Dr. Ramani Durvasula’s book about navigating a relationship with a narcissist
When I was asked to review Dr. Ramani Durvasula’s book Should I Stay or Should I Go? (Post Hill Press, 2015), I hesitated. In my own postnarcissistic world, I try to separate harmful triggers from uncomfortable situations that stall any important kinds of growth. As a survivor of narcissistic abuse, I have learned the value of reading and rereading about narcissism—book after book—until I can basically quote the damn DSM-5 (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders). The work of recovering from a relationship with a narcissist includes a constant search for clarity. And because that sometimes means revisiting painful waters, I decided to read the book.
I’m glad I did.
Durvasula’s book is based on two main principles:
First, a narcissist will not change. She says this repeatedly throughout the book, reminding the reader that real change in a narcissist is about as unlikely as a pig sprouting wings. As Durvasula writes, “While Should I Stay or Should I Go? is meant to be a survival manual for the territory of the narcissist, it is also meant to be a wake-up call.”
Second, should you choose to stay in a relationship with a narcissist, you must manage your expectations. Though Durvasula offers no judgment for those who choose to stay, she maintains that if a person chooses to stay, she should understand what to expect from the narcissist and how to protect herself.
So, what is a narcissist?
Durvasula spends time at the beginning of the book answering this question. She discusses the rise of narcissism in our culture—most obviously seen by our obsession with social media, selfies, and reality TV. This type of widespread shallow narcissism is not, however, the same thing as pathological narcissism. Although cultural narcissism allows a convenient place for pathological narcissism to fester and go undiagnosed, a pathological narcissist is not simply a vain person obsessed with taking selfies. Pathological narcissism, or narcissistic personality disorder, is much more sinister and serious than that. A pathological narcissist is a person lacking empathy, who is obsessed with grandiosity and admiration, and who often inflicts pervasive patterns of emotional and psychological abuse on those closest to him or her—generally, his or her family members and romantic partner.
I am intimately acquainted with the amount of damage that can be done by a narcissistic personality. In the turbulent months after leaving my ex-husband, I came to terms with the fact that my marriage had been built on a foundation of emotional abuse and control. And because narcissists famously do not take responsibility for their actions, they simply discard the naysayers and continue wreaking havoc, leaving a trail of victims floundering in their wake.
But havoc aside, Durvasula maintains that at the core, a narcissist is wounded, vulnerable, and lacking in self-concept and self-confidence. “People with narcissistic personalities were taught at an early age that perception may actually be more important than the real you, so all of the energy goes into developing the traits and qualities that others see, rather than developing their sense of self,” writes Durvasula.
Over time, narcissists have perfected those superficial traits. They learn a kind of natural seduction, which is how we non-narcissists get sucked in so easily. My ex-husband was a leader and a visionary. His lofty aspirations made him exciting to be around. It was as though he was a magnet—people could not help being drawn to him. Durvasula addresses those seductive aspects of a relationship with a narcissist by explaining the concept of the “price of admission.” Essentially, the price of admission is what you must sacrifice to stay in a relationship. With a narcissist, the price of admission is high. Perhaps you have a fleet of fancy cars, but your narcissistic partner has full-blown rages every other day. Or maybe you enjoy enhanced societal status because your partner is so popular, but you are expected to overlook his or her infidelity. Ultimately, the “price of admission” has an impact on your self-confidence and your happiness.
When I talk or write about those early days of stumbling on the term narcissistic personality disorder, I often say it was like a million lightbulbs went off in my brain. All the strange behaviors that I had assumed were unique to my ex-husband were actually traits of a personality disorder. Readers may have a similar reaction while reading Durvasula’s book. In the chapter “Are You in a Relationship with a Narcissist?” she explains the common traits and red flags of those with narcissistic personalities: lying, emotionally cold, gaslighting, does not like to be alone, infidelity, and more. This is the part where, if you’ve been in a relationship with a narcissist but haven’t read much about narcissism yet, your jaw might hit the floor. The descriptions might seem eerily similar, though of course there are iterations of narcissism manifesting in different types of narcissists. And, it should be said, one or two narcissistic traits do not make a pathological narcissist—pathological narcissists exhibit many of these traits.
Though it can be helpful to categorize narcissists and their behavior, Durvasula has another set of symptoms, which are meant to categorize the feelings of the partners of narcissists. Such symptoms include feelings of not being “good enough,” self-doubt, constant second-guessing, fogginess or confusion, depression, feelings of shame, or being chronically apologetic. Durvasula writes, “The narcissist works from the inside out and this is why, over time, confidence erodes and doubt creeps in.”
Because narcissists are poor regulators of emotion, they are giant human pendulums with intense shifts in personality, designed to support the narcissist in getting whatever he wants. If you’ve been in a relationship with a narcissist, you know what this looks like—one minute he seems vulnerable, and the next, distant. One minute he or she seems loving, and the next, full of rage. The partner of a narcissist will spend an endless amount of time adjusting and responding to such shifts in personality or tiptoeing around trying not to poke the bear. This is an exhausting and crazy-making dynamic. Durvasula’s book shares several examples of relationships in which the partner of a narcissist exhausts herself trying to please the narcissist—perhaps by keeping the house orderly, the kids quiet, or rehearsing conversations beforehand so as not to “set him [or her] off.”
So, if a narcissist creates such an extraordinary amount of chaos and will never change, why stay? Very real considerations, such as children, finances, lack of a support network, or religion, might make it feel hard or impossible to leave. In the chapter “Should I Stay?” Durvasula offers advice for those who choose to stay. If there was any section of the book that triggered me, this was it. Her suggestions for surviving a narcissist—while absolutely true—felt soul crushing to me.
Durvasula says quite bluntly, “When you live in Iowa, you do not expect 2,000-foot peaks outside your window. And when you live with a narcissist, you should not expect him to start behaving respectfully and empathically.” Therefore, she says, manage your expectations. There is no doubt that, if you choose to stay, you will be perfecting the art of walking on eggshells (or, as Durvasula says, “broken glass”). She suggests the following: Don’t share any good experiences with your partner. Do not share your aspirations. Don’t share any day-to-day frustrations with your partner—call a friend instead. When you absolutely must share bad news that involves the narcissist or the family, cut to the chase and be direct, and then brace yourself for the explosion.
So if you shouldn’t talk about good news, dreams, small frustrations, or bad news—what’s left to discuss with your significant other? Her answer: “Totally trivial topics.” The weather. Your lunch. Anything where there is no stake or emotional connection.
If I’m being honest—as a reader, I left this section feeling heavy and grateful to have left. I remember the walking on eggshells, the anxiety that bloomed in my chest just hearing the sound of his car pull into the driveway, leaving out details so he wouldn’t become angry. It is all-encompassing, and my heart goes out to everyone actively trying to survive the daily minefield that is living with a narcissist. It is not fair, and no one deserves to live like that.
Near the end of the book, Durvasula gives suggestions for partners who do decide to leave. The suggestions are reminiscent of those made by domestic-violence organizations: document everything, lock your credit cards, change your keys and locks, put cell phone bills in your name, be careful what you post on social media. Get a therapist, and be prepared for the narcissist to attempt to woo you back. Get a lawyer, and be prepared to play hardball when the narcissist realizes you have really and truly left.
Recovering from a relationship with a narcissist is hard work. It looks different for everyone, but it often involves a cocktail of therapy, self-care, learning to manage residual trauma, a support group, and the tincture of time. Durvasula’s book provides a valuable resource for those of us recovering from or being harmed by narcissistic personalities—whether we are still in the trenches or not.
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