American Murder: Is Chris Watts a Narcissist?
Unpacking some of the evidence before and after the Watts family murders.
In August 2018, Chris Watts killed his pregnant wife and their two daughters, who were three and four. Within mere days, it was revealed that Chris wanted to begin a new life with his girlfriend Nichol Kessinger.
Recently, there’s been a renewed public interest in the case because Netflix released the documentary, American Murder: Family Next Door.
Stories of family annihilation are always shocking, but I think this case in particular really struck a nerve in many of us. People keep asking how a loving father can just throw his family away as if they were garbage, but the answer might be tragically simple.
Chris Watts was not the loving father and husband that others believed him to be. He only appeared that way, and partly because we as a society expect so little from our men.
While American Murder: Family Next Door was a good documentary that helped give a voice to Shanann, there’s a lot I wish they had covered, and I recently wrote about that.
Unsurprisingly, some readers felt that I went “too easy” on the wife. They didn’t like how I said I don’t buy into the suggestion that Shanann somehow pushed her husband over the edge. No, I don’t believe for a minute that he just “snapped” after years of abuse.
Other people reached out to me to say they felt it was unfair that I labeled Chris Watts a narcissist. Didn’t I want to report on Shanann’s bad behavior too? Why did I suppose her to be flawless?
Of course, if you’ve read much of my other work, you’ll know that I don’t suppose anyone to be flawless. Not you, not me, and not a murder victim we learn about on TV. There is, however, a very deep and wide expanse between being imperfect and somehow deserving to be murdered.
Let’s face it. Those who suggest that Shanann Watts somehow pushed Chris over the edge have done a huge disservice to Shanann, her children, and society at large by suggesting that women bring violence upon themselves and their families.
Besides, you don’t trigger a narcissist. Narcissists are “triggered” by everyday life and do not manage their stress or emotions in healthy ways. That’s not the fault of their victims.
The story of Chris and Shanann Watts is all the more tragic if we don’t recognize Chris’s narcissistic traits. When we see narcissism in action and we don’t call it out, that makes it harder for everyone to recognize such dangerous dysfunctions.
Is it possible that Shanann was a difficult or demanding wife? Sure. Some of her own words on social media are clear — she considered herself lucky that Chris “put up with her.” Was she have overly concerned about her image and the image of her marriage on social media? Maybe. Lots of people fall into that sort of trap without even working online as Shanann did. Even so, do you know who cared the most about their image?
Obviously, Chris cared much more about appearances than Shanann since he chose family annihilation over divorce or honesty.
Don’t get me wrong — when I watched the documentary on Netflix, I definitely picked up on some condescension and even a bit of passive-aggression directed at Chris that came from Shanann. And, of course, I caught the comment where she mentioned being dominant in the relationship.
But so what? Is a woman’s dominance in marriage something that could drive a husband to murder his family? What sort of society looks at Chris Watts and thinks the only possible explanation is that Shanann was a bitch?
Frankly, I don’t care if Shanann was a bitch or if she wasn’t as emotionally healthy as she could have been in the marriage. Hell, I’d go so far as to say that she obviously wasn’t that healthy, because she was so damn hesitant to tell her husband how she really felt, or to confide in others.
One thing we learn in the Netflix documentary — and it’s corroborated by the evidence of the investigation — is that Shanann waited to talk to her friends about her marital problems. Knowing what we know now about Chris Watts and the marriage, don’t you wish Shanann had talked to more friends, and much earlier?
The one big takeaway I can’t get out of my head about this whole case is that maybe these lives could have been saved if we were all better about recognizing and discussing red flags of narcissistic men.
None of Shanann’s faults stick out like actual red flags. Unhealthy or not, her habits struck me as pretty natural. Was she a tired, frustrated, and scared person? Yes, I really think so. She may not have feared for her life, but clearly, she was afraid to lose Chris. Was she also mean-spirited, manipulative, or abusive?
That, I honestly doubt.
Even when Shanann came across as possibly passive-aggressive or condescending, it clearly came from a woman who felt alone in her marriage. Sure, she made some comments on video about being “the only parent” when she asked her husband for his cell phone so she needed to take Santa photos with the kids.
While I’m positive there were better ways to deal with that frustration, it fails to strike me as her deep, dark problem. What I see is a woman who was tired of managing family life with minimal effort from her husband.
Chris’s behavior, however, struck me as frequently toxic and narcissistic. Whereas Shanann’s frustration was rooted in the fact that she felt like Chris wasn’t carrying his weight, Chris’s behavior was incredibly self-centered. This isn’t a man who wanted his wife to pitch in more to help him out. This is a man who wanted to get out of his obligations as a husband and father.
When it comes to bad behavior within a relationship, I like to look at the intention. Unfortunately, Chris’s intentions never appear to be for the sake of becoming a better father or husband. Not a better person.
This isn’t a mere personal problem for wives and mothers. This is a societal problem. We let men like Chris Watts slide by undetected when we push the narrative of the bitchy, nagging, controlling wife, and the poor father who just can’t do anything right.
I’ve dated men like Chris Watts, and many of you have dated narcissistic men like him too. People love to say, “Oh, that’s just a buzzword,” and then they behave as if it’s entirely random that more narcissists are men.
Do you know why I don’t think it’s so random?
Because after dealing with narcissistic men for decades, I understand that narcissism is practically encouraged among our men.
When we expect so much from women as wives or mothers and so little from men as fathers or husbands, narcissistic men do not surprise me. And the narcissism of Chris Watts is deafening.
Chris Watts lied through his teeth with no hint of remorse.
There are lots of things that point to Chris Watts being a narcissist, but one of the most damning issues is how much he lied throughout the investigation.
His lies were abundant, and honestly, ridiculous. Oh, he just happened to find Shanann’s phone in-between the couch cushions. No, he wasn’t having an affair. Thefts in the neighborhood meant he had to back his truck up into the garage to load it on the morning of his family’s disappearance. He had no idea where his wife and family were but he just wanted them back.
In fact, Chris was such an enormous liar that he bombed his seven-hour polygraph test with investigator Tammy Lee. While a polygraph is far from perfect, it’s often used as one tool to help investigators get closer to the truth.
People who score a two or higher are thought to be — likely — telling the truth. If the test indicates a person is lying, then they typically score somewhere around a -4. Chris Watts?
Yeah, he got a whopping -18.
What does that have to do with narcissism? Well, narcissists are liars. To them, each lie “is a necessity to preserve what they regard as a self.”
If you’ve ever been gaslit by a narcissist, you know that the lies they tell are often off-the-wall and utterly absurd. Healthy people don’t think they’ll get away with such obvious lies, but narcissists do. Why else would Chris Watts sit through seven hours of the polygraph only to keep lying after he failed?
For Chris Watts, lying was a necessary part of his life. He lied to project an image of a loving husband and father, yet clearly, he wasn’t too concerned about being believable.
Chris Watts jumped at the chance to blame Shanann for their daughters’ deaths.
Tammy Lee used a specific strategy to get Chris to come clean after he bombed that polygraph. She asked him if Shanann did something to hurt the kids, and if he was simply responding to his wife’s actions.
Lee came at Watts as a sort of confidante, saying something like this:
Chris, I’m serious. Chicks are crazy. Did Shanann hurt the kids and it made you feel like you had to hurt Shanann?
Many narcissists like to be “the hero.” After the polygraph, Lee allows Chris to project himself as a sort of hero, and it works. He asks to talk to his father, and then reveals a ridiculous story about how Shanann killed the kids and he had to do the same thing to her. Wait, what?
What’s really interesting about the whole thing is that Chris stuck to that story for a long, long time. Watts only confessed to murdering his daughters after he was sentenced and had begun a correspondence with Cheryln Cadle about his crimes.
It seems safe to say that his narcissism made the lie seem useful even though few people believed it. For a man who claims he is still a husband and father, even after murdering the people he was supposed to love and cherish, narcissism is the thing that explains why he held onto such a ridiculous lie for so long.
Chris Watts didn’t just annihilate his family. He tried to assassinate Shanann’s character too. All it took was the suggestion from one investigator that maybe Shanann hurt the children, and Chris responded that yes, she was the one who murdered them, not him. It was guiltless and effortless.
It takes an incredibly narcissistic personality to not just murder your wife and children, but to then tell the world that your wife was the real monster.
And when Chris finally decided to come clean and admit that he was the only killer, that also looks like narcissism. He finally told the truth once he knew his words were going in a book, a book that he thought was going to chronicle his “redemption.”
See where I’m going with this? Chris Watts will do whatever it takes to see himself as the hero in this story. If he can’t be the hero by throwing Shanann under the bus, he’s willing to tell some truth — if he can be the star of his whole Jesus redemption story.
But let’s be honest. The real Chris always comes through somewhere. Like when he spoke of digging his wife’s shallow grave:
When I dug the hole, it seemed a lot deeper than it was. As I pulled on the sheet she rolled out and into the hole. I think she had given birth. She landed face down, I remember being so angry with her that I was not going to change how she landed.
Narcissists are masters at flipping their feelings around onto others. After murdering his wife and children in cold blood, Chris Watts wasn’t distraught that he’d “gone over the edge.” He was still pissed off at Shanann.
What a man.
Chris Watts didn’t just blame his wife. He also blamed his mistress.
It’s awful enough that Chris has shown zero remorse after lying about the wife he murdered, but he’s not done blaming others. In one letter to Cheryln Cadle, Chris said:
If I had not met Nikki, I would never have killed my family.
In another letter, Chris wrote about his mindset after the murders:
All I could feel was now I was free to be with Nikki. Feelings of my love for her was overcoming me. I felt no remorse.
The darkness inside of me had won, it was still in me, though, I thought maybe permanently. I felt evil, swallowed up by this thing inside of me. I felt like I could kill anything and be justified for doing it.
Cheryln Cadle spoke with Chris over the phone and in-person for at least 15 hours in addition to their written correspondence. She’s described Chris as being so “mesmerized” by the former mistress that he still calls her his soulmate, and he still wonders if any of the letters he gets in prison are secretly from Nichol.
Cadle explains that Chris was so serious about Kessinger that he tried to cause Shanann to miscarry because Nichol told him she wanted to “give him his first son.” The whole thing is sick and disturbing, but throughout all of the revelations and supposed explanations, it’s clear that Chris Watts sees himself as a victim.
As if he couldn’t help but fall under Nichol Kessinger’s spell. As if it was just meant to be.
This, folks, is a classic maneuver of narcissistic men. They shift blame away from themselves and onto the people they supposedly love. The people who trusted them.
If anything, narcissists love to see themselves as mere victims of fate.
Chris Watts was unresponsive to his wife’s attempts to heal their marriage — or to simply end it.
There are a lot of people out there who blame Shanann and claim she made life too difficult for Chris. Even police reports indicate that Nichol Kessinger thought Shanann didn’t care about Chris’s financial concerns.
Yet, clearly, Shanann was pulling her weight and trying to help her family with money, just looking at how hard she worked with Level/Thrive. Direct sales associations don’t just hand over company trips to any sales person. She really had to earn those trips which Chris himself enjoyed.
So, Chris claimed that he never would have cheated on Shanann or killed his family if he hadn’t met Nichol. In everything he’s ever said about his marriage and crimes, he’s yet to actually give credence to the theories that Shanann was this overbearing wife who wouldn’t give him a break.
If you read the text messages that were recovered by investigators, Shanann was obviously willing to work out their issues. At the same time, she was begging Chris to tell her if it was over.
Look at her texts from August 5, 2018, just a week before the murders:
Being away from you, it’s not the help I missed because I handle that. lt was exhausting, but with school that’s not hard. I missed the smell of you, you touching me when l’m cooking, you touching me in bed, you touching me period! I missed holding you and snuggling with you. I missed eating with you, watching tv with you. I missed staring at you, I missed making love with you. I missed everything about you. I couldn’t wait to touch you, hold you, kiss you, make love to you, smell you, laugh with you. I couldn’t wait to celebrate 8 years with you… lf you are done, don’t love me, don’t want to work this out, not happy anymore and only staying because of kids, I NEED you to tell me.
Would you stay with me if we didn’t have kids?
l just don’t get it. You don’t fall out of love in 5 weeks.
How can you sleep? Our marriage is crumbling in front of us and you can sleep.
She’d later give her husband a handwritten letter, once again trying to get their relationship back on track.
All of this was Shanann Watts giving her husband an out. Why didn’t Chris take it? Why didn’t he just say, “Yes, I’m unhappy and I want to move on”?
A divorce would have been best for everybody, but narcissists often don’t do what’s best for all. Obviously. They think of themselves, and when they end their relationships, they often do so without empathy or emotion.
In fact, just days after Shanann’s August 5 pleas, Chris texted her this strange photo of a doll covered with a sheet. Shanann replied, “Don’t know what to think about this,” and then she posted it to Facebook with a similar caption.
Obviously, she had no idea that her body would soon be disposed of in much of the same fashion.
Sharie Stines, Psy.D, writes that you don’t need to be upset if a narcissist breaks up with you, because you don’t need them in your life. She goes on to describe some of the reasons narcissists make terrible partners, and I can’t help but think about men like Chris Watts.
According to Dr. Stines, narcissists are:
- Selfish and self-absorbed
- Not good listeners, not even with their partners
- Individuals who don’t value a partner’s autonomy
- Utilitarians who use people for their purposes, much like they’d use tools in a toolbox
- People who think in terms of “me” not “we”
- Disrespectful of other people’s boundaries
- Ungrateful, so nothing you do for a narcissist will ever be enough
- Liars and cheaters who create a reality to suit whatever narrative they need or want you to believe
Considering such traits of narcissism is important in understanding why some narcissists don’t just leave. Or why, when they do leave, they tend to blow everything up at the same time.
Shanann, Bella, and Celeste were not people to Chris Watts. They were objects, and they were “family,” but his understanding of family can only be expressed through his self-serving lens. It suited him to look like a family man, at least for a while. And it suited him, at least for a little bit, to placate Shanann with brief texts that everything was fine, when it clearly wasn’t.
Chris Watts had every opportunity to come clean and end the marriage responsibly, but that would have left him with an ex-wife and two young children when what he really wanted was that new life with Nichol.
It can be hard for a narcissist to transition relationships into new modes because once they’re done with you, they’re done. Chris Watts was done with his family, so, he didn’t even bother to be honest when his wife begged him to tell her if they were over.
According to investigators, Chris just didn’t answer a lot of Shanann’s texts or phone calls.
The dude was done.
There were subtle changes in Chris Watts’s behavior before the murders.
There are case files and screenshots all over the internet about the Chris Watts murder trial. Hundreds, if not thousands of hours worth of video. Things Shanann said. Things Chris said. Things both sides of the family said, and things his mistress Nichol Kessinger said.
For me, one interesting piece is the question of what happened to Shanann’s dog, Dieter. We know today that the little dachshund wound up with Shanann’s brother. But where was Dieter when the murders took place? And where was the dog when the police officer came by to check on Shanann?
Reddit threads and Facebook groups have blown up with theories about what happened with Dieter and why Chris had to let him out of the basement. Pet owners seem to agree his actions or inaction was odd.
Investigators determined that Chris spent much of his time with Nichol during the five weeks that Shanann and the girls were in North Carolina. Chris and Nichol went on several dates, and Nichol even visited the Watts home on at least two occasions in July. But, Chris spent many more nights at her house, about 16 miles away.
There are questions about how much Chris cared about the family dog, which was technically Shanann’s dog. But it’s unsurprising for a narcissist to ignore or neglect his wife’s dog while she’s away. Chris was even caught on tape interacting with a neighbor’s dog just hours after the murders while virtually ignoring Dieter.
Dieter is the last remaining connection Chris Watts had to his family. And in the aftermath of the murders, when they were missing persons, he shows no interest in that connection.
But some say Chris didn’t just have a cold relationship with Shanann’s dog. They also say his relationship with his daughters had been deteriorating too.
And two friends of the couple went on record to discuss some of the signs that may have been missed. Chris, Bella, and CeeCee all attended a birthday party at the Lindstrom’s home the night before Chris murdered Shanann and the kids.
In hindsight, however, they realized things were not right. The Lindstrom’s daughter actually babysat for the Watts when Shanann was out of town a couple of nights before the murder. Their daughter commented on the state of the house, saying it was a mess, which was unusual for the household — as if Chris didn’t care about keeping things up while Shanann was away.
Amid all the speculation and hindsight, remember that a narcissist displays the face that is most convenient and advantageous for them. As Chris fell deeper “in love” with Nichole, it’s reasonable to surmise that he no longer gave a damn about keeping up appearances with anyone beyond his girlfriend.
Chris kept saying that Shanann was “the woman,” as if that should explain things.
Something that really bugs me in the Netflix documentary is the way Chris Watts talks about Shanann. He seems so cold.
Right before he takes the polygraph, investigator Tammy Lee asks Chris if Shanann accused him of anything on the morning of her disappearance.
I mean, being a woman — she asked if there’s something else. No, there’s nobody else. This is me talking to you about this. This isn’t like somebody came into my life and took me from you. This is, you know, me talking to you.
The whole little speech is so gross because his lie is so blatant. “This isn’t what happened,” he repeatedly says.
Yet, it’s exactly what happened.
Comments like these don’t just distance himself from his wife at the time, they suggest a quiet undercurrent of misogyny and toxic masculinity.
This is something I’m vigilant to avoid in my own dating life. I run far away from men who make flippant or disparaging remarks about women.
Chris tells Tammy Lee that Shanann accused him of cheating… because she’s the woman. The insinuation is obvious — Chris is saying that women overreact. And he’s saying this about the woman he murdered. He says it clearly and without shame as if it’s a plain fact.
Narcissists are so good at distancing themselves from their victims. You mean the world to them when it suits their whims and self-image.
You mean the world to them…
Until you don’t.
Chris Watts played the role of a father and hid his honest feelings.
“I’m not going to blame the kids for a disconnection or anything but yeah, we focus on the kids like, all the time,” Chris Watts told one investigator. “And like, as our relationship got longer and longer, I could feel that disconnect.”
Statements like these are horrifying, but hardly surprising coming from a narcissist.
Nobody forced Chris to marry Shanann and have children. But remember, narcissists love to see themselves as victims of fate.
Chris Watts envisioned a different life — one that he could have with a child-free woman, and that life was intoxicating enough for him to kill for it. For an outsider who’s not a narcissist, it’s mind-boggling. How could murder ever be better than divorce?
Narcissists have such a twisted sense of self, that they portray the mask they want others to see, or the mask they believe others want to see. Meanwhile, they aren’t honest about their real thoughts or feelings.
In a sick way, this gives a narcissist the upper hand. They get to pull all the strings behind a curtain, manipulate others, and project false narratives as long as no one really knows what they think. Also, hiding their true feelings gives the narcissist an easy cop-out. In this case, Chris Watts got to hold onto all of his resentment and frustration at a wife who supposedly pushed him into a life he didn’t want.
According to Dr. Joseph Burgo, “Because narcissists lack authentic self-esteem, they often resort to self-pity as a substitute. Feeling sorry for yourself because you’re a victim makes you the mistreated and misunderstood hero in a story that’s all about you.”
At the end of the day, Chris Watts is always the hero of his story, no matter how much we see through all the lies.
These days, Chris Watts occupies his time by corresponding with women around the world.
Surprise, surprise. An alarming number of women with terrible judgment and presumably their own set of mental health issues have taken up a new hobby in the past couple of years.
And Chris reportedly does reply to some of his female admirers. How could he not? His brand of narcissism requires a steady supply of praise and adoration.
After all, he killed for Nichole Kessinger. Did she appreciate it?
In a twisted way, Chris now gets to live his dream life from prison. He gets to rack up admirers while playing the role of a misunderstood man. And narcissists love to collect admirers.
According to PsychCentral, “a wealth of research suggests that narcissism is positively correlated with having extramarital affairs and more sexually permissive attitudes towards infidelity, even when there is satisfaction in the present relationship.”
Is Chris Watts a narcissist? Not everyone thinks so, but many experts and victims of narcissists agree that Chris has displayed many narcissistic traits, at the very least.
The Watts family may have enabled a narcissist.
As the Netflix documentary mentions, there’s been a lot of insults hurled at Shanann and her parents. And it’s hard to ignore that Shanann and Chris’s family didn’t get along.
But one more uncomfortable issue has been Chris’s parents and their response to his crimes.
In every statement and interview, you will hear the parents say that Chris isn’t a monster. That he was always so good, so quiet, so sweet, and unable to hurt anyone. They even claim that Shanann was abusive and isolated Chris from the family.
“I would say she’s more capable than Christopher. Christopher, I don’t see him capable at all but if something happened that night and that did happen — God forbid if it did happen — what was the trigger? Why? What happened? I just want the truth because he’s not the sociopath next door. He’s not the kind of person that would do something like that. I have to know why. I have to know. It’s important to me.”
Chris’s parents are reportedly unhappy with the portrayal of their son in American Murder: The Family Next Door. His mother even complained about being shown on a Slip n’ Slide in family videos.
You might recall from the documentary that Chris’s parents didn’t attend their son’s wedding, and as a result of “nutgate,” they skipped Celeste’s birthday party.
Adding fuel to the fire of a very public and long-running family feud is the leak of a book draft that supposedly belongs to Cindy and Jamie Watts.
If the book and its working title, “All My Broken Pieces” are authentic, it’s not too hard to see that the Watts family has long enabled the narcissistic behavior of their son.
If anyone had been interested, or asked me ten years ago, what I wanted, I would have told them I already had it: a good marriage to a fine man and two wonderful children. By “back then,” I have to qualify and say that I mean back before my son married a woman that was wrong for him and began to lose himself, and we began to lose him as well.
In one leaked chapter, the mother complains that Shanann “dazzled” Chris when they first met because she was living in a mansion and driving an escalade. And that very well may be true. Chris certainly seemed to be immediately “dazzled” by Nichole Kessinger and her life.
But the dazzlement narcissists feel isn’t what you or I would feel when we’re impressed or even infatuated with another person. Once again, it’s all about them.
That’s not love. That’s just using your love interest as a tool.
Given their self-absorbed view of love, it’s not surprising to encounter narcissistic men who choose women who seem to have everything going for them. Financially independent and child-free women can be a real turn-on to these men, and they might even tell themselves that they can deal with life’s changes in regards to money or children.
But somewhere, deep inside, the narcissist will be seething, and even looking for a new partner to help give them the life they really want.
Chris Watts’s parents can’t imagine that their son is a monster because they love him. Nobody wants to raise a child who turns out to be a narcissist or murderer. They want to believe there’s a logical explanation, which is why they prefer to believe Shanann triggered these horrible events.
Unfortunately, most narcissists have enablers. The enablers tend to:
- unquestionably accept the narcissist’s version of reality
- not stand up to their abuse
- hide or clean up their messes
- act as an apologist for the narcissist
- blame others for the narcissist’s behavior
While it’s common for family members, like parents, to become enablers, friends, partners, children, and coworkers can do it too. And when it comes to narcissistic men, I’d say we tend to enable them as a society too. That’s why arguments that his wife Shanann “pushed him over the edge” only allow more toxic men to go by undetected.
It’s a myth that all narcissists are universally charming, outgoing, and obviously confident. But as long as we think that way, and as long as we continue to expect less from men in terms of emotional labor, parenting, and household management, I believe we are going to continue to see these senseless tragedies.
Was Chris Watts really the incredible dad and husband people believed him to be? Or have we set up our society to let fathers coast and be labeled “#1 Dad” for simply showing up half of the time?
When life gets hard, when marriage becomes tedious, and when finances grow tight, narcissistic men simply cannot deal with reality. They get triggered and look for an escape.
We have to learn how to quit enabling them.
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