How to Know If You Might Be In a Narcissistic Relationship
When you hear the word “narcissist,” you probably think of people being “in love with themselves.” The word itself originates from Narcissus, a beautiful hunter in Greek mythology who fell in love with his own reflection while looking at himself in a pool of water.
While self-importance is certainly a factor in narcissism, that doesn’t mean that a narcissist will literally only have eyes for their reflection. They do enter romantic relationships, often to the detriment of both parties involved.
If you’re navigating the early stages of online dating or evaluating a serious relationship, there are several signs of narcissism that may present themselves. Here’s what you need to know about being in a narcissistic relationship (a relationship where one or more partner is a narcissist), signs of a narcissist to watch out for, plus what to do if you think your partner is a narcissist. (Related: The Potential Red Flags In a Relationship You Need to Know About)
What are the signs of a narcissist?
Just because someone loves taking selfies doesn’t necessarily mean they’re a narcissist. “There’s a difference between narcissism and narcissistic features and traits,” says licensed clinical psychologist Jaime Zuckerman, Psy.D. “I think that’s important to differentiate because I think people throw around the word ‘narcissist’ pretty freely.”
To have narcissistic personality disorder as it’s laid out in the current Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), someone must meet at least five of the following criteria, according to Kati Morton, L.M.F.T., licensed marriage family therapist and creator of a Youtube channel dedicated to mental health education:
- They have a grandiose sense of self, thinking that everything they do is the best achievement ever and deserves recognition.
- They’re preoccupied with fantasies of unlimited success, power, beauty, ideal family, etc.
- They believe that they’re unique and special and can only associate with people “at their level.”
- They have a need for excessive admiration.
- They have unreasonable expectations that they should always receive favorable treatment (e.g. going to a hot new restaurant and becoming mad that they couldn’t get seated).
- They’re interpersonally exploitative, manipulating the people in their relationships to gain something.
- They lack empathy.
- They’re envious of others but also believe that others are envious of them.
- They behave arrogantly and selfishly.
These aren’t one-time incidences. “When it comes to a narcissistic personality disorder, what you’re looking for is really a pervasive pattern,” says Morton. “Meaning, if I’m seeing a patient, I would like to see someone for six months — if not a year — before diagnosing them with a personality disorder, because I want to see how just often this affects their life.”
“Narcissism is born out of abuse — not always, but a majority of the time,” says Morton. “Narcissists put up a really tough shell or a front to look like they’re more confident than they really are. Inside, most narcissists are just really sad people.”
How do narcissists act in a relationship?
In a word, toxic. In relationships, narcissists often cheat, and they leave a relationship without saying a word, according to Zuckerman. A true narcissist is “extremely manipulative in their behaviors, needs constant ‘supply’ or ‘fuel’ from the people around them, and needs to have control and constant access to [their partner’s] friends, relationships, and emotions, and the ability to to control those emotions.” she says.
If you’re wondering what exactly that looks like, below are some of the signs of narcissism to watch out for in the context of dating or relationships. Note: None of these behaviors are dead giveaways that someone is narcissist in and of themselves, but they can be hurtful regardless of whether the person qualifies as a narcissist, and so they’re worth noting in any relationship, according to Morton.
They don’t have any deep relationships.
One thing to keep an eye on is the person’s relationship’s with others. “Narcissists are not able to have reciprocal relationships, meaning they’re not able to have empathy or have sympathy or value anybody else’s opinions, morals, or values,” says Zuckerman. “They view the person as an object; they’re replaceable. And so they really only interact with people when they need to get something from them.” They’re guaranteed to only have superficial connections with others, and don’t care what happens to others because of their lack of empathy, she says.
They’re rude to strangers.
An easy distinction to pick up on is how they treat the people around you. “If you’re out at a restaurant or a bar or something, the empathy for others will show itself in the way that they treat the waitstaff,” says Morton. “If someone is really rude to waitstaff, that’s such a good indicator.”
“How do they speak to the waiters and waitresses — are they condescending to them?” echoes Zuckerman. “I joke, but how do they speak to, like, Comcast customer service when you’re around?”
They call all their exes “crazy.”
Sure, not everyone is best friends with their exes, but if the person you’re with is constantly making out their exes to be monsters, that’s a red flag. “They will describe all of their exes as ‘crazy,'” says Zuckerman. “Everyone was crazy that they were with. It was never them, it was the other group — they were crazy.” And once they suck a new partner in, “what starts to happen is there’s almost this sudden shift where they start to devalue the person that they’re with,” she says. (Related: The Psychology of Getting Back with an Ex, According to a Relationship Therapist)
They take zero interest in your life.
In the early stages of dating, a narcissist may fail to ask you any questions about yourself, “They talk about themselves a lot and don’t give you a chance to talk about you,” says Morton. “They never ask you how you’re doing. It’s all about them.” They may forget what you’ve already told them from date to date, says Zuckerman.
They love bomb you.
Another sign to watch out for very early on: love bombing. This is when someone lavishes you with excessive gifts and/or praise early in the relationship. “This is more than just getting you flowers, saying they had a nice time,” says Zuckerman. “This is sending flowers every day to your office, buying you expensive jewelry, whisking you away to Mexico for a weekend after dating for a month.” Or they might refer to you as their “soulmate” by date number three, she says.
These actions can feel flattering to the other person, but narcissists use love bombing as a means for manipulation later on. “They use that initial love bombing stage, almost like a drug where the person will constantly strive to get back to that place,” says Zuckerman. “In reality, it was a tactic, it was a manipulative strategy.” After the love bombing phase, they’ll swear, “No, I’m going to change. I’m going to go back to how I was,” as a way to keep you hooked, she says.
They gaslight you.
Narcissists will often engage in gaslighting, a form a psychological abuse involving making a person believe that they are wrong or mentally ill by bending the truth. They may, for example, tell you that you’re remembering a conversation wrong when you tell them they were rude, says Morton. “That can slowly erode at your ability to trust yourself and your memory, which can make you think you’re going crazy,” she says. “That kind of long-term manipulation can really cause people who’ve been in a narcissistic relationship to struggle intensely with their own self-worth.” (Related: ‘The Bachelorette’ Is Schooling the Masses In Gaslighting 101)
What should you do if you see signs of narcissism in your partner?
As you might have guessed, if you end up in a narcissistic relationship, it can be difficult to end things. “I would say it is one of the hardest relationships to get out of, hands down,” says Zuckerman. “People will leave and go back multiple times before they find a release. Chances are they’ve isolated themselves from everyone around them, they don’t have social support left, they’ve been financially abused for years, so they don’t have any finances.” Seeking therapy can help you figure out a way to get out safely, challenging as it may be, she says. People can “get stronger in therapy, learn strategies, and figure out a way to get out safely, because there is a lot of physical, emotional, sexual abuse that goes on in narcissistic relationships,” she says. “It is doable, but it can take years for the person to feel okay to leave.”
Unfortunately, it’s unlikely your narcissistic partner will seek therapy to make changes within themselves. “I always tell my patients that are in these situations, ‘No, they won’t change — ever,'” says Zuckerman. “They will always be like this with you, with somebody else. They’re like this with everybody in their lives. And therapy doesn’t help. They resist going to therapy, they don’t have the ability to shift in therapy.”
While Morton agrees that narcissists likely won’t seek treatment on their own, she says there might be some hope to tackling the issue as a couple or a family. “I always want people to know it can get better,” she says. “If you have some narcissistic tendencies, going to therapy with your partner can be extremely beneficial and I would encourage you to try that if you’re married or in a very serious relationship, have a child, or committed to each other… However, the tricky thing is most narcissists will never get help.”
Her advice if you’re in a relationship with a narcissist? “If you have an opportunity early on to get out, I would get out.”