Narcissistic patterns in relationships can stem from a number of issues that may not have anything to do with you. But recognizing them and counteracting them with healthier habits that promote self-worth is key.
If a narcissist is primarily concerned with their own needs and well-being, can they make room in their heart to love you too?
It can be really frustrating, but some people often find themselves involved in one narcissistic relationship after another, unable to break from the cycle of being adored and discarded.
If you feel like your love interest keeps flooding you with adoration only to then wring you dry, it’s time to alter the pattern.
Here’s what you need to know.
Narcissism is not a one-size-fits-all trait. In fact, narcissistic personality disorder has very specific traits. We talked to neuropsychologist Dr. Sanam Hafeez, director of Comprehend the Mind, and she described four specific types of narcissist.
- Grandiose narcissist: “This is a commonly encountered narcissist who is arrogant, attention-seeking, entitled, and jealous of others,” Hafeez says.
- Malignant narcissist: “If you have met a person who will lash out or violate other people to boost their fragile ego, that can be a sign of a malignant narcissist,” Hafeez says.
- Covert or vulnerable narcissist: “A less transparent narcissist but equally as toxic is a covert narcissist. These individuals are deeply self-absorbed with a strong victimization feeling (as though the world has failed to recognize their excellence). They will never take ownership of their mistakes, rather they would blame the world for their failures,” she says.
- Communal narcissist: “This is the person who receives validation from community-related aspects of life. Often, their social media are filled with photos of them at charity events and galas. Their great deeds for the world must be shown off to stimulate their ego,” Hafeez says.
Narcissism is often seen as predominantly affecting men (up to 75% of people diagnosed with narcissistic personality disorder are male) because of grandiosity traits. Vulnerable narcissism, marked by feelings of shame and victimhood, may be more prevalent in females.
If you’re unsure if you’re dating a narcissist, Hafeez says watch for these signs:
- Your partner is overly obsessed with themselves.
- They demand constant attention.
- They always believe they are right.
- They are overly sensitive to criticism.
- They have a superiority complex.
How do those traits play out in a relationship? It may start with “love bombing”. Your new love interest treats you like royalty, deems everything about you perfect, and acts like your romance is straight out of a fairy tale.
“In the beginning, a narcissistic partner can be very intriguing and, therefore, easy to get involved with. At first, it may seem like the both of you will only accept the best and therefore can be best together,” Hafeez saya. “But in time, narcissistic partners tend to become too controlling, as they tend to be very jealous and easily offended.”
When the onslaught of romance wears off, a narcissistic partner may start to “devalue” you – criticizing, withholding intimacy, or gaslighting.
These traits in a narcissist partner can start to erode your self-esteem:
- Lack of empathy.
- Treating you like an accessory to fulfill their emotional needs.
Once their manipulative behaviors fail to draw ego-boosting attention from you, they will “discard” the relationship.
“Some partners find themselves eager to please their narcissistic partner to avoid conflict,” Hafeez says. “This can lead to one feeling lonely, as if their needs aren’t of importance in the long run. In the end, you may leave the relationship with more insecurities, a negative self-image, and anger.”
If you are currently in a relationship with a narcissist, ending it is always an option. Look for support from friends and a therapist to help you recover your sense of self-worth.
If you choose to continue a relationship with a narcissistic partner, Hafeez offers these tips for coping:
- Fight the feeling that you are a victim.
- Remember that you and your partner are equals in the relationship, regardless of how they manipulate the narrative.
- Practice self-compassion.
- Take action to rebuild your self-confidence.
Hafeez also offers these tips for avoiding relationships with narcissists in the future:
- Ask all the questions. “Narcissists will practically interrogate you to learn the ins and outs of how you think, act, speak, and figure out what makes you tick. By asking all the questions straight off the bat, you can feel what kind of person you’re dealing with,” she says.
- Run from the negativity. “Narcissists tend to be more attracted to partners who are willing to stick through anything, no matter how toxic. If they seem to drop negative comments like ‘my friends might not like you’ or ‘my family wouldn’t approve of you,’ then part ways immediately,” Hafeez says.
- Assert your boundaries. “Narcissists tend to despise the idea of someone else taking control of any relationship. Depending on their reaction to you setting down some ground rules, it’s up to you whether or not you wish to stay.”
- Pay attention. “Narcissists will often belittle others to feel better about themselves. On the other hand, a generally ‘good’ person will treat everyone equally, whether friends, coworkers, or waitstaff.”
Can you really be loved by someone who loves themselves to your detriment? According to Hafeez, it’s the narcissist’s lack of self-love that’s the real problem.
“Narcissistic partners usually have difficulty loving someone else because they don’t truly love themselves,” she says. “They are so focused on their own imperfections that they cannot really ‘see’ their partner for who they are as an individual. They tend to only see the partner regarding how they fill their needs – or fail to fill their needs.”
But, she says it’s not entirely hopeless. You can build a healthy relationship, if you’re willing to put in the work. Practice these skills to combat narcissistic patterns in your relationship:
- Accept them for who they are. Even if your partner might have narcissistic personality disorder, it doesn’t eliminate the fact that they’re a human being with flaws, just like you. You both are bringing flaws that need to be accepted and worked through.
- Don’t react, but instead communicate. “Try your best to break down the situation with your partner and talk them down from their angry state by acknowledging how they feel without letting them see you in a bad light. This way, they know that the image they created of you in a fit of anger isn’t necessarily reality.”
- Set realistic boundaries. “Set limits on a narcissist’s grandiosity, or they will expect unreasonable things from you.”
- Don’t react to their [negative] behavior. “If your partner feels the need to attack you as a defense mechanism, don’t counterattack. Instead, learn how to talk them down and deflate their egos.”
Ultimately, you may not have the power to rehab your narcissist into a good partner. Therapy is a good tool for both of you to learn coping tactics. However, be aware that narcissism can manifest in varied degrees and may sometimes be hard to treat.
It can be easy to fall for a narcissist because they are pros at making you feel special. Unfortunately, they may just be using you as a tool to fulfill their own fantasies of success, romance, and power.
Narcissistic relationships can turn when your partner starts to put you down and blame you. You can learn to recognize narcissistic behaviors, protect your own self worth, and avoid these relationship patterns in the future.