Narcissistic relationships are formed when one or both partners struggle with a narcissistic personality. Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD) is defined by The Mayo Clinic as “a mental disorder in which people have an inflated sense of their own importance and a deep need for admiration. Those with narcissistic personality disorder believe that they’re superior to others and have little regard for other people’s feelings. But behind this mask of ultra-confidence lies a fragile self-esteem, vulnerable to the slightest criticism.”
We live in an increasingly narcissistic world. Hard statistics and science are pointing in this direction. The “look at me” mentality that is often promoted by social networks like Facebook has people positively enamored with the image they present to the world. In addition, we may now be seeing the negative effects of the self-esteem movement on a larger scale. So how does this rise in narcissism impact our personal relationships? For one thing, more narcissism means more narcissistic relationships.
Professor Brad Bushman of the Ohio State University put it bluntly, when he said: “Narcissists are very bad relationship partners.” Studies show that in a narcissistic relationship, your partner is more likely to engage in manipulative or game playing behaviors and less likely to be committed long-term. A relationship with a narcissist can be hard to cope with. To shed light on the common outcomes, struggles, and effects of a narcissistic relationship, we’ve interviewed psychologist and author Dr. Lisa Firestone.
How Can You Tell if You Are in a Narcissistic Relationship?
When thinking about narcissism, I’m often reminded of the joke when someone goes on and on about themselves, then interrupts with, “But enough about me, how do you feel about me?” If your partner is all about themselves, always needing attention and affirmation, he or she may be a narcissist. If someone is easily slighted or over-reactive to criticism, they may also be a narcissist. If they feel they are always right, that they know more, or that they have to be the best, etc., these are also signs of narcissism. Narcissistic individuals may only appear to care about you when you are fulfilling their needs or serving a purpose for them. A narcissistic relationship can lead to a lot of emotional distress.
It is estimated that around 1% of population suffers from NPD. However, many people who have NPD do not seek treatment and therefore are never diagnosed. Studies show that men are more likely to be narcissistic. Roughly 75% of the individuals diagnosed with NPD are men. Although almost everyone has some self-centered or narcissistic traits, most people do not meet the criteria for having a personality disorder. There is, however, a growing portion of the population that is displaying a greater number of toxic, narcissistic traits, which are having an adverse effect on their lives and the lives of people close to them, even if they do not meet the clinical diagnosis of NPD. Forming attachments to individuals who exhibit these negative traits often causes similar distress as a diagnosable narcissistic relationship.
A new study from Ohio State University has found that one simple question can identify narcissists as accurately as the 40-item test that has been widely used to diagnose NPD. The question is simple, rating yourself on a scale of 1-7: “To what extent do you agree with this statement: I am a narcissist. (Note: The word ‘narcissist’ means egotistical, self-focused and vain.)” You can even try out this free interactive narcissism quiz. However, while this study suggests that many narcissists will freely admit to their narcissistic tendencies, it is important to note that most narcissists resist the diagnosis of NPD. Narcissists, generally, do not like to be told that they are narcissists. In fact, they often have a strong negative and volatile reaction.
Below are some common traits that a narcissistic relationship partner is likely to have: (Note the degree to which these traits manifest themselves will vary largely depending on the individual.)
- Sense of entitlement or superiority
- Lack of empathy
- Manipulative or controlling behavior
- Strong need for admiration
- Focus on getting one’s own needs met, often ignoring the needs of others
- Higher levels of aggression
- Difficulty taking feedback about their behavior
Narcissistic people often have narcissistic parents, who offered them a build up but no real substance. Their parents wanted them to be great, so they could be the parent of a great person, the best artist, smartest student, etc. Often narcissistic people were also neglected, as their parents were so focused on themselves that they could not attune to their child or meet their child’s emotional needs. The child was only useful to these parents when they were serving a purpose for them. Often, the parents of a person with NPD alternated between emotional hunger toward the child and disinterest.
Narcissists have inflated self-esteem (both self-soothing and self-aggrandizing “voices”) a component of what my father, Dr. Robert Firestone, refers to as the “anti-self.” They are very fragile, because the flip side of their self-aggrandized feeling is very low self-esteem, the other component of the anti-self (made up of extremely self-hating and self-demeaning “critical inner voices”). So, for these people, even slight criticism can be a narcissistic injury, leading to an angry outburst and desperate attempts to regain their fragile, inflated self-esteem. Often, a condescending remark will help them to reestablish their superior image. Condescending is a common dynamic in narcissistic relationships. This behavior can be traced back to the need desperate need narcissists feel to be above others.
What are the different types of Narcissism?
While all narcissists are likely to show certain behaviors, not all narcissists are the same. In fact, there are two different types of narcissism, Grandiose Narcissism and Vulnerable Narcissism. These types of narcissism stem from different early childhood experiences andlead to different behaviors in a relationship.
Grandiose narcissists display high levels of grandiosity, aggression and dominance. They tend to be more confident and less sensitive. They are often elitists and have no problem telling everyone how great they are. Usually grandiose narcissists were treated as if they were superior in their early childhood and they move through life expecting this type of treatment to continue. In relationships, grandiose narcissists are more likely to openly engage in infidelity or leave their partners abruptly if they feel that they are not getting the special treatment that they think they are entitled to.
Vulnerable narcissists, on the other hand, are much more emotionally sensitive. They have what Dr. Campbell describes as a “fragile grandiosity,” in which their narcissism serves as a façade protecting deeper feelings of inadequacy and incompetence. Vulnerable narcissists swing back and forth between feeling superior and inferior. They often feel victimized or anxious when they are not treated as if they are special. This type of narcissism usually develops in early childhood as a coping mechanism to deal with abuse or neglect. In relationships, vulnerable narcissists often worry about how their partners perceive them. They can be very possessive, jealous and paranoid about their partners having flirtations or affairs.
How does a narcissistic partner negatively impact a relationship?
Narcissistic relationships tend to be very challenging. Narcissistic partners usually have difficulty really loving someone else, because they don’t truly love themselves. They are so focused on themselves that they cannot really “see” their partner as a separate person. They tend to only see the partner in terms of how they fill their needs (or fail to fill their needs). Their mates and children are only valued in terms of their ability to meet these needs. Narcissistic partners often lack the ability to have empathy with their partners’ feelings. This lack of empathy leads to a lot of hard feelings.
Yet many people are drawn to narcissistic relationships. Narcissistic partners can be very captivating, especially at the beginning. They tend to have a “big” personality. They are the life of the party. They can make you feel that you too must be great for them to choose you. However, in time, they can be too controlling in relationships. They may feel jealous or easily hurt. When narcissistic injuries occur, they often lash out and can be cutting. Their reactions are dramatic and attention-seeking. According to narcissistic personality expert, Dr. W. Keith Campbell, “The effects of narcissism are most substantial in relation to interpersonal functioning. In general, trait narcissism is associated with behaving in such a way that one is perceived as more likable in initial encounters with strangers— but this likability diminishes with time and increased exposure to the narcissistic individual.” This is why many people, who have been in a long-term narcissistic relationships, describe a very passionate and exciting honeymoon period in the beginning and then a sharp decline as the likability decreases and the self-centered behaviors increase. Narcissists are prone to falling madly in love with someone instantly and are very quick to commit. However, this initial love and commitment is not easily sustained.
When you are in a narcissistic relationship, you may feel very lonely. You might feel like you are just an accessory and your needs and wants are unimportant. Narcissistic partners act as if they are always right, that they know better and that their partner is wrong or incompetent. This often leaves the other person in the relationship either angry and trying to defend themselves or identifying with this negative self-image and feeling badly about themselves.
What are some things a person can do to deal with a narcissistic partner?
If you find yourself in a narcissistic relationship, you can first recognize what you have chosen and reflect on the unconscious motives that might have led you to choose such a partner. Did you have a self-centered parent? Are you more comfortable with your partner being in control, so you can then take be more passive? Do you get a sense of worth from being attached to someone who is in the spotlight? Does the negative image of yourself they foster with their criticisms and superior attitudes resonate with your own critical thoughts about yourself? Many people who fall in love with narcissists have issues around co-dependency. They will put up with a certain amount of abuse because they don’t feel confident enough in themselves to set boundaries or be on their own.
Understanding your role in the narcissistic relationship is important. You can then start to challenge yourself to change your half of the dynamic. This will, in turn, challenge your partner to change their style of relating. You can recognize the fragility of your partner’s self-esteem and have compassion for the fact that his or her inflated sense of self, superiority and grandiosity is a cover up for the flip side of self-hate and feelings of inadequacy. You can also develop your own self-confidence and self-worth by learning to practice self-compassion. Don’t be a victim. In all encounters, act equal, and treat your partner as an equal.
How can people face and overcome their own narcissism?
A narcissist can challenge and overcome their narcissism by recognizing and separating from both the self-soothing, self-aggrandizing and self-attacking attitudes of their critical inner voice. The attitudes they internalized very early on in their lives. They need to recognize and challenge these attitudes toward themselves and toward others. One method for doing this is through Voice Therapy.
Narcissists further need to differentiate from negative traits of their parents or early caretakers that they are still acting out in their current lives. These traits might include superior attitudes or condescending behaviors. They also need to give up the adaptations they made to the ways their own parents neglected them or were emotionally hungry toward them. These adaptations may have once been their survival mechanisms, but they now manage to push others away and sabotage personal lives and goals. Narcissists also need to break patterns of being self-centered or withholding. They must fight the tendency to always compare themselves to others and the need to be the “best” or “perfect” all the time.
Another way to cure narcissism is to foster self-compassion rather than self-esteem. Psychologist Dr. Kristin Neff has done extensive research on self-esteem versus self-compassion. The difference between self-esteem and self-compassion is that self-esteem centers on evaluating yourself in relation to others and emphasizes a need to be special. While self-compassion focuses on “treating oneself with kindness, recognizing one’s shared humanity, and being mindful when considering negative aspects of oneself.” Dr. Neff’s studies have found that self-esteem leads to higher levels of narcissism, but self-compassion does not. Self-compassion actually combats narcissism because it includes the idea of a shared humanity with all other human beings, which leads to more compassion for others. Self-compassion also fosters real self-awareness, a trait many narcissists lack, as it promotes that we be mindful of our faults, which is the first step to changing negative traits in yourself.
For there to be any hope of recovering a good relationship from a narcissistic relationship, the narcissist must overcome their self-centered and negative traits. They need to challenge their self-feeding habits and pseudo-independent stance. They need to focus on developing their capacity for empathy and respect of others. Lastly, they need to develop transcendent goals, to care about and invest in others’ well-being. Being generous and giving to others are examples of behaviors that would be corrective, building real self-esteem and practicing focusing outside of oneself.