How to Avoid Falling Into a Narcissistic Relationship Pattern

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Do you repeatedly find yourself in relationships where you give a lot more than you take? Do you find that the focus is always on your partner and your needs remain unmet? Do you sometimes feel like a mere object in the relationship? This may be the case if you gravitate toward relationships with people who have narcissistic tendencies.

This article explores the signs of narcissistic relationships, the toll they can take, as well as some steps you can take to break out of this pattern.

Signs of Narcissistic Relationships

These are some signs that you’re dating a person with narcissistic tendencies, says Sabrina Romanoff, PsyD, a clinical psychologist and professor at Yeshiva University:

  • Need for approval: Your partner has a high need for admiration, which can require a lot of emotional energy on your part. You may notice that their goals and motives for decisions are based on gaining approval from other people.
  • Superficial intimacy: You may get the feeling that the relationship is purely superficial or just for show. You may feel like an object in the relationship, as it can seem like your partner has only slight interest in you and instead uses you only for personal gain and status.
  • Exploitative nature: You often get the sense that you’re being used or manipulated to cater to your partner’s needs, without any consideration of your own. People with narcissistic tendencies relate to others as objects, using them as fuel to maintain their own self-worth and needs. When their objects are not performing for them, they go to great lengths to have their partners adapt to meet their needs.
  • Beliefs of grandiosity: Your partner believes they are exceptional and unique and expects special treatment from others. They tend to be arrogant and entitled, and constantly want to associate with high-status people, events, and things. They may have beliefs of grandiosity despite not being very accomplished.
  • Lack of empathy: You may often feel like your partner cannot empathize with you and lacks empathy for others, in general. They may struggle to identify with the feelings and needs of the people around them.
  • Sensitivity to criticism: You may notice that your partner is extremely attuned to your reactions to them, using your responses to gauge their sense of self and value. They may be hypersensitive to criticism and often react with shame or humiliation when criticized, or by denying their faults.
  • Exaggerated extremes: Your partner may fluctuate between grandiose and vulnerable positions. When in the grandiose mode, they may make statements like: “I like to have friends who rely on me because it makes me feel important,” or “I often fantasize about being recognized for my accomplishments.” Conversely, when in the vulnerable mode, they may make statements like “It’s hard for me to feel good about myself unless I know other people admire me,” or “I feel anxious and ashamed when others get a glimpse of my needs.”

Relationships with people who have narcissistic tendencies often start off in an intense manner and move at a fast pace. Your partner will seem like a very special person and make you feel like you’re one-of-a-kind.

However, soon enough, they will start to pick on your faults, compare you to others, and find you lacking. You may find yourself working hard to gain their approval. If you try to pull away, they may react with extreme hurt or rage, and the cycle of appreciating you, then criticizing you, starts all over again.

Impact of a Narcissistic Relationship

Below, Dr. Romanoff unpacks the mental health impact of being in a relationship with someone who has narcissistic tendencies.

Impact on Your Mental Health

Your partner’s proclivities may come at your expense and you may find yourself repeatedly sacrificing your own perception of reality and the fulfillment of your needs to secure the relationship and maintain the attachment.

Your partner may gaslight you, which means they use strategies like lying, withholding information, or verbally abusing you. They might say things like "You're crazy" or "You're too sensitive" to minimize your thoughts and feelings.

Someone who gaslights you wants to take control of the situation or relationship and leave you feeling powerless. There are many negative mental health effects of being gaslit such as feelings of hatred or rage, anxiety, depression, and low self-esteem.

Sabrina Romanoff, PsyD

Dating someone with narcissistic personality disorder will often have you questioning your reality, feelings, and behaviors.

— Sabrina Romanoff, PsyD

Impact on Your Partner

People with narcissistic personality disorder are in turn strongly impacted by their partners. They are much more vulnerable than they let on and tend to be very attuned to and susceptible to the actions and reactions of their partner.

This may result in the offended person with narcissistic tendencies reacting with an outburst of extreme anger, defensiveness, or the silent treatment in response to perceived criticism or judgment.

How to Avoid a Narcissistic Relationship Pattern 

Dr. Romanoff suggests some steps you can take if you’re in a narcissistic relationship, as well as some strategies that can help prevent you from falling into the same pattern again:

  • Start expressing your needs: You may struggle to identify your feelings and communicate them to your partner. It’s important to identify your needs clearly, recognize that they’re valid, and start expressing them to your partner.
  • Stop trying to be a caretaker to your partner: You may feel more comfortable in the role of caretaker because it shields you from the discomfort of being vulnerable and asking for your needs to be met. Remember, you are looking for a partner, not to be a caretaker. You are not responsible for fixing or healing your partner. Only they can do that for themselves, once they decide they want to.
  • Take a step backward: When you notice yourself questioning your feelings and perspective, or feel pressure to do things that are not in your best interest, it can be helpful to take a step back and create some distance in the relationship. Time and distance allow you to recalibrate your outlook and see things more clearly.
  • Seek social support: People with narcissistic tendencies tend to isolate their partners, convince them to see the world through a lens that serves them exclusively, and eliminate competing perspectives (i.e., friends or family members who might have your best interests at heart). Maintaining your social support network can help you integrate the perspectives of the people who care most about you, instead of receiving feedback exclusively from your partner.
  • Prioritize yourself: Start seeing yourself as a priority and take whatever steps you need to to ensure your well-being. These can include breaking up with your partner, seeking support from a skilled and caring therapist, and practicing self-care. Individual counseling, support groups, couples therapy, and family therapy, are some forms of therapy that can help.
  • Recognize childhood influences: It is important to consider what originally drew you into a relationship with someone who displays narcissistic tendencies. Often, after self-reflection, people realize that their narcissistic partner resembles an early primary figure, such as a parent, who was unavailable or inattentive to them in childhood. These unresolved needs from childhood can follow you into adulthood, causing you to seek out a familiar challenge from the past to win over in the present. 
  • Get in touch with your feelings: Pay attention to your own feelings and perspective, so you can become more confident in trusting your own feelings and beliefs without the coercion applied by your partner.
  • Set boundaries: Establish firm and clearly defined boundaries in order to communicate to your partner what is acceptable behavior around you and what is not.
  • Recognize red flags: When you notice your partner has narcissistic tendencies or they are acting in a way that violates your boundaries, don't ignore your red flags or warning signs. Notice the signs, acknowledge them, and take action.

A Word From Verywell

If you often find yourself in relationships with people who have narcissistic personality disorder, once the initial rush of excitement wears off, reality can feel distorted and it can be hard to recognize your own needs and feelings. 

It’s important to identify the pattern and change it. Recognizing unresolved issues from your past can be a helpful starting point, in addition to identifying your needs and prioritizing them in any relationship you’re in. 

Dr. Romanoff says pathological narcissism should not be conflated with healthy narcissism, which should be nurtured. "Romantic relationships should promote the development of healthy narcissism by encouraging a more positive self-esteem, worthiness, and well-being among both partners, to support their sense of self at a mature level."

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5 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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