How to effectively deal with a narcissistic partner or spouse
Category: Better Relationships | Author: Elly Prior | First published: 03-03-2015 | Modified: 01-12-2017
Living with a partner who has narcissistic traits is undoubtedly challenging. While you may love your partner very much (or not anymore!), their narcissistic tendencies 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!
A narcissistic person is very likely to lack any empathy
10 Signs your partner may have narcissistic traits
You may (well... you both) have a problem if he or she...
- Expects continued appreciation and admiration from you and others - often referred to as ‘narcissistic supply’. (This expectation comes from a sense of entitlement and an exaggerated sense of self-importance)
- Overestimates their abilities and underestimates the contribution of others - this is probably well-documented in their social media profiles and is a very telling narcissistic trait
- Fantasises about unlimited success in whatever they do (magical thinking)
- Compares themselves very favourably with high-status people, assuming only they will understand and truly appreciate them
- Is often unreasonably demanding - having unrealistic expectations of you (and others) - a personality trait that makes it almost impossible to create a healthy relationship
- Contributes very little to the relationship
- Has little or no empathy, often sneers, is contemptuous and over-critical of you and others
- Is unwilling to discuss your feelings or concerns
- Lacks insight into themselves and their behaviour
- 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. And it’s for that reason that it’s no surprise that you found - or still find - yourself drawn to your partner despite all the difficulties in the relationship.
You may have only slowly come to realise that his or her personality is sadly all about ‘me, myself and I’. You (and possibly others) may even have thought of him or her as selfish, pompous, arrogant, snooty, overbearing, big-headed and/or a user. And this article in Vanity Fair about Donald Trump illustrates exactly the kinds of negative behaviours you’d expect a narcissist to display.
Dealing with a narcissist is difficult! So, in this article, I’m aiming to help you understand narcissistic 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.
Is your partner truly narcissistic?
A diagnosis of Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD) is a classified mental disorder in the DSM - a handbook used by the American Psychiatric Association as well as psychiatrist world-wide (link)). Only a suitably qualified mental health or medical professional can diagnose the disorder with the help of a narcissistic personality inventory.
Your partner or spouse may not meet the required criteria for a diagnosis of NPD, yet clearly (at least to you) has some narcissistic tendencies. And regardless of the label he or she may or may not have, you have to deal with those energy-sapping narcissistic behaviours. So, I really want you to feel that you’re 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...
- Insecurity - they have a fragile sense of self, are easily hurt by criticism and are floored by failures (aka ‘narcissistic injury’)
- Unresolved conflict - for whatever reason, they didn’t get what they needed or expected from their caregivers in childhood
- Unpleasant memories - we all have them, but a narcissist can’t let them go - hence the defensive behaviours and the...
- … unpleasant feelings - which they’re constantly trying to escape from, in ways that are detrimental to others
Any of these may be rooted in childhood rejection at the hands of the very people who should have shown them unconditional love and acceptance. (At least, this is the psychodynamic explanation for now.)
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.
In reality, the narcissist’s self-esteem often appears high but sadly is likely to be very fragile. And they’re almost completely unable to cope with criticism because it leaves them feeling crushed.
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’ve 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...
Before you read on...
Know that narcissism comes in many 'shades'.
At one end of the spectrum is malignant Narcissistic Personality Disorder, and this is a fully classified mental disorder. (It’s similar to psychopathy, although a psychopath doesn’t care about being the centre of attention. NPD also shares many of the same character traits as Borderline Personality Disorder, including rapid changes of mood, unstable personal relationships and a deep-rooted fear of abandonment.)
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.
For the purposes of this article, I’m going to assume that your partner isn’t at the dangerous end of the narcissism spectrum. If they are, then you’re in an abusive relationship - and for that, you need this article: Signs of an Abusive Relationship. 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.
Instead, if your partner is displaying mildly narcissistic traits and you're looking for ways to cope with the problem, here are some ideas...
Top 10 Tips for surviving life with a partner with narcissistic traits
- Be safe! Don't allow your partner to violate your boundaries. Read my article: Signs of an abusive relationship and Signs of emotional abuse.
- 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.
- 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)
- Use whatever resources you have to deal with your own pre-existing insecurities, so that you’re better protected against your partner's criticism
- Accept that you cannot change your partner. If only!
- Understand that they're not capable of forming a truly loving, close relationship
- View their narcissistic behaviours as a reflection of their insecurities – don’t take it personally.
- 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)
- 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.
- Set boundaries as per #1 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. And if that’s the case, give yourself permission to feel okay about that. And give yourself time to make the right decision - for you.
Can you ever hope to change things?
Put simply: you can’t change your partner. Not because he or she is (or may be) narcissistic. But because no-one has (or should have) sufficient power over another person in order to force them to change. And a 'narcissist' in particular is unlikely to ever seek treatment - either of their own accord, or at the suggestion of someone else.
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’s unlikely that they will want to change - largely because they won’t ever think they need to!
So, bringing about change in this kind of relationship is very challenging indeed, but not impossible. In any case, I would strongly advise that you get professional help - either to navigate the relationship, or to end it altogether.
10 Tips for making your relationship work
If you feel truly connected to your partner and you want to make things work, here's what might help...
- Talk about why our relationships with others are so important, and what it means to feel really connected with another person.
- Suggest any behavioural changes (start small) without any reference to wrongdoing on their (or your) part.
- Emphasise the benefits - to him/her, you and the relationship of a particular change or action, so that it builds their view of themselves as being 'good'.
- Talk about what the two of you have achieved in terms of change and growth, however little. Avoid pointing the finger at all costs!
- Remind yourself frequently of what you do like about your partner, instead of getting fixated on what you don't like.
- Offer someone else's opinion about a specific behaviour from your partner that might have irritated them. Sandwich it very gently between positives, though.
- Do your best to make the connection between their past hurts and their behaviour now - the more empathic you feel the less likely you are to get into a spiral of negativity (honouring your own boundaries though).
- Gain their interest, if you can, about the story of the lives of people around them. Help them focus outward - away from me, myself and I - in a fun way, by asking questions such as: Who did something funny at work today? How’s so-and-so getting on with his/her new project? What’s your favourite kind of personality to be around and why? Etc.
- Help them understand gradually and gently what others feel and might truly want, need or expect from them.
- And the most important one: BE PATIENT and stick to your own boundaries.
You may also find the book: "Disarming the Narcissist" by Wendy Behary helpful.
Dealing with criticism
Someone with a diagnosis of NPD, or even with 'just' some traits of narcissistic personality disorder, can find criticism particularly challenging. They may respond by behaving rudely and aggressively if criticised.
The best thing you can do here is to try and help them to recognise that no one is perfect. Each one of us, including them, has our share of imperfections and shortcomings.
For more on this, take a look at my page on how to deal with criticism.
How to encourage understanding and empathy
Remember that someone with narcissistic traits struggles with empathy (or, in full blown cases of NPD, has no empathy at all). That can make building a healthy relationship really hard for the other partner.
So, to try and encourage understanding, aim to have some playful conversations together every day. For example...
- Ask them to guess what you’re thinking about
- Likewise, guess what they’re thinking about right now
- Take turns to have a 10 minute conversation about each other - your successes, preferences and joys, but also your failures, disappointments and challenges.
These types of conversations may help them to slowly and gently get some insight into other people's feelings. You’ll probably need to be pretty patient when you first try these kinds of chats. So be sure to start only when you're feeling positive and generous!
When is it time to end a relationship (and get a divorce)?
There may come a time when you feel you’ve truly had enough. It can be really hard to have a rewarding relationship with someone whose main focus is him/herself. And if your partner meets all the criteria for Narcissistic Personality Disorder, 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. It’s very likely that your self-esteem has taken a complete nose-dive too.
So, know that it is okay to end the relationship if you need to. After all, its success does need two people to commit and work together. It needs both of you to make the most of the fortunes and the challenges you face. And both partners need to contribute personal resources - as well as the joint ones - to make the relationship happy and healthy.
Not sure what to do for the best?
You may find my relationship test helpful in deciding what your next step should be.
CLICK HERE for further information
You might be lucky enough to be surrounded by supportive friends and family. If so, talk to them, and listen to their take on your relationship. If not, or if you think you need professional advice and guidance, then I so recommend booking an appointment with a trained counsellor or other mental health professional (it's now very easy to connect with an online counsellor). A professional will be able to help you work through the issues you’re having right now. And they’ll be able to help you learn how to establish and maintain healthy boundaries so that you won’t find yourself caught in this trap again.
Remember, your mental health is at stake here. Your emotional, mental' and spiritual well-being can be all too easily undermined by the lack of empathy in your partner. Their sense of self-importance is likely to drown out your wants, needs and feelings (sometimes called narcissistic abuse). This can potentially put you at risk of developing other mental 'illness' such as depression and anxiety.
Dealing with a narcissistic partner or spouse can be exhausting and confusing. You probably feel constantly ignored, criticised and unworthy. And that’s not what you deserve, nor is it good for your mental health! So it’s time to think about whether or not this relationship is really right for you.
Put yourself first (for once!) and take the time to think about what you want - from your partner, yourself, and your life. Get support if you need help while you’re making your decision. But always remember: you do deserve to be loved, cherished and to feel fulfilled.
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Gilbert, Katie. "The Price of Loving Someone Borderline or Narcissistic." Psychology Today. Sussex Publishers, 07 Jan. 2016. Web. 27 Nov. 2017.
"Narcissism And The Addiction To Narcissistic Supply." The Roadshow for Therapists Narcissism And The Addiction To Narcissistic Supply Comments. N.p., n.d. Web. 28 Nov. 2017.
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