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10 Signs You Are in a Relationship With a Narcissist

How to cope with the narcissist in your life.

Key points

  • The signs of a narcissistic partner may take time to fully reveal themselves.
  • With a narcissist, there is often a big difference between their talk and their actions.
  • A narcissist may use the silent treatment as a way to get power and control and to throw their partner off-kilter.

This is part 1 of a series. In Part 2, you'll learn more about narcissistic behavior and how you can cope.

Being in a relationship with a narcissist is emotionally draining and can impact your mental health. You find that you feel guilty for things that aren't really your fault. You find that what your partner told you last week is denied by them this week. In my book, Gaslighting: Recognize Manipulative and Emotionally Abusive People—and Break Free, I write about the red flags a narcissist or gaslighter gives off — and how to cope.

Keep in mind that these 10 signs of a narcissist don't appear right away; they can come on slowly. The beginning of a relationship with a narcissist is usually fast-paced and the narcissist tells you are the best thing that has ever happened to them. However, things start to change.

1. You are being isolated from your family and friends.

"Why do you need to visit your aunt? You visited her last month."
"She's still in the hospital."
"Like I said, you visited her last month."

Time you spend away from the narcissist is time that they can start to become unglued. Projection is a hallmark sign of the narcissist. If they are cheating (which is more common among narcissists than others), they will accuse you of cheating. These accusations ramp up when you go out of town or engage in an activity without them. Also, time away means less attention for them.

2. They try to pit you against others.

The narcissist will use phrases like, "Everyone knows that you aren't good to me"; "Sally said that I should just leave you, she knows what you are like"; "Harry said he'd be happy to be with me."

Keep in mind that "everyone," "Sally," and "Harry" may not have said those things. It is a way for the narcissist to gain control, make you feel "less than," and isolate you from others.

When you confront Sally and Harry, they tell you they never said anything of the sort to the narcissist. When you confront the narcissist, they say, "Of course, they told you they never said that. How stupid of you to ask."

3. The rules apply to you, not them.

They cheated — and you are expected to forgive them. If you hadn't spent so much time with the kids, the narcissist says, they would have gotten their needs met and they wouldn't have cheated. However, in a healthy relationship, a partner would communicate about not having their needs met instead of cheating. Also, you will never meet the narcissist's needs; they have a bottomless pit of needs. And if you so much as look at another person, the narcissist questions your fidelity and may resort to calling you names. (See "projection" above.)

4. You never seem good enough.

They say they cheated on you because you weren't as fun anymore. "It's your fault" is a common theme of the narcissist; they may say it directly or indirectly. When the initial "honeymoon" phase of a relationship ends (as it does in all relationships), the narcissist starts looking for ways you can improve. They may comment on your appearance, sometimes in direct ways ("That outfit looks terrible") or in indirect ways ("What's that spot on your face?").

5. You get "pay back" for defying them.

If you break the narcissist's rules, get ready for the blowback. Narcissists will let you know when they've suffered a "narcissistic injury." As with an abusive relationship, blow-ups are followed by reconciliation. However, keep in mind that when you reconcile with the narcissist, the next blowup (and it's coming) will be bigger than the last. Each time there is a blowup, emotional abuse may start ramping into verbal abuse — and then into physical abuse.

6. They are competitive to a fault.

They find out you are a good singer; they start singing in a band. You tell them that you aren't feeling well; all of a sudden they get sicker than you. They may point out that they are better than you at something, and they may say it in front of other people. They tell you they know more about therapy than your therapist. Being better than the narcissist at something is not an option for them.

Narcissists may also spend an excessive amount of time on their appearance and looking at themselves in the mirror. They will flex their muscles for no apparent reason. They want to make sure they are the most attractive person in the room.

7. They tell you others are out to get them.

Those jerky coworkers of theirs just don't know greatness when they see it; it can't possibly be that they just have reached their limit with the narcissist. It is never the narcissist's fault. Narcissists have ego-syntonic behavior: They think everyone else has the problem, not them.

8. They describe exes in unflattering or degrading terms.

When someone consistently refers to their exes as "that b****h" or talks about how exes did them wrong in all of their relationships, there's a common theme: the narcissist. Degrading terms tend to be used by the narcissist when talking about past relationships. Also, listen for any stories of past relationships in which the narcissist says it was all the ex's fault.

9. They use the silent treatment.

In a healthy relationship, people sometimes need a "time out" to collect their thoughts or calm down. In a short period of time, they are ready to connect with their partner again and/or talk things out. With "silent treatment," the narcissist just refuses to communicate. This is a way to get power and control and to throw you off-kilter. Sometimes the silent treatment occurs after the narcissist feels like you have slighted them in some way. However, they don't tell you why they're doing it, and you really have no idea what caused it.

10. Your needs are met with silence, or you just get lip service.

"Can you help me with the kids' science projects tonight? I've had a long day at work."
"Hey, did you hear me? I need your help."
"Yeah, sure, I'll do it."
Narcissist remains seated on the couch

Either your requests for help are ignored, or the narcissist tells you they will help and never follows through. Pay attention to the difference in the narcissist's talk and their actions. There's usually a big difference between them.

If you find you are in a relationship with a narcissist, seek the help of a mental health clinician for individual therapy. Narcissists can be volatile, so if you feel you or your children's safety is being compromised, contact your local domestic violence hotline or shelter.

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