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How to Live With a Narcissist and Take Your Power Back

Remaining with a narcissist can require handling issues in three strategic ways.

Key points

  • Keeping yourself emotionally safe while living with a narcissist can require strategic conflict resolution.
  • Avoiding a narcissist's attempt to gaslight can be done with a specific method of responding: short, sweet, and repeat.
  • Remaining calm and thinking critically about establishing a healthy boundary, then upholding that boundary in a loving manner, is critical.

Resolving conflict with a narcissistic partner is almost impossible. Even a benign question can ignite a battle that lasts for hours and sometimes days. The narcissistic partner may deflect, project, deny, and distort, then attempt to throw a person off-topic by bringing up the person’s past mistakes. He successfully changes the argument by wielding a “below the belt” attack on his mate. Often a person who is blindsided by the narcissist’s onslaught feels intense anger. The experience of fury and frustration, although justified, makes her feel bad. Ashamed of her own intense anger, she surrenders, incorrectly believing she is the “out of control” party in the relationship. The defensive and aggressive partner wins the power struggle and sets a precedent: “Do not confront me or you will pay.”

And so it goes. A person stifles feelings and avoids addressing issues because it inevitably leads to a painful and futile dispute. The egocentric partner is unable to compromise, empathize, and understand if a person expresses a feeling or opinion that differs from his. Often a person feels alone, ashamed, and stuck as distance creeps into the relationship.

In order to restore the balance that was present in the beginning of the relationship, issues need to be resolved. When attempting to broach an issue with a highly defensive partner, a person may first try to circumvent the partner’s defensive structure by using a specific strategy. Second, a person should attempt to keep rebuttals “short, sweet, and on repeat” to avoid being gaslit and thrown off-topic. Third, the person may try to establish a clear boundary so the problem is avoided in the future.

The way a person launches a discussion may influence how it is received. A person may attempt to start the confrontation by stating something positive about the partner. For example, Rick states, “I love you Jane and I appreciate that you manage the finances.” Next, he identifies how he feels: “I am worried about the $2,000 purchase on our credit card.” Lastly, he pinpoints the issue, “That is a big purchase. What prevented you from talking it over with me before you took the plunge?” By starting with a positive statement, identifying how he feels, and then illuminating the issue, he avoids inflaming a narcissistic partner’s already rigid defense mechanisms. This style may be less confrontational than, “Why is there a $2,000 charge on our credit card!?”

Second, a person should try to appear calm and deliver a “short and sweet” rebuttal if the partner attempts to shift the blame. For example, “This is a large purchase. I am worried about going into credit card debt.” The defensive partner may attempt to exaggerate and exploit the person’s past purchases in order to turn the tables, but Rick should calmly repeat his concise response, “I don’t want us to go into debt.”

Refusing to take the bait and defend a past blunder, which was already addressed, keeps the focus on the present. Maintaining composure and simply repeating the sentiment halts the partner from redirecting accountability and evading responsibility. In the face of Jane’s escalating attack, Rick may need to continually and calmly repeat his catchphrase, “Jane, I don’t want us to go into debt.”

A narcissistic partner may up the ante and throw a major fit but a person who stays composed and refuses to engage in a debate about past mistakes may eventually regain power in the relationship. Jane may throw a temper tantrum, pout, and act out passive-aggressively, but if Rick perceives these as manipulative tactics and remains poised, he maintains his power. Eventually, Jane may get tired and stop.

After the narcissistic partner has calmed down, it may be necessary to lovingly re-state the boundary. “Jane, I love you and I trust you, but try not to purchase anything more than $500 without discussing it with me. We are in this together and we cannot go into debt. I love you.” She may or may not agree and will probably disregard the boundary, but at the very least, Ricks is heard, establishes a boundary, and has proven he cannot be unfairly provoked.

An additional defensive response by a self-centered partner is indifference. Jane may scoff at a suggestion that she did something selfish and refuse to take the issue seriously. This may incite intense anger in Rick. He may believe the issue is critical, but Jane may feel entitled to do whatever she wants in the relationship. In this case, her refusal to discuss the problem may necessitate some deep thought. Remaining calm allows a person to think critically about a solution. Rick, again, decides to bring the issue up, but is ignored. Thinking strategically, he resurrects a boundary. He decides to open a new and separate bank account for himself. When Jane discovers this, she is enraged. She angrily confronts Rick. He remains calm and attempts to employ the strategies outlined above while upholding his boundary.

A narcissistic partner may not be conscious of unconscious defense mechanisms and manipulations, but he or she may realize that attempting to evoke and provoke a significant other is not working. Additionally, the awareness that a companion is capable of resurrecting boundaries that prevent him or her from being exploited may motivate the narcissistic partner to find healthier ways to deal with conflicts in the relationship. A person may try building on this momentum and support the partner in locating a therapist who specializes in dialectical behavioral therapy (DBT).

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