A narcissistic partner would never start therapy by saying this in an initial interview:
“I wish I could give even when it isn’t convenient for me. However, I hate to admit I’m wrong and I have a very thin skin, so I frequently make demands or attack my partner. I wish I could make a sustained effort to give and respond in an empathic way. But, I am rarely giving or nurturing unless I feel like it.”
The narcissist will never say this because they do not give when it is inconvenient and they have minimal capacity to be psychologically separate from another person. By being separate we mean having clear enough boundaries that they can understand and accept another person having different emotional responses and different vulnerabilities than they themselves have.
Our favorite definition of empathy comes from Judith Jordan (1984) at The Stone Center. She defines empathy as, “A cognitive and emotional activity in which one person is able to experience the feelings and thoughts of another while simultaneously knowing his/her own thoughts and feelings.”
Another aspect of empathy is the ability to understand verbal or nonverbal communication of the cognitive and affective experience of what is being communicated to you while simultaneously knowing your own thoughts and feelings.
The narcissist struggles mightily with being empathic. A major flaw in the relationship often becomes evident when life circumstances or therapy requires one partner to function empathically towards the other. In fact many relationship breakdowns emerge when empathy is desired. Here are two recent examples: