Dr. Suzanne B. Phillips

Licensed Psychologist, Psychoanalyst, Diplomate in Group Psychology, Certified Group Therapist, Author, Radio Host and Media Consultant Covering a Wide Range of Psychological Topics

Post: Self-Care and the Benefit of Healthy Narcissism in a Relationship

  • “I love you but I don’t love that large Disney Sweatshirt.”
  • “When did marriage mean you would stop shaving on the weekends?”
  • “Everything you tried on looks great– why can’t you wear any of them?”
  • “I think they said casual not throw-away.”

For most people, there was something about the physical characteristics of the person they fell in love with that tripped their chemistry into response. Should that stop mattering when the wedding is over, the kids are in school or the retirement is planned? Not Really.

This is a culture that pushes looks, youth, beauty and the icons that possess theme.  For those seeking a partner, there is a considerable amount of interest in what catches the attention of men when meeting women and what women find attractive in a man.

Books and articles abound on the topic. Whitney Casey in her book, The Man Plan: Drive Men Wild-Not Away offers women the do’s and don’ts of enhancing appearance based on her interviews with 250 men as well as doctors, psychologists and fashion experts. She recommends everything from wearing the heels and leaving the large pocketbook at home to building body confidence. An Esquiresurvey tallying what women find attractive in men offers a similar version of advice. The results suggest that men spring for the good haircut, forget the cologne (hopefully they don’t need it), dress well for themselves sand act like “they don’t give a damn.”

Something for Everyone

Maybe there is something to be gained in this type of information for everyone – even those madly in love or married for years. After all, what is wrong with thinking twice about improving your appearance or your partner’s response to it?

Maybe a backlash to the cultural obsession with looks that defines appearance as superficial or insists that true love “looks past looks” misses an important dimension. Maybe there is something about appearance that you and your partner still need for yourselves and for each other.

Why Looks Matter 

Looks are not about having a certain face, size or body. They are not about height or weight. Looks are about self-care and self-affirmation.  Wanting to look your personal best is a reflection of what is called healthy narcissism. Feeling good is reflected in how you carry and care for yourself and the reverse is true- how you carry and care for yourself makes you feel good.

In The Man Plan, Bela Karolyi, World Coach of Olympic champions claims you can’t win gold medals without self-confidence. Applying some of his ideas, he suggests that when you begin to exercise, even though the physical benefits may take time, the mental benefits are almost immediate. You feel prouder and more confident.  The more attention you give your body, the more deserving you feel of attention.

Looks and Relationships

Self love and self-care have an impact on all relationships – most importantly the one with your partner. Theoretically such healthy narcissism makes possible empathy and love of the other. In actuality it sends the message, “I value myself and as such I value you”- a very attractive sentiment.

I’m convinced that the reason most people love weddings has less to do with the bride and groom (although they are crucial to the event) and more to do with the pleasure of seeing and being with their partner dressed for the occasion.  For those not yet married it may ignite interest and future fantasies and for those already married it may consciously or unconsciously connect them to that early time when they felt wonderful about self and other, a déjà vu of mutual delight and desire.

Life’s Tolls

Then life steps in.  In the daily grind or in the two minutes you never saw coming- be it in combat or with a medical diagnosis,  trauma steals some of the very things you have loved about yourself and invited your partner to love – your shape, your muscles, your hair, your stature, your limbs.

How do you ever feel lovable or attractive again? 

Basic to trauma is loss. Like any loss, when it involves appearance, it warrants validation, remembering and mourning. As we have said in Healing Together, having a partner at your side may be the best recovery tool you will find and the mirror to reconnecting with a lovable self.

Slowly — in small and courageous steps you find that your ‘personal best’ is really owned by you. It can change, even expand.

Jack and Mary

In the aftermath of Mary’s illness, what was so difficult for Jack was not the weight that Mary had put on as a side-effect of the medications – that never changed his attraction or love for her. What was most upsetting was her “letting-go” of self-care because she could not look as she had. He tried to be patient. For him her wearing a pair of earrings, her desire to get dressed to go to the diner, wearing her favorite color, was all he needed. It was ultimately his persistence and verbalized wish for her to believe in his love and start to care- that caught her attention.

Negation of the Relationship

The decision not to attend to one’s appearance, whatever the cause, is also a relational decision. As much as striving for one’s personal best is a gift to self, it is a message that your partner’s attention and interest matters. The lack of care is a negation of self as well as the relevance of your partner’s presence and feelings. Ignoring “looks” takes too much from both.

The Shadow of a Smile

A recent studyshowing that smiling significantly improved women’s appearance may have relevance when translated for partners. In a randomized study of the impact of social approval on women’s body satisfaction and self-esteem, women were asked to give pictures of themselves. They were then shown many pictures of faces with their own mixed in.  After a number of trials, those for whom a smiling face was consistently shown after their own picture reported consistently higher body satisfaction and self-esteem.

Might this apply to men and women? 

Could it be that in addition to everything else she knows, loves or overlooks, when he gets the hair cut and she smiles and compliments – it matters?

Could it be that although he knows she is hi-tech, better with finances and terrible with housework, when she wears the new shoes (maybe heels) and he smiles and comments – it matters?

Try it!