When we look at the behavior of the narcissist in the context of an intimate relationship, we see the devastating effect, an effect often unbeknownst to both of them. The narcissist, by nature, behaves in ways that meet the criteria for emotional and psychological abuse: a behavior sometimes labeled narcissistic abuse. To recover from the mistreatment of a narcissist, a partner needs to heal. That process begins with recognizing hurtful behaviors and identifying the injuries they cause to those they proclaim to love.
Narcissists are often described as self-absorbed and preoccupied with their own feelings and interests. They expect others to glorify them with positive attention. They feel entitled to have things their way and they believe they are superior and all-knowing. They lack empathy for others and they decline to take responsibility for their behavior.
Use of Deception
Across the board, clients who have narcissistic partners feel they have been duped after time spent in a relationship. The original presentation of the person they have fallen for does not hold up. In fact, the majority claim that once they have reached a commitment of either living together or marriage, their “loving partner” changes. What they start to experience is tension and conflict, as their partner asserts the need to have things their way, and over time shows less interest and care in their thoughts and feelings unless it serves them.
The following traits powerfully influence the narcissist’s interactions with their intimate partner who, in time, experiences a decline in their emotional well-being.
Lack of empathy. Showing no empathy for others is probably the flagship quality of a narcissist. Many of the narcissist’s interactions (as listed below) are meant to deceive a partner without remorse. In fact, however, a person who has the capacity for empathy would not behave without empathy toward someone he/she cares about.
Claims to be superior/knows the truth. To uphold the belief of being superior, narcissists expect their partner to agree and see them as all-knowing. Any ideas or opinions that don’t mirror what the narcissist needs or expects to hear can bring on displays of demeaning, discounting, and even intimidating reactions toward the partner.
If the narcissist does not react in the moment, the partner may learn to fear payback later. The partner realizes that the resulting grief they get for speaking up to the narcissist is too great to endure. They keep their thoughts to themselves. Eventually, they’re at risk of losing touch with their feelings, opinions, and sense of self.
Entitled to have things their way. The narcissist feels entitled to take control within the relationship by making the important decisions, having the final say, and not seek their partner’s input. The partner is seen as less of a separate person and more as an extension of the narcissist. The partner’s strengths are not seen as holding value unless they help the narcissist. When they don’t, the partner’s strengths become threats that need to be diminished and undermined via degrading critical attacks.
Never takes responsibility or apologizes. Narcissists avoid taking responsibility for their behavior at all costs and never feel the need to genuinely apologize. Distorting and denying the truth and lying serve the narcissist’s avoidance of responsibility. The narcissists spin a story or may rewrite reality to implicate their partner even for things that the partner could never have realistically done.
The narcissist’s partners can gradually lose trust in their own perception of reality. In time, they can internalize the blaming accusations, albeit false, into negative beliefs about themselves. Due to their resultant lowered self-esteem, the partner is more vulnerable to assuming blame for the problems in the relationship and letting the narcissist off the hook.
What to Do if You’re Partnered With a Narcissist?
Although not easily accomplished, some narcissists can change. The first place to focus on change is not with the narcissist, but the partner. First, the partner of the narcissist needs to heal from the hurt of the narcissistic abuse and develop the emotional strength to stand firm and address their concerns with the narcissistic partner. Without this step, the narcissist will continue to hurt and exploit their partner.
Recovery work helps partners to move out of confusion to clarity about their experience. It also helps partners to develop trust again in their perception and judgment and to embrace their positive qualities with a return of self-confidence. From this place of strength, partners can feel empowered to hold the narcissist accountable for their behavior.
Once faced with the risk of losing a partner or family, the narcissist might feel an incentive to work at changing. Help on two fronts is important and necessary for narcissists: (1) They are helped when the partner is clear about expectations and consistently follows through with repercussions for hurtful behavior. Leverage of this sort has proven helpful to the narcissist in staying committed to improving their attributes and behavior. (2) At the same time, the narcissist will benefit the most by participating in therapy or some type of help outside the relationship.
Behary, W. T. 2013. Disarming the Narcissist: Surviving and Thriving with the Self-Absorbed. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications, Inc.