How to effectively deal with a narcissistic partner

Author: Elly Prior | First published: 03-03-2015 | Modified: 10-11-2017

Living with a partner who has narcissistic traits is undoubtedly challenging. While you may love your partner very much (or not anymore!), their narcissistic traits can make it difficult for you to feel loved in return. 

So how can you recognise potential narcissism? Knowing that can at least help you to make sense of seemingly senseless behaviour. You need that for your own sanity!

Newspaper article: just how self-obsessed are you?A narcissistic person is very likely to lack any empathy

You may (well... you both) have a problem if ...

10 Signs your partner may have narcissistic traits

He or she...

  1. Expects continued appreciation and admiration from you and others
  2. Overestimates their abilities and underestimates the contribution of others
  3. Fantasises about unlimited success in whatever they do
  4. Compares themselves very favourable with high-status people, assuming only they will understand and truly appreciate them
  5. Is often unreasonably demanding - having unrealistic expectations from you (and others)
  6. Contributes very little to the relationship
  7. Has little or no empathy, often sneers, is contemptuous and over-critical of you and others
  8. Is unwilling to discuss your feelings or concerns
  9. Lacks insight into themselves and their behaviour
  10. Lacks appreciation of you, your feelings, your values and beliefs, your interests and concerns

He or she may also be utterly charming, interesting, entertaining and happy-go-lucky.

It is no surprise then that you found, or still find, yourself drawn to your partner despite all the difficulties. You may have only slowly come to realise that his or her personality is sadly all about I-Me-and-My. You, and others, may even have thought of him or her as selfish, pompous, arrogant, snooty, overbearing, 'big-headed' and/or a 'user'.

However... for someone with narcissistic traits:

  • his or her self-esteem often appears high, but sadly it is likely very fragile
  • they cope badly with criticism, which can leave them feeling crushed

In this article I'm aiming to help you understand narcissist traits and give you some support. I'll also give you some ideas on how to make the most of your relationship despite the challenges that come with these traits.

(Notice how I never refer to someone being a 'narcissist' - a horrible label!)

Is your partner truly narcissistic?

A diagnosis of Narcissistic Personality Disorder can only be made by a suitably qualified mental health or medical professional. However, regardless of the label, you have to live with him or her (or not!) and I want you to feel that you are not alone.

Watch this video to learn more...

What is wrong with them?

The behaviours and fantasies that are linked with narcissism can be understood as a defence against underlying (at least that is the psychodynamic explanation for now):

  • Insecurity
  • Unresolved conflict
  • Unpleasant memories
  • Unpleasant feelings

This may be rooted in being rejected in childhood by the very people who should have shown them unconditional love and acceptance.

As a result of this:

  • They now defend their feelings of rejection by continually telling themselves that they are perfect and lovable.
  • They convince themselves that they are self-sufficient and do not require warm relationships with others. This does not mean that they really don’t need others...
  • They feel rejected, forlorn, empty and depressed when someone leaves them. It's too much of a reminder of the past, without their consciously making that connection.
Over-confident looking model.Over-confident, self-assured or narcissistic?

How to survive in a relationship with someone with narcissistic traits

People with narcissistic behaviours are usually charming in the beginning. However their self-centred view makes it really difficult for them to develop a strong long-term relationship. Their lack of empathy may even put your safety at risk.

I wouldn't be surprised if over time you have found yourself increasingly irritated, frustrated, stressed or desperately hurt by them. You may have got into a spiral of negativity, with disappointments stacking up and dragging you down. Your self-esteem may have dropped as a result of this. At the same time you may still love - or think you love - that person.

Before you read on...

Know that narcissism comes in many 'shades'.

At one end of the spectrum is malignant Narcissistic Personality Disorder. This disorder is similar to psychopathy (although a psychopath doesn’t care about being the centre of attention).

If you even think you may be living with someone who has full-blown malignant NPD, I urge you to read my article, Signs of an Abusive Relationship, now - instead of reading the rest of this article. You'll be at risk of financial, physical, sexual and emotional abuse. I’d also strongly advise you to seek professional help as soon as possible.

At the other end of the scale, someone may be displaying some really irritating narcissistic traits. Even just a couple of these traits can make it difficult to maintain a healthy relationship.

If you're looking for what you can do about the problem, here are some ideas...

Top 10 Tips for surviving life with a partner with narcissistic traits

  1. Be safe! Read my article: Signs of an abusive relationship now
  2. Give yourself permission not to think about your partner or spouse 24 hours a day! Take time to focus on meeting your own emotional needs.
  3. Remind yourself frequently that you are still uniquely smart and lovable – even if your partner suggests otherwise (get the hypnosis downloads "Boosting Your Self-Esteem" and "Dealing with Narcissistic Behaviour" via my page: Self-hypnosis Frequently Asked Questions)
  4. Use whatever resources you have to deal with your own pre-existing insecurities, so that you get better protected against your partner's criticism
  5. Accept that you cannot change your partner. If only!
  6. View their behaviour as a reflection of their insecurities – don’t take it personally.
  7. Share your experience with a trusted person. I highly recommend you connect with an online, professional, licensed therapist for the best advice. Alternatively, you could talk to a priest or another wise individual in your own surroundings - someone you know won't judge and won't 'blab' (unless you're in danger of serious harm)
  8. Decide for yourself, and write down, what you do and don't find acceptable behaviour. Discuss it with someone you trust to make sure that you're not making excuses for their behaviour.
  9. Set boundaries as per #8 and decide what the consequences will be for unacceptable behaviour (no petty punishments though!). You may increasingly feel that you can no longer carry on with this relationship.
  10. Be okay with contemplating ending your relationship or marriage, even if you're not yet ready for it.

Can you ever hope to change things?

You cannot change your partner. Not because he or she may be narcissistic, but because none of us have such power over other people (at least not under normal circumstances).

All of us choose to change our behaviour on account of feedback - positive or negative - and self-reflection. Those with narcissistic traits lack the capacity for self-reflection and have little insight into their own shortcomings and impact on others; therefore it is unlikely that they will want to change.

Therefore bringing about change in this kind of relationship is very challenging indeed, but not impossible. In any case, I would advice that you get professional help before you end the relationship!

10 Tips for making your relationship work

Here's what might help...

  1. Talk about why our relationships with others are so important, what it means to feel really connected with another person
  2. Suggest any change without any reference to wrongdoing on their (or your) part
  3. Emphasise the benefits - to him or her, you and the relationship of a particular change or action, so that it builds their view of themselves of being 'good'
  4. Talk about what the two of you have achieved in terms of change and growth, however little. Avoid pointing the finger.
  5. Remind yourself frequently about what you do like about them, instead of 'rehearsing' what you don't like
  6. Help them focus outward - away from me I-me-myself in a fun way, by asking questions such as, for example:
    Who is your best teacher?
    Who is the best student in class?
    Who is your ideal personality among people around you and why? Etc. This is particularly important when your partner/spouse is depressed
  7. Offer someone else's opinion about a specific behaviour of your partner that might have irritated them. 'Sandwich' it very gently between positives
  8. Do your best to make the connection between their past hurts and their behaviour now - the more empathic you feel the less likely you get into a spiral of negativity (honouring your own boundaries though)
  9. Gain their interest, if you can, about the story of the lives of people around them.
  10. Help them understand gradually and gently what others feel and might truly want, need or expect from them.

Oh, I forgot the most important one: BE PATIENT and stick to your own boundaries.

Dealing with criticism

Someone with narcissistic traits can find criticism particularly challenging. They may respond by behaving rudely and aggressively if criticised. Help them to recognise that no one is perfect. Each one of us, including them, has our share of imperfections and shortcomings.

At all times, make sure that you're safe! Remember the spectrum I mentioned above.

Click on the link for my page on how to deal with criticism.

How to encourage understanding and empathy

Aim for some daily 'playful' conversations together. Here are some examples that may help develop some understanding and empathy:

  • Ask them to guess what you are thinking about. Likewise guess what he’s got in his mind.
  • Take turns to each 10 minutes to talk about yourself - your successes, preferences, but also your failures and disappointments.

These types of conversations may help them to slowly and gently get some insight into other people's feelings. Be sure to start only when you're feeling positive and generous!

I can imagine though, that you're doubting your relationship is worth all that work. If so, you may find my relationship test helpful in deciding what your next step should be.

When is it time to end a relationship?

There may come a time when you feel you truly have had enough, because it can be really hard to have rewarding relationship with someone whose main focus is him/herself.  It's impossible to ever have a healthy relationship with someone who abuses you! You may have tried everything you could to help the relationship (and yourself) survive and you may have run out of ideas and energy, and you've ended up with your self-esteem in your boots.

Know that it is okay to end a relationship. After all, it does need two people to commit and work together. It needs both of you to make the most of the fortunes, the challenges, the limitations and each one of your personal as well as your joint resources, to make for a happy relationship.

Free printable download

Download the printable PDF of How to Deal with a Narcissistic Partner

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Related Articles

How to Stop Arguing
Depression Warning Signs
How to End Your Relationship
Relationship or Marriage Compatibility Test
Free Love Advice
How to (Re)Build Your Self-Esteem
Signs of an Abusive Relationship
Are You Heading for a Nervous Breakdown

Other interesting links - Narcissism linked to sexual assault perpretation

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Elly Prior

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It's me - Elly Prior, I'm the Founder and Author of this site. I'm a 'real' person! I'm hoping to make a positive difference, small or large, to every person who visits my site.

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