Did you watch HBO’s psychological thriller The Undoing starring Nicole Kidman and Hugh Grant? The six-part miniseries features Manhattan power couple Grace and Jonathan Fraser, whose picture-perfect life comes crashing down when Jonathan is arrested for the murder of his mistress Elena Alvez.
I was on the edge of my seat for this nail-biter series and had some thoughts. For the uninitiated, here’s a quick synopsis: Kidman plays Grace Fraser, a successful psychologist married to esteemed pediatric oncologist Jonathan (played by Grant). The couple seems to be living a charmed life with their 12-year-old son Henry –– until Jonathan’s web of lies starts to unravel.
In the first episode, Elena’s body is discovered in her artist’s studio, and her death is ruled a homicide by police. All the evidence points to Jonathan as the prime suspect. In addition to having an affair with one of his young patient’s mother, we soon discover that Jonathan has been lying about pretty much everything for a very long time.
Is Jonathan a sociopath, psychopath or narcissist?
There’s been a lot of ink spilled debating whether the Jonathan character is a psychopath, sociopath or suffering with some other personality disorder.
Narcissists are often seen as charming and charismatic, but after a while, there will be warning signs, says Craig Neumann, a psychology professor at the University of North Texas who studies psychopathy and other types of personality disorders.
“These things don’t smack you in the face right away. But over time, red flags start to come up, and you notice them. And if you don’t notice them, that’s a part of why there’s some vulnerability in the individual who doesn’t want to see something,” Neuman tells Time.
“What we have to see are repeated red flags, repeated disturbances in identity, excessive grandiosity and using other people for your own game. And we need to see real, fundamental lapses in intimacy and empathy. If individuals don’t recognize it, there’s a blind eye they are casting on it. Why? There’s some vulnerability, something they want to be true, but isn’t,” he says.
Lack of remorse a red flag
One critic of the show accused Grace of spending years “batting away potential red flags about her spouse and refusing to see what was right in front of her.”
But in my experience, that’s often how it plays out for the victims of a narcissistic spouse or partner. When you’re so invested in a partner or spouse –– even a toxic one –– objectivity is sometimes hard to come by.
Narcissists never want to admit they're wrong, so they offload the responsibility for failure onto somebody else — their partner, in many cases, says psychologist Elinor Greenberg.
"So you're continually being told that everything going wrong is your fault, which can lead to self-doubt, self-hatred, and worry that you really did do something wrong," she tells MSN.com.
Back to The Undoing: During a FaceTime chat with her husband’s estranged mother, Grace learns that Jonathan’s younger sister died in childhood while he was meant to be taking care of her. And his mother says that much to her shock, he showed no remorse or guilt about it.
This failure to react gives viewers some important insight into Jonathan’s mental issues, says psychotherapist Dr. Akua Boateng.
“What happened in early childhood brought to the surface Jonathan’s inability to feel guilt and remorse in circumstances that would normally elicit those emotions,” Boateng tells The Cut.
Other signs to watch for
Other hallmarks of narcissistic personality disorder are an inflated sense of superiority and a belief that the rules don’t apply to them, says W. Keith Campbell, Ph.D, a psychology professor at the University of Georgia and author of The New Science of Narcissism.
"On a manageable everyday level for narcissists, basic self-enhancing ego distortions lead [them] to believe that [they're] slightly more attractive than [they] are or that [their] professors are to blame for a bad grade," Campbell tells MSN.com.
So, how does someone tell the difference between a spouse who is authentically charming and one who has a mental disorder? Trust your instincts, says Boateng.
“If the hairs on the back of your neck are standing up — pay attention.”
Expect challenges if you divorce a narcissist
Narcissists are often powerful and successful people who will use every tool at their disposal to make life miserable for the person who wants to divorce them.
I’ve seen this play out so many times in my practice: they paint themselves as the victim, badmouth their spouse to family and friends, gaslight their partners, refuse to provide financial disclosure, and try to exhaust your ability to fight them.
In a previous column, I wrote about how you can develop an effective strategy for divorcing a narcissist and that in doing so, minimize the trauma and keep your legal costs in check.
The process won’t be easy, but having helped many clients through it, I can confidently say that when you emerge on the other side, a happier and healthier life awaits you.