If your significant other constantly talks about themselves, demeans others around them, and leaves you feeling hot and cold about the relationship, you might be with someone with narcissistic personality disorder.
Narcissistic personality disorder gets its name from the Greek character Narcissus who tragically fell in love with his own reflection. Similarly, individuals with narcissistic traits are self-absorbed, making intimate relationships with them difficult.
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What is narcissistic personality disorder? (NPD)
The International Classification of Diseases defines narcissistic personality disorder as a disorder characterized by an enduring pattern of grandiose beliefs and arrogant behavior together with an overwhelming need for admiration and a lack of empathy for (and even exploitation of) others. Some characteristics include excessive self-love, egocentrism, grandiosity, exhibitionism, excessive needs for attention, and sensitivity to criticism.
The DSM-V, which is a another prominent mental health diagnosis manual, described narcissistic personality disorder as “a pervasive pattern of grandiosity (in fantasy or behaviour), need for admiration, and lack of empathy . . .,” which includes:
- a grandiose sense of self-importance;
- preoccupation with fantasies of unlimited success, power, brilliance, beauty, or ideal love;
- beliefs of being special and unique;
- requirements of excessive admiration;
- a sense of entitlement;
- interpersonal exploitativeness;
- lack of empathy;
- envy of others; and
- arrogant, haughty behaviors or attitudes
Narcissism is also seen as existing on a spectrum, ranging from pathological narcissism described above to possessing narcissistic traits in lower intensity. At its root, these individuals have low self-esteem and a fragile sense of self, which consequently requires safeguarding in the form of praise and belittling others.
Given these traits, narcissistic personality disorder can cause problems in various aspects of life, including romantic relationships. Narcissistic personality disorder brings with it signature narcissistic relational patterns that might leave the partner feeling overwhelmed and distressed.
7 narcissistic relationship patterns to watch out for
Being with someone with narcissism can be a confusing experience. The initial period of an intimate relationship with them might have been extremely positive, as individuals with NPD can be charismatic and incredibly charming. However overtime, you may find yourself in repeated conflicts and the relationship might feel like a dizzy whirlwind. This is a common experience of individuals in romantic relationships with narcissists.
Identifying that you might be in a narcissistic relational pattern can be helpful in making sense of your experience and in eventually helping you figure out what your next steps can be. Given below are a few signs that you can look out for.
1. They love bomb you
The initial phase of your relationship might have been intensely intimate, with your partner showering you with excessive and overwhelming amounts of affection and love. The relational progress is rapid and your partner might idealise you and think of you as the perfect partner. This does feel significantly more intense than any other relational honeymoon periods you might have experienced.
This is called narcissistic love bombing. While it might initially leave you feeling special, the intention is to establish control. Because your partner has done so much for you, you might feel obligated to do something in return.
2. They are extremely manipulative and often gaslight you
Narcissism is often accompanied by strategic manipulations to gain control over situations and people with the intention of keeping the narcissist safe. While these strategies might not be wholly intentional, they can have a devastating impact on your mental health. Using jealousy, guilt or threat is one way in which this is done.
Another strategy is gaslighting, a form of emotional abuse. Your partner might gaslight you by always citing your past mistakes which trigger you, questioning your recollection of certain events or even outright denying things that they have done. When you vocalise the impact of their actions on your physical or mental health, they may label you as sensitive and shift the onus back to you. Statements like “This never happened”, “You’re being crazy, you should seek help”, “How dare you accuse me of something like this” may make a frequent appearance in your relationship.
They might also put you down to feel better about themselves. They might rely on verbal abuse, use the knowledge they have of you against you and give you the silent treatment as punishment.
3. They use triangulation to tip scales in their favour
Triangulation is the relational dynamic of engaging a third person into a relationship when two partners are in conflict. In narcissistic patterns, this is done with the intention of bringing in a third person who agrees with them, so as to make you look wrong. Your partner might do this by leaning on your exes, family or a friend to choose a side. They might even say things like “Your mother agrees with me, everyone has this problem with you” or “I am sure your previous partner will also agree with me, this is who you are”. The intention is to highlight that they have support, whereas you are alone and in the wrong.
Narcissistic Abuse Cycle
From the love bombing to the manipulation and triangulation, a narcissistic pattern of abuse might emerge in your relationship. Love bombing is the stage of idealisation, wherein you are placed on a pedestal. Eventually, this will move towards criticising and belittling you as they realise that you, like everyone else, are flawed. This is the stage of devaluation. And then is the stage of discarding and rejection, wherein they begin to push you away. Gaslighting and triangulation often happen here, wherein they might compare you with someone else who they now idealise and pull this person into the relational dynamic. These stages can go through many cycles and can be absolutely devastating to be at the receiving end of.
4. They are always talking about themselves and bragging
Narcissism is characterised in part by a preoccupation to be the centre of attention. They have difficulty allowing others to be in the lead and feel the need to bring the spotlight back on themselves. Moreover, narcissism requires praise (from self or others) as a way of regulating and maintaining an otherwise fragile sense of self.
Your partner might be doing this by bringing the attention back on themselves in every conversation, praising themselves for the smallest reasons, and finding ways to make any situation a reflection of their merit.
5. They never take responsibility for their actions
One of the key traits of narcissists is difficulty in taking responsibility for their actions. Taking responsibility requires some amount of self-security and grounding. Unfortunately, with narcissism, the grandiosity is a cover-up for self-loathing. When a secure sense of self is absent, taking accountability for having done something wrong can be threatening. Narcissism cannot hold space for vulnerability.
Translating to intimate relationships, your partner might blame you for the conflicts or any mistakes they might make. They might also seemingly twist stories around to establish the idea that you are in the wrong. Any of your attempts to hold them accountable might be met with rage, anger and aggressive refusal.
6. Lack of emotional intimacy and empathy
Narcissistic tendencies also make it harder for these individuals to understand empathy and experience emotional intimacy. They might find it difficult to grasp how your internal experience would be different from theirs, because they treat others as an extension of themselves. They would expect you to feel the same way as they do or would feel in a situation. If you feel differently, they will criticise you or belittle you. Moreover, they don’t show remorse when you vocalise your hurt in response to their actions/words.
7. You feel the need to avoid conversations
How a relationship leaves you feeling is a good tell of how safe you might be feeling in it. Narcissistic relational spaces can often feel unsafe. Consequently, you find yourself walking on eggshells and avoiding conversations to protect yourself. If you feel like a conversation with your partner is likely to take an aggressive turn, wherein your side of the story will not be heard, you will be blamed for everything as they praise themselves and there will be no accountability from their end – you’re likely stuck in a narcissistic relational pattern.
Effects of being in a relationship with a narcissist
Research suggests that partners who have experienced narcissistic abuse often struggle to make sense of their experience, and face difficulty in processing what has happened to them. Because of the nature of the narcissistic relationship pattern, they are often left feeling shock, anger, or guilt along with symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. They are also likely to experience symptoms of depression, low self esteem, anxiety, grief or panic, or even dissociation.
⚠️If you or someone you know is having suicidal thoughts, help is at hand. Please visit this list of helplines and resources for different countries.
While the mental health impact of being in a narcissistic relationship can be quite heavy, the important thing to remember is that there are ways to cope.
How to deal with a narcissistic partner
Dealing with a narcissistic partner is not easy. Because bringing about change in them is hard, the process would start with you. It might require you to make a few changes because the relational dynamics shift.
Maintain a support system
Being in an intimate relationship with someone with NPD can be very isolating. On occasion, they might deliberately try to isolate you from your support. Take active effort to build a support system, whether it is reaching out to friends, family or a support group. Having a sounding board and a confidant can be incredibly helpful in this journey.
Insist on going to individual therapy
Therapy can play a very important role in rebuilding self-esteem, and equipping you with skills to cope with narcissistic relationships. If seeking face-to-face or online therapy is hard because of partner surveillance, explore chat-based options. Apps like Wysa will connect you with a trained mental health professional and give you access to a range of tools to ground yourself. Likewise, insist that your partner seek therapy too.
Communicate how their behavior affects you
Individuals with NPD often do not have an understanding of how their words and actions are impacting others. If you feel safe enough, try to vocalising how you feel gently, while also being ready for resistance from them. Going along with them will only serve to maintain the present relationship dynamics.
Learn to set boundaries
Individuals with narcissism struggle with boundaries. They might control your social interactions, and order you around. It is important, where you feel able to, to build firm boundaries with them, and stand your ground. It is equally important to communicate when a boundary has been violated to maintain a healthy relationship.
Identify when you have had enough
Finally, know when you have had enough. Some questions to ask yourself to help you make this decision might be:
- Do you feel like you are not being true to yourself in this relationship?
- Do you find yourself questioning/doubting yourself all the time because of your partner’s words?
- Even if your partner is seeking help and changing, is the present amount of change enough for you?
- Do you have enough emotional and cognitive resources to continue engaging with this space?
It can be hard to leave a relationship that has had its share of tender and loving moments. They might make it harder to leave by weaponizing guilt. But it is okay to prioritise your emotional and physical health over the relationship and look out for yourself.
Being in an intimate relationship with someone with narcissistic traits can be emotionally and physically taxing. Identifying relational patterns though is the first step towards breaking them. If the patterns listed here resonated with you, seek help from your support system and trained mental health professionals. Focus on your own needs and chart your next steps.
Photo by Liza Summer
Photo by Budgeron Bach