What is it like to have a relationship with someone with narcissistic personality disorder?

Narcissism is a hot topic in western society today as greater awareness is being brought to narcissistic personality disorder and narcissistic traits. It is important to note that all people have narcissistic tendencies from birth, there is an inherent desire to self-serve, and this is necessary for survival. However, narcissism is more than just occasional self-serving behavior. Narcissism can be characterized by a lack of empathy for others, an over-inflated sense of self-importance, arrogance, and a sense of entitlement. However, narcissism is a spectrum and can present differently from person-to-person with the grandiose presentation being one end of the spectrum and vulnerable the other end.

Grandiose Narcissism

The grandiose narcissist is one who desires attention, admiration, and prestige. Grandiose traits can be characterized by believing oneself is better than others and looking down on others as inferior, showing aggression and dominance toward others, displaying manipulative behaviors, and appearing self-assured. Grandiose narcissists are more commonly males than females and these types of narcissists can be found more prominently in certain successful career types and positions such as CEOs, world leaders, and lawyers. 

Vulnerable Narcissism

The vulnerable narcissist is far from the opposite of grandiose despite being on the other end of the narcissistic spectrum. Both presentations are equally rooted in underlying feelings of shame, unstable sense of self-identity, and underdeveloped self-concept. While the grandiose narcissist comes across as self-assured, the vulnerable narcissist often does not. The vulnerable narcissist will constantly seek reassurance and admiration in a more covert way. They may say “I look awful in this dress” to fish for compliments from another person. Vulnerable narcissists often portray themselves as victims and overexaggerate their hardships. They may make all conversations about them and the difficulties they are going through. Because narcissism exists on a spectrum, when the narcissist is feeling good about themselves and is receiving praise and recognition from others, they will present more on the grandiose end. However, when the narcissist isn’t feeling good about themselves and is not receiving attention and admiration, they will present on the vulnerable end. 

Dr. Ramani Durvasula, a researcher of narcissism, estimates that 1 in every 6 people is a narcissist so interaction with someone with narcissistic personality disorder is inevitable. Narcissists are charming and charismatic. They know how to interact appropriately, and even thrive, in social situations. Certain types of relationships with narcissistic people can be more difficult than others. For example, in an intimate relationship with a narcissist it is often far more difficult to maintain boundaries than in a relationship with a narcissistic manager at work – though both types of relationships present their own challenges.

So how do you know if you’re in a relationship with a narcissist and why does it matter?

In your relationship, you may often feel belittled or like you have no voice. You may feel as though your opinion is irrelevant and like your wants are unimportant. You may feel like no matter what you do in your relationship, you can never get it right. This may be because you are in a relationship with a narcissist who believes that they are more important than everyone else, they are never wrong, and they cannot accept criticism. Because of a narcissist’s egocentricity and lack of empathy, being in a relationship with them is extremely difficult and will often feel like one-sided compromise. 

Gaslighting and goal post moving are two common terms that come up when narcissistic behavior is described. Gaslighting occurs when the narcissist manipulates you in a way that makes you question your own recollection of events and your sense of reality. For example, you may begin recalling an event that you and your intimate partner attended together. You begin telling them about a conversation you had with their friend Joe and how you feel it was a very positive conversation. Then, your partner turns to you and says, ”you never talked to Joe at that event. That was Timmothy and he has told me that he think’s you’re an attention seeker”.  And goal post moving can be described by having the conditions of success changed or altered unfairly. For example, the narcissistic person asks you to load the dishwasher with all plates facing to the right. You do this the next time you load the dishwasher, and they say, “I told you to load all of the plates facing to the left”. The goal posts may constantly change making you feel as though you can never get it right. 

Below is a checklist of a few harmful narcissistic phrases:

  • You need help.
  • Are you taking your medication?
  • I never said that. You’re imagining things. 
  • Here we go again.
  • Such and such said that you’re always making things up.
  • No one will ever love you like I do. 
  • You always take it the wrong way.

I am in an intimate relationship with a narcissist, what now?

Seeking counseling to process and understand your situation can be a valuable next step. Being in a relationship with a narcissist can be disorienting. You may feel confused when you try to recall past events or unaware of how a gentle conversation with your significant other turned into an argument about how everything is always your fault. Setting boundaries is an important part of any relationship, though it can be difficult to do this with a narcissist. If you are in a relationship with a narcissist, it is also important to consider if narcissistic abuse is present. Below are some resources on narcissism.

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