Most of us know the story of Narcissus, the beautiful Greek hunter who fell in love with his own reflection. The story coined the term ‘narcissistic’ when describing someone who is self-obsessed, vain, or overly grandiose. In the field of healthcare and psychology, acute narcissism is categorised as a personality disorder (NPD) – one that affects men more than women, but is estimated to afflict only 1% of the general population.1 Diagnosis is likelier than treatment due to traits of exaggerated self-importance, excessive need for admiration, and a lack of empathy generally easier to recognise in others than admit to oneself. Therapy requires those seeking it to identify with their mental health disorder, while narcissists – by their nature – notoriously refuse to believe they have one.
Those who find themselves in a relationship with a narcissist often describe their experience as dating the proverbial Jekyll and Hyde. These extreme ups and downs can feel like emotional warfare, which is why those who eventually leave can suffer from trauma symptoms such as PTSD.2
Below is our guide to helping you navigate a tumultuous relationship with a narcissist or someone with narcissistic traits.
There’s a difference between narcissistic tendencies and NPD. We can all behave badly sometimes. Whether we’re being self-centred, selfish, patronizing, arrogant, demanding or manipulative, it’s human to go through periods of behavioural difficulty. However, when those patterns are pathological, it’s a cause for concern and a huge red flag.
When people act badly, it’s often because there are underlying reasons for those negative behaviours – a trigger or situation that brings out their worst side. Most people are able to recognise their negativity and take responsibility for their toxicity, changing their behaviour and apologising for their actions out of guilt or genuine sorrow, while those with NPD lack empathy and self-awareness, which means any declaration of responsibility, apology or understanding tends to be superficial and short-lived. More often than not, those in a relationship with a narcissist will see the negative patterns of behaviour re-emerge – especially once the narcissist deems it safe to return to form.
Loving a narcissist can be incredibly painful. This is because most of us enter into a relationship looking for love and connection: something the narcissist is unable to reciprocate. Their motivations for being with you are entirely different, and it’s important to recognise what they are before you can understand what makes them stay with you. Once you do, you will be in a better position to disarm them and take back your power.
The key thing to remember is that a narcissist needs you more than you need them. They will push and test the boundaries you enforce, but they’ll rarely leave because of them. This is because their entire sense-of-self is dependent on the admiration of others, which includes their partner. They are often seen as ‘collectors’ of people – picked to feed their ego and validate their importance – and their partner is their most prized possession. When these people no longer serve their purpose or challenge their delusions, they will be swiftly discarded, dismissed and devalued by the narcissist.
Disarming your NPD partner requires a huge amount of resilience, strength and confidence. It also relies on your ability to understand your own triggers as well as your NPD partner does. They are master manipulators and know exactly what buttons to push to get you to react, and your power lies in your ability to stay calm, objective and reasonable. Learning to be assertive takes time and practise, as does self-care and self-love, but it’s your greatest tool when it comes to asserting your boundaries and staying measured in the face of someone trying to provoke you. Phrases such as, ‘I am willing to hear what you have to say when you are able to speak to me with respect and listen to my point of view too’ and, ‘I am unwilling to sit here while you shout at me’ can help, but you must then remove yourself from the situation to enforce your boundary. A narcissist is almost always on the defensive to avoid feeling vulnerable or inadequate, so reminding yourself that the anger isn’t really about you helps you find your voice when on the receiving end of a rant or attack.
Although a relationship with a narcissist is notoriously difficult to manage and maintain, there are people who feel their relationship is still worth fighting for, especially if the narcissist in question isn’t pathological and only shows the occasional traits. If this is the case, there are ways you can try to coexist in relative harmony. Your success will rely on your ability to disarm your NPD partner and set healthy and realistic boundaries. It’s also about managing your own expectations of what the relationship can and will look like. Understanding that a narcissist can’t love you like you love them, will rarely apologise (with any sincerity), won’t notice or respect your boundaries, and will never accept any blame, you can try to find ways to work around these barriers. This requires carving out time to focus on your own happiness, remaining unshakeable in your resilience when it comes to enforcing your boundaries, and choosing your battles wisely.
Filling the void of empathy and compassion in a narcissist through how you approach them can sometimes lead to positive change. Starting conversations that ask them to put themselves in your shoes can be effective, such as ‘How do you think that made me feel?’ or ‘I respect what you’re saying, but I need you to try and respect what I’m saying too’ and, ‘If you keep yelling, I will leave. I will only talk to you when you’re calm.’
People with NPD or narcissistic traits are able to change with the right help; but only if they recognise it. Sadly, this is rare due to the egotistic nature of narcissism.
There comes a time when enough has to be enough. If it feels like you’ve been at war with a narcissist for far too long and need an escape, the advice is to leave, but to leave quietly. Narcissists take your leaving very badly. They see it as the ultimate betrayal, and it’s one that threatens the very fabric of what holds their fragile ego together. It is at the point of leaving the potential for violence is at its highest. This is because, during your relationship, the narcissist’s concern with their image, as well as their ability to manipulate and control you, enables them to manage their rage relatively well. However, when you leave, you test this feat of self-restraint to its very limit.
This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t leave out of fear of the repercussions: quite the opposite. You should prepare yourself for the inevitability of their negative reaction and remain aware of the difficult response they’re undoubtedly going to have. When you have reached the point of no return, make sure you surround yourself with a support network at all times. If the narcissist has succeeded in isolating you from friends and family, you must leave when you know they’re going to be away. You can also seek help from a woman’s shelter, your GP, or the police.
For further information on how to cope with narcissism in your relationship, visit our help page here.
- ‘Prevalence and Treatment of Narcissistic Personality Disorder in the Community: A Systematic Review.’ Comprehensive Psychiatry. Source article: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0010440X09000984?via%3Dihub
- Narcissism Free. Recovery from Narcissistic. Post Traumatic Stress After Narcissistic Abuse. Source article: https://www.narcissismfree.com/post-traumatic-stress-after-narcissistic-abuse/