Narcissism is a personality trait characterized by an inflated sense of self-importance, need for admiration, and lack of empathy. Narcissists tend to have an excessive interest in themselves and often struggle with maintaining long-term relationships. However, some narcissists are able to have long-term relationships under certain circumstances.
What is narcissism?
Narcissism exists on a spectrum. Many people show some narcissistic traits without meeting the criteria for narcissistic personality disorder. Those with NPD typically show signs of:
- Grandiosity – They have an inflated sense of self-importance and exaggerate their achievements.
- Attention-seeking – They constantly crave admiration, compliments, and affirmation.
- Lack of empathy – They struggle to understand or care about other people’s feelings.
- Entitlement – They believe they deserve special treatment and have unrealistic expectations of others.
- Arrogance – They often come across as arrogant or haughty when interacting with others.
- Envy – They feel jealous toward others and believe others envy them.
- Exploitativeness – They take advantage of others to achieve their own goals.
Do narcissists struggle with relationships?
Yes, narcissists often struggle with maintaining healthy, long-term relationships. Their need to be admired, lack of empathy, and exploitativeness make relationships difficult. Some key reasons narcissists struggle with relationships include:
- Need for control – Narcissists need to be in control and get very upset when challenged.
- Prone to infidelity – Their sense of entitlement makes them more likely to cheat on partners.
- Lack of reciprocity – Relationships feel imbalanced because narcissists expect more than they give.
- Boredom – Narcissists get bored easily with partners once the excitement wears off.
- Blaming others – They struggle to take accountability and often blame relationship issues on their partner.
Overall, narcissists tend to approach relationships in terms of what they can gain rather than building true intimacy. Their manipulative, self-serving behavior usually undermines long-term commitment.
Can a narcissist have a long-term relationship?
While narcissists generally struggle with long-term relationships, some are able to maintain commitments long-term under the right circumstances. Some key factors that support narcissists having long-term relationships include:
- Finding an accommodating partner – Some narcissists find a partner who is willing to support their needs for admiration and accommodate their expectations.
- Partner with high empathy – A partner who is very empathetic may be willing to accept and understand the narcissist’s limitations.
- Partner with codependent traits – Some narcissists pair with people who have codependent tendencies and become reliant on the narcissist.
- Narcissist has self-awareness – Rarely, a narcissist may recognize their limitations and actively work to reduce problematic behaviors.
- Milder narcissism – Those with mild narcissistic traits rather than full NPD may adapt better to relationships over time.
However, even when narcissists are able to stay in long-term relationships, the dynamics are far from ideal. Their partners often suffer from chronic issues like lack of emotional intimacy, manipulation, and frequent conflict.
What are signs a narcissist can’t handle a long-term relationship?
Most narcissists eventually demonstrate behaviors and attitudes that sabotage committed relationships. Signs a narcissist can’t maintain a long-term relationship include:
- Flirting outside the relationship or cheating – This stems from their sense of entitlement and need for validation.
- Constant boredom and dissatisfaction – They struggle with feelings of emptiness and get bored without constant excitement.
- Verbally abusive behavior – Belittling partners, yelling, blaming, and other toxic communication.
- Complete lack of empathy – An inability to care about a partner’s needs, emotions, or experiences.
- Persistently invalidating partner – Partners feel unheard, ignored, and disregarded.
- Increasing demands and expectations – What once satisfied them leaves them perpetually wanting more.
- Sudden, dramatic shifts in attitude – Idealizing partners then suddenly devaluing and discarding them.
These behaviors stem from core narcissistic traits like exploitation, entitlement, and envy. The behaviors usually start to show up and intensify around major relationship milestones like moving in together, getting engaged, or having a child.
Are narcissists capable of change?
While narcissists are very resistant to change, some are capable of improving their behavior if they are motivated and commit to therapy. However, change is very difficult and limited for most narcissists. Some key considerations around narcissists changing their behavior include:
- It takes time – Personality-level change does not happen quickly. Narcissists require years of intensive therapy.
- They must recognize the problem – Most narcissists struggle to admit they have an issue in the first place.
- Underlying issues – Any trauma, mental health disorders, or neurodivergence underlying their narcissism also needs to be addressed.
- Growth is limited – Even with therapy, narcissists are likely to remain self-focused and may just become “healthier” narcissists.
- Relapses happen – Their deep-seated patterns make it easy to revert to old behaviors, especially during times of stress.
- Medication can help – Anti-depressants and mood stabilizers can reduce negative behaviors.
So while change is very difficult, it is possible if the narcissist is self-aware, motivated, and engages in long-term treatment. But partners should be realistic and not expect perfection. Managing expectations and focusing on incremental change is important.
How should you handle dating a narcissist?
If you find yourself dating a narcissist, it is better to proceed with extreme caution. Some tips for navigating a relationship with a narcissist include:
- Set boundaries early – Make your needs and expectations clear from the start.
- Watch for red flags – Notice signs of entitlement, manipulation, aggression, and deception.
- Don’t provide excessive praise – Temper compliments and don’t inflate their ego.
- Have an exit strategy – Know your deal breakers and leave if they are violated.
- Get support – Lean on friends, join support groups, and consider therapy.
- Communicate issues gently – Choose the right times to provide calm, thoughtful feedback.
- Don’t expect apologies or empathy – They likely won’t validate your feelings or experience remorse.
- Avoid ultimatums – Threatening to leave may exacerbate aggressive behaviors.
The healthiest approach is usually to leave the relationship if major red flags appear. But if choosing to stay, try to mitigate issues and prioritize your emotional needs.
Setting boundaries with a narcissistic partner
Setting strong personal boundaries helps retain a sense of self when dating or married to a narcissist. Some tips for setting effective boundaries include:
- Be clear and specific – Don’t hint at what you want. State boundaries using clear “I” statements.
- Keep emotions in check – Calmly explain boundaries without blaming or shaming.
- Get it in writing – Follow up important conversations with an email or text recapping boundaries.
- Rinse and repeat – Be prepared to regularly restate boundaries as needed.
- Enforce consistently – Follow through on reasonable consequences when boundaries are crossed.
- Keep communicating – Continue having open discussions about needs and challenges.
- Don’t justify – Avoid over-explaining boundaries or giving lengthy reasons.
- Have back-up plans – Build your support system and financial independence.
Start with one or two reasonable, significant boundaries. Then layer on more over time. Remain calm but firmly stand by your boundaries, even if it means ending the relationship.
When to seek couples counseling
Couples counseling may help improve some relationship dynamics with a narcissistic partner. Consider seeking couples counseling if:
- Communication has broken down
- Frequent destructive conflicts occur
- Your partner is open to counseling
- You want to understand them better
- Major life changes are occurring
- You need help setting boundaries
- You feel your needs aren’t being met
- You’re considering ending the relationship
However, narcissists are often resistant to counseling since it requires vulnerability and self-evaluation. Get individual therapy first to build your self-esteem and communication skills. Then suggest couples counseling to have a neutral third party perspective. But be prepared to attend counseling alone if they refuse.
When to end the relationship with a narcissist
If a narcissist becomes emotionally or physically abusive, the safest option is usually ending the relationship. Otherwise, consider ending things if they consistently:
- Violate major boundaries you’ve set
- Make you feel controlled or manipulated
- Engage in infidelity or inappropriate flirtation
- Struggle with addictions they won’t address
- Verbally, emotionally or physically abuse you
- Refuse to acknowledge issues or attend counseling
- Exploit you financially or take advantage of your kindness
- Show no empathy for your needs and feelings
Prioritize your emotional and physical safety. Develop an exit plan and leave the relationship if they cross firm lines. With support and self-care, you can recover and build new healthy relationships.
Can a relationship with a narcissist work long-term?
While it’s possible for those with milder narcissistic traits to have long-term relationships, it’s exceedingly difficult for full-blown narcissists. Their distorted self-view, extreme needs for validation, and lack of empathy mean they will inevitably undermine intimacy, trust, and commitment. Partners of narcissists often describe the relationships as draining, unstable, and chronically unsatisfying.
For a narcissistic relationship to work long-term, the narcissist needs high levels of self-awareness, discipline, professional treatment, and an exceptionally patient, understanding partner. Even then, they will likely continue showing limited empathy and self-focused behaviors. Realistically, most narcissist-non-narcissist relationships eventually end unless the non-narcissist partner is extremely accommodating.
Narcissism exists on a spectrum, and many narcissistic traits don’t preclude having long-term relationships. However, full-blown narcissistic personality disorder makes it exceedingly difficult to sustain healthy, intimate relationships.
While some narcissists can adapt behaviors and find an unusually patient, accepting partner, most will demonstrate entitled, manipulative, and devaluing behavior that erodes commitment. Setting boundaries and getting professional help can mitigate challenges, but ending the relationship may be healthiest if narcissistic behaviors are severe.
With insight, determination, and support, those embroiled in narcissistic relationships can regain their self-esteem and find satisfaction in other relationships. If you’re considering dating or marrying a narcissist, proceed with extreme caution, temper your expectations, and prioritize your own needs.