What is narcissism?
Narcissism is characterized by an inflated sense of self-importance, a lack of empathy for others, and a need for excessive attention and admiration. Narcissists tend to have an exaggerated sense of skills and abilities, and think very highly of themselves. They often pursue gratification, status, and narcissistic supply (attention and admiration from others) to validate their self-worth.
Some key traits of narcissism include:
- Grandiose sense of self-importance
- Preoccupation with fantasies of success, power, brilliance, beauty or perfect love
- Belief they are special and unique and can only be understood by, or should associate with, other special or high-status people or institutions
- Need for excessive admiration
- Sense of entitlement
- Interpersonally exploitative behavior
- Lack of empathy
- Envy of others or a belief that others are envious of them
- Arrogant, haughty behaviors or attitudes
Are relationships with narcissists toxic?
Relationships with narcissists tend to be very one-sided and emotionally unhealthy or toxic. Some reasons why include:
- Lack of empathy – Narcissists are unable to put themselves in their partner’s shoes. They are more concerned about themselves and can be very dismissive of their partner’s feelings and needs.
- Love bombing – Narcissists often shower their partner with excessive attention and admiration in the beginning of the relationship, only to later withdraw it in order to manipulate or gain control.
- High demands – They often make unreasonable demands on their partner’s time and resources. Their needs and wants are expected to come first in the relationship at all times.
- Gaslighting – Narcissists may engage in gaslighting, twisting facts to suit their own narrative and make their partner doubt their own perception of reality.
- Blame-shifting – They have trouble taking responsibility and frequently blame others, including their partner, for anything that goes wrong.
- Isolation – Narcissists may purposely isolate their partner from friends and family in order to maintain control in the relationship.
- Rage and abuse – When a narcissist feels threatened or perceives their partner is pulling away, they may react in rage or be emotionally or physically abusive.
- Control – Relationships with narcissists tend to be very controlling, with the narcissist making most of the decisions.
- Lack of intimacy – While narcissists crave admiration and praise, they are often unable to truly emotionally connect and have intimacy in relationships.
The toxicity comes from the narcissist’s extreme self-centeredness and lack of care for their partner’s well-being. Their tendency to manipulate, exploit and abuse the relationship for their own ends leaves the partner feeling anxious, lonely, depressed or insignificant.
What are some common experiences in relationships with narcissists?
People who have been in relationships with narcissists often share many similar experiences of emotional exploitation and psychological manipulation. Here are some of the most common:
- Idealization – Being put on a pedestal early on, showered with praise and made to feel like the perfect partner.
- Devaluation – After winning their partner’s affection, the narcissist switches to criticism and finding fault as they gain control.
- Intermittent reinforcement – The narcissist alternates between praise and affection to manipulation and coldness, which creates a trauma bond.
- Projection – Whatever faults or flaws the narcissist has get projected onto their partner.
- Gaslighting – The partner is constantly second-guessing their own perception of reality due to the narcissist’s lies, denial, twisting of facts, etc.
- Triangulation – The narcissist manufactures love triangles by bringing other people into the relationship to create jealousy and uncertainty.
- Exploitation – The narcissist uses their partner for sex, money, praise, promotion of their own status or agenda, etc.
- Pathological envy – Anything that takes attention away from the narcissist triggers envy, even their partner’s accomplishments.
- No boundaries – Private information is shared inappropriately, personal property is destroyed or given away, and their body autonomy is not respected.
These serve to manipulate, confuse, humiliate and control the partner. It becomes an endless cycle of abuse that erodes the partner’s self-esteem and sense of self over time.
What are signs you are in a relationship with a narcissist?
Here are some key signs that your partner may be a narcissist:
- You feel you’re constantly walking on eggshells – Anything can set off their anger, mood swings, pouting or rage at the slightest provocation, real or imagined.
- They show little or no empathy – Your feelings, needs and concerns consistently take a backseat to theirs.
- They are controlling – They want to dictate where you go, who you see, what you wear, etc. and become angry if you resist.
- Your feelings always end up being wrong or irrational – But their own feelings and responses are always justified in their eyes.
- Conversations become one-sided – They steer conversations back to themselves and their life. You struggle to get a word in.
- They play the victim – They complain about how people wrong them and nothing is ever their fault.
- Everything is transactional – Every nice thing they do comes with strings attached, there are always ulterior motives.
- The relationship moves very fast – They want to commit and get serious quickly and expect the same from you.
- They fish for compliments – They constantly want validation and praise from you for their looks or accomplishments.
- They lack reliability – They forget important dates, break promises, don’t follow through frequently.
Pay attention if any of these ring familiar in your relationship. The more that apply, the more likely your partner may have narcissistic traits or even Narcissistic Personality Disorder.
What are some narcissistic manipulation tactics?
Narcissists are highly skilled at employing an arsenal of manipulation and exploitation tactics to exert control over their relationship partners. Some of the most common include:
- Gaslighting – Making their partner doubt their own sanity, memories and perceptions.
- Triangulation – Introducing a third party to make their partner jealous and vie for the narcissist’s attention.
- Breadcrumbing – Leaving small crumbs of attention to string their partner along when they want attention or validation.
- Love bombing – Showering their partner with flattery, praise, gifts during idealization phases to influence them.
- Hoovering – Sucking their partner back into the relationship after devaluation with promises of change.
- Stonewalling – Withdrawing emotionally or giving their partner the silent treatment as punishment.
- Smear campaign – Spreading gossip and rumors designed to ruin their partner’s reputation and credibility.
- Projection – Attributing their own flaws and misdeeds to their partner.
- Word salad – Using a confusing mix of words to make their partner think they must be in the wrong.
- Boundary violations – Disrespecting reasonable boundaries related to privacy, property and conduct.
Recognizing these manipulation tactics is an important first step in detecting and breaking free from narcissistic abuse.
What are the stages of a relationship with a narcissist?
Narcissistic relationships tend to follow predictable stages:
In the early stages, the narcissist showers their partner with extreme amounts of attention, admiration, flattery and affection. They make their partner feel like the perfect mate who can fulfill their every need. This idealization helps them secure their partner’s affection and trust quickly.
Once the narcissist has hooked their partner, they start to sow seeds of doubt and dissatisfaction. They criticize small behaviors, put down their partner’s friends, stop saying “I love you”, and become more unavailable emotionally and physically.
The narcissist then abruptly ends the relationship, often without warning or explanation. Or they may emotionally distance themselves and openly pursue other options right in front of their partner. The partner is made to feel worthless, at fault and unable to fulfill the narcissist’s needs.
If the narcissist wants their ex-partner back for ego validation, sex, money or other motives, they will employ hoovering techniques like being suddenly super sweet, making big promises, showering with attention etc. Once they get their partner back, the idealization stage begins again and the cycle continues.
Can a relationship with a narcissist work long-term?
It is extremely difficult for long-term relationships with untreated narcissists to be healthy or fulfilling for the non-narcissistic partner. Here’s why they rarely work:
- The narcissist does not change – Their exaggerated sense of self-importance, attention-seeking and lack of empathy persist from beginning to end.
- The abuse continues – The idealization-devaluation-discard stages repeat themselves. Moments of love bombing provide false hope.
- The partner keeps compromising – Their self-esteem and personality get eroded from accommodating the narcissist’s needs.
- The relationship remains one-sided – Lack of emotional intimacy and reciprocity eventually overwhelm the non-narcissist.
- The narcissist seeks narcissistic supply elsewhere – Serial infidelity, emotional or physical affairs are common.
- The partner hits rock bottom – Constant anxiety, walking on eggshells, depression and trauma take their toll.
- The narcissist discards permanently – Once their partner is drained of supply, the narcissist moves on.
For the relationship to have any chance, the narcissist needs to pursue long-term therapy and truly want to change their behaviors. Unfortunately, few narcissists are willing to confront their disorder.
How does dating a narcissist affect your mental health?
Being in a relationship with a narcissist can take a severe emotional toll and negatively impact mental health in many ways, including:
- Depression – Constant criticism, gaslighting and moving goalposts can leave partners feeling deflated, hopeless and depressed.
- Anxiety – Walking on eggshells lest they trigger partner’s anger causes extreme anxiety.
- Diminished self-esteem – Being subjected to regular put-downs, blame and control damages self-confidence.
- PTSD – The emotional trauma causes partners to develop PTSD symptoms like flashbacks, hypervigilance and emotional detachment.
- C-PTSD – Ongoing abuse may result in Complex Post Traumatic Stress Disorder with more pervasive and long-lasting effects.
- Self-doubt – Partners start doubting their own judgment of reality and capability as abuser manipulates them.
- Confusion – Being gaslit into believing you’re the problem is bewildering and disorienting.
- Addictive personality – Some develop addictive behaviors to cope like drinking, smoking, drugs, gambling, risky sex etc.
- Identity loss – Partners give up so much of themselves that they begin losing touch with who they are.
- Suicidal thoughts – When self-esteem hits rock bottom, harmful thoughts of self-harm can emerge.
These mental health impacts underscore just how vital it is to seek help and walk away from narcissistic relationships. The cumulative effects can be crippling.
What are signs it’s time to leave a narcissistic relationship?
Here are some clear signs it’s time to consider ending things:
- You are walking on eggshells and living in constant fear of their rage, putdowns or mood swings.
- Your physical or mental health is declining due to chronic stress and anxiety.
- They are constantly blaming, criticizing and scapegoating you and nothing is ever their fault.
- Your needs and views are dismissed, belittled and judged harshly.
- They exhibit no remorse and don’t take any steps to change their hurtful behaviors.
- They are unfaithful or allude to pursuing other partners/options.
- Your friends and family have been expressing serious concern about the relationship.
- You find yourself making excuses for their terrible behavior and feel the need to cover it up.
- You feel worthless, “not good enough” and lack confidence in yourself.
- The relationship feels totally one-sided no matter how hard you try.
Listen to your inner voice if it’s persistently telling you that you’re better off alone. No amount of effort can save a relationship with an abusive narcissist.
How to safely leave a narcissistic relationship
Ending a relationship with a narcissistic partner requires some caution. Here are some tips for safely making your exit:
- Line up support beforehand – Confide in trustworthy friends, family and professionals so you have a support system.
- Get your financials in order – Open your own bank account and make sure you have access to money.
- Document abuse and keep evidence – This can help with legal orders later if needed.
- Make a safety plan – Arrange where you will stay after leaving and how to remain safe from stalking.
- Keep breakup conversations brief – Don’t get embroiled in lengthy circular arguments. Stick to your decision.
- Conduct conversations in public spaces – There is less risk of scary behavior when others are around.
- Have someone accompany you when retrieving belongings – Don’t go back alone to pick up your things.
- Get a new number and email address – Block them everywhere to limit their access to you.
- Seek professional help – Enlist support through domestic violence groups, counseling and the police.
- Avoid future contact – Don’t fall for their hoovering attempts. Stay strong for your well-being.
Put your safety and welfare above everything else. You deserve so much better than to remain entangled with an abusive narcissist.
How to rebuild your life after leaving a narcissist
Recovering from narcissistic abuse requires time, self-care and determination. Some positive steps forward include:
- Seek counseling and join support groups – This can help validate your experiences and process trauma.
- Rediscover your passions – Pursue hobbies that help build back your sense of self and joy.
- Spend time with true friends – People who truly care for you can serve as your surrogate family.
- Practice self-care – Focus on getting enough rest, nutrition and exercise to heal.
- Learn about personality disorders – Understanding narcissism helps undo self-blame.
- Avoid rushing into new relationships – Take time to identify red flags before dating again.
- Let go of anger – Release resentment through techniques like journaling as dwelling on it hurts you more.
- Establish boundaries – Learn to confidently say no and stand up for how you expect to be treated.
- Focus on growth – Pick up new skills, return to school or switch careers for a fresh start.
- Forgive yourself – Don’t dwell on things you wish you did differently. You did the best you could at the time.
The most important thing is to be gentle with yourself and realize recovering your happiness and wholeness is not an overnight process. With consistent effort, your outlook will continue to brighten.
Narcissistic relationships are inherently unhealthy and toxic because of the narcissist’s extreme self-centeredness, manipulation, entitlement, lack of empathy and propensity for abuse. Their partners often suffer from depression, anxiety, low self-esteem and PTSD from the chronic trauma. While extremely challenging, it is possible to safely leave a narcissist, seek help, rebuild your life and find joy again. Putting your emotional and physical well-being first is the strongest act of self-love. You deserve so much better.