Why Couples Counseling With A Narcissistic Partner Won't Work

...and how counseling could backfire.

upset woman sitting on the couch with man getty

What is couples counseling with a narcissist like?

Little to no empathy, an unbelievable sense of entitlement, manipulation, and lies — these are just some of your partner's behaviors that might make you believe that you're involved with a narcissist.

This person once proclaimed that the two of you were soulmates, promising that you would live happily ever after. Now, you desperately hope that couples counseling will bring back the magic.


Don't count on it. Couples counseling with a narcissistic partner typically doesn't work — and may even backfire on you. 

RELATED: How A Narcissist Thinks (Warning: It's Pretty Messed Up)

Here are 3 basic reasons couples counseling with a narcissist is doomed to fail — and may even cause more harm.

1. Narcissists have no desire to change.

The term "narcissist" has become a catchall for anyone who engages in abusive behavior in relationships.


If your partner does have a diagnosable condition, it could be a narcissistic personality disorder. Or it could be antisocial personality disorder (ASPD), or in extreme cases, psychopathy.

People with these personality disorders engage in exploitation and manipulation, especially of partners and family members. In relationships, they are emotionally, psychologically, financially, sexually, or physically abusive — or all of the above.

According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of the American Psychiatric Association (DSM-5), personality disorders are enduring patterns of inner experience and behavior that are pervasive, inflexible, and stable over time.

If your partner has a personality disorder, it's integral to who they are — and that's unlikely to change, unless they seek intensive individual therapy themselves.


For therapy to work, you have to want to change. People who truly have narcissistic personality disorder often see no reason to change. In fact, they sometimes even consider themselves superior to the rest of us.

2. Narcissistic partners may try to control therapy and ally the therapist against you.

What happens when people who are in abusive relationships seek therapy? That's exactly the question my colleagues and I explored in the "Lovefraud Therapy Satisfaction Survey."

A total of 544 people completed it. Of them, 281 respondents, including 26 men, described their experiences with one or more sessions of couple therapy.

The data was presented at the National Conference on Health and Domestic Violence in September 2017.


So, if you were to go to couples counseling with a narcissistic partner, what should you expect?

Of the survey respondents, 30 percent reported that their partners were cooperative, while 28 percent said their partners were not.

Sixty-five percent said their partner was charming, while 51 percent said their partners were blaming. And 53 percent said their partners tried to take control of the session.

We also asked if the abusive partners tried to ally the therapist against our survey respondents.

Thirteen percent said "no," 19 percent said "sometimes," 17 percent said "moderately," and 52 percent said "very much."

Narcissists, people who exhibit anti-social qualities, and more rarely, psychopaths, are manipulators — and that's exactly what they do in therapy. They charm the therapist, blame you, attempt to control the session, and work to get the therapist on their side, against you.


Unfortunately, they are often successful.

One respondent wrote, "I was so unstable during the sessions and he was so calm and charming, it was easy for him to get the therapist to think that I was the problem."

Why do some therapists fail to see the manipulation?

RELATED: How To Deal With A Narcissist — 8 Smart & Simple Steps

3. Many therapists really don't understand abusive personality traits.

In the same survey, respondents were asked whether their partner showed traits of ASPD or psychopathy, as defined by the initial draft of the DSM-5 Alternate Model for Personality Disorders (AMPD).

The traits measured included callousness, aggression, manipulativeness, hostility, deceitfulness, narcissism, irresponsibility, recklessness, and impulsivity.


Survey respondent ratings indicated that for the most part, the partners were high in these traits of the disorder.

But only 20 percent of respondents said the therapists "got it" — identified the disorder — and a further 24 percent said the therapist either somewhat or moderately recognized their partner's disorder.

Fifty-five percent of respondents said their therapist did not identify a disorder in their partners.

Further analysis showed that when therapists were knowledgeable about narcissitic personality disorders, the survey respondents felt more positively about the therapy they received.

"The fact that the therapist identified the behavior was very helpful," one respondent wrote.


If you're thinking about couples therapy, it's likely because there's strife in your relationship. You want it to be more harmonious and loving. You want change in your relationship.

But people with narcissistic personality disorders don't want to change. The evidence is in the following survey questions:

One survey respondent wrote, "Clearly, I was the problem. He had no need to change."

Another revealed, "My partner was one way with the therapist in our meetings, and then back to the usual behavior as soon as we walked out the door."

This is further evidence that couples counseling with a narcissist won't work.

If you realize that your partner is disordered, the best thing you can do is end your involvement.


RELATED: How To Get Over A Narcissist

Donna Andersen is author of "Lovefraud" and founder of Lovefraud Continuing Education. Therapists can learn more about this research in the webinar, "Counseling Survivors of Intimate Partner Terrorism: Effective and Ineffective Interventions."