- David Hawkins is a clinical psychologist who specializes in narcissism.
- He said both a narcissist and their partner must show commitment to change if they want his interventions to work.
- No contact, learning empathy, and taking responsibility are all steps in Hawkins' three-part course.
Therapist and narcissist expert David Hawkins has worked with couples where at least one person in the relationship is a narcissist.
Hawkins, who runs the Marriage Recovery Center in Seattle, said the non-narcissistic partner may reach a breaking point if their spouse spends years of the relationship deflecting blame. He said it's common for narcissistic spouses to say things like, 'It's not me. It's you,' in moments of conflict.
If the narcissist consistently devalues their partner, or is unwilling to hear their partner's perspective and empathize, those are signs the couple could use specialized help, he said. He also looks for traits like extreme entitlement, lack of remorse, arrogance, and self-centeredness.
Narcissism exists on a spectrum, and people with the most extreme form, narcissistic personality disorder, receive a diagnosis from a mental health professional. In people who exhibit higher levels of narcissism, their sense of self-importance and tendency to be hyper-critical impacts all or most of their relationships. An estimated 6% of the population is diagnosed with narcissistic personality disorder, or NPD.
Once Hawkins sees a couple and confirms one partner is narcissistic, he works with them separately to see if their marriage can rebound.
Both partners have to show a willingness to improve the marriage
Hawkins runs a program designed for male narcissists, which involves two 14-week group counseling seminars for narcissistic male partners, followed by a six-month stint in couple's therapy.
Before Hawkins launches into treatment, he assesses each partner's commitment to saving their relationship and transforming it into a healthy one.
Over the course of two to six hour-long sessions, Hawkins asks questions about their dynamic. Then, he watches how they interact to see how "entrenched" the narcissist's thinking and behaviors are, Hawkins said.
He said both partners have to show a willingness to improve their relationship through a no-contact period and firm boundaries, or he won't suggest it.
"Typically, there's a lot of work for both of them do individually before they can heal together," Hawkins told Insider.
A no-contact period can help the narcissist with self-reflection and boundaries
To start treatment, Hawkins has the narcissist's spouse write a letter to them about their mistreatment, which the narcissist learns to process and take accountability for in their first 14-week seminar.
At first, the narcissist in Hawkins' seminar will deny the emotional abuse they caused, or blame their partners. He works with them to break the cycle of minimizing their partner. During the second 14-week session, narcissists work on recognizing these patterns in themselves and building healthier relationship skills, Hawkins said.
While they learn, he asks narcissists' spouses to cut off all contact. This boundary allows the spouse to have space from the emotional abuse and criticism they've endured in the relationship so they can have more clarity about who they are, and what they need from the marriage. It also shows the narcissist there are consequences for treating others poorly.
According to Hawkins, there's no set amount of time for a no-contact period. Rather, it depends on the individual narcissist's progress, which a spouse can learn about from their therapist. It takes "several months" at least, he said.
The narcissist's spouse should also be in individual therapy at this time so they can practice not responding to triggers that perpetuate narcissistic behavior.
In couple's therapy, the therapist points out unhealthy cycles
Once Hawkins determines the couple is ready for therapy together, he continues to point out unhealthy patterns, this time with both partners in the room.
Since the narcissist has had time to work on skills like empathizing and taking responsibility, discussing these issues as they happen in real-time can be more productive than before individual treatment, he said.
"It's an ongoing process. I'm still working on his character, narcissistic patterns, and emotionally abusive traits, even by the time I start doing couples work," Hawkins said.
He said someone with "significant" narcissism should expect two to three years of intensive therapy, followed by continued therapy to maintain progress.