By Seth Myers, Psy.D.
“I love a narcissist.”
Simply put, there’s no kind of relationship one can have with a narcissist other than a confusing, gut-wrenching, and addictive one. The troubling characteristics of the narcissist induce an abuse-prone relationship dynamic so skewed that the narcissist extends gestures of love and physical affection on his terms only, forcing his partner into an overall state of submission and insecurity. If you’ve ever experienced a close relationship with a narcissist or are in a relationship with one now, you know how insidious and overwhelming the process of loving a narcissist really is.
One of the most frustrating effects of being closely tied to a narcissist—whether at work, in love, with a friend or even with a child—is that wrongs never get righted. Rules are broken and boundaries trespassed, but the narcissist will never take accountability for any of it. Narcissists can’t allow the mere suggestion that they’re not perfect, which begs the question: Is their ego so inflated that they truly believe they’re perfect? In reality, it’s quite the opposite.
The narcissistic clients I have seen over the years do have moments of insight and even wisdom. However, that part of the narcissist is not dominant. In fact, the moments of psychological healthiness and connectedness are super-fleeting, a mere understudy to the overweening self-absorption that defines the usual resting state for the narcissist. It’s not that narcissists are evil, nasty people. (As a rule, I believe the term evil—even for sociopaths and especially pedophiles—is meaningless and simplistic, betraying the complexity that drives these conditions.) Instead, it’s that a narcissist’s true ego or sense of self is so incredibly fragile and insecure that they cannot tolerate any hint of criticism. They can’t take accountability for any hurts or grave boundary-crossings because they aren’t internally sturdy enough to synthesize and integrate complex feelings.
Hotchkiss (2003) discussed seven traits of narcissism, including entitlement, which is especially destructive to relationships. The narcissist is so averse to criticism and accountability because he sees the world through a lens of entitlement. The logic goes like this: “You’re lucky to be with me, so you’d better comply with what I want.” Narcissists feel entitled to indulge any thought, feeling or whim they happen to have in a given moment, and automatic compliance from others is expected—even demanded.
Should you challenge a narcissist or call her out on her bad behavior, you’ll instantly be confronted with narcissistic rage. Underneath the narcissistic exterior is a rage and disgust most people couldn’t fathom. There are the occasional dark moments in which a narcissist lets in a little whisper that says, “Something’s really wrong with you.” This whisper can function as intrusively as an actual auditory hallucination for a full-blown schizophrenic. The reason? When the narcissist hears that whisper, it shakes his or her sense of order in the world and causes a massive panic. It’s this panic that the narcissist works so hard to avoid.
Having a daily relationship with a narcissist takes a lot of mental work: trying to figure out her motives or intentions; walking on eggshells when his mood shifts; blowing off negative or even nasty behavior to keep the peace. There’s never a dull moment in a relationship with a narcissist, which can be exciting in the beginning but ultimately feels draining and infuriating.
Without question, there is a spectrum of narcissism. Only a small percentage of men and women—under 5 percent—have full-blown Narcissistic Personality Disorder, while a much higher number of men and women have some narcissistic traits. Most of the narcissistic individuals you come across are this type: They don’t meet each criterion of the actual disorder, but they have several traits (e.g., sense of superiority, lack of empathy, entitlement).
It’s interesting to note that, in some arenas, being a little narcissistic can actually be a good thing. For example, new research suggests that, among leaders and managers, moderate levels of narcissism can be tolerated to the point that the narcissistic individual can succeed and have a functional work life. In relationships, it may be that having a relationship with someone who is “a little bit” narcissistic may be survivable. For instance, a moderately narcissistic man may bother and upset his partner occasionally, but a limited dose of narcissism may be something the other partner can blow off by relying on a defense mechanism such as rationalization or minimization. But if the person you’re in a relationship with is highly narcissistic, there is little to no chance for a long-term, happy relationship.
How can you determine if someone is narcissistic? Researchers use the Narcissistic Personality Inventory (Raskin & Terry, 1988) to measure the presence or absence of narcissistic traits, and interested individuals can search the internet to take a free inventory themselves. The problem with measuring narcissism is that most narcissists are not going to want to sit down, take a test, and then share the results with you! Such integrated behavior would require the narcissist to take accountability for her part, and that rarely happens.
If you are in a relationship with a narcissist, you’ve probably spent more time than you care to admit trying to figure out why he is the way he is. In terms of the cause of narcissism, most theories indicate a disturbed, highly inconsistent, or unloving relationship with a primary caregiver—and even the most esteemed psychologists of the past and present seem to love to blame the mother. We don’t have actual science to explain the derivation of narcissism, but if you were to interview a group of narcissists, your qualitative research would most likely reveal a significantly impaired relationship with a mother, father or caregiver. After all, the caregiving relationships provide a blueprint from which all later relationships will be constructed.
As a practicing psychologist who always strives to access empathy for my clients, it can sometimes be heartbreaking to see how guarded the narcissist is against gaining insight into himself. In other words, narcissists are extremely emotionally-injured individuals who don’t have any idea how injured they really are. Let’s take a moment to imagine what life would be like if we didn’t have insight into what makes us tick, or if we couldn’t feel real empathy for someone else. This constellation of factors makes for a shallow and guarded life, without many of the rich, positive emotional connections most of us have in our lives. While most people can count on the fact that their friends and family will continue to love them in the future, narcissists live moment to moment in the search for attention and praise and never know any real peace in a relationship.
If you’re in a relationship with a narcissist, the first step is to continue to get educated about what narcissism is and how it works. The more you understand this clinical condition, the more free you will be from taking things personally with your narcissistic partner. Continue to research narcissism online and look for online support forums which help people cope with a narcissist. If you love a narcissist, you’d be surprised how many men and women are dealing with someone who eerily resembles the dysfunction of your own partner.
Because your continued education about narcissism will show you that having a harmonious relationship with a narcissist is next to impossible, you might want to consider one of two approaches: leaving the relationship, or staying in the relationship but reducing the level of emotional contact with your partner. If you choose the second approach, understand that the narcissist is extremely aware of how interested or desired he is by you—and everyone else around him.
If you practice an approach of measured contact, prepare to experience almost instantaneous acting out and punishment in response. The best practice for you is to understand that you will be punished, and that the narcissist will deploy a laser-like focus on the specific ways in which he has power over you and subsequently exploit them: your need for sex, money, and so on. Before you change your approach, it is worth considering arranging the circumstances of your life in a way that you are as independent as possible.
Finally, everyone in a relationship should understand that they always have the opportunity to leave a relationship emotionally before they leave the relationship physically. In this case, there’s no more sex or television-watching together; no more dinners out or asking for help (even when you need something). If you leave the relationship emotionally, it means that you still appear as a couple on paper but are no longer emotionally connected behind closed doors. If this feels like your only option, it’s still a better option than trying to change a narcissist.
Bottom line: Unless your partner has the openness, time, and money to go to psychotherapy two or three times per week for several years, the narcissistic personality of your partner simply isn’t going to change. And perhaps the bigger question is, would it be totally wrong to suggest that a person’s personality is so deeply entrenched and all-encompassing, so intrinsic and fundamental to who that person is, that changing his personality architecture is actually impossible?
Grijalva, E.; Harms, P.D.; Newman, D.; Gaddis, B.H.; Fraley, R.C. (2013). Narcissism and leadership: A meta-analytic review of linear and nonlinear relationships. Personnel Psychology, Winter.
Hotchkiss, S.; Masterson, J.F. (2003). Why Is It Always About You?: The Seven Deadly Sins of Narcissism. Free Press.
Raskin, R.; Terry, H. (1988). “A principal-components analysis of the Narcissistic Personality Inventory and further evidence of its construct validity”. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol 54(5), 890-902.