Are You in a Narcissistic Relationship?
Today’s world allows us to easily connect with each other in so many ways. Social media has made it possible for us to have hundreds of friends, to share our experiences in real time, to promote our work, and to showcase ourselves. To some degree, all these wonderful connecting activities have created a trend towards narcissistic behaviour. A ‘look at me’ and ‘look at extensions of me’ kind of attitude is prevalent and has become acceptable.
We all possess narcissistic behaviours. A healthy dose is necessary in enabling us to care for ourselves at work and in our personal lives, to be confident, and to enjoy meaningful and reciprocal relationships. However, there are certain types of narcissistic behaviours that are more fundamental and ingrained. These behaviours impact greatly, especially in couple and marriage relationships. And although I have confined this article to an examination of the impact on couple relationships, you may also find the content applicable to a relationship with your boss, a friend, father, mother a sibling or even a world leader, President.
Are you or have you been in a relationship where it’s all about your partner and very little about you? And even when it is about you, somehow it diverts back to being about your partner, about what makes him/her look good or feel better? Are you in a relationship with a partner who blames you but admits no faults? Does your partner only care about you when you cater to his needs? Is your partner commitment phobic? Is your partner emotionally detached or unavailable? Is your partner scared of emotional intimacy? Does your partner lack empathy?
Men and women with narcissistic behaviours tend to feel entitled, superior to others and have a deep need for admiration. At the same time, they lack regard for other people’s feelings. Ironically, behind the façade of being super confident, they actually suffer from very low self- esteem and are often sensitive to the slightest criticism. They fear loss of control and are acutely sensitive to rejection. At first, people with narcissistic behaviours can be difficult to detect and difficult to understand. Particularly when they claim they know more, have the best of everything, and have to be the best, it is easy to see them as high achievers or over achievers.
They tend to make good first impressions, always appearing likeable. They are not necessarily good leaders but can often be in leadership positions. They frequently find ways to ‘showcase’ themselves through the accumulation of expensive homes and luxury cars or other items. And unfortunately, this also includes the accumulation of prior intimate relationships that did not work. The divorce rate is high for people with narcissist behaviours, and men are more likely to possess narcissist behaviours than women.
In relationships, people with narcissistic behaviours tend to only care about a partner when the partner is fulfilling their needs. Their care is self-serving. If you turn to them solely for your own needs, you will more than likely be disappointed. You will always somehow end up feeling, at least a little, alone in the relationship. They are self-focused and cannot really “see” you as a separate person. They tend to only see you in relation to them. After the end of such a relationship, one woman told me, ‘When he used to hug me, I always felt like he was hugging himself and not me. He sort of hugs himself through (via) me’.
I have seen many couples where one partner has strong narcissistic behaviours. Usually these relationships are full of conflict, anxiety, shame, despair, guilt, frequent fighting, infidelity and trauma. People with narcissistic behaviours find it difficult to connect or tune into their partner’s needs. Psychologically, they are disconnected from themselves. To the partner or outsider, this form of disconnection or splitting can translate into them being very generous on one hand, very controlling or calculative on the other hand. Or very kind, loving one minute and angry, critical the next. They are constantly busy meeting their own needs (self protecting, guarding) thus they literally do not have the capacity to tune into their partner. They can be very manipulative. Being in a relationship with them is difficult as they do not have the strength to own up or apologise when they make a mistake. Instead, they blame their partner for making them feel bad by pointing out their mistakes. They usually will only seek relationship counselling or marriage counselling if they sense that their partner may leave them or if the partner has already left. Read more about Relationship Counselling
Two Types of Narcissistic Behaviours
They are two distinct types of narcissistic behaviours. Those exhibiting the first type tend to be more flamboyant or grandiose. They are often charismatic. They love being the centre of attention. They also tend to be more aggressive or dominant in their manner. They appear more confident and less sensitive to others. They are also more prone to anger, exploding when they can’t have it their way. (Read more about Anger) They frequently like telling others about what they own and who they know. They are usually arrogant and can look down on others. They believe they have bragging rights and utilize them frequently. You could be sharing something quite personal and painful for you one minute (expect no more than this) and pretty soon, he/she could be talking about his/her new car.
Usually, people of this first type were treated as superior in their early childhood so they grow up expecting this treatment to continue. In relationships, they are more likely to openly engage in infidelity or leave their partners abruptly if they feel that they are not getting the special treatment they think they are entitled to. They usually have been married and divorced a few times. They can also be very controlling, possessive, jealous and paranoid in relationships, hence their relationships can be high in conflict.
At work, they are overconfident in making decisions, and usually unable to learn from their mistakes. They are also more likely to engage in unethical behaviours due to their need to perform. They will stop at nothing to get what they want or believe they are entitled to and will think nothing of removing people that get in their way. They believe they are special and have fantasies of unlimited success and power. Unfortunately, many leadership positions are filled by them, and others see them as the ‘movers and shakers’ of large multinational organisations. While, they may have some degree of success in their careers, their personal lives are usually quite compromised.
Those exhibiting the second type of narcissistic behaviour tend to be more personable, vulnerable, and sensitive. They come across as low key and may appear to be helpful, polite, subdued and even humble. But these traits are a camouflage with the facade serving as protective shield against deep feelings of inadequacy and inferiority. They tend to swing to feeling superior, which can manifest in subtle manipulative and controlling behaviours including abusive behaviours such as using their partners purely for self-gratification. But when feeling inferior, they tend to feel anxious or victimized and will easily blame their partner.
This type of narcissistic behaviour usually develops in early childhood where there has been subtle forms of abuse or neglect. In relationships, they frequently worry about how their partners view them. Those exhibiting this type are easily slighted and overreact with anger and defensiveness at the slightest hint of perceived criticism from their partners. And if they can't get their way, or if you do something they don’t like, it means you're against them or you don't understand them.
They require constant praise and affirmation, at times for doing mundane tasks. However, they are unlikely to provide their partners much acknowledgement or praise. As a result, the partner typically feels unfulfilled, lonely and, over time, simply accepting of the situation, believing this is as good as it gets.
People in this category can also be sexual predators while remaining married. They will think nothing of having affairs, or simultaneous affairs, approaching others who are married, destroying marriages and families to fulfil their own needs. There will be no felt empathy as these clever predators move in and out of people’s lives. Unconscious deep feelings of insecurity may see them exploring swinging (sex with multiple partners). They may encourage or pressure their partner into doing the same.
People with narcissistic behaviours usually have great difficulty in maintaining a healthy, long lasting close relationship. Narcissistic behaviours develop when a child’s emotional and psychological needs are unmet. Frequently their parents would have had unmet needs for attention and caretaking themselves, hence the incapacity to adequately meet the needs of the child. They usually would have experienced childhoods in which they were deprived of adequate nurturing, care, and soothing. They may well have also experienced physical, emotional, or sexual abuse and neglect. Or they were spoiled and not given enough structure or limits. As adults, they feel a deep sense of shame and guilt, although on the surface it would be hard to detect.
People with narcissistic behaviours can be described as being ‘love hungry’. Unbeknownst to them, their hunger for love is an emotional hunger. The tricky part is their inability to recognise, acknowledge and admit this vulnerability. They usually act out their emotional hunger by seeking sex. This does not necessarily mean they make fantastic sexual partners. In some cases, this hunger, preoccupation prevents them from ‘seeing’ their partner but only focusing on their own bodily sensations, leaving the partner feeling more like an object rather than a person, with the sexual contact more perfunctory rather than lovemaking.
Their emotional hunger is also hard to fill within adult intimate relationships as their partners have great difficulty being in a relationship of continuously giving and not receiving empathy, validation, emotional support or availability.
People with narcissistic behaviours rarely seek Counselling or Psychological help. It’s a catch 22 situation. Looking back, they may see the trail of broken relationships and may sense that seeing a Psychologist, Psychotherapist or Counsellor would be helpful, but they would rarely do so because of their fragile sense of self. To admit to the need for help, seeing that something might be ‘wrong’ in their behaviour would usually be intolerable to them.
Some signs that you are in a narcissistic relationship include:
- Your partner is emotionally absent and lacks empathy for you
- Your partner feel he knows more, knows best and is always right
- Your partner has to be the best or associate with the ‘best’ people/events
- Your partner admits no fault and is unable to be accountable if your feelings are hurt
- Your partner feels the need to perform sexually more than make love
- Your partner is dominating, controlling of you, manipulative or demanding
- Your partner is arrogant, displays haughty behaviour, believes he is special
- Your partner is highly sensitive to criticism, over reacts with defensiveness and anger
- Your partner is quick to point out your mistakes or flaws he sees in you
- Your partner constantly seeks attention, to hear praise and approval
- Your partner constantly puts you down, especially when his needs are not met
- Your partner has affairs, craves attention from other women, and is possibly addicted to sex
- Your partner has a history of bad breakups
- Your partner acts like the victim and feels attacked when things don’t go his way
- Your partner constantly threatens to leave the relationship during fights
- Your relationship feels one sided and shallow
- Your partner tells you it is always your fault during arguments
- Your partner is envious of your friendships and family relationships
- Your partner perpetually challenges you, not in a good way
- Your partner can be volatile, overreacts angrily, and blames you for that
- Your partner thinks your emotions are a sign of weakness
- You constantly feel alone in your relationship even when he or she is around, sometimes especially then
- You feel used by him, after the initial stages of feeling special
- You try to talk about you and conversations end up being about him
- You start to feel more like an object rather than a person
- You feel emotionally alone, a lot
- You feel like his princess at the start and this quickly changes to feeling put down/let down
- You feel when he is acting empathetic, nice or supportive there is always a hidden motive
- Your needs, concerns and feelings don’t matter
- You feel emotionally abused and as though you are losing yourself
- You start to doubt yourself and feel confused or as if you are going crazy
- You may even feel like you cannot live without your partner
Your Situation and How to Heal
A narcissistic relationship can lead to significant emotional distress. Symptoms can include-feeling traumatised or numb, with no sense of a future, a loss of interest, sleeping difficulties, weight gain, irritability, depression, anxiety, or hopelessness. Self-harming and thoughts of suicide may also occur. What you should do to heal will vary depending upon your unique situation.
If you are currently in the relationship, you would probably feel quite alone, exhausted and running on empty. (Read more about Loneliness) It’s time to reach out and get the overdue help and support you need. You require a clear understanding, so you can calmly and clearly decide the next steps. If you share children and believe you cannot leave your relationship, it is crucial for you to see a skilled family therapist, not merely to remain in the relationship but to learn how to care for yourself and your children in strategic ways. Read more about Family Therapy.
If your partner can acknowledge his behaviours and is genuinely willing to address them, seeing a specialist Relationship Counsellor may just give your relationship a better chance to recover and for each of you to connect in a new way (Read more about EFT) that is more equal and reciprocal.
If your relationship is over, it might be helpful to know that narcissistic relationships are among the most devastating of all broken relationships. Be gentle and kind with yourself. Your self-esteem and sense of identity would have taken quite a beating. You will need to heal, and this will take time. Family and friends can help and be of support, however, we strongly suggest you seek help from a skilled and experienced Counsellor or Psychotherapist. Read about our Counsellors and Psychotherapists.