What to do if my partner is a narcissist

Is my partner a narcissist?

Even the most selfless among us can have traits of narcissism at times. Let’s face it, in the age of social media and reality TV, it’s hard not to have a bit of an inflated sense of self worth.  And who doesn’t like a good selfie or Instagram story now and then?

All joking aside, when true narcissism shows up in relationships it can cause an immense amount of suffering, confusion and pain.

Narcissism on a continuum 

As with most things, it’s helpful to think of narcissism on a continuum.  Some of us may have narcissistic tendencies or traits, but that doesn’t mean we have full on narcissistic personality disorder.  Like I mentioned above, just because you take a lot of selfies or talk about yourself a lot doesn’t necessarily make you a narcissist.  The kind of narcissism that I’m going to be referring to here is a long-standing personality disorder and a painful mental health diagnosis.

What is narcissistic personality disorder?  

Narcissistic personality disorder is one of a number of personality disorder diagnoses in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.  It usually shows up as a deep sense of entitlement, inflexibility and lack of empathy for other people. A person who is struggling with this disorder is unable to put themselves in someone else’s shoes and that can cause havoc in intimate relationships. It can be hard to understand what is going on when you’re in a relationship with a narcissist. Though it may be hard to see, their bad behavior is typically masking a profound vulnerability that feels extremely threatening to express.  

Ok, what does that mean in non-therapy talk?

If you’re in a relationship with a person with narcissistic personality disorder it will be very difficult to escape the dance of blame, criticism and hurt.   Something that may seem relatively small to you will become the biggest offense of the decade. It will be all your fault and sometimes they will make specific demands on you for how to make it right.  In their effort to avoid being vulnerable they will attack outward and try anything they can to make you the “bad” person so that they can be the “good” person. There will be no space for you and your feelings or perspectives.   

This type of behavior makes intimate relationships very difficult. The more vulnerable a narcissist feels, the more they will fight against those feelings.

We’re having the same fight

While many couples will become engaged in similar fights over and over, the narcissistic fight has a pattern to it.  Like I mentioned above, your partner will be hurt, it will be all your fault and whatever attempts you make at fixing things will only bring out more rage.  At some point you’ll either snap and rage back or withdrawal. The shame and hurt becomes like a hot potato that will be passed back and forth between the two of you until somebody drops it.

There’s no space for me

One of the common things that partners of narcissists say is that it feels like there is no space for them in the relationship.  A narcissistic partner is unable to see things from another person’s point of view. They are too busy protecting their own vulnerability. The more you try to get them to see things from your perspective, the more they will rage against you.

I can’t win

When you go to battle with a narcissist, you won’t win.  Or if you do, it will be a very painful and ugly battle. The fight will only be over when you do everything they want and comply with their wishes completely.  Again, there won’t feel like there is space for you and it will feel like you have to disappear in order to stay in the relationship.

How does someone become narcissistic?

People with narcissistic personality disorder often times grew up in environments with neglect or abuse. They learned that they can’t let their armor down because if they show their vulnerability they will be destroyed. They so desperately want to be understood and cared for, but it also terrifies them at the same time.

Often times they can be charming and successful. Our culture rewards people that can put emotion aside and focus on achievement. It may be hard to spot someone who is narcissistic, but it will come out in time. Especially when you want something different than they do.

What can I do if I think I’m in a relationship with a narcissist?  

Get support from a trained mental health professional.  Being in a relationship with a narcissist can leave lasting scars on your own self-esteem and moral.  It can be hard to spot the traits of a narcissist on your own and things can just seem confusing or overwhelming.  

If you can, try and have compassion for your partner. Narcissistic personality disorder is not pleasant. It causes relationship rifts and pain in all sorts of ways. If you can be patient, open and get some support there may be hope that things can improve. It won’t be easy, but change is possible.

Tom Bruett

Tom Bruett

Tom Bruett, LMFT is a licensed psychotherapist with an office in San Francisco, CA. Tom feels passionately about helping people have better relationships. The purpose of this blog is not to provide advice or to take the place of working with a mental health professional. For more information please visit the homepage.