narcissism is untreatable (some say such a thing). Treat it by directly dealing with the shame with love and if the narc allows for it, healing occurs. Most narcs won’t accept therapy (because under ‘counselors are a bunch of know it all’s’ is thick and heavy fear). The husband or wife of such a sick person is the best one to make a difference in their lives. MOVE TOWARD, NOT AWAY… Moving away increases shame which increases reactivity. Sometimes we have to love from a distance (when the relationship becomes abusive), but we are always called to love. Thank you Gary for writing on this. I love your blogs and books, and love your book list (am now reading the Dallas Willard materiel you recommended). Blessings on your ministry.

    • I would love to know more about how to do this…

    • Interesting take on it. I found that loving and serving a narcissist, seems to enable their narcissism even more. I kept worshiping God, serving my husband, and loving him, but it was like he became puffed up even more like he was King, and felt even more entitled to have a servant wife. Ideally both people worshiping God would bring freedom, but when one does, and the other doesn’t, eventually the one that does begins to wear down, and feels exhausted. Shame may be the root of narcissist behavior, but loving and serving a narcissist, doesn’t necessarily make them less narcissistic.
      I have found that setting healthy boundaries is the best solution for both of us. I am able to keep loving him, and he seems to respect me more (after throwing a tantrum doesn’t accomplish what he wants). Even Jesus had boundaries and didn’t allow one person to dominate all of his time and attention (except for God).

    • Wow. Thank you! This post makes more. Lear sense to me than ALL the marriage blogs, posts, books and videos I’ve seen or read over the pst 20 years. God bless you for speaking the truth in love!!! Thank you!

  12. Narcissism is a wide spectrum. Nearly everyone has some narcissistic traits, but when someone is full fledged NPD, it it a different story. I appreciate this article in relation to dealing with simple selfish traits in marriage, however when dealing with a personality disorder, especially when it is covert, serious therapy is needed. I would not counsel a woman in that type of oppressive situation to stay in the marriage. God in His mercy gives women in that situation a way out. I would encourage you to read “5 Indicators of an Evil Heart” by Leslie Vernick. There is a time when a line must be drawn for a woman’s safety and emotional well-being.

    • Thank you, Cristi. We’ve published your response as a representative of many we received calling me out on using a casual term for a recognized personality disorder. I have now updated this blog and added a disclaimer at the top to make this clearer. I’m not a Ph.D., I’m not writing to those in abusive marriages. Forgive my ignorance–I didn’t know this is a certified mental illness. I’m addressing spiritual disorders and the use of a term that is popularly thrown around describing a spiritual bent. That is different than an official diagnosis of a mental illness and of course this blog is NOT helpful for those in that situation.

      Readers, please understand my background and purpose here: I am an advocate for marriages that can and should be saved, challenging myself and others to grow through difficulties and helping them find spiritual health and biblical encouragement. I am NOT an expert on abuse in marriage, I am not writing primarily for those in abusive marriages (there are better blogs and more informed experts than me on these marriages).

      Every blog I write could be written with a caveat, “But not if you’re in an abusive marriage.” I’ve written three blog posts stating my belief that the church needs to help those in abusive marriages escape, I pled with the church to support women in an appendix to a book, and have spoken publicly on many radio programs about my belief that separation and even divorce can be an acceptable response to abusive marriages.

      if you want up to date and informed info about abusive marriages, please read Chris Moles, Leslie Vernick and Megan Cox.

      • Thank you for your humble, honest and loving response, Gary. I appreciate your ministry so much! Your books Sacred Search and Sacred Marriage have helped me so much in my walk. They helped me to see the abuse and get help. I grew to have a better understanding of God’s purpose for marriage and family.

      • Thank you for responding! Keep fighting the good fight!

      • Thank you! I knew little about narcissism until it attacked my family. God gave us a sound mind. Not narcissism. But we are healing. And I’m praising God for that!

      • I was going to add my 2 cents to Cristi Morris’s…and then I read your response, Gary. Bravo for your humility. Thank you for admitting readily what you do not know, instead of pretending you know all. Not that common, in my experience with “people helpers.” Thank you for listening, and for being humble enough to say (despite your significant knowledge and training) “I am not an expert in the are of abuse.” …and pointing people to those who are. What a great example you set for pastors and counselors without specialized training in destructive marriages. I appreciate you.

      • Sharon Browatzke November 14, 2017 at 2:27 pm

        Thanks for clarifying. This is definitely a struggle but helpful to remember my own part. I tend to take on more than I should and a counselor is so helpful in walking the line to figure out what is happening when my heart is involved. It is so important to make sure you are safe and have a community helping to discern what is really happening.

      • Thank you so much Gary!

      • Thank you Gary for your honesty, humility and for acknowledging the struggle that many of us are going through. I appreciate the resources you have made mention of.


      • Gary, I so appreciate your heart. Keep writing. Those of us who are writers would have to add 100 caveat’s to cover all the ways a thing could be taken wrong. Yes, narc ideas are misused by selfish people. Yes narcissism is a real diagnosis, and can be abusive. And in addition to all this, keep writing.

      • Gary, I just want to thank you again for your thoughtful and kind response. I appreciate the time and attention that you gave to my comment. Someone that I love dearly is healing from narcissistic abuse, and I am healing along with her. It was a traumatic season of our lives and the healing continues. Your kindness and thoughtfulness, as well as your taking the time to revise your blog post aids in that process. I have gone back and read some of your previous blogs and am enjoying them very much. I appreciate especially “Enough is Enough” in relation to what we’ve experienced recently, but I am also encouraged by your other writings. I just ordered “Lifelong Love”. I will spend the holiday season reading it. My husband and I have been married for 33 years and raised 7 children, suffered the loss of one of them, a catastrophic illness with another, and we’re now helping to raise our first grandchild. We’ve partnered together through a lot of life events, both good and bad, and have been in survival mode for much of our marriage. I think your writings are just what the doctor ordered for us. Thank you again, and thanks for all you do. I am anxiously awaiting the arrival of your book.

    • Thanks, Cristi. Leslie Vermick’s website and information helped me immensley while coming out of a truly abusive and narcissistic marriage. I’m so grateful for a Christian counselor who also recognized the abuse for what it was and was not deceived, which is often the case. Thanks for the encouragement.

      • You are so welcome Malona! I’m so happy for you that you have had the courage to break free! I have walked through this with someone very dear to me, so I know what a nightmare it can be. I’m thankful for the wise counselor you have. There are a lot of really god ones out there. I commend Gary Thomas as well for his beautiful response on this issue. He is a wise and humble man with a powerful ministry.

    • Totally agree Leslie Vernick helped me recognize my marriage for what it was…abusive.

    • Thank you for making this comment. There is a big difference between NPD (Narcissistic Personality Disorder) and selfishness, self-centered narcissistic actions. These two very different personalities should not be confused or referred to interchangeably.

  13. Love the perspective you present here!

  14. This was exactly what I needed to hear today. I have been struggling with being the one who wakes early wanting to serve God and my husband and it’s not reciprocated from my husband so I do get caught still on why me, this narcissist attitude which I never put a word to it. But still how does one truly ignore our self being noticed and recognized for what I do? I am a homemaker who feels completely invisible (currently reading through your cherish book and I’m in tears always because I’m never on the receiving end of being cherished) but somehow i know I’m being selfish and I daily try to not complain about my husband, daily try to focus on God 1st, serve Him and my husband and not care about me but is it fair to not at all think of me? That’s the struggle I have… your post this morning was a thankful reminder to wake up “… and worship, I rise from worship eager to do good works. I ask God what good I can do this day. My whole mindset is centered on two certainties: there is nothing more fulfilling than worshipping a glorious God who deserves to be worshipped (which makes disappointment an impossibility). And second, I’ve yet to live a day in which there isn’t some opportunity to do good for someone else, so I’m never without purpose.” Thank you for sharing, I wish you shared more, your words are reminders for me in this current season of my life to not give up on my marriage and serve God 1st and that’s all that truly matters.

    • Nicole, I understand. I’m also a SAHM and receive very little, if any, gratitude from my family (our kids, of course, take my husband’s lead). When I last had a talk w/my husband about it, pointing out that he will, for example, tell me when he doesn’t like something I cooked, but will never say he likes anything or say thank you, he actually said that the fact that he ate the food was my way of knowing he liked it. He always says he shouldn’t have to thank me for things I do (but I pointed out that he expected to be noticed for everything he does, even taking out the trash). He’s emotionally immature, so trying to talk w/him doesn’t help. But the thing is, he makes it sound like I’m asking for too much if I want a little appreciation, and after so many years, I have no idea what a “normal” amount of appreciation is, and when it crosses over into narcissism. I don’t need to be praised for every little thing, but I thought there was a certain amount of vocalilzed thankfulness that should be evident in a marriage. It’s not a horrible marriage and the other areas are fairly good, but I know there should be more.

  15. Unfortunately, people toss around the term “Narcissism” for any selfish acts. A true Narcissist is like the description in 2 Timothy. I know … my husband was clinically diagnosed a “severe narcissist, borderline psychopath.” ( I was a young widow and very vulnerable when I met this “wonderful man” who feigned something he was not.) There is no cure but Jesus, and the individual has to want to be helped. My marriage ended as my husband walked away saying he was “done with me,” abandoning me and my son, leaving us in a severe financial crisis, but not before he maligned my reputation, isolated us, and tried very hard to convince everyone around us that I was the one who was crazy and needed help, and left him. He even trumped the “she has an evil spirit oppression” card since we are Christians. Fortunately, my church stood behind me and my son, my counselor saw through the deception, my grown children have rallied and given support. I have since learned that it takes a lot of time and “testing of the spirits,” to know who a person really is at the core. These men/women are the very definition of deception and can create mental and emotional abuse like no other. They are not of God, even though many claim to be very spiritual. The fruit is just not there … For those in simply selfish relationships … we’ve all been selfish, and the lesson is right on target … Marriage is about God and honoring him.

  16. This pierces my heart because this is the lesson I am right in the thick of learning the most devastating way. My husband and I started off our married life in ministry 21 years ago. We have six precious children. He left me five months ago, calling me a narcissist (amongst other things) and he refuses to work on our marriage any longer. With horror and shame I confess that I existed in my marriage full of expectations and demands. And, I think, so did he, in different ways. All I can do now is to turn to the Lord to save me every day, praying that I will learn what He wants me to learn and try to follow Jesus as I walk the road of single motherhood crying out for wisdom, patience and faith. Thank you for speaking the truth about this terrible accusation, which can leave people feeling like unredeemable monsters. Jesus gives hope.