The severity and kind of problems a narcissistic person creates in a marriage depend on their type and level of narcissism. To elaborate, narcissism is a personality trait that lies on a continuum.
It ranges from having a few narcissistic traits to having a narcissistic personality. At the extreme end of the spectrum is narcissistic personality disorder (NPD), which affects around 6% of the population.
Furthermore, two distinct types of narcissism have been identified: grandiose (overt expressions of superiority and entitlement) and vulnerable (high neuroticism, hypersensitivity to criticism, and a constant need for reassurance).
In This Article
Signs of a narcissistic marriage
The signs of a narcissistic marriage include your partner’s behaviors and how you feel in the relationship. Research into the experience of people married to narcissists showed some differences between how vulnerable and grandiose narcissists behave.
Despite their differences, the common trait underlying both grandiose and vulnerable narcissism is entitlement. They believe they are superior and entitled to special treatment and unconditional love and admiration.
Spouses of both vulnerable and grandiose narcissists have described their narcissistic partner as bossy, demanding, intolerant, argumentative, conceited, arrogant, and cruel. Therefore, some general signs of a narcissistic marriage include:
- Superficial charm and flattery, e.g. telling people what they want to hear
- An ability “switch on” their charm when it suits them
- Constantly speaking about themselves but never listening to what other people say
- Lack of respect for other people, especially those they perceive to be “lower” than them
- An excessive need for praise and compliments
- Becoming angry when you challenge or disagree with them
- Feeling entitled to special treatment, e.g. at a restaurant, hotel, or other service
- Manipulation and controlling behavior, e.g. gaslighting, criticizing and belittling remarks, financial control, making decisions for you
- Lying, denying, and always shifting the blame to make themselves look like the victim
How you feel can also signify being in a narcissistic marriage, so pay attention to whether you constantly feel on edge around them.
Their behavior can cause you to feel confused and question your sense of reality, like you have “lost your mind”.
Overall, if the relationship has caused you psychological, emotional, and/ or physical harm, it is possible that you are married to a narcissistic person.
Are You Married to a Grandiose or Vulnerable Narcissist?
Both types of narcissism have some unique features. Grandiose narcissists are pompous, attention-seeking, and very extroverted.
Vulnerable narcissists come across as constrained and a little shy but they are interpersonally exploitative and manipulative because deep down they believe they are special and entitled.
Signs of Being Married to a Grandiose Narcissist Include:
- Overt aggression
Signs of Being Married to a Vulnerable Narcissist Include:
- Emotional lability (quick and extreme mood changes)
- Can appear to be anxious and shy
Types of narcissistic marriage problems
A narcissistic relationship or marriage usually involves abusive behavior and can have damaging consequences for the victim. Below are some of the main types of narcissistic marriage problems.
Narcissism is associated with excessive self-love, superiority, and a need for control. If a narcissist feels they are losing control or someone is challenging their authority or superiority, they will have a strong emotional reaction.
Therefore, if they perceive that their partner is showing an interest in another person, they experience extreme jealousy. Their reaction might be rage and blame, or they might seek revenge or give silent treatment.
Narcissists also engage in game-playing behavior in their relationships, which includes wanting to make their partner jealous. They may tell you how attractive another person is or flirt with someone else in your presence. Getting an emotional reaction out of you makes them feel they have power over you and your feelings.
Narcissistic individuals have a tendency to be unfaithful in their relationships. They believe they are superior to others and entitled to behave in any way that will satisfy their need for attention and admiration.
They lack empathy, are always on the lookout for people who will elevate their status, and enjoy the excitement of acquiring new sexual or romantic partners.
This makes them more likely to engage in extramarital affairs and flings; however, they will always lie about or deny your suspicions and/ or evidence.
This is an example from a qualitative study into the effects of being in a relationship with a narcissist:
“[He] had an affair with my best friend when I was pregnant with his son and told me the entire time I was imagining things because I was emotional from being pregnant” and “He is a serial cheater with at least a dozen local sex and dating website accounts, and when I stumbled onto proof of any of them he threatened me with physical violence”
Gaslighting is a type of psychological manipulation that causes the victim to question their perception, memory, and sanity, which ultimately gives the perpetrator more control over the victim.
It can include verbal abuse disguised as “jokes”, ignoring or undermining what you say, questioning your credibility and memory, denying facts, and playing the victim.
The following is an account of a woman who was in a relationship with a vulnerable narcissist:
“He would tell me what the reality was and he justified it so well and he was so convinced in his arguments that I would sort of accept his reality as my own . . . I felt like I was part of his reality to the point where I didn’t even have my own thoughts anymore.”
A narcissistic person has an inflated sense of self-worth and feels superior to other people. This coupled with a lack of empathy and a need to control others leads narcissists to belittle and undermine others. They will engage in this type of behavior when they feel threatened, challenged, or want to play games with your emotions.
This is an example from a qualitative study:
“[He] gave me a night gown as a present and regretted to say that he could not find any larger size from the store. The gown was size XXXXL… my size was M/L.”
Losing Your Sense of Self-Worth
Over time, being constantly emotionally and psychologically abused and manipulated (even when it is subtle) diminishes a person’s self-esteem and confidence.
As a way to make you feel worthless, narcissists will play games, insult you, blame everything on you, and make you feel incapable and emotionally unstable. This is a strategy to keep you under their control.
This is an account of a woman who felt she had lost her sense of self:
“I mean, honestly I was nothing. You wouldn’t have even recognized me. I didn’t recognize me. It was incredible. I wasn’t even there. I didn’t do anything I enjoyed at all. I was just constantly trying to make sure everything was okay for him. And of course it never is okay. It’s never enough.”
Being Controlled and Losing Your Identity
You may feel controlled by your narcissistic partner because that is their aim – to control you, your feelings, and your movements. The controlling behavior might start with little things like what you wear or eat.
Over time, this escalates until they are in control of your finances, purchases, children, your whereabouts, and who you spend time with. Again, this creates a dependency on the abuser, which is their aim.
The following is an account of a victim of a narcissistic partner:
“He also reads my text messages regularly and checks my telephone calls. I feel like being a prisoner in my own life… I’m not allowed to meet any of my friends either… He wants to dominate and control me.”
Verbal and Emotional Abuse
Narcissistic relationships often involve verbal and emotional abuse. The former includes name-calling (ranging from mild to extremely offensive), insulting your character or appearance, and shouting.
Emotional abuse can be more subtle like being patronizing and belittling you. Another abuse tactic is to find out your weaknesses and use those against you.
The following is an example of this behavior from a study:
“He has rages which are brutally cruel, with verbal tirades that include shouting, swearing, name calling, and using my most private vulnerabilities as a weapon to hurt me and mock me”
Long-term effects of being married to a narcissist
Being married to a narcissist can be detrimental to your mental and physical health. Narcissistic relationships are usually abusive relationships, regardless of whether physical violence is present or not.
In fact, many survivors report that emotional and psychological abuse had a more detrimental effect on them than physical abuse.
Because narcissistic abuse is often covert, subtle, and insidious, victims do not always realize what is happening to them until the abuse escalates.
According to the psychotherapist Catherine Louis de Canonville (2019), victims often report experiencing shock, anger, fear, and guilt in response to the realization.
Over time, an abusive relationship has the power to diminish your sense of self and confidence. You may no longer recognize the person you have become and no longer know who you are.
The loss of identity makes the victim feel fractured as if a part of themselves has been lost or stolen. This is often the result of living in a two-sided reality; between the good parts of the relationship and the abuse.
The unpredictability and switching between being loving and cruel leave the victim feeling confused and on edge.
Loss of Boundaries and Sense of Self
A narcissist wants you to give up your boundaries as it enables them to control you more easily. The following is a personal account of a survivor of a narcissistic marriage taken from a qualitative research study:
“In relationships, I kind of gave away total control, I just let all the boundaries down, and I guess I thought that when you love someone, you don’t have to have boundaries, and you’re supposed to have total trust and you just don’t have boundaries.”
This loss of self usually happens gradually and subtly, and many victims do not realize it is happening until they have left the relationship.
Mental Health Difficulties
Often, it is only in hindsight that victims experience the full consequences of the trauma they have lived through. They may have trouble trusting or opening up to people and experience a range of mental health difficulties, including
- Depression symptoms, including losing interest, feeling detached, hopelessness, sleeping and eating difficulties, and tearfulness
- Anxiety symptoms, including constantly feeling on edge, excessive worrying, experiencing panic, and physiological symptoms such as trouble breathing, headaches, or stomach cramps
- Self-harm, feeling suicidal, or attempting suicide
- Post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms, including flashbacks, nightmares, hypervigilance, being easily startled, and avoidance
- Substance misuse
How to leave a narcissistic marriage
Leaving a narcissistic marriage means you must accept that they will not change, make a firm decision and commitment to leaving, set boundaries, and find a support system.
It can be difficult because (1) they do not want you to leave (2) you are strongly attached to them (3) your lives might be intertwined and you may share children.
A narcissistic relationship is often associated with something called “trauma bonding”, which is a powerful emotional bond a victim of abuse forms with their abuser. It is created in the “love bombing” phase and continues to grow stronger when the abuse starts.
Every time the abuser is kind, you experience a rush of relief caused by a release of dopamine in the brain. Now you associate this sensation of pleasure with the abuser, which strengthens the bond and makes it harder to leave.
Being married to a narcissist can make it more difficult to leave because you might have children together, share bank accounts, and live in the same house.
They may have complete control over the finances and have taken hold of your documents (e.g. passport). However, with the right support, it is still possible to leave and recover your life. The following steps are important if you want to leave and keep the narcissist out of your life.
Accept You Cannot Change Them
You cannot change other people, especially not narcissistic people. Narcissists do not see a reason to change – their inflated self-image and sense of superiority mean they believe they are perfect and that it is other people who are the problem.
Even when they make promises and apologize, remember that it is manipulation. Instead of focusing on them, you should focus on changing yourself and rebuilding your confidence and self-esteem.
Find a Support System
If the narcissist has isolated you from your friends and family, try to reach out to them and explain what is happening in your life.
Find friends and family members you trust who can help you to leave and provide a place to stay.
Getting in touch with a domestic violence organization can also be helpful as they are experienced and can provide appropriate advice.
Setting boundaries can help you to regain some control and to rebuild your sense of self and worth.
When you leave, it is important that you set boundaries that will allow you (and your children, if you have them) to feel safe. Here is more advice on setting boundaries.
What Can Happen When You Leave?
If you try to leave, the narcissist may interpret this as a loss of control and try “hoover” you back. This can include showering you with love and affection, making promises, apologizing, giving you gifts, or making other grand romantic gestures.
It is a manipulation that is aimed at keeping you under their control and once they have you back, the abuse will resume.
If they realize that it will not work, they are likely going to become enraged and abusive. They may contact your friends and family, stalk and threaten you, turn up at your house or at your work.
To Ensure Your Safety:
- Do not tell them you are leaving or where you are going
- Make sure you are in contact with trusted friends and family
- Contact the police if necessary
- Stay somewhere you know you will be safe
- Have enough cash if they can access your bank account
- Check for trackers on your devices
- Log out of your accounts on all devices
- Have your important documents and valuable possessions with you when you leave
When Should You Seek Help?
It is important that you seek help if you are experiencing poor mental health, feel like you do not recognize yourself, are constantly on edge, and have lost your confidence.
If you suspect your spouse is abusing you, you should seek help. You could contact therapists, domestic violence organizations, and/ or the police.
Can You Fix a Marriage With a Narcissist?
If the narcissist is genuinely willing to work hard and address their behavior, it might be possible to fix the marriage. However, the very nature of narcissism means they do not see fault in their behavior or feel their behavior is justified, which makes change impossible.
Couples therapy has been advised against (unless the therapist is experienced with narcissistic abusers) because the narcissist can continue lying, deceiving, and gaslighting the victim, causing further psychological damage to the victim.
To the therapist, they will portray themselves as a caring and considerate person and skillfully present you as the perpetrator and themselves as the victim.
Why do Narcissists Get Married?
Narcissists get married when doing so will benefit them in some way. For example, if the relationship raises their status and power because of money, fame, or the attractiveness of their partner.
Marriage may also represent a way to gain more control over their partner or they might feel that it is socially desirable to be married i.e. they do it to raise their social standing. Whatever the reason, the narcissist will be doing it for self-gain.
Arabi, S. (2017). Power: Surviving & Thriving After Narcissistic Abuse. Brooklyn: Thought Catalog Books.
Czerny, A. & Lassiter, P. & Lim, J. H. (2018). Post-Abuse Boundary Renegotiation: Healing and Reclaiming Self After Intimate Partner Violence. Journal of Mental Health Counseling, 40, 211-225.
Day, N. J. S., Townsend, M. L., & Grenyer, B. F. S. (2022). Pathological narcissism: An analysis of interpersonal dysfunction within intimate relationships. Personality and Mental Health, 16( 3), 204– 216.
Dhawan, N, Kunik, ME, Oldham, J, et al. (2010) Prevalence and treatment of narcissistic personality disorder in the community: a systematic review. Comprehensive Psychiatry, 51, 333–9.
Green, A. & Charles, K. (2019). Voicing the victims of narcissistic partners: A Qualitative Analysis of Responses to Narcissistic Injury and Self-Esteem Regulation. SAGE Open.
Howard V. (2019). Recognising Narcissistic Abuse and the Implications for Mental Health Nursing Practice. Issues in Mental Health Nursing, 40(8), 644-654.
Lavner, J. A., Lamkin, J., Miller, J. D., Campbell, W. K., & Karney, B. R. (2016). Narcissism and newlywed marriage: Partner characteristics and marital trajectories. Personality Disorders: Theory, Research, and Treatment, 7(2), 169.
Louis de Canonville, C. (2019, January 31). Narcissistic Victim Syndrome: What the Heck is That? Retrieved from Narcissistic Behavior: https://narcissisticbehavior.net/
Määttä, M., Uusiautti, S. & Määttä, K. (2012). An intimate relationship in the shadow of narcissism: What is it like to live with a narcissistic spouse? International Journal of Research Studies in Psychology, 1(1), 37-50.
Rakovec-Felser Z. (2014). Domestic Violence and Abuse in Intimate Relationship from Public Health Perspective. Health Psychology Research, 2(3), 1821.
Vrabel, J. K., Zeigler-Hill, V., Lehtman, M., & Hernandez, K. (2020). Narcissism and perceived power in romantic relationships. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 37(1), 124–142.
Wink, P. (1991). Two faces of narcissism. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 61, 590–597.