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Cheating and Narcissism: Is It Real, How Bad Is It, and What To Do About It

I’ve heard this kind of thing a lot: “My husband is a serial cheater. I think he’s a narcissist.” Or this: “I wonder if my wife has narcissism and if that’s what caused her to have an affair.”

Might it be true? Might one spouse’s narcissism have contributed to their unfaithfulness?

Sure, it’s possible. After all, narcissists tend to be self-absorbed, act impulsively, and feel little empathy for others, consistently prioritizing their own pleasure above all else. Those things can factor into unfaithful behavior to varying degrees.

Yet there is no quick and easy blood test to diagnose narcissism in the same way you might diagnose anemia (however, brain scans may be able to identify areas of the brain associated with low empathy). And as a practical matter, if you are dealing with a clinical narcissist, it’s unlikely they’d agree to such an assessment anyway. Why would they? Nothing is their fault.

In any event, the challenge of diagnosing true narcissism, combined with the expanding tendency to pathologize any personality trait that isn’t all sunshine and roses—including the regular streaks of self-absorption and arrogance that many people have—can easily lead to a situation where marital conflict becomes unnecessarily complicated.

Labels and diagnoses can overcomplicate things

Labels, diagnoses… these can be tossed around and used to excuse or explain away an unfaithful spouse’s behavior, like a clinical version of the-devil-made-me-do-it: “I have such-and-such disorder. That’s why I had an affair on my wife.” They can also lead to a clinical version of the blame game: “My husband is a narcissist and it’s hard to love him. That’s why I cheated on him.”

My point in all of this is to encourage people, as much as possible, to avoid knee-jerk or speculative labels or diagnoses and to instead hold each spouse accountable for his or her own actions. That’s because, in my opinion, nowhere is personal accountability more important than in married life.

Plus, letting someone who barely knows you quickly pathologize your partner or problems, or you doing it yourself after reading a few blogs, can easily and needlessly muddy the waters of an affair situation by bringing in all kinds of unhelpful jargon and ongoing speculation, when what you really need is clarity and guidance.

Because narcissism, or excessive self-love, is nothing new. The term comes from the ancient story of Narcissus, a youth who fell in love with his own reflection in a pool of water and, neglecting all else in his life, dies there, alone.

There’s a little narcissism in all of us…

The story of Narcissus is a cautionary tale, sure, but it also shows that this personality trait is a part of who we are as humans. It is present to varying degrees among the population and is influenced by everything from a person’s constitution and upbringing to their appearance and financial status. That doesn’t mean that extreme cases can’t be destructive and shouldn’t be consciously managed (if possible), it just means that not everyone who acts in a self-centered way warrants a diagnosis.

That’s especially so when it comes to a marriage crisis like infidelity. Because yes, selfish people can be prone to infidelity. But so can people who are typically selfless.

Affairs can be very captivating and all-encompassing, and it may be that a person who is having one is simply swept up in that excitement. Their self-focused behavior may not be an entrenched part of their personality, but rather a passing consequence of the affair.

On top of that, many of us would agree that the individualistic focus in our culture, and an increasing sense of entitlement in society overall, is spawning more people who tend to think of themselves far more than they think of others, including their own spouse. This isn’t a clinical issue, but rather a social and interpersonal one. So you’re not alone if you feel like narcissistic personality traits are becoming more prevalent in relationships, whether it’s with an intimate partner or a co-worker.

How to handle narcissistic traits and infidelity

These things being true, instead of automatically slapping a label on a spouse’s behavior—something that is likely to alienate or anger them even more, since nobody likes to be “labeled”—a wiser approach in most situations might be to simply address the behavior within the larger context of your marriage crisis, and handle both with fairness, confidence, and clarity.

Because there are certainly better and worse ways to deal with your spouse’s (or your own) self-focused, egocentric, or other unflattering personality traits—whether permanent or passing—especially when those intersect with marital infidelity.

Of course, that’s easier said than done. There’s no doubt that the tentacles of narcissistic personality traits can complicate an affair situation and lead to everything from a lack of transparency to a refusal to end an affair. But if you focus on handling matters in a smart practical way, not just a theoretical or speculative way, it can be done and it can get better.