A narcissist is someone who has an inflated sense of self-importance and lacks empathy. When it comes to relationships, narcissists tend to seek satisfaction for their own needs and desires above all else. Understanding what motivates narcissistic behavior in relationships can help identify red flags to avoid getting involved with narcissists.
They Seek Attention and Admiration
Narcissists crave constant attention and admiration from those around them. They want their partner to idolize them and make them feel superior. Relationships provide a source of narcissistic supply—praise, compliments, deference—that fuels a narcissist’s sense of self-worth. Having someone look up to them and lavish them with admiration helps convince narcissists of their false sense of superiority.
They Want to Feel in Control
Narcissists seek to dominate their partners and exert control in relationships. They need to feel in charge and often micromanage how their partners dress, act, and communicate. Strong-willed partners threaten a narcissist’s sense of control, so narcissists frequently disparage and belittle their partners to establish dominance. Feeling in control is a critical source of security for narcissists and keeps their fragile egos intact.
They Lack Empathy
One of the hallmark traits of narcissism is a lack of empathy. Narcissists are unable to put themselves in their partners’ shoes or understand their feelings and needs. They are more likely to criticize and invalidate their partner’s thoughts and emotions than provide emotional support. Partners often feel dismissed and remain disconnected from narcissistic individuals who are unable to relate to others’ perspectives.
They Seek Trophy Partners
Narcissists objectify their romantic partners and view them as trophies that help inflate their ego. Having an attractive, accomplished, or high-status partner proves to themselves and others that they are special. Rather than appreciating their partners’ inherent worth, narcissists use their partners as accessories to show off their value. This leads to partners feeling more like display objects than cherished humans in relationships with narcissists.
They Require Excessive Validation
Because of deep-seated insecurities, narcissists depend on others for validation of their inflated self-image. They need constant reassurance that they are intelligent, attractive, competent, and superior. To satisfy this excessive need for validation, they often exploit their romantic partners. Narcissists pressure their partners to repeatedly tell them how great they are, how lucky they are to have them, and how much they need them.
They Seek to Exploit or Take Advantage
Narcissists frequently exploit and take advantage of romantic partners. They view relationships as transactional and seek to maximize what they can extract from them. Narcissists frequently demean and criticize their partners in order to get their needs met. They also display little remorse for hurting, manipulating, or exploiting people to serve their own interests and will discard partners without hesitation once they stop providing value.
They Lack Commitment in Relationships
Narcissists approach relationships from a place of insecurity and self-interest rather than genuine care and intimacy. They often pursue relationships for validation or admiration rather than love and attachment. Because they lack empathy and exploit their partners, narcissists struggle to form authentic emotional bonds. They tend to have game-playing or swinging approaches to relationships, especially once the infatuation phase wears off. Rather than nurturing commitment, narcissists are generally restless, unsatisfied, and always looking for the next best option.
They Seek Mirroring and Projection
Narcissists are attracted to and more satisfied with partners that reflect back their same qualities and interests. This provides narcissistic supply in the form of validation and admiration. Being with someone who shares the same traits, values, and interests helps narcissists further inflate their self-image. Partners who mirror them feed their need for projection and enable their delusions of superiority.
They Want to Avoid Abandonment
Underneath their grandiose exterior, narcissists often harbor fears of abandonment. While they feel entitled to special treatment, they also worry their partners may leave them for someone better. Narcissists control and manipulate in relationships as maladaptive ways to cope with these fears of abandonment or rejection. They want partners who cling to them and minimize scenarios where they could be left on their own.
They Have Difficulty with Authentic Intimacy
While narcissists long to be seen as loving romantic partners, they are unable to develop genuinely intimate relationships. True intimacy requires showing emotional vulnerability and imperfections—both things that conflict with the image narcissists construct of themselves. Their inability to be honest, real, and emotionally expressive means their relationships lack intimacy. Narcissists often substitute intimacy with intensity. Their relationships move quickly but lack the depth that comes from truthful emotional exchange.
They Use Relationships for Narcissistic Supply
At the core, narcissists use romantic relationships primarily for narcissistic supply—the attention, admiration, and perceived status they extract from partners. Once a partner stops adequately providing those things, the relationship lacks value for the narcissist. Rather than valuing their partner as a person, they objectify and use their partner as an instrument to fulfill their insatiable ego needs. When those needs are no longer served, the relationship becomes obsolete.
Narcissists have distorted motivations and expectations when entering relationships. Rather than genuine intimacy or commitment, they seek partners who can prop up their delusions of grandeur, provide constant validation, and tolerate their exploitation. Understanding that narcissists value relationships primarily for themselves rather than their partners can help identify and avoid entering damaging relationships with narcissists.
Frequently Asked Questions
What are some early signs of narcissism in relationships?
Some early signs of narcissism in relationships include:
- Love bombing or excessive flattery early on
- Constantly talking about themselves
- Exaggerating accomplishments or bragging excessively
- Requiring excessive amounts of praise and admiration
- Sense of entitlement and expectation of special treatment
- Manipulative or guilt-tripping behavior
- Inability to listen to others’ perspectives or show empathy
Why do narcissists cheat?
Narcissists often cheat because they require excessive amounts of validation and attention from multiple sources. They have a strong sense of entitlement and lack empathy, so they do not feel remorse about exploiting their romantic partners. Cheating provides excitement and an ego boost that helps them cope with feelings of emptiness or insecurity. It allows them to devalue and discard existing partners when they are no longer adequately satisfying their narcissistic supply.
Are narcissists capable of love?
Most mental health experts agree that narcissists are incapable of feeling genuine love or forming deep emotional bonds with others. Their inflated egos and sense of entitlement get in the way of developing real intimacy. While narcissists may act charming and infatuated early in relationships, they ultimately objectify and exploit their partners. Rather than loving their partners, they love the validation and self-worth those partners provide them.
Why do narcissists want revenge?
Narcissists often seek revenge on partners who they feel have rejected or abandoned them. Their excessive egos and fragile sense of self cannot handle the narcissistic injury of rejection, so they lash out to soothe their pain and anger. Plots for revenge reestablish a sense of power and control for the narcissist. By devaluing former partners, they protect their disillusioned image of superiority.
Can a relationship with a narcissist work?
Relationships with narcissists can work but only with extreme boundaries and accountability. The narcissist must be willing to acknowledge their tendencies, take responsibility for their behaviors, and commit to learning empathy. Even with therapy, narcissists struggle with maintaining healthy relationships long-term. Partners must weigh whether they are willing to take on that challenge or deserve a relationship built on true intimacy.