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WETZSTEIN: Narcissism disorder takes toll

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The media frenzy over supermodel Christie Brinkley and architect Peter Cook's July divorce focused on Mr. Cook's confessed adultery and pornography habits.

But something else caught my eye: the word "narcissist."

As part of the couple's custody battle for their two children, the court assigned psychiatrist Stephen Herman to spend time with the family. Dr. Herman later testified that Miss Brinkley needed therapy for her anger but should have sole custody.

Why? Partly because Mr. Cook is "a narcissist" who needs "constant reassurance that he is a terrific guy, handsome, accomplished," Dr. Herman said.

At first glance, that sounds odd, don't you think? Why should being "vain" preclude joint custody? And why is the person with the "vanity" problem the guy who sits all day at a drafting board in an obscure office? Why isn't it the world-famous "Uptown Girl" whose life has literally revolved around mirrors, makeup, cameras and clothes?

The answer is that narcissism is not some simple problem of conceit. It is a serious personality disorder that severely damages or destroys interpersonal relationships.

I recently spoke with Nina W. Brown, a professor at Old Dominion University in Virginia who has written several books aimed at helping people manage their relationships with narcissists.

Being married to a narcissist means your own needs, wants and desires are likely to be ignored, Mrs. Brown says in "Loving the Self-Absorbed: How to Create a More Satisfying Relationship with a Narcissistic Partner."

Narcissists are known for their lack of empathy, sense of entitlement and self-centeredness. They want their partners to meet their needs and give them endless attention and admiration, but they don't reciprocate. Instead, they react to acts of kindness by criticizing, sulking or pouting, accusing or becoming angry over perceived slights.

People who live with narcissists are likely to feel "profound helplessness," frustration and demoralization because no matter what they try to do to be acceptable or give the other person what they want, "none of that seems to work," Mrs. Brown said.

"Then you become frustrated and you lash out ... because it's making you feel inadequate. And believe me, they do blame you. They may be telling you that it's all your fault that they can't feel about you the way they used to, and that adds to your distress," she said.

As the Brinkley-Cook marital meltdown illustrates, breakups, separation and divorce are common outcomes for relationships involving narcissists.

However, many people have good reasons to continue such relationships, said Mrs. Brown.

Her first piece of advice to those who want to persevere is to "stop trying to get the other person to change." Narcissists "aren't going to change; they don't see any need to change. You are only frustrating yourself to try to get them to change," she said.

Second, "don't constantly confront them. Every time you confront, you lose. They manage to turn it around on you, and you end up feeling worse than you did in the beginning," she said.

Third, start working with a mental health professional "to build up your sense of self," she said. "You've got to be confident enough and have strong enough psychological boundaries."

cCheryl Wetzstein's On the Family column appears Tuesdays and Sundays. She can be reached at cwetzstein@washingtontimes.com.

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