"I think my partner is a narcissist" is a statement we hear more and more often today. Narcissism seems to have become a fashionable term that is being tossed around more and more. On the one hand, our society is more self-centred than ever, and on the other hand, our attention to narcissistic traits has become equally as high. But what does "narcissism" actually mean?
Narcissistic personality disorder is a clinical condition that is quite rare, i.e. it affects 0.4% of the adult population and studies show that 75% of people diagnosed are men. However, each of us carries narcissistic traits, and the degree to which these traits are expressed plays an important role.
Narcissism is characterised by:
Seeking attention: Narcissists have low self-worth often due to early experiences of loss of closeness and affection. Accordingly, they need a lot of attention, recognition and admiration to compensate for their low self-esteem from their outside environment.
Striving for dominance: Always wanting to be the best and first is something all narcissists have in common. Their environment does not really matter to them or even stand in their way. They refuse to integrate the opinion of others and certainly do not ask for help or support.
Lack of empathy: Empathising with others is a difficult task for narcissists. However, this is not always obvious, because when it is to their advantage, they can appear very empathetic. We can sometimes be downright impressed by the way they assess situations and empathy - but actually simply be manipulated.
Seeing only in black and white: Other people are either to be hated or loved - there is no middle ground. Forgiveness is difficult for narcissists because their lack of empathy does not allow them to understand wrongdoing. They see this as an intended slight and react in the only way they deem correct: to block and not give a second chance!
Why are we so easily drawn into the spell of narcissists?
When we meet narcissists, they usually stand out in a positive way. They are particularly open, interested and sociable - and often very charming. In other words, they show exactly the kind of behaviour that is appreciated in our society. The first impression they leave often seems like the exact opposite of narcissistic behaviour.
The dark sides of narcissism in partnerships
Spend more time with a narcissist and suddenly the charming side disappears and a very controlling and possessive behaviour emerges. This ranges from dictating how their partner should dress to being jealous and publicly degrading them in front of others. Any resistance to this behaviour then comes to blows, with a narcissist pointing the complete blame at their partner. Often, in order to resolve conflicts, they will fall back on empty promises, for example the promise of a future change of behaviour.
Why it is so difficult to detach from narcissistic partners or to claim your own space in a relationship
The more time we spend with narcissists, the more we are conditioned by them to behave in ways that are pleasing to them, even against our own will. This is particularly visible in long-term relationships where partners of narcissists lose focus on what they really want and who they are. A so-called cognitive dissonance develops, an imbalance between our own actions and feelings: after investing a lot of time and energy into the relationship and putting up with the unattractive side of the partner, we tend to valorise the emotional side in order to maintain the balance with our own actions. We end up believing that we must have very strong feelings otherwise we would not have put up with so much. The result is that we then feel: "We have already given too much to give up!".
Statements you may hear from a narcissistic partner:
"He called me names when I made a mistake".
"She yelled at me in front of her friends"
"Everything had to be the way she wanted it - or not at all"
"After every conflict I had to go back to him, but he ignored me completely at first"
"She tried to change me in all ways"
"I had to show him my chat history"
"He justified everything by saying that he only wanted what was best for me"
"Once I said no, he didn't speak to me for a week"
"She didn't believe me when I said I was seeing friends and not a woman."
"In the end I didn't know if I was the narcissist after all"
"He twisted my words around"
"I don't remember him apologising once"
My partner is a narcissist! - What can I do?
In a relationship with a narcissist:
It is important to realise that narcissists do not want to accept help. They see the offer of help as a direct attack on themselves and strongly reject it. You are not responsible for your partner's behaviour. Keep reminding yourself of this. It is also very useful to get emotional support from friends and, if necessary, also professional support. Work on your own self-worth with exercises to strengthen your self-esteem.
Going through a separation:
If you decide to separate from your partner, consistent behaviour during and after the separation is extremely important. Because a narrow gap is already enough for narcissists to get their "foot in the door" again and to convince you to continue the relationship. During the separation, you should also expect massive resistance against them (sometimes up to threats or stalking - in this case you should definitely get support).
Feeling alone in this? Resources to help you improve your situation
Disarming the Narcissist: Surviving and Thriving with the Self-Absorbed
Emotional Vampires: Dealing with People Who Drain You Dry
How to Handle a Narcissist: Understanding and Dealing with a Range of Narcissistic Personalities
Freeing Yourself From the Narcissist In Your Life
The Wizard of Oz and Other Narcissists: Coping with the One-way Relationship in Work, Love, and Family
Why Can’t I Just Leave: A Guide to Waking Up and Walking Out of a Pathological Love Relationship
The Narcissism Recovery Workbook: Skills for Healing from Emotional Abuse
Facilitated support groups:
Talking to people who are going through the same thing can be very healing - for example, in a psychologist-led support group online: here you can reflect on your situation and share your concerns with others who understand what you are going through.
Individual psychological support:
If the situation feels particularly hopeless, you should consider seeking professional help in the form of a one-to-one session with a psychologist.