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Verywell Loved: Unpacking What Is—and Isn't—Narcissism in a Relationship

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Verywell / Alison Czinkota

Verywell Loved is a series on the dating and relationship topics people are talking about, with personal stories and expert advice to help you better understand your own experiences. 

“He was a total narcissist”—but was he? What does that really mean? 

There’s often a strong temptation to stamp our ex’s foreheads with an armchair diagnosis to explain to ourselves what went wrong in the relationship, and labels like narcissist tend to come up. It wasn’t me, it wasn’t my fault, it was never going to work out because he/she/they are a narcissist! It’s one of those designations like psycho, or toxic, that feels good to say when you’re angry or hurting as a result of the selfishness of a loved one.

But in an age where everyone has at least ten definitions from psych 101 up their sleeves, it’s important to be careful with how we label others, even those who have hurt us. 

That being said, narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) is a very real diagnosis that can wreak havoc on every relationship that person is in, often causing lasting trauma to those who know them, so it’s critical to get a clear picture of what narcissism really is. So what exactly does narcissism look like in the context of a relationship? And if you are in fact dating a narcissist, how should you handle the situation?

Narcissism Break Down 

When most people think of a narcissist they think of someone who is self-obsessed, overly concerned with their appearance, and constantly seeking attention. While elements of this stereotype are true, when it comes to the insidious and manipulative behavior of the narcissist, there’s a lot more going on.

The official diagnostic definition of narcissistic personality disorder describes an individual with impairments related to identity, self-direction, empathy, and intimacy.

They are dependent on others for validation and self-esteem and have a grandiose sense of self—unable to recognize faults of their own. “This person tends to be arrogant, entitled, displays a high need to associate with high-status people, events, and things, and will expect special treatment from others. They also are likely to be exploitative in relationships,” says Sabrina Romanoff, PsyD.

George, 37

What solidified my understanding that he is on the narcissist spectrum was when he thought empathy and sympathy were the same things. He literally couldn’t relate an experience of empathy that helped him grasp the definition of empathy. His behaviors are manipulative and self-serving.

— George, 37

Furthermore, when it comes to relationships, the narcissist’s complete lack of empathy and inability to recognize the emotions of others makes it very difficult to cultivate genuine connections or to be a supportive partner.

How Does Narcissism Manifest in Relationships? 

One of the most common early indicators of narcissism is what’s known as the love-bombing phase. At the beginning of the relationship, the narcissist will often come on very strong, put you on a pedestal, and make you feel incredibly special. 

Anna, 28, describes her experience, “In the beginning, he treated me like an absolute queen. He repeatedly put me on a pedestal ("You're the woman I've been looking for my whole life"—red flag!) and he was very generous.” These behaviors are common.

They might dote on you endlessly, take you out on fancy dates, and give you gifts all while inflating your ego. It’s also very likely they’ll say "I love you" way too early. Unfortunately, this period of false euphoria is usually short-lived.

Soon enough the narcissist will either grow bored of you and dump you—commonly referred to as narcissistic discard—or continue to see you while signs of the disorder become more apparent. “As time went on J's compliments became increasingly backhanded and she would make comments about my weight, my looks, my friends from home, and just about everything else. She also harshly criticized people that I came into contact with and wanted to spend time with, ensuring that I formed as few connections as possible with people who weren't her,” shares Sam, 32, a victim of narcissism.

The sudden shift from being a seemingly perfect partner to someone who is judgmental, quick to anger, and self-absorbed is jarring and can cause you to question yourself and your perception of your partner. You’ll be left wondering where the kind, adoring person you were falling in love with has gone. 

“But as I was to find out later, S had a very dark side. I first found this out when we were preparing to go to bed at his place one night after being together maybe 2 months or so. He had a special pillow that he used. This night, his housekeeper had inadvertently switched the pillows, so 'his' pillow was on my side. I didn't notice, but when he did, he flipped out. He started absolutely screaming at me that 'I should have known it was his pillow'", -Chris, 32.

Unfortunately, even the best attempts at remedying conflict with a narcissist are often unsuccessful. Chris continues, "After that night, I did speak to him about how inappropriate his behavior had been and let him know that it was not OK to speak to me like that. He refused to apologize and seemed not to understand what I meant when I told him we needed to respectfully discuss our emotions in this relationship. He looked at me like I had just sprouted two heads.”

Anna, 28

In the beginning, he treated me like an absolute queen. He repeatedly put me on a pedestal ("You're the woman I've been looking for my whole life"—red flag!) and he was very generous.

— Anna, 28

Jackson, 40, echoes that struggle: "To me, narcissism is never ever considering the possibility that your actions are selfish or hurtful."

Because they’ve convinced you that they are trustworthy and that this love-bomber persona is real, it will probably take a lot longer to realize how toxic they actually are. “Dating someone with NPD will often have you questioning your reality, feelings, and behaviors. People with NPD 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 will go to great lengths to have their partners adapt to meet their needs,” Romanoff explains.  

For example, Emma, 31, describes the mental health toll of having a partner who was defensive, reactive, and deceitful about everything, and only apologized when he wanted something.

Jackson, 40

To me, narcissism is never ever considering the possibility that your actions are selfish or hurtful.

— Jackson, 40

By the time you become aware of your narcissistic partner’s abuse, the relationship will most likely have already taken a serious toll on your mental health. 

Their manipulative behavior and mind games, “come at the expense of their partner who tends to repeatedly sacrifice their own perception of reality and fulfillment of needs to secure the relationship and preserve attachment,” says Romanoff. 

Here are some red flags, according to an expert, to consider if you ever suspect your partner of narcissistic personality disorder. 

Narcissism Red Flags

 Unstable Identity

People with NPD tend to make excessive references to others to define themselves or to regulate their fragile sense of self. They are observed to make exaggerated self-appraisals–either overly inflated or deflated. The core feature is that they tend to fluctuate between extremes of an extravagant or dispirited sense of self. 

 Behaviors and Motivation for Action

Goals and motives for decisions are based on gaining approval from other people. They may have extremely high standards which function by enabling them to maintain an extraordinary sense of self. On the other hand, they might maintain exceptionally low standards which reflect entitlement and privilege.

 Varying Levels of Empathy

They tend to struggle to identify with the feelings and needs of the people around them. Conversely, at other times, they can be extremely attuned to the reactions other people have towards them. They use these reactions to gauge their sense of self and value based on how others are perceiving them. In both instances, others are viewed as objects–by either viewing them with a detached lens or through excessive attunement (as that attunement functions by bolstering their sense of self).  

 Intimacy

If you’re in a relationship with someone with NPD, you will likely experience the relationship to be superficial or ‘just for show.’ Partners of people with NPD will describe feeling like an object in the relationship, as the person with NPD will tend to have slight interest in them and instead use them for personal gain and status.

 Criticism

People with NPD are hypersensitive to criticism, and often react with shame or humiliation when criticized, and will respond by denying their substantive faults.

 Variable Levels of Self-esteem

Someone with NPD will tend to attempt to regulate their fluctuating self-esteem through attention and by seeking approval from others. They may also do this through either overt or covert grandiose behavior.

Understanding What Narcissism Is Not

Now that we know all about what narcissism is, it’s time to take a look at what narcissism is not. This can be tricky when it comes to dating, especially in the casual context since people’s inconsiderate, or seemingly manipulative behavior could come across as narcissistic.

 The term love-bombing went viral recently following the Tik Tok exposé of a NYC man known as “West Elm Caleb” who gained notoriety by routinely showering women with charm and affection only to vanish in a puff of smoke after an amazing first or second date. This behavior is rude but doesn’t go as far as a narcissist who is love-bombing with an agenda. 

Romanoff also notes that “pathological narcissism should not be conflated with healthy narcissism. It is important for us to nurture our healthy narcissistic needs. These include self-esteem, worthiness, and well-being—all of which fuel creativity, humor, and self-worth.”

According to prominent 20th-century psychoanalyst Heinz Kohut’s view on self psychology, romantic relationships provide mirroring transference which is when the positive reactions of one’s partner facilitate the ability to see positive traits within oneself. "In turn, romantic relationships promote the development of healthy narcissism when they encourage a more positive self-regard, affirmation, and validation to support one’s sense of self at a mature level,” says Romanoff.

So it’s ok to think that you are awesome and have high self-esteem, so long as it doesn’t translate into the perception that you’re better than everyone else, or the person that you're dating. Romantic relationships can even promote healthy narcissism—But it's important to know the difference so you can avoid getting into relationships with unhealthy individuals.

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  1. American Psychiatric Association. DSM-IV and DSM-5 criteria for the personality disorders.

  2. McLean J. Psychotherapy with a narcissistic patient using Kohut's self psychology modelPsychiatry. 2007;4(10):40-47.