If you love a narcissist, whether someone officially diagnosed with Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD) or someone who just seems more focused on her- or himself than on you, you have probably been asking yourself if you’re crazy, self-destructive, or masochistic. Your friends, family, and therapist may be telling you to leave that person and find someone who will really love you. And you’re probably reading plenty of stuff from professionals and nonprofessionals that has you questioning your own sanity.
But here's something you won't hear too often: Loving a narcissist can be rewarding as well as difficult. If you really love that man or woman, and the relationship works, for the most part, what can you do to help your love last?
There is no way to know for sure if any relationship will last forever, but there are several important questions you can ask yourself to make sure that your relationship is on a good path.
1. Listen to yourself—carefully. No matter what you have been hearing or reading, you aren’t crazy or self-destructive to have fallen in love with this person. Narcissists can be charming. As my PT colleague Elinor Greenberg writes, they can also be wonderful lovers and great partners—romantic, loving, and terrific in bed. They can even seem to be sensitive to your emotions and tuned in to your needs.
If you are in a relationship with someone who satisfies you most of the time, then it really does not matter what other people are saying about her or him—for the most part. But if you are complaining constantly to your partner or to friends, family, or colleagues, then you might very well not be listening to yourself. Is this person suddenly hurting your feelings or making you feel bad about yourself? Do you cling to her or him because you feel insecure when you’re apart and when you're together?
These are signs that the relationship is not a good one for you, but it’s often hard to hear yourself when this happens. So listen carefully to what you are saying to other people about the relationship. You might hear something you actually didn’t want to acknowledge—that the relationship is not really worth holding onto. Sometimes, and it may have nothing to do with you (despite what your lover might try to tell you), the relationship goes south. My colleague Dan Shaw describes some of the reasons that someone with Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD) might have trouble loving you over the long haul. Despite the difficulties, it can be hard to leave, and I’ve talked about how hard it can be to end a relationship with a narcissist.
2. Do a self-inventory. How much of your love for your partner is what psychoanalysts Frank Lachmann and Robert Stolorow call “gilt by association”? Do you feel better about yourself, more “golden,” so to speak, because you’re with this person? Sometimes we stay with a narcissistic lover because it makes us feel special—not because of the things our partner says or does to or about us, but because of how others look at and think of him or her. People others admire, look up to, and even envy can seem to glitter with power and status.
“Gilt by association” is the feeling that that admiration extends to us because we’re associated with them. But ask yourself honestly if what you get from this relationship is worth what you have to give up. Would your self-esteem be better if you were on your own, away from a critical or neglectful other, even if you didn’t get so much public stroking? But if you listen to yourself and hear that you are getting more out of this connection than not, then follow the next suggestions and see what happens.
3. Reinforce positive behavior. Researchers disagree about the vulnerabilities of individuals with NPD. Some suggest that they have certain areas of low self-esteem, while others say that such claims of self-doubt are usually bogus. But what seems to be crucial is that you recognize where and how they need to have their self-esteem enhanced. Researchers have found that global praise—for example, “you are so great!”—does little to touch the areas in which people with NPD feel insecure. Instead, praising a specific behavior, such as how well she handled an awkward situation at work or how much your child enjoyed how he read the bedtime story last night, could reinforce the behavior and promote self-esteem if it is an issue.
4. Practice mindfulness yourself and bring it into your relationship. Research shows that mindfulness practices can help some individuals with NPD, particularly in areas in which behavioral changes would make a difference. For instance, mindfulness practices can help them learn to recognize when they are beginning to feel angry and so they can shift their behaviors. Often these shifts are more in line with behaving differently than with changing the feelings, but small behavior changes can make a big difference in helping a relationship flow smoothly. However, some with NPD may react badly to being told they need to become more mindful, which is why it can be far more useful to start a mindfulness practice of your own; then, when your new self-awareness helps you behave in a different way, you can invite your partner to try it.
5. Be realistic. What can you really expect from your love, and what fantasies do you have to give up? Research has shown a possible link between narcissistic personality disorder and autistic spectrum disorder (many thanks to my PT colleague Susan Heitler for alerting me to this connection). Whether or not this hypothesis is confirmed by further research, there are certain characteristics shared by the two diagnostic groups, and keeping in mind that some of these qualities generally don’t change much can save you a great deal of heartbreak.
For instance, if your love does not feel empathy in the way that you think he or she should, you may need to change your expectations. Empathy is not always a matter of saying or doing something soothing or loving when you’re feeling down or needy. Are there other signs that your needs are being responded to? Or is it possible that your partner simply cannot feel empathy in the way that you do?
Expecting people to behave better is reasonable (depending on the behavior that you’re asking them to change). Expecting them to change their personality is not only unreasonable but is also the reason that many relationships fall apart.
6. Be honest with yourself. Remember what you love about your partner. Then do an inventory of what you don’t like. And then ask yourself these two questions: 1) Do the things you love make up for what is missing? and 2) Can you live with the things you don’t like?
Because while some things can and, of course, will change over time, some of the stuff that you really don’t like may always be part of the package.
Please let me know what you think, through the comment section. Unfortunately, I cannot respond to personal requests for advice over the internet. Thanks for understanding. DB
Stolorow, R. (1980). Psychoanalysis of Developmental Arrests. International Universities Press.
Cicchetti, D. (2016). Developmental Psychopathology, Maladaptation and Psychopathology, Vol. 3.
Myers, E. & Ziegler-Hill, V. (November, 2011) How much do narcissists really like themselves? Using the bogus pipeline procedure to better understand the self-esteem of narcissists. 46(1):102–105. DOI: 10.1016/j.jrp.2011.09.006