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The Many Faces of Narcissistic Abuse

One in three targets report experiencing financial abuse.

Key points

  • Narcissism is associated with grandiosity, entitlement, callousness, antagonism, and manipulativeness.
  • New research finds that people with narcissistic relatives or partners experience interpersonal dysfunction and poor mental health.
  • Many individuals in intimate relationships with narcissists also experience abuse and the imposition of troubling financial or sexual behaviors.

Narcissism refers to a personality trait characterized by grandiosity and a sense of superiority. Narcissists are often described as self-important, entitled, self-promotional, callous, antagonistic, hostile, and manipulative.

Perhaps because they appear to have high self-esteem and self-confidence, narcissists tend to be perceived positively initially. People who know them well, however, are more likely to find them unlikable.

For instance, those in romantic relationships with narcissists may complain about them being aggressive, neglectful, jealous, or exploitative. Similarly, narcissists’ relatives complain about them meddling in their affairs.

A recent study by Day et al., published in Personality and Mental Health, examines interpersonal functioning and mental health issues in people who have narcissistic relatives, narcissistic family members, and narcissistic romantic partners.

The present post examines the findings of this study.

Investigating pathological narcissism and relationship dysfunction

Sample and methods: The sample included 436 individuals (44 years of age, on average; 80% female; 45% employed full time) reporting on 436 relatives (49 years of age, on average; 22% female; 53% employed full time). The reported-on narcissistic relative was often a spouse or romantic partner (57%) or former partner (21%)—and less often, a mother (9%), father (2%), sibling (3%), child (1%), or other (6%).

The main measure was the Pathological Narcissism Inventory (the carer version), which consists of 12 items, such as “My relative finds it hard to feel good about themselves unless they know other people admire them.”

The researchers used the Wynne-Gift speech sample procedure. Specifically, participants were asked, “What is your relative like; how do you get on together?” They were encouraged to respond with as much detail as desired.

Results: Coding the responses resulted in nearly 800 theme expressions. The overarching dimensions were abusive behaviors, financial burden, unwanted sexual behaviors, and mutual idealization and devaluation. These are described below (examples in parentheses):

  • Abusive behaviors (occurring in 44% of the responses) included physical abuse (hitting, biting), sexual abuse (forced sex, lack of intimacy), verbal abuse (narcissistic rages, swearing, name-calling), and emotional abuse (withholding affection, blaming).
  • Financial burden (32%) consisted of debt (gambling problems, credit card debt, bankruptcy), stealing (stealing from their joint account, cheating on taxes), being controlling (controlling how money was spent, making all the financial decisions), dependency (being financially dependent), and irresponsibility (spending money on desired non-essentials while ignoring the essentials).
  • Unwanted sexual behavior (34%) included infidelity (having affairs), addiction (pornography, sex), selfishness (not considering the partner’s sexual needs), being demanding (demanding sex), being inappropriate (sex jokes), and withholding behavior (using sex as power).
  • Mutual idealization and devaluation (31%) usually occurred at the beginning of the relationship between the participant and their relative. Typically, the narcissistic relative was initially perceived as exceptionally appealing and, furthermore, behaved in a way that made the participant feel very special. However, this mutual idealization was eventually followed by mutual devaluation—for example, perceiving the narcissistic relative as a moody, needy, and fault-finding person.

Analysis of responses also showed that the sample had high levels of psychological symptoms—specifically, decreased personal well-being (e.g., high levels of anxiety, depression, somatic symptoms, inward hostility) and increased interpersonal difficulties (e.g., high outward hostility, dependency).

Source: Disarm/Pixabay

The many faces of narcissistic abuse

The research reviewed concluded:

Narcissistic abuse occurs not only in romantic relationships with narcissists, but also in the relationships of a narcissist with his or her parents, children, siblings, and relatives.

Narcissistic abuse is not always overt or physical (e.g., choking, strangling, rape). Sometimes the mistreatment leaves no physical marks and consists mainly of emotional or psychological abuse.

For instance, one individual noted the narcissistic person in their life “has rages which are brutally cruel, with verbal tirades that include shouting, swearing, name-calling, and using my most private vulnerabilities as a weapon to hurt me and mock me.”

Another participant said she was constantly blamed; worse yet, she was told by her narcissistic husband that if she ever left him, he “would take my children, make sure he destroyed me in court” so “I would end up with nothing because I was a useless waste of skin who could do nothing right and had no skills.”

The results also showed financial abuse is another less overt form of abuse. Participants noted the narcissists in their lives often imposed a financial burden, by doing things such as misusing their money and being irresponsible with money. One response read, “We always had money problems and debts but to the outside world we appeared very well ... Money was always borrowed or credit cards.”

Lastly, unwanted or inappropriate sexual behavior (e.g., porn addiction, infidelity, ignoring their partner’s sexual needs) is common, too. For example, a participant described her partner as an “inappropriately sexual human being,” and “constantly making gross jokes and unnecessarily telling others about his sex life.”

Not surprisingly, given the above behaviors, a large portion of the sample reported experiencing mental health issues, such as anxiety, depression, hostility, self-blame, and somatic symptoms.

Cutting ties with a narcissist

People who learn about narcissistic abuse for the first time often ask: Why don’t individuals in relationships with narcissists just leave the abusive relationship and cut the narcissistic relative or romantic partner out of their lives?

But leaving an intimate relationship is challenging, particularly when the narcissist is a family member. Breaking up with an abusive romantic partner is challenging too, given the manipulative techniques (e.g., gaslighting) narcissists use to keep their partners from leaving them.

Of course, challenging does not mean impossible. Yet, it is understandable why some people in romantic relationships with narcissists or with narcissistic family members or relatives may be reluctant to do the emotional work needed to set boundaries, break up, or cut ties.

Perhaps learning about these research findings and the costs (e.g., interpersonal dysfunction, mental illness) of these unhealthy relationships can be motivating.

If you are in a relationship with a narcissist, ask yourself:

  • What do I fear will happen if I make changes to the relationship, such as setting healthy boundaries?
  • How high of a cost am I willing to incur to not make changes to the relationship?

Facebook image: Egoitz Bengoetxea/Shutterstock

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