You can identify a narcissistic relationship by your partner’s behavior and the way you feel in the relationship. It is not always easy to know whether it is a narcissistic relationship because the abuse can be subtle and they may be loving and kind sometimes.
However, people who have a narcissistic person in their life often describe their behavior as verbally (and physically) abusive, manipulative, and passive-aggressive. These behaviors are particularly pronounced when the narcissist feels challenged or fears abandonment or rejection.
A victim of a narcissist often feels confused and disorientated, questions their perception, and experiences guilt and shame. Below is a list of signs of a narcissistic relationship.
In This Article
They Can Be Very Charming and Likable
They are charming and likable at first but it does not last and starts to only happen in patterns, such as when you are in public, around friends and family, or when they want something from you. Narcissistic people are often highly skilled interpersonally and socially, which makes them attractive and desirable.
When someone showers you with excessive affection, gifts, and compliments, (known as “love bombing”) early on in the relationship you should perceive this as a red flag. The rule of thumb is: if it feels too good to be true, it probably is.
It Is All About Them
Narcissists have a strong desire to feel special and perceive themselves as being above others. This leads grandiose narcissists to constantly speak about themselves and engage in exhibitionistic behaviors to get attention and admiration.
Vulnerable narcissists are more subtle in their attempts to get attention, for example, they might try to make you jealous or create drama when you want to spend time with your friends.
Both types of narcissists have a tendency to not listen or respect your opinions, and always turn the conversation back to themselves. If they feel they are not getting enough attention or respect, they might become angry or sulk, e.g. give you the silent treatment (“stonewalling”).
They Feed Off Compliments
Narcissists are motivated to engage with people as a way to gain admiration and attention; it is the basis of their self-esteem (called “narcissistic supply”). They want you to love and idolize them and you may notice their excessive need for compliments and praise.
They feel superior and entitlement
A narcissistic person believes they are superior and therefore entitled to special treatment, the admiration and love of other people, and to get whatever it is they want.
They lack empathy, which means they are not concerned about whether their actions are damaging or hurtful to others – they are only concerned about getting what they feel entitled to.
An example is going to a fully booked restaurant and expecting to be seated immediately. If they do not get what they want (for example, if the staff member says “no”), they are likely to become angry.
They Are Overly Sensitive to Criticism
One theory on a narcissist’s sensitivity to criticism is that beneath the arrogant and entitled exterior, the narcissist actually suffers from low self-esteem.
Therefore they need the admiration of others to feed their self-esteem and criticism is met with anger and hostility to protect their fragile ego.
Others, however, believe that narcissists do not have low self-esteem but rather lash out when they feel criticized because they feel superior and do not want to be questioned.
In either case, when narcissists’ overinflated view of themselves is threatened, they respond with aggression to avoid any negative appraisal.
They Use Manipulative and Controlling Behavior
A narcissist’s behavior is often manipulative and controlling. This can include overt aggression, such as threats or physical violence, or more subtle behavior, such as gaslighting.
Controlling behavior often starts with little things like telling you what to wear or making decisions for you (often under the guise of being caring).
It usually escalates into higher levels of control like constantly checking where you are and what you are doing, taking control of your finances and possessions, and criticizing everything you do and do not do.
The narcissist lies, denies, turns the tables, and plays the victim as a way to manipulate and confuse you. Their end goal is always to have power over you.
They Isolate You
It is much easier for narcissists to have power over you if they isolate you from your family and friends. This way you depend on the narcissist and have little opportunity to discuss their behavior with others.
They might question your decision to call or see your friends/ family, tell you a particular person is “bad” for you, or make you pick between them.
The more isolated you are, the more you start to depend on the narcissist, and the less contact you will have with the outside world – and this is exactly what they want.
Narcissistic love patterns
Narcissistic relationships share certain characteristics and follow a particular cycle of behavior. A narcissistic person is motivated to be in a relationship with someone who satisfies their need for admiration and attention.
To lure the victim, the narcissist engages in “love bombing“, and once the victim has become attached to the narcissist, the abusive behavior usually begins (called devaluation).
If the victim no longer satisfies their needs or the narcissist finds someone new, they discard the victim.
The Impact of Narcissism on relationships
The very nature of narcissism, of putting the self above all else in an aggressive and hostile manner, is detrimental to relationships.
Although a relationship with a narcissist can seem fulfilling and exciting at first, this is a façade and does not last.
The negative impact a narcissist has on a relationship and the other person is far-reaching and potentially devastating.
Narcissists see themselves as more intelligent, attractive, capable, and extraverted than others. For narcissistic people, the goal of relationships is to feed their self-esteem through status, power, and sex. Their goal is not to build a deep connection and intimacy with another person or to have a long-lasting relationship.
Narcissists often use their (superficial) charm, self-confidence, and extraversion to find a partner who can provide them with their narcissistic supply (attention and admiration). Their goal is to satisfy their own needs without much or any regard for their partner’s feelings or well-being.
In line with Lee’s (1973) love styles or types, research has found that narcissism is significantly linked to the love style “Ludus”: the game-playing type of love, characterized by deception, infidelity, and an aversion to commitment and dependence.
Game-playing suits an individual who feels superior, is not interested in the needs of their partner, wants status and power, avoids emotional connections, and seeks multiple sexual partners – or, someone with a narcissistic personality.
Taken together, these traits, strategies, and goals are not conducive to a healthy relationship.
In fact, narcissism is associated with a range of romantic issues, including
- Game-playing: this can include promoting jealousy in their partner, engaging in sexual infidelity, and warm-cold behavior.
- Devaluation: criticizing, belittling, and verbally abusing their partner.
- Cost-inflicting mate retention: controlling, monitoring, harassing, and manipulative behaviors.
- Aggression: verbal, physical, and/ or sexual violence.
The negative impact on the relationship is thus that it can range from having abusive elements to being entirely abusive.
According to the psychotherapist, Christine Louis de Canonville (2019), the consequences of a narcissistic relationship for the victim include:
- Avoidance behavior, including substance misuse
- Loss of interest and pleasure in things
- Feeling detached
- Losing hope
- Difficulties with sleep and/ or eating
- Psychosomatic illnesses, e.g. IBS
- Self-harm and suicidal ideation
- Suicide attempts
How to cope with a narcissistic partner
When dealing with a narcissistic partner, it is important to remember that (1) this is their personality and (2) they are not motivated to change.
They may have been loving and caring at the beginning of the relationship or at random intervals when they fear that you might leave them. But a relationship with a narcissist is often abusive because the narcissist has to feel in control at all costs.
To feel superior and dominant, they belittle and abuse their victims, and they often display cold, cruel, and calculating behavior.
The bottom line is that you cannot change another person, especially not someone who is highly narcissistic. Accepting this fact is difficult but necessary to regain your sense of self, your confidence, and your life. If you are in an abusive relationship, the best advice is to leave.
However, there are a few tactics you can use to de-escalate a situation in which you are facing abuse and to avoid distress and a potentially dangerous situation.
Narcissists do not take responsibility or admit when they have done something wrong. Therefore, it is futile to argue about whose fault it is because it will always be yours in their eyes. It is better not to engage in this type of back-and-forth.
By reacting to a narcissist’s manipulative and abusive tactics, you are giving them what they want: your attention. They want to see the power they have over you by making you angry, cry, or frustrated – therefore, if you do not react, you are taking the power away from them.
It is better to remain calm and avoid defending yourself, rationalizing, or apologizing. If you are unable to remain calm, walk away.
When you sense a change in their mood, change the topic of conversation, if possible. Pick a topic you know they will like to talk about, like themselves or something they know a lot about.
This will provide them with the attention and admiration they crave and distract them from abusing you.
Implement boundaries and stick to them. For example, let them know that if they shout at you, you will walk away. They are likely going to test your boundaries, so when they do shout at you, stick to your word, and walk away.
People who get upset about your boundaries are the ones who prefer you not to have any – because it is easier to exert control that way.
When to seek help
If you are in a relationship with a narcissist, it is likely an abusive relationship, and therefore it is a good idea to seek help. Many people have the misconception that abusive relationships always involve physical violence.
But Abuse Can Be Much More Subtle Than That and Can Include
- Constant belittling, insults, offensive jokes, name-calling, and dismissiveness
- Making threats
- Monitoring your whereabouts
- Making decisions for you without your consent
- Financial control
- Warm-cold behavior or feeling like you’re “walking on eggshells”
- Extreme jealousy and trying to make you jealous
- Blaming and turning the tables
- Isolating you
- Turning others against you
Research on the effects of being in a relationship with a narcissist has shown that psychological and emotional abuse can have a more detrimental effect on the victim’s mental health than physical violence.
Therefore, if you are in a relationship with a narcissist, it is likely damaging to your well-being and you should seek help from a health professional (e.g. therapist).
Coercive control describes a pattern of abuse that includes intimidation, isolation, and control, and does not necessarily involve physical violence.
It is considered a criminal offense under the UK Serious Crime Act 2015 (Hawaii is the only state in the USA where coercive control is a criminal offense) thus if you suspect your partner is abusing you, you are entitled to contact the police and/ or a domestic violence organization.
How to Leave Safely
In the eyes of a narcissist, leaving them threatens their position of power, and undermines their sense of superiority and grandiosity.
Therefore, it is possible that they will do everything to make you stay, including becoming angry, breaking or stealing your things, turning up at your house, and stalking or threatening you.
If you are scared, contact the police or a domestic violence organization, if possible.
This is why it is essential that you plan before you leave and have made up your mind about leaving them and why it is necessary.
- If possible, do not tell them you are leaving as they will do whatever they can to make you stay
- Have all of your documents and valuable belongings
- Block them on all of your social media accounts
- Log out of your social media accounts, emails, etc. on all devices
- Check your devices for trackers
- Change the locks on your house
- Contact trusted friends and family
- If you have children, let the nursery/ school know who is allowed to pick them up
- If you live with them, find a place where you can safely stay
- Seek professional help and talk to them about what is happening
How Do Narcissists Show Love?
Narcissistic individuals use other people, including their partners, for self-gain. They show love when they are pursuing a goal, like a new partner. To achieve their goal they will use any means possible, including manipulation and pretense.
Their love style is “Ludus”, characterized by game-playing, deception, sexual infidelity, and an aversion to closeness and dependence.
Coupled with a narcissist’s core traits of entitlement, attention- and excitement-seeking, and lack of empathy, their capacity for selfless and committed love is very low.
What Are the Most Typical Behaviors of a Narcissistic Partner?
The most typical behaviors of a narcissistic partner stem from their inflated sense of self-worth and include selfish, attention-seeking, argumentative, hostile, unfaithful, and abusive behaviors.
It is typical that narcissists act in a loving and affectionate way when they are pursuing a goal, like a new partner, or when they have behaved poorly and want forgiveness.
Narcissistic abuse is often difficult to identify because of its subtle and insidious nature, which makes the victim question and blame themselves.
In part, this is due to them switching between being loving and cruel and hostile towards their partner, who ends up feeling like they are walking on eggshells.
Why Is It Hard to Leave a Narcissist?
It is hard to leave a narcissist because of the attachment or bond you create with them. You start to crave their approval and attention and hope that they will change for the better.
During the “love bombing” phase, you build a strong bond with the narcissist and when the abusive behavior starts, it is confusing so you block it out or brush it off. You get a rush of feel-good hormones whenever they show love and affection and do whatever you can to please them and get that feeling back.
The back and forth between love and abuse creates a strong bond because if it were all bad, you would probably leave. If you believe they will change and the abuse will stop, that makes it difficult to leave the relationship.
But remember, change requires a person to have the capacity to self-reflect and be motivated to work hard on themselves, which is generally not true for narcissists.
Bushman, B. (2017). Narcissism, Fame Seeking and Mass Shootings. American Behavioural Scientist, 229-241.
Campbell, W. K., Foster, C. A., & Finkel, E. J. (2002). Does self-love lead to love for others? A story of narcissistic game playing. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 83, 340–354.
Howard V. (2019). Recognising Narcissistic Abuse and the Implications for Mental Health Nursing Practice. Issues in Mental Health Nursing, 40(8), 644-654.
Lee, J. A. (1973). The colors of love: An exploration of the ways of loving. Don Mills, Canada: New Press.
Louis de Canonville, C. (2019, January 31). Narcissistic Victim Syndrome: What the Heck is That? Retrieved from Narcissistic Behavior: https://narcissisticbehavior.net/
Thomaes, S., Bushman, B., De Castro, B., & Stegge, H. (2009). What makes narcissists bloom? A framework for research on the etiology and development of narcissism. Development and Psychopathology, 1233–1247.