Most of us can remember a time we were tricked by the charms of a narcissist, only to realize later what they were really like behind the charm that sucked us in. And research has shown us that narcissists have trouble keeping friends and long-term relationships. Once people see past the narcissist’s mask, they tend to back off from the relationship. So, if this is the case, how does a narcissist stay married for so long?
Generally speaking, narcissists stay married for so long for several reasons:
- The narcissist thinks everything is fine.
- The narcissist can get more supply from a spouse than from any other relationship.
- The spouse thinks that eventually the narcissist will reciprocate their love, so they stay in hope for improvement.
- Marriage is a status symbol for the narcissist.
- Marriage is a package deal. The narcissist gets a spouse, children, neighbors, and more to serve him.
- The other spouse may not be able to break out into their own life.
- In a faith-based marriage, the couple may think they cannot break their wedding vows.
- The other partner may feel too trapped or threatened to leave.
- Because of intermittent reinforcement, the partner keeps getting tricked into staying.
- The partner reasons with themselves that “things aren’t that bad.”
Let’s take a look at each one of these reasons in more detail, then we will look at a couple more related issues afterwards.
Table of Contents
The Narcissist Stays Married for so Long Because They Think Everything is Fine
I remember at the end of our marriage going to marital counseling sessions. My ex had insisted I go because I was not being the “obedient wife” he wanted. About three years prior to that, I had told him that I would not file for divorce and I would still be his wife in the sense that I would cook, clean, and even meet his physical needs, lol. But I would no longer dote on him and make him the center of my world when he largely ignored me (unless he was showing me off to someone as his trophy wife).
He begged and pleaded for me to just pretend everything was fine. But after 25 years, I refused to do that anymore. So he started turning me in to pastors at our church and then to counseling. One of my most distinct memories was of him telling all of them that everything had been perfect for the first 20 years and he had no idea why I was doing this or was unhappy. Even though I was telling all of them to the best of my beaten-down ability what was wrong.
And of course, to this day, he tells everyone that he has no idea what happened. He is just the victim of a wife who randomly chose to walk away from a “perfect marriage” and never told him what was wrong. This behavior actually plays in perfectly to the typical behavior of an older narcissist.
The Narcissist can get More Supply From a Spouse Than From any Other Relationship
Most narcissists choose the spouse they have because that person was incredibly kind, empathetic, patient, loving, and giving. All things they are not and will not reciprocate. But most people who display these qualities will put up with a whole lot of bad behavior and extend grace in nearly unlimited supply.
The other reason narcissists get more supply from a spouse than another person is the time they spend with them. Outside of work, narcissists will generally spend most of their free time with their spouse. Of course, this is when they aren’t chasing down all of their other pursuits. My ex would play basketball for 3-4 hours a day almost every day of the week, in spite of me at home trying to hold down the fort. If I ever complained about it, he made sure to tell me that I couldn’t tell him how to spend his time. Even though he had a family to take care of.
The final reason a narcissist will get more supply from a spouse is because of the intimate nature of the relationship. Couples share more with each other than any other relationship. So naturally, that will be an advantage to the narcissist who can expect more from their spouse.
The Spouse Thinks That Eventually the Narcissist Will Reciprocate Their Love
This may be one of the biggest reasons that (mostly) wives stay with a narcissistic husband. They keep on trying to be a better wife, thinking that at some point, their husband will recognize them and finally start returning the love. But after years or even decades (4 years of courtship plus 31 years of marriage for me), they finally realize there is nothing more they can do. They will never catch the eye of their narcissistic spouse.
Leslie Vernick writes extensively about this in her book, The Emotionally Destructive Marriage. This book was life-changing for me because it was the first time I understood that getting myself to safety was not breaking the covenant of marriage. The abuse had already broken that covenant. If you or a loved one is struggling with this issue or think you may be in a difficult or destructive marriage, you NEED to check out this book!
Note: while I often refer to the narcissist as the husband or a male, it can go both ways. If you are a male victim of a female narcissist, feel free to change the pronouns. This information certainly fits your situation too!
A Narcissist Stays Married for so Long Because Marriage is a Status Symbol to Them
Did you feel like your spouse never wanted anything to do with you until they wanted to take you to that huge work party? And he expected you to dress to the nines and lose that extra 10 pounds so you could “outshine” everyone there?
This is yet another reason the narcissist stays married to you. Because he knows that you make him look better. He wants everyone to think he has it all. And if you can contribute to that, then he will say and do whatever it takes to keep that status symbol.
Interestingly enough, there is a status that narcissists seek that actually goes in the opposite direction. It all depends on who they are trying to impress with what.
In my ex-husband’s case, he did a total 180 in the having nice things area. At some point, he figured out that he could get more accolades, especially at church, by showing a humble and sacrificial act. So, instead of trying to have nice things, he started to show everyone how much he sacrificed for his family.
And one of the biggest things that he did to gaslight me was in regard to our cars. I drove a brand new Yukon XL. I will admit, it was a beautiful car. And it got comments from people who passed by me in the parking lots. Because it was a large investment for our family and I bought it new (plus it was a large SUV), I parked in the back of the parking lot. And that drove my ex crazy. He would complain that we didn’t park at the front of the parking lot. But I knew that if we did, the parking spot would be too small and the cars next door would have trouble getting in or out and dent my car trying.
This argument went on for some time, and he would park my car up against other cars when he had it. And yes, it got dings over time because of that. But every time we had a discussion about me wanting to keep my things nice, he would then say he would rather have a trash car so he wouldn’t have to worry about keeping it nice. And then he started buying himself trash cars. That became his status symbol to show that he spent all of his money on nice cars for me and he made everyone see that he was happy to sacrifice so that I could be “spoiled.”
Narcissists Stay Married for so Long Because Marriage is a Package Deal
Believe it or not, the “status” doesn’t stop with you. It also includes the house, the kids, and anything else that the marriage/partnership has produced. As long as the kids look perfect and behave exceptionally, the house has all the bells and whistles, and the cars look great, then you can remain in the presence of the “greatness” that is your narcissistic spouse. In other words, the narcissist’s marriage to you is a package deal. And you are expected to make sure that it all makes him look amazing.
The flip side of this point is that once you stop providing that “status” to your narcissist, they will start to look to new sources of supply that will do better than you are doing. So, I guess that you consider this a way of escape when you have had enough. But be warned, although it is a way of escape, he will drag your name through the dirt and make your life miserable for causing him any trouble and making him have to go find new supply.
But honestly, no matter what your method of escape from a narcissist, it will be very difficult and unbearable at times and you will have to be on your feet to get ahead of the attacks.
Narcissists Stay Married Because the Other Spouse may not be Able to be Independent
Most of us know women that stay in abusive marriages because they fear they cannot break out on their own and succeed. They gave up their career years in order to raise the kids and make their house a home. And by the time they realize things will never get better, they have been married for 20 or 30 years. By that time, they cannot start a new career or even continue their original career if they have been out of the workforce for most of their adult life.
One of my divorce support group leaders had a friend who had just divorced. She had two masters degrees, but because she was 52 years old, nobody would hire her. And it was not because she was unhirable. She was a pillar of the community, a very nice person, and well organized and good at any work that she did do. But nobody wants to hire someone so close to retirement when they can hire someone with many more years left.
It took me over a year of counselors and pastoral leaders at my church to convince me that I would be okay on my own. I couldn’t see how that was possible because I spent our entire marriage putting out financial fires. They pointed out to me that once I no longer had those fires to put out, I would be able to land on my feet. And they were all 100% right. I am so glad I took that scary step and now I wish I had done it earlier. But I am a believer in God’s perfect timing. And I am in a good place now!
Most courts will make sure that the woman and children are somewhat taken care of in a separation/divorce. I was divorced in the state of Virginia and the court says that it will make sure that the wife of many years will be able to live up to her standard of living during the marriage at the husband’s expense if she gave her whole life and career time to her husband. Unfortunately, the court doesn’t really do that. I have 1/3 of the life that we had before the divorce. And honestly, I’m good with that. I will land on my feet without having to be fully supported by my ex.
In a Faith-based Marriage, the Couple may not Think They can Righfully Break Their Wedding Vows
I am a devout Christian. And when I spoke my wedding vows, I knew it was for life. But I also had no idea who I had married. If he had lived by his words, we would have been married for the rest of our lives.
What I didn’t realize at the time was that he had said whatever it took for me to marry him. He studied me for nearly four years. And he knew what to say. Things changed pretty much the day we were married. But it was very gradual, so it took me a long time to see what was really happening. And I spent most of that time excusing it.
The book I mentioned above by Leslie Vernick (The Emotionally Destructive Marriage) talked about women like me that felt that leaving our abusers would make God angry with us. She shared several scriptures that show us that the sin was the abuse, not our protection of ourselves and our children. She also shared tons of Scriptures that showed how God does not expect us to suffer at the hands of our abusers.
She then goes on to help us evaluate our marriage as to whether it is a difficult or destructive marriage. Once we figure that out, she gives several different methods to move forward, whether we decide to stay and work on the marriage or move on. I loved that she equips us with the tools to do that on our own and the strength to see things in a balanced, emotionally healthy way.
Whether you are a Christian or not, this book has such good practical advice to gain the strength to advocate for ourselves and our families. Check it out!
The Partner of a Narcissist may Feel too Trapped or Threatened to Leave
Often, the narcissist stays married for many years because their spouse feels too trapped or threatened to leave. After years of being beaten down by a narcissist, most partners don’t have enough clarity in their mind to leave their narcissist and land on their feet. Without the best counseling, the chance of success over a narcissist feels like an impossibility.
Many different things can present as traps to someone who is married to a narcissist. Probably the biggest is the physical threat. Although many narcissists also physically abuse their spouses, many don’t. (If you feel that you are in any danger at all, please reach out to the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-SAFE (7233). Or you can visit online at thehotline.org.
Because of Intermittent Reinforcement, Narcissists may Trick Their Partner Into Staying far Longer Than They Should
If you aren’t yet familiar with the term intermittent reinforcement, let me tell you a little bit. Intermittent reinforcement is when a narcissist abuses his victim to the brink of them leaving. Then, realizing he is about to lose his best source of narcissistic supply, he starts to do incredibly kind, loving and generous things for his victim, drawing the victim back into his sphere.
This pattern can go on for years and even decades, until the victim realizes it is just a pattern to keep them under the narcissist’s influence. The reason it goes on so long is because the victim doesn’t realize that they are being set up for a very long time. They think that the kindness is genuine and the abuse is unintentional. They go on giving the narcissist the benefit of the doubt until they just can’t anymore. It took me 35 years to get to the other side of it.
The Narcissist Stays Married Because Their Partner Reasons That “Things Aren’t so Bad”
Research shows that when we are in potentially unsafe circumstances, our brains tend to trick us into thinking things aren’t really as bad as we think. We just need to power through the difficulty and it will be better on the other end. And in some cases, that may be the case. But it certainly isn’t the case with a narcissist.
I know that I excused the behavior as he wouldn’t keep doing it if he really realized what he was doing. I just needed to explain the problem better. Or, maybe I was just being too sensitive. Somehow, I always spun it that it was ultimately my shortcoming that made the problem persist.
I also tended to rationalize the narcissism as not so bad because other people were literally dying at the hands of their abusers. He wasn’t even laying a finger on me, even though he was definitely physically posturing over me for some time.
Thanks to some very perceptive counselors who did see the abuse for what it was, I learned to recognize the narcissism and how to develop the emotional health I needed to set good boundaries and recover.
If you are thinking that things may not be so bad for you and you are taking blame and rationalizing, check out that book I recommended above by Leslie Vernick (The Emotionally Destructive Marriage) because she deals extensively with how to handle the excuses and self blame and shows you how to get back onto an emotionally healthy path.
Do Some Narcissists Stay Married Forever?
This may be the saddest point of this whole argument. While it may appear that two people are the perfect couple, they are in fact crumbling behind closed doors.
You know exactly what I’m talking about. Everybody talks about how they have the perfect marriage, perfect family, house, cars, and so on. But a few years down the road, the family falls apart very publicly and the perceived perfect couple ends up divorced.
There is one more situation in which a woman (or even man) never leaves their abuser. They have learned to be comfortable in the life they live. There is enough good that happens that they can get through the bad, hoping that the next good is right around the corner. Or they convince themselves that someone else has it worse than they do. That is most certainly true. But because someone else’s life is worse than yours is hardly a good reason to stay with your narcissist if he is abusing you.
It is also nearly impossible to convince someone that they should leave and find a safe life rather than stay in their circumstances. And in truth, it is not our decision to make for someone else. But it is heartbreaking to see others go through it and know that there is nothing you can do. Except pray for them and drop hints to let them know you are there for them regardless.
A narcissist stays married for a variety of reasons. But probably the reason that contains most of the points mentioned above is that it is because their spouse lets them. For as long as they can continue to get away with narcissistic abuse and be rewarded with narcissistic supply, why would they ever walk away?
What has your experience with a narcissist been like? Or have you been walking alongside someone else who is going through life with a narcissist? How were you/they able to get healthy? Did you get away from the relationship? I would love to hear your story! Feel free to comment below or if you don’t feel safe posting publicly, contact me here.
Blessings and hugs,
If you found this article valuable, I think you will also find the following articles valuable:
- How Narcissists Use Religion to Control and Manipulate You - December 26, 2023
- Do Flying Monkeys Ever See the Truth? - December 16, 2023
- Flying Monkeys Spying: Understanding and Dealing With It - September 21, 2023