Recognizing and Dealing With Narcissists in Relationships

Relationships A-Z
15 Sep 2023
13 min read
12 Signs You're Dealing With Narcissists in Relationships

Do you feel as if you are being gaslit in your relationship? Are you constantly on the defensive from wild accusations or apologizing for things to maintain a sense of peace? Has your affair turned into a form of unhealthy competition? If that’s what you have now, you should read our guide on narcissists in relationships to know how to protect yourself!.

It can be extraordinarily lonely and defeating to have a relationship with a person who has narcissistic personality disorder. Here are some insights into recognizing the traits of a narcissist, navigating narcissistic relationships, and getting out of narcissistic abuse.

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What is Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD)

The Diagnostic And Statistical Manual of Mental Health V defines narcissism as a personality disorder. It leads to lifelong difficulty relating to others, maintaining appropriate behaviors, and dealing with negative events healthily.

Narcissistic traits include:

  • A grandiose sense of their importance
  • Expecting special treatment or exemption from rules
  • Needing to be the center of attention
  • Engaging in arrogant and haughty behaviors
  • Boastfulness
  • Engaging in frequent fantasies about success or being the ideal lover
  • Failing to understand the needs and feelings of others
  • Being hyper-critical
  • Excessive materialism
  • Being easily offended or hurt
  • Insulting or belittling others
  • Becoming enraged when they don’t receive the deference they believe they deserve

At the same time, narcissists have an intense fear of failure. They may actively avoid situations if they think they will look bad or fail. Narcissists also tend to experience intense shame, humiliation, and fear of being exposed as failures. Their self-esteem is inflated but built on a very shaky foundation.

Also, there is no single profile or character study of a narcissist. Some are extraordinarily successful. Others struggle with even basic independence.

Related reading: Think You’ve Met a Female Narcissist? Follow the Clues

5 Forms of Narcissism

“When I look at narcissism through the vulnerability lens, I see the shame-based fear of being ordinary. I see the fear of never feeling extraordinary enough to be noticed, to be lovable, to belong, or to cultivate a sense of purpose.”

Brené Brown. American professor and writer

There are different types of narcissism:

  1. Overt narcissists: These people tend to be very obvious in their behaviors and exhibit the most extreme tendencies.
  2. Covert narcissists: They are less obvious in their behaviors because tend to suppress their most offensive impulses. For example, being passive-aggressive instead of directly nasty.
  3. Communal narcissists: These narcissists in relationships can be difficult to identify. They seem selfless and community-minded. Some even come off as being self-sacrificing. What makes them narcissists is that they are motivated by praise and attention, not helping others.
  4. Malignant narcissists: People who engage in the most severe narcissist abuse. In addition to having the traits associated with narcissism, they have other disturbing personality characteristics such as a lack of empathy, inability to take responsibility for one’s actions, aggression, and paranoia.
  5. Antagonistic narcissists: This form of narcissism is characterized by arrogance, competitiveness, and a desire to use people for their own benefit.

It’s important to understand that not everybody you perceive as narcissistic has NPD. People can have narcissistic traits without having the disorder. These tendencies may appear in certain areas of their life or as a symptom of mental health issues other than NPD.

Narcissists may have issues showing appropriate behaviors in a romantic relationship, but interact beautifully with family members.

Narcissistic personality disorder: How it looks like?

A Warning About Armchair Diagnosis of Narcissism

Only a licensed clinical psychologist can truly diagnose narcissistic personality disorder NPD. Unfortunately, this has become a label that people feel safe applying to others for a variety of reasons.

Armchair diagnosis of narcissism is unfair and unhealthy. Most people, even those with toxic relationship traits, are not narcissists. The tendency to apply this label to others can have dire consequences. People with other mental disorders may not receive the help and support they need if the people around them falsely determine they are simply narcissistic people. So don’t join them; let professionals only diagnose your partner.

However, you should do something to protect yourself. That said, if your interactions with a romantic partner are affected by narcissistic behaviors, you don’t need a clinical diagnosis. It is ultimately their responsibility to speak with a licensed therapist or find other ways to seek help if they choose to. You can still be on the lookout for traits such as using manipulation tactics to win arguments. You can also use some tactics below to deal with these behaviors while maintaining your self-worth.

Just understand the difference between your right to set boundaries and care for your needs versus engaging in character assassination.

Related reading: 11 Warning Signs of a Controlling Boyfriend and Why They Are Not OK

12 Signs You Have a Narcissistic Partner

Are you in a relationship with a narcissist or someone who has some narcissistic behavior patterns? Here are some symptoms and examples to clarify your current situation.

1. They Show Constant Need to Center Themselves in Conversations

You come home from work with amazing news about a new promotion. They congratulate you and then mention something about themselves. Two minutes later, you are feeling deflated as you find yourself talking about them: their needs, their achievements. When you mention this, they dismiss you as being hyper-sensitive. The gaslighting works, and you allow them to remain on center stage, again.

Narcs need external validation. They don’t much care that you might need that as well. So, the conversation is always steered toward their own accomplishments. If that doesn’t work, you may see some of their uglier characteristics as they criticize and attack to make you feel diminished.

2. They Demonstrate an Overblown Sense of Self-importance

You notice that your narcissistic partner boasts about their skills and accomplishments. They are quick to take credit but rarely praise others. They see themselves as high-status people playing a zero-sum game. This means they see any positive attention for others as diminishing their own.

You and your partner work hard to paint the living room. When the project is finished, you mention that you are very happy with your work painting the trim. Rather than congratulating you, the narc sees this as an affront to their self-confidence. So, they nitpick at some small mistake you made or simply start an argument. Later they share pictures of the living room without mentioning you helped paint it too.

3. Narcs Won’t Show Concern for Their Partner’s Feelings

When you’re going through something hard, a narc struggles to feel empathy. Their reaction may range from cold and dismissive to anger at you for your negative emotions. They will either make you feel worse, tell you that you are being silly, or simply manipulate the conversation back to themselves.

4, They Don’t Have Many Friends

It’s difficult to have a relationship with a narcissist. That’s true for romantic partners, but narcs also have troubled relationships with friends and family members.

One of two things will happen in these narcissistic relationships. One is that the narcissist’s friend recognizes their tendencies and ends the relationship. This usually happens after the narcissistic relationship pattern is repeated a few times. The other is that narcs tend to attract toxic empaths who get something out of being a supply source for a narcissist.

Related reading: Disorganized Attachment Style & Romantic Relationships

5. They React Negatively to Criticism

Narcissists are extremely sensitive to criticism. This can play out a few different ways. Your narcissistic partner may go in attack mode if you give even the mildest criticism. Others become passive-aggressive or mocking. Malignant narcs may jump straight to emotional abuse.

In extreme cases, the narcissist might suffer from a mental health crisis known as a narcissistic collapse. This is an event that happens when a failure, criticism, or humiliation is so intense that it breaks away the narcissist’s facade of grandiosity and lays bare their feelings of inadequacy.

Be aware that this isn’t a positive breakthrough. At this stage, some narcs become extremely despondent, even suicidal. Others may lash out in abuse and anger. Rarely, a collapsed narcissist can be a danger to others.

It’s important to understand that a collapsed narc isn’t learning something or having some sort of an emotional epiphany. They won’t emerge from a collapse with more empathy and a greater understanding of their behavior. They must be open to seeking therapy for that to happen.

6. They Start So Charming

A narcissistic relationship almost always starts on a positive note. He wants you to see him as someone who is caring and protective. He engages in love bombing, so you get that serotonin hit each time he says something to boost your self-esteem. Sometimes, he does this to lull you into a false sense of security. He may also turn on the charm sincerely but simply can’t keep it up for long.

Later this will change. He will ramp up the narcissistic abuse when you fail to be a perfect supply for him. You can expect this narcissistic relationship pattern to continue to repeat itself over time.

Related reading: The Serial Dater – A Special Breed

7. They Expect to Be Treated Better Than Others

Do you notice that he hates it when he has to follow basic rules or is inconvenienced in any way? Even something as simple as waiting for you to finish up a call before you can speak to him can trigger a self-esteem crisis and a tirade of narcissistic abuse.

This can be shown in different ways:

  • Some narcissistic relationship patterns include flying into a rage or engaging in insults
  • Another narc may withdraw and sulk

This is one of the things the diagnostic and statistical manual is referring to when it mentions an inability to handle stress or frustration.

8. They Get More Than a Self-Esteem Boost From Compliments

A narc relies on others for their sense of self. So, praise and acknowledgment are like a drug for them. They need you and everyone else to see them as smart, charming, and worthy of adoration. This personality trait is what makes so many narcissists boastful.

However, some narcs will gain that praise through acts of generosity and selflessness. This form of narcissism can be hard to identify. However, as your relationship progresses, you will see that they are motivated by a need for excessive admiration from the people around them. Instead of empathy, the envy of people receiving positive attention often drives their generosity.

Related reading: Putting Love into Action – It’s a Language

9. Appearance Is the Major Part of Their Sense of Self

Here is another way the narcissist’s need for constant admiration shines through. They are often hyper-focused on appearances. This includes:

  • Obsessing over having the right clothing
  • Paying constant attention to their hair and makeup
  • Insisting you meet certain standards of appearance
  • Demanding the best of the best car and other materials

These things don’t just make the narc look good. To him, they are symbols of his unlimited success. Combined, both make him worthy of the admiration he thinks he is entitled to.

10. They Are Charming Yet Manipulative

You try hard to maintain boundaries. Despite this, you find yourself caving in and giving him his way. That’s because manipulation is one of his core personality traits. He knows exactly how to get what he wants out of people while simultaneously convincing them it’s what they want too.

Related reading: Future Faking – A Lousy Dating Strategy

11. They Hold Grudges and Blame Others

When things go wrong for the narc, it’s always somebody else’s fault. To them, the idea that they are to blame in any situation is to admit they are flawed. That’s one of the worst possible things they can face. So, they place the blame on others.

Further, they will hold grudges over perceived wrongdoings. This is driven by their belief that they deserve stellar treatment at all times and the resentment they develop towards anyone who dares to challenge them or point out their flaws.

12. You Will Often See Signs of Low Self-Esteem

Even though they lack empathy and seem so self-aggrandizing, narcs struggle with self-esteem. Many of them have suffered from abuse and abandonment and have developed this personality disorder as a result.

Several peer-reviewed studies have examined the correlation between narcissism and damaged self-esteem.

Who are true narcissists in relationships: them, me, or we both?

Do I Have Narcissistic Tendencies?

If you were a narcissist, you would know that before you read this. That assumes you had engaged in enough therapy and self-examination to even be capable of that kind of insight. Truthfully most narcissists never reach that point. Most people with narcissism are too invested in their reality to see a problem with themselves, let alone want to change that.

You may demonstrate unhealthy, reactive behaviors if you genuinely worry about NPD. When you have been engaging in a relationship with a narcissist, that is emotionally draining. You must also survive within an emotional ecosystem that the narcissist creates.

Essentially, it’s as if normal, healthy rules of engagement no longer exist. You may find yourself saying or doing things within the relationship that you would never do in any other scenario. This doesn’t mean you are a narc. It means this is having a major impact on your mental health. But that doesn’t mean you are not responsible for your own behavior.

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Narcissistic Relationship Abuse

This topic is very important because narcissism exists on a spectrum and you should know how to identify it. Many of us show these traits from time to time.

For example, in a time of stress or when past trauma is brought to the surface, we might engage in some narcissistic tactics. At the more end of the spectrum are those who engage in narcissistic relationship abuse. This is financial, mental, emotional, and even physical abuse perpetrated to damage your well-being and maintain power. This abuse will escalate over time.

Related reading: 21 Things Your Partner Should Never Say to You (and Vice Versa)

5 Steps of Breaking Up With a Narcissist

You have decided that you deserve a healthier relationship so it’s time to break up with the narc in your life. Good! Your well-being takes priority. Here are some tips to help you do this.

1. Learn About Narcissism

You don’t need a degree in clinical psychology to gain the education you need about narcissism. Resources are available online through reputable organizations such as the American Psychiatric Association and experts in social psychology.

As you educate yourself on this, focus on these reliable sources, and avoid information that may mislead you or confirm your biases. You can do this by searching for peer-reviewed studies. These are conducted by people who usually have a minimum of a master’s degree in their field of study.

2. Get Outside Support

You are going to need a strong support system. That can be difficult because the narc makes it their business to ensure you are isolated from those who care about you.

Ignore anything they have told you about this. You are not unlovable. Some people care for you.

Here is how you can get the emotional support you deserve:

  • Reach out to family and friends
  • Try a therapist or a mental health provider
  • Contact a domestic violence hotline
  • Connect with a community

3. Gray Rock and Ignore Guilt Tripping

Gray rocking is making yourself uninteresting to a narcissist. In practice, it means you don’t respond or show emotion regardless of how much they poke at you. This way, you won’t trigger the past scenarios and have space to change your situation.

Eventually, they will turn their attention away from you, and you can focus on having healthier relationships.

4. Get Help If You See Even One Alarming Warning Sign

Most narcs are toxic but not dangerous. That said, take any threats to your safety or theirs very seriously.

Don’t hesitate to involve professionals or get a no-contact order if a threat or hint of threat is made. You’re not alone with that, never forget that.

5. Have an Exit Plan for Your Narcissistic Relationship

What will you do when it is time to leave? Make a plan now:

  • Be sure you can access your bank account and credit cards
  • Keep gas in your car
  • Make arrangements with a friend or shelter
  • Get a burner phone

The better you can plan, the easier it will be to get out. But if things don’t work out perfectly, that isn’t your fault. Know you are doing the best you can.

How to handle a narcissistic relationship

4 Things Needed to Stay in a Narcissistic Relationship

There are many reasons why you can decide to stay:

  • That’s the safest choice for you right now
  • They are one of the few narcs capable of insight and self-work
  • They have some problematic behaviors but aren’t a full-blown narcissist

Just know that your decision is valid, and you deserve help in creating the healthiest possible situation for yourself. These tips are for you.

1. Be Realistic About Them

You can love them and have hope for their ability to become a healthier person. But don’t lose your sense of reality.

Understand where they are right now, and accept that they may not be capable of much change. Know that their disorder is going to impact their actions and reactions.

2. Set and Enforce Boundaries

Boundaries are self-care. They are also difficult to establish. Set them early and enforce them without hesitation. State them clearly.

For example, if you mock me, I will leave and will not contact you again until you apologize to me. They will resist, tantrum, or insist you are being ridiculous. That doesn’t matter. You have to define how they are allowed to treat you.

Related reading: Boundaries in Relationships – Keeping Them Healthy

3. Get Separate Therapists for Your Mental Health and Theirs

Find a qualified therapist with at least a Master’s degree. Don’t agree to couple’s therapy. Know that if you do, they will likely charm and manipulate the therapist to their side.

They should seek out their own counseling, but you can’t force that. Also, be aware that he may not be honest with his therapist. So, the insights they receive are likely to be skewed because of his manipulation.

If they can be honest, the therapist will understand how his struggles with empathy, envy, and other issues affect their relationships.

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4. Don’t Internalize His Criticism or Try to Prove Yourself

Many women become convinced that they can be the ones to fix the narc. You will never do that. Only they can fix themselves.

Don’t internalize their criticism. There is nothing wrong with you. Don’t try to prove yourself worthy of their affection or attention.

They won’t change. You will just be a shell of yourself and their convenient supply source. Embrace your own importance instead.

Go for What You Deserve

Whether you stay in this relationship or leave, always strive for the relationship you deserve. There are so many resources to help you meet amazing people. You should never feel trapped in a relationship that damages you. Create your own reality that you love.

Relationships Author
Geoffrey Williams
After taking a required Intro to Psychology course as an undergrad, I have never looked back. Since my doctoral program, I have specialized in adult relationship therapy. Through my studies and clinicals, I wrote several articles for professional journals and currently in the midst of writing a book.
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