Have you ever found yourself wondering if your partner is a narcissist? The truth is, if you have to ask yourself that question, the answer might be yes. Narcissistic traits are often difficult to spot at first and can even seem magnetic and charming in the beginning; attraction to narcissists is often instantaneous, mysterious, and almost addictive. Unfortunately, you might not know you’re dating a narcissist until you’re already deep into the relationship. We all might act a little selfish sometimes, and that’s just human. But being a little bit selfish is different from having a narcissistic personality disorder. “We’re all on the spectrum, and we all have narcissistic traits, but most of us don’t live in a narcissistic space,” says Shirani M. Pathak, relationship counselor, couples therapist, and founder of Center for Soulful Relationships of Silicon Valley. “Narcissists are very charismatic at first, and we are drawn to them. On the other hand, once you start to get more comfortable and familiar, you start to see the orange and yellow flags, and then it becomes time to reevaluate.” Being in a relationship with a person with narcissistic personality traits or even full-blown narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) can have a toxic effect on the relationship and on your own mental health. Ultimately, dating a narcissist can lead you to feel like you are inadequate in some way; narcissists have a grandiose sense of self, and that can project itself negatively on you, making you feel as if your partner does not think you are good enough to match up to their exaggerated sense of greatness.
The first step to healing is to form a deep, empathetic understanding of what causes narcissism.
Signs of a Narcissistic Personality
It’s not always easy to spot the symptoms of narcissism. The condition is deeply associated with egocentrism, meaning you may notice your partner considers their opinions or desires more important than yours. To take it one step further, the National Library of Medicine defines a person with NPD as someone with excessive self-importance, an intense preoccupation with themselves, and a lack of empathy for others. According to the Mayo Clinic, there are some telltale signs of a narcissist. He or she will have an exaggerated sense of self-importance as well as a sense of entitlement, and they require constant, excessive admiration. He or she will also expect to be recognized as superior even without achievements that warrant it. “Narcissists present themselves to the world as ‘I am larger than life,'” says Pathak. “One thing to pay attention to is how your partner treats waitstaff. If you’re on a date, watch how they respond to the waiters. This will tell you a lot about how this person really is. Narcissists think the world needs to cater to their needs or that the world revolves around them.” A narcissistic person will talk a lot about themselves and tend to dominate the conversation. Favorite topics are their accomplishments or achievements, and they often focus on looks and putting others down to elevate their own sense of self. In the beginning of relationships, narcissists are quick to fall hard and fast, and they may be overly flattering to make you feel special. Of course meeting someone who’s charming and totally into you feels good, but a person with narcissistic personality disorder will often treat you this way only to get what they want out of you. Narcissists are apt to become impatient or angry when they aren’t treated uniquely, and they frequently have significant interpersonal problems. They will often react with rage or try to put the other person down in an attempt to make themselves seem superior. They tend to react poorly to stress and adapting to change. Depression and moodiness are common when they fall short of perfection. People with narcissistic personality disorder also tend to make their partners feel constantly in the wrong or like they are “crazy.” If you have pointed out issues you see within the relationship, and your partner is consistent in telling you that you are wrong and often has you questioning your own motives in scenarios where you know yourself to be level-headed, that is one of the best ways to know they’re a narcissist. “This is a denial of your reality or your version of the truth,” says Pathak.
Causes of Narcissism
While it can be incredibly frustrating, painful, and confusing to be in a relationship with a narcissist, the first step to healing is to form a deep, empathetic understanding of what causes narcissism. It is important to recognize that narcissists may be dealing with emotional wounds from their past, says Pathak. “Because they have this grandiose way of being, and because of the way they present themselves to the world, with an over-inflated ego, it is difficult to forget that what they are covering up is a very fragile, wounded self-esteem deep down inside.” It’s not entirely clear what causes narcissism, but it is often the result of psychological or physical trauma that can stem from childhood, resulting from intense coddling to neglect or abuse. If a child experienced manipulative parents growing up, this could also be a cause. “Narcissism can sometimes be the result of physical neglect or abuse,” says Pathak. “It is associated with emotional wounds that are too painful to look at, and if you ask them about it, they will deny any difficult upbringing or difficult experiences because the defense mechanism is that strong. It will not let them acknowledge there is pain that they are covering up.”
Changing a Narcissist
So, can narcissists change? Well, the answer is both good and bad. The good news is yes, absolutely, people with narcissistic personality disorder can experience successful treatment. The bad news is that their partners can’t often convince them to seek help. “Narcissists are absolutely capable of change, but it is not something you as the partner can tell them they need to do.” says Pathak. Narcissists have to come to this conclusion on their own, which is true of most humans and their issues. Nobody wants to hear from someone else that they have to change. The desire to change always has to come from within.
How Dating a Narcissist Affects You
Often narcissism can have a negative impact on a partner in a romantic relationship. According to a study conducted by the Society for Personality and Social Psychology, narcissism was found to be negatively related to commitment. The study shows that this was a result of the narcissists’ perception of alternatives to their current relationship. Narcissists often report less commitment to their ongoing relationships, always with the notion that there might be someone “better” out there waiting for them. “Women can make relationships with narcissists work with a lot of gentle love and care for themselves.” —Shirani M. Pathak, relationship counselor and couples therapist
“Women can make relationships with narcissists work with a lot of gentle love and care for themselves.” —Shirani M. Pathak, relationship counselor and couples therapist
Having a Healthy Relationship With a Narcissist
Yes, it’s possible. Just because you are in a relationship with a narcissist does not mean that you need to end it. There are ways for you to handle yourself in situations so that your mental health is not compromised and your needs are met. But this relationship model will not work for everyone, so it is important to recognize yourself and to listen to your inner voice to determine whether it is right for you—and to honor yourself if you realize that it ultimately is not. “Women can make relationships with narcissists work with a lot of gentle love and care for themselves,” says Pathak. “The perfect attraction for a narcissist is to someone with a wound that is complementary to their wound. We all have our own emotional baggage, but there are some personalities that end up being the perfect puzzle piece that fits so well in this beautifully orchestrated relationship dance with a narcissist.” Often people who are attracted to narcissists tend to have low self-esteem or struggle with issues of depression or anxiety. They meet this charismatic, charming person who is drawn to them, and they start feeling incredibly special—until they then find themselves too far in. “The best way to be in relationship with someone with those tendencies is to make sure that you are doing your own work and getting the support you need to nurture and grow your self-esteem. When you have low self-esteem, that is likely how you got into the relationship in the first place, and when you’re always the one feeling ‘crazy,’ it will make you feel worse.” Boosting your own self-esteem is the first way to start to change. Sometimes the narcissist in the relationship will notice and recognize that they need to change as well, in order to not lose you. “It’s about trusting that if the relationship is meant for you, then it will do its thing. We all want to be loved unconditionally, but that does not mean we accept unacceptable behavior or violate our own boundaries and further perpetual abuse,” says Pathak.
How to Break Up With a Narcissist
Unfortunately, people with narcissistic personality disorder aren’t always going to be willing to do the work to change. And it’s unlikely that being in a relationship is what will push them to do the necessary work. As the partner, you do not shoulder the burden of having to change, fix, or save someone. Your priority should always, first and foremost, be to yourself and your own well-being. So if you decide that this relationship is not benefiting you or making you feel good, that is entirely okay, and there is no reason to feel any sense of guilt or abandonment, even though you might feel that way knowing the emotional damage that underlies your partner’s narcissism. “Leaving a narcissist should always be done with love and kindness, as should any breakup,” says Pathak. “Always take ownership for your part, and never make it about the other person.” She stresses that this does not mean being dishonest, but instead to say that the relationship does not work for you, and that it’s time to end it. “Keep it short and sweet. At this point, [narcissists] will be triggered and defensive, and there’s no sense in having a conversation with a wounded person who is getting more activated. Have the kind conversation with as much simplicity as possible.” If you want to speak to someone regarding your situation, or if your partner’s narcissism is negatively affecting you, professional help is always available. Psychology Today has a directory that can help place you with a licensed, certified therapist in your area, and there are many types of therapy you may benefit from.