The term 'narcissist' has been thrown around a lot in conversation to describe someone who does something self-absorbed. But, while most people tend to whip out the word when they’re ticked off about another's selfish action, narcissism is an actual mental health diagnosis.
Narcissistic personality disorder is a mental condition where people have an inflated sense of their own importance and a deep need for excessive attention and admiration, according to the Mayo Clinic. Narcissists also tend to have a lack of empathy for others and usually have troubled relationships. Meaning, if you’re in a narcissistic relationship, it’s probably a rocky one.
Of course, it’s easy to read that and think you’d never be in a narcissistic relationship but, ya know, it happens—and usually without everyone involved being aware of the situation.
Worth noting: There are plenty of people out there with narcissistic tendencies who don’t meet the full criteria for narcissistic personality disorder, according to licensed clinical psychologist Ramani Durvasula, PhD, author of Should I Stay or Should I Go? Surviving a Relationship with a Narcissist. And, unfortunately, being in a relationship with them is challenging, too.
Okay, so what does being in a narcissistic relationship look like? (Asking for a friend here, of course.) Is there even a shot in hell of being happy with a narcissist? How does someone even become a narcissist, anyway? Ahead, find everything you need to know about narcissistic relationships and, unfortunately, how you can be in one without even realising it.
What is a narcissist?
Again, there’s an actual mental health diagnosis of narcissistic personality disorder, and then there are a bunch of people interacting with the world who have narcissistic tendencies, but don’t necessarily meet the diagnostic criteria.
'A narcissist is a person with a narcissistic personality style,' Durvasula says. 'This is characterised by a lack of empathy or variable empathy, entitlement, grandiosity, superficiality, egocentricity, validation and admiration seeking, reactive sensitivity to criticism or feedback, envy of others or belief that others envy them, a need for control and dominance, rage at times of frustration, disappointment or stress, incapacity for and disinterest in deep, long-term connected intimate relationships, a tendency to shift blame onto others and not take responsibility.'
Pile all of this on top of a person with major insecurity issues, and you've got a narcissist.
Are people born narcissists or do they develop the personality trait over time?
It’s actually not known why some people become narcissists and others don’t, but it’s likely a complex process. The Mayo Clinic says the following might play a role:
Having parents who are either excessively adoring of them or excessively critical
Inheriting narcissistic characteristics through their genes
An issue with their neurobiology—that is, the connection between the brain, body, and thinking process.
Can a narcissist be a good partner?
Erm, no. 'Many times, narcissists are great on paper–good job, success, money, credentials, attractive–all of the exterior characteristics of what people are told to value in a long-term partner,' Durvasula says. They might even be charming and kind at the start, but ultimately, it's always for their own benefit in the long term.
By being warm and loving at the beginning of a relationship, they'll, in turn, have someone who adores them, which is exactly the goal. 'Unfortunately, [narcissists] also have a limited capacity for intimacy, little empathy, are manipulative, invalidating, don’t take responsibility for their behavior in a relationship, and are often quite deceitful,' explains Durvasula.
Being with a narcissist might seem fun for a little while, but it's unlikely things will stay that way. 'In terms of long-term relationship health, respect, compassion, kindness, reciprocity, mutuality—forget about it,' Durvasula says. All the great traits you fell for won't mean much if a narcissistic partner is routinely putting you down in order to feel better about themselves. Unfortunately, by the time people realise they're in a relationship with a narcissistic partner, they're often far too deep and have already internalised what their partner's manipulated them into believing about themselves.
What are the signs you’re in a narcissistic relationship?
If all of this is hitting a little too close to home, you're probably wondering if there’s a chance you’re cozying up with a narcissist on the regular. These are some of the biggest signs of a narcissistic relationship:
1. They seem entitled
Like, everyone owes them something. 'Entitlement, or the belief that one is special or deserves special treatment, is a core element of narcissism,' Durvasula says.
2. They act superior to others
Narcissists are that oh-so-toxic blend of cocky AF while being secretly insecure. That ends up manifesting as them thinking they’re better than everyone—or, at least, acting that way. 'Narcissistic people have a distorted sense of self-esteem, and despite their core inadequacy, they maintain a sense of superiority as a defense against that inadequacy,' Durvasula says.
3. They think people are jealous of them
Dating someone who feels like everyone wants to be them? Yeah... 'Envy is a core dynamic of narcissism,' Durvasula says. 'They envy others and believe others envy them to the point that it can look like a low-grade paranoia at times.'
4. They’re not empathetic to your needs
Empathy, in case you’re not familiar with the word, is being able to understand how someone else is feeling. 'Lack of empathy is a core characteristic of narcissism,' Durvasula says. 'They have little interest in the emotional worlds of others, and are often unaware of the impact they have on others.'
5. They’re manipulative
'Manipulation is the fine art of getting people to do what works for you, even when it doesn’t work for them,' Durvasula says. 'It plays on guilt, fear, and is what narcissists do.' Even scarier is that gaslighting—which is when you make someone question their perception of reality—is common with narcissists.
6. They have to be admired
Got someone who is always fishing for a compliment? That’s a red flag. 'Need for validation and admiration are core characteristics of narcissism,' Durvasula says. 'They need this validation and admiration to substantiate their sense of self—and they rely on external feedback to "exist." '
7. Their needs come first
Feel like your needs don’t matter in this relationship—ever? Narcissists always put top priority on their own needs, Durvasula says.
8. They don’t really pay attention to your needs
That doesn’t mean a narcissist will never do something that you like, but they tend to forget—or not even realise—that you’re someone who matters, too, Durvasula says.
9. They can be aggressive
Narcissism is 'highly correlated' with aggressive behavior, Durvasula says. She cites a recent analysis of 437 studies that found that both everyday narcissists and pathological narcissists are more likely to be aggressive. 'These results suggest that narcissism is an important risk factor for aggression and violence,' the researchers wrote.
10. They can’t deal with feedback
'They are sensitive to feedback of any kind,' Durvasula says. But, despite struggling with getting any kind of input on their actions, they’re not afraid to dish it out. 'They are also hypercritical and have no problem giving other people feedback about their own behaviour,' Durvasula says.
11. They’re obsessed with success
Narcissists feel a huge urge to be successful or powerful. 'This is part of the grandiosity—the need for power and dominance so they can control other people and the narrative,' Durvasula says.
If any of this sounds like your romantic partner or someone you're dating, know that, because narcissism is a disorder, you won't be able to change them. In the long run, you'll only end up feeling isolated from the people who love and care about you because of the manipulation tactics, including shame, a narcissist will use to convince you they're the only person who cares about you so you can keep serving their needs. The best thing you can do for your health, safety, and happiness is leave.
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