Narcissism, Marriage and Judaism

Personality disorders, unlike many forms of mental illness, are not merely an illness, but also can be at least partially due to poor morality, or in Jewish terms, bad middos. Whatever fears, insecurities and distorted ideas that take place within the heart and mind of a person suffering from a Personality Disorder alone are not enough to cause selfish, manipulative or abusive behavior, without also making poor behavior choices.  There are many universally recognized rights and wrongs, and surely empathy, respect and consideration for others fit most conceptions of decent and moral behavior.  Therefore, despite having personal challenges, fears, needs, and clouded judgment, persons with personality disorders who are hurtful to other people also lack middos.

According to the DSM-V, the essential features of Narcissistic Personality Disorder are: (1) significant impairments in self-identity or self-direction); (2) Lacking in interpersonal empathy or intimacy; (3) Persons with Narcissistic Personality Disorder will relate to others as either grandiose, insecure, or vacillate between these two extremes; (4) refer to what others think for self-definition and self-regulation; (5) May have difficulty setting and meeting goals because of unreasonably high expectations, or ironically low expectations due to an exaggerated sense of entitlement, or fluctuate between the two; 

In general, persons with Narcissistic Personality Disorder will have difficult relating or feeling genuine empathy for others beyond a superficial level.  Even when they do show care, it is largely motivated by attention-seeking and personal gain, with much condescension.  They can seem sincere even to themselves, and at the same time be highly manipulative.

Some of these pairs of traits seem to be contradictory and paradoxical, such as grandiosity and insecurity, and high expectations and low expectations.  Yet, when understood more deeply, these traits make sense as part of consistent series of internal distortions.  As with most mental illness, it is difficult to definitively pinpoint the cause.  Often, the same parents can produce different children, some who are highly functional and others who are emotionally unstable. Even people who had abusive childhoods may grow up to be empathic and attuned, and people who had loving and attentive parents can grow up to be selfish and arrogant, or the reverse.  However, that is not to say that parenting and environment don’t play an important role.  Likely, it is an interrelationship between internal characterological sensitivity and reactivity, parental attachment and attunement, and learned maladaptive coping behaviors that became inadvertently encouraged and reinforced. 

It is fair to say, that through a variety of internal and external interactions and childhood experiences, persons with Narcissistic Personality Disorder were unable to fully develop or mature their ability to deal with frustration with others, recognize, validate, respect and accept opinions different from their own, respect feelings and needs of others, be goal-directed by inner values and beliefs and yet balance that with society’s outer reality and expectations.  From a psychodynamic perspective, a child will fail to progress through developmental stages and mature if instincts are over-gratified or under-gratified.  Therefore, ironically, both persons who were terribly deprived or overly indulged in childhood might behave in grandiose, needy, selfish and narcissistic ways.  This is why the behaviors can be paradoxical and contradictory.  The person who has not fully developed in this area has a lack of depth in self-knowledge, direction and emotional security.  This can lead to lack of empathy, a hunger for admiration, grandiosity, becoming disappointed and frustrated easily if not immediately gratified and praised for efforts, controlling, manipulative or defensive behavior, and poor relationship skills. 


“Bochurish Behavior”

One interesting cultural manifestation of this within the Orthodox yeshiva and chassidish community is what is sometimes called “bochurish behavior”, which loosely translates to bachelor-like behavior, but means so much more.  Often, the skills set to be a superb bochur in a yeshiva setting can mask and even encourage behaviors that are not particularly adaptive to married life.  To succeed in yeshiva, especially as a top bochur, one certainly needs to have basic middos such as consideration for others persons’ needs, hygiene, and courtesy.  However, aside from that, the more intensely devoted one is to study, the more self-abnegating one is, and the more successful he will be at becoming a top bochur.  Therefore, a young man who learns 16 hours a day, takes few breaks, does not make time for small talk or frivolity, thinks analytically with less regard for emotion, the more praise and reinforcement he will receive.  This is perfectly fine for a bochur who already learned the basic social skills from home, and especially if he enjoys some kind of relationship with sisters close to his age.  However, some young men are utterly unprepared for the social, emotional and relational demands of marriage.  Such individuals might have difficulty engaging in the necessary small talk, compliments, empathic listening and other activities that are normal and helpful to promote a healthy marriage.  They might feel anxious and uncomfortable, and / or consider it wasting time from Torah study and to be forbidden idle chatter.  What compounds this problem, is the newly married young woman and her family members will be bewildered, as they were told that this young man was a top bochur with excellent middos, which is all true within the very limited scope of social interaction that was required of him in his yeshiva life.

One subset of these bochurim just need a little extra coaching from their chosson rebbe or an older mentor to develop more sensitivity and awareness.  However, there are others who have social disabilities such as some degree of Asperger’s spectrum disorders, perfectionistic and rigid personalities (Obsessive Compulsive Personality Disorder), or Narcissitic Personality Disorder.  Because aspects of these traits such as hyper-focus, perfectionism, and self-absorption were either masked by excessive hasmada and piety, and where viewed as positive within the Beis Medrash, they may not be detected until after the marriage is doing very poorly.

One of the great difficulties is that persons with Narcissistic Personality disorder may be completely unaware of their behaviors and attitudes, and the very disorder may block them from seeing the deeply flawed, problematic and distorted beliefs and behaviors they manifest.  For example, the need for approval might motivate various apparently altruistic acts, and yet since the person is lacking in empathy, these so-called favors might be felt as intrusions or inconveniences on the receiving end.  A mother-in-law, may invite herself over to care for her daughter-in-law, not at all perceiving that she is unwelcome.  Or, a parent might offer correction, financial support and other kinds of advice to an adult child, when it is perceived as invasive and controlling.  Alternatively, an adult child may believe he or she is entitled to certain support, praise and approval from parents, when it may not necessarily be realistic.  When each of these persons are confronted, they may feel genuinely hurt, as they may be completely oblivious to their lack of attunement and empathy, the condescension, or their disproportionate need for approval.  Depending on how deep the disorder runs, and other character traits, when feeling hurt, they may become defensive, and even aggressive, retaliating with verbal abuse or other forms of abuse, all the while believing “the other person had it coming.”

Of course, it is important to understand that not all narcissistic behaviors are caused by a personality disorder.  There are situations whereby a clash of cultures and expectations leave one party feeling that the other is selfish, or the other thinking the opposing expectation is unrealistic.  For example, various cultures, religious groups, and generations have different standards for what kinds of advice, demands and requests are considered intrusive, selfish or unrealistic from children to adults, and from in-laws. Additionally, cultural and religious groups often define gender roles quite differently, so one husband may be deemed controlling or abusive from a modern context, and from a different context may not be.  This will be hard for people to swallow, but there are Jewish sources that justify hitting a wife to discipline her (for example, that is how most commentaries interpret the Rambam in Hilchos Ishus 21:10).  We are not quoting this to justify wife beating, or for that matter any form of controlling or aggressive behavior within interpersonal relationships.  Clearly, at other times in Jewish history physical punishment was used to control children and adults, and so long as it was with measured compassion and not excessive, was not considered abusive.  The point is merely to show that cultural assumptions sometimes define behavior, and though the behavior may still be seriously problematic in one context, it is not necessarily indicative of pathology.  Similarly, in-laws from a different generation or a less westernized ethnic background may make assumptions about what they are entitled to ask for, suggest or even demand, which can be perceived by the children as narcissistic and crazy, when it is merely in-line with how they were treated by their in-laws and elders of a prior generation. 


Of course, it is important to understand that there are times where a clash of cultures and expectations are the real problem, and not narcissism.  For example, various cultural and religious groups often define gender and in-law roles quite differently, so one husband or in-law may be deemed controlling or abusive from a modern context, and from a different context may not be so.  Even so, none of this is a justification for continued abusive behavior.  Normal, well-related, compassionate and respectful people should show reasonable concern for another person’s needs and wishes, and if they don’t do that, there is at least rigidity and inflexibility, and possibly narcissism. 

This kind of situation comes up frequently with newly married persons, particularly when there is a difference in religious traditions or ethnic background.  Even where there is abusive and controlling behavior, and even when this behavior shows poor judgment, lack of sensitivity and other character defects, the perpetrators may be unfairly diagnosed with a personality disorder when, in fact, such persons may still be educable.  It is true, that some might be unusually stubborn and rigid, and it may in fact take time and effort to impress upon the perpetrator the seriousness of the situation, but it is possible that the person can change.  This is why one of the diagnostic criteria for a a personality disorder is that it manifest itself over a sustained period of time and consistently in a person’s life.  Meaning, the disorder should be a relatively fixed part of a person’s personality on not just in reaction to particular circumstances.

There also are people who hide behind religion and culture to justify their distorted beliefs, and in fact are narcissistic and abusive to an extent that change is much less likely. Abuse is still abuse, and cruelty is still cruelty, and religion can be misappropriated and selectively used to serve pathological needs.  Persons such as this will find the aphorisms from the tradition that justify their own selfish or cruel standpoint, conveniently overlooking other teachings that encourage compassion and balance, especially piety in regard to expectations on self and tolerance in regard to expectations of others.  The famous example of this is the “pious” husband who yells at his wife (in front of guests) for being stupid and forgetting to cover the challah at Kiddush, blaming her for “embarrassing” the challah!  (One reason in Halacha that the challah is covered by Kiddush is that since the blessing is recited over the wine, the challah is being disrespected and therefore must be covered (Tur, O.C. 271)).  Obviously, this fellow cared more about the challah’s embarrassment than his wife’s embarrassment.

Addicts and Narcissism

Addicts can behave in ways that are highly narcissistic, but they too may not be suffering from Narcissistic Personality Disorder.  Addicts when in the throes of their addiction can do the most selfish horrible acts -- lying, stealing, cheating – anything to get the fix they crave.  Once the addict gets sober, there are other challenges that might cause narcissistic behavior.  For example, addicts in recovery must place their sobriety needs as priority over anything else in their lives.  In addition, sometimes as a result of their past addictive behaviors, addicts never really learned appropriate boundaries and interpersonal skills.  Therefore, as they try to adjust and learn appropriate assertiveness and self-care, they might overcompensate and be unnecessarily harsh or stubborn with friends and relatives.

Healthy Narcissism

Even healthy people must grapple with what is considered healthy narcissism.  When is it right and good to stand up for ourselves, protect our own interests, and even ignore another person’s pain in favor of our own self-protection?  It is both an ethical and emotional developmental task to learn that balance.  The Halacha does offer some guidance.  For example, one is NOT obligated to do chessed for a person who could help himself and refuses to do so.  See for example, Kliy Yakkar (Shemos 23:5) “Do not witness your friend’s donkey or ox fallen on the path and hide from them, [rather] you shall surely help raise them up with him.”  The end of the verse states “with him” in order to exclude you from the obligation to assist an owner who stands idly by and refuses to help out.  The Kliy Yakkar states:  “From here we have a retort for many of our poor people who refuse to work or in some way take measures to support themselves.  You are only obligated to help them if they put in their own efforts.”

Unfortunately, sometimes there are narcissistic individuals attracted to various forms of public service, such as politics or the rabbinate.  Of course, the majority of public servants and kley kodesh do what they do for the right reasons. However, the hunger for attention, the grandiosity, and the shallow altruism that feeds off of others’ admiration is like catnip for talented, charismatic individuals.  This goes a long way to explain how otherwise learned, bright and capable individuals become disgraced when they become wrapped up in sexual or financial scandals. Beneath the surface of their competence and humanitarian endeavors is a deep-seated sense of entitlement, and hunger for power and approval that allows them to seduce others (financially or physically), and on some level, rationalize that the rules simply don’t apply to them.

If You are Married to a Narcissist

If you believe that you are married to a person who has Narcissistic Personality Disorder, be careful before you write him or her off.  High conflict marriages can make people behave in ugly ways.  Such behaviors aren’t always representative of their true selves, but rather a feature of a long-standing cycle of mutual disappointment and hurt.  Most people in an unhappy marriage assume their spouse is the crazy one, and it could very well be true.  However, we also ask people to consider what it would look like if you walked in on a person who just stubbed his toe – would you not see a crazy looking man jumping up and down and howling?  But he is not crazy, just in terrible pain.  Dysfunctional relationships are very painful and induce a lot of crazy-looking, over-the-top behaviors.  That is not to say that such persons are blameless, and may very well also have personality disorders.  Our only point is, at least work with an open mind, hearing the other person’s pain, as well as communicating about your own.

If after all is said and done, you feel your spouse really does have a personality disorder, it might be helpful to consider the following:  

Gemara (Megilla 14a) tells us: "Achashverosh's removal of his signet ring did more to bring the Jews back to Hashem and teshuva than all of the 48 prophets and 7 prophetesses."  The point being, only when the Jews felt they were in intense mortal danger – and only then -- did they finally take stock of their behavior and relationship with G-d and worked on repairing it.  This could be seen as a metaphor for a troubled marriage, and perhaps Chazal were hinting at this: Only when the spouse "removes the ring" and truly shows the independence of spirit and willingness to divorce – then and only then - does the other spouse get the message and begin to reform his or her ways.  It is certainly true with persons who have personality disorders; unless the person hits rock-bottom and understands that there is no choice, it will be unlikely to get past all the defenses and manipulations and do the real work needed to create lasting change.


For Video versions of this click here, and look for title and daf.  

Translations Courtesy of Sefaria, (except when, sometimes, I disagree with the translation cool.)