Is Your Narcissistic Mate Really Schizoid?
Your mate's bad behavior could be due to fear of intimacy and not narcissism.
Posted Jan 23, 2020
If you have been searching the internet for an explanation of your romantic partner’s bad behavior, you are likely to have noticed that there is a tendency to attribute almost anything negative to narcissistic personality disorder (NPD). Unfortunately, most of the people who are calling other people narcissistic are not trained in the differential diagnosis of personality disorders. This means that they are over-diagnosing people as narcissists, when another type of psychological problem might be a better explanation for the behavior. A common mistake is to overlook the possibility that the mate actually suffers from schizoid personality disorder, not narcissistic personality disorder. Let me give you an example.
The case of Liz and Bob
My new client Liz entered therapy with me because she had recently discovered that her husband Bob was having an affair. Liz was shocked and devastated. They had been married for only ten months and Bob had pursued Liz for years, begging her to marry him. It made no sense to Liz that he was cheating on her now that they were finally together.
Their history: Liz had been married to someone else when she met Bob at a party. They enjoyed talking to each other and found that they had a lot in common. After the party, Bob started reaching out to Liz. He began small. He started following her on Instagram. He began to “like” her posts on social media. He sent her cute texts. Gradually, it became clear to Liz that Bob wanted more than a friendship.
When Liz told Bob that she was happily married and uncomfortable with the romantic turn their relationship was taking, Bob confessed that he had fallen madly in love with her and could not think about anyone else. He believed that they were meant to be together. He said that he had never felt like this before about anyone. Bob then started relentlessly pursuing her. Eventually, seduced by his passion, thoughtful gifts, and many demonstrations of his love for her, Liz gave in and started an affair with Bob. But that was not enough for him. Bob said that he wanted all of her, not just sex with her. He then spent two years trying to convince her to divorce her husband and marry him.
Liz finally gave in to Bob’s pleading and left her husband for him. Everything was blissful until her divorce came through and she and Bob got married. Soon after their honeymoon, it was as if a switch turned off and Bob suddenly lost all interest in her. He started to find ways to emotionally and physically distance himself. He even took a new job that required him to travel more for work. When Liz confronted him about his sudden emotional absence, he denied that anything had changed and told her that she was imagining things.
Liz happened to glance at Bob’s phone while he was in the shower and found passionate texts from another woman on it. Liz was stunned. Her whole world was collapsing. She started looking up “cheating husbands” and “sudden loss of interest in mate” on the internet. She came across multiple sites that all said that these were characteristics of narcissistic husbands and that now that the “love bombing” was over, she should expect to be devalued and discarded any day now. She chose me as a therapist because of how often my name came up as someone very knowledgeable about narcissism and relationships.
But…was Bob really a narcissist? Did he qualify for a diagnosis of narcissistic personality disorder?
Liz was surprised that I did not immediately jump on the narcissistic bandwagon. I continued to ask her questions about her husband, his childhood, his past relationships, and his behavior. I began to think that a different diagnosis might actually be a better fit. I asked Liz if I could do a private session with her husband to get a personal impression and ask him some questions. When I met Bob, I realized that he did not have a narcissistic personality disorder. It was much more likely that Bob had a schizoid personality disorder. In order to explain why, let me give you a brief introduction and comparison of these two very different personality disorders.
Please note, I will be using the terms “narcissist” and “schizoid” as shorthand ways of referring to people who qualify for a diagnosis of narcissistic personality disorder or schizoid personality disorder.
What is narcissistic personality disorder?
NPD can be thought of as an adaptation to a childhood situation that left the person with a personality disorder characterized by unstable self-esteem and little or no emotional empathy for other people. Many of my narcissistic clients report growing up in a home ruled by a domineering narcissistic parent whom they were expected to obey and idealize. High achievement was valued, while empathy and compassion were not.
- Narcissistic goals: The main goals of people with the exhibitionist narcissist subtype are to appear special, gain high status, become the center of admiring attention, and be acknowledged as the “best.” The main goals of the closet narcissist subtype are to avoid the spotlight and feel special by getting the approval of people that they idealize. The main goals of the malignant narcissist subtype are to sadistically destroy the self-esteem and pleasure of other people.
- Narcissistic fears: All narcissists fear being exposed as inadequate, average, or imperfect. In addition, people with the closet narcissist subtype are unable to mobilize enough defensive grandiosity to present themselves as special. They avoid the spotlight because being the center of attention makes them feel too exposed and vulnerable.
- Dysfunctional relationship pattern: Narcissists usually begin by idealizing their lovers and showering them with praise. Then as the couple gets to know each other better, the narcissistic partner starts finding flaws in his or her mate. He or she may attempt to convince the new mate to change so as to better fit the narcissist’s idea of perfection. When that does not work, narcissists start to devalue their partner. Praise is replaced by blame. They may cheat on their now devalued mate or discard the person. Instead of the passionate, idyllic love that they experienced during courtship, they now feel bored, annoyed, or indifferent—just when a normal person would start to relax and enjoy the growing intimacy that comes with familiarity.
What is schizoid personality disorder?
Schizoid personality disorder (SPD) starts in early childhood as an adaptation by a particular child to a home situation that contained some combination of severe abuse, neglect, and intrusiveness by the child's caregivers. My schizoid clients are generally much more traumatized than my narcissistic clients. They report that by age seven they realized that they could not count on anyone to have their best interests at heart. They decided at a young age that the safest and best choice was to become fully independent as soon as possible, control how much contact they have with other people, and be very cautious about whom they trust. Almost all of them learned to dissociate from their bodies when they felt abused as children and now automatically dissociate whenever they feel stressed, even when they do not want to do so.
- Schizoid goals: My schizoid clients want to maintain their autonomy and keep other people at what feels like a safe interpersonal distance.
- The schizoid dilemma: Ralph Klein (1995), states that the basic schizoid dilemma is that schizoid individuals feel unsafe when they are in intimate relationships; but when they retreat to a safe distance, they may go too far and then find it difficult to reconnect with people. When that happens, they are prone to falling into a very specific type of depression characterized by existential despair—the sense that life is inherently meaningless and that real human connection is impossible. Note how different this type of depression is from narcissistic depression, which is primarily characterized by shame about the self.
- Schizoid fears: The main schizoid fears involve loss of independence, being controlled by other people, being viewed as a tool to be used instead of as a real person with rights and feelings, and having their work or belongings appropriated by other people.
- Dysfunctional relationship pattern: People with SPD manage the level of intimacy by finding ways to keep their emotional distance. This translates into having limited relationships or by going in and out of relationships. When there are no impediments to full intimacy, they may try to protect themselves by unconsciously shutting down their feelings. This last includes suddenly falling out of love with someone as soon as they become available for a real relationship.
A new analysis of Bob
Bob’s behavior towards Liz could not be accounted for by the usual narcissistic relationship issues: problems with self-esteem regulation, inability to love, grandiosity, perfectionism, hierarchical thinking, status strivings, and a lack of emotional empathy. They were much better explained by the issues associated with schizoid personality disorder: fear of intimacy, a need to control interpersonal distance, and a concern that the only way not to be trapped and controlled was to dilute the intimacy by either choosing unavailable people or by introducing another person into the relationship.
You may wonder: Why does Bob’s diagnosis matter? He was still cheating on Liz and putting distance between them. You cannot have a happy marriage that way. However, a correct diagnosis can help you understand the underlying motives for the relationship problems and highlights the issues that need to be addressed.
In typically schizoid fashion, as soon as Bob married Liz and her former husband was no longer an impediment to full intimacy, Bob got scared and shut down his feelings. He then took a lover in order to create even more distance between him and Liz. Bob was not doing this because he had discovered that Liz was not perfect (a typically narcissistic reason). He was not bored with Liz or devaluing her as a narcissist would. His intimacy fears were being triggered by Liz’s availability, and he was panicking and sabotaging the relationship.
Despite how hurt and betrayed Liz felt by Bob’s behavior, this situation was easier to treat than narcissistic devaluation would be. Bob’s situation was not complicated by the narcissist’s need to be seen as flawless. Once Bob had some insight into his own motives, he was able to work in therapy on overcoming his fear of being vulnerable to another human being.
Punchline: At this moment in time, narcissism is in the spotlight while schizoid personality disorder and its effect on relationships is virtually unknown to the general public. Many hurtful behaviors are being attributed solely to narcissistic personality disorder, such as infidelity, sudden emotional or physical withdrawal, lack of intimacy, and sending mixed messages. The reality is that these behaviors can also be the result of clumsy attempts by partners with schizoid personality disorder to maintain a safe emotional distance.
The problem is that most people, even experienced psychotherapists, are unfamiliar with the common signs of schizoid personality disorder. As a result, many people are screaming “narcissist!” when they should be whispering “schizoid.”
Adapted from a Quora post.
Klein, R. (1995). The self in exile: A developmental, self, and object relations approach to the schizoid disorder of the self. In J. F. Masterson & R. Klein (eds.), Disorders of the self: New therapeutic horizons--The Masterson Approach (Chpaters 1-7, pp. 3-142). NY: Brunner/Mazel.