I am often asked some version of this question: “I am living with a narcissist and I don’t want to leave. What do I need to know to make this relationship as good as possible?” Most of the people who ask me this question already know that the standard advice is “just leave.” They have already made up their mind to give the relationship a try anyway. They may be in love. They may have children together. Their religious beliefs may encourage them to stay with their mate and do everything possible to make the relationship a success.
I have written this article for those of you who do not want to leave until you have tried everything possible. Here are the basics of what you need to know about being in a relationship with a mate who has narcissistic personality disorder.
Note: I am using the term “narcissist” here as a shorthand way to describe people who have made a narcissistic adaptation to a childhood home situation. No disrespect is intended. The word narcissism describes a pattern of thinking and behaving, not a person.
If you are in a relationship with a narcissist, things will go smoother if you know three basic things:
- What being with a narcissist really means
- What is realistically possible and what is not
- Where your boundaries are
(1) WHAT BEING WITH A NARCISSIST REALLY MEANS
- Narcissists are focused on self-esteem enhancement
The main goal in life of most people with narcissistic personality disorder (or adaptations, as I prefer to call them) is self-esteem enhancement. Narcissism can be conceptualized as a self-esteem regulation disorder in which narcissists are perpetually insecure about their status. They may appear highly confident to you, but there is always a lurking doubt about their self-worth underneath the confident façade.
In essence, this means that self-esteem enhancement is ultimately more important to them than you can ever be. When their self-esteem dips, narcissists only have two choices:
- Go into a shame-based, self-hating depression.
- Become grandiose and insist that they are special, perfect, and omnipotent—while devaluing other people as inferior to them.
Naturally, they choose the latter. As the closest person to them, they are likely to devalue you in order to feel more important again. A wise woman once told me, “When they feel fat, they complain about your weight.”
- Narcissists lack emotional empathy
A lack of emotional empathy means that narcissists do not feel bad when they hurt you. They may not even notice your reaction. If they do, they are highly unlikely to care. If you complain, they will deny responsibility—“You are too sensitive.” Or they will blame you—“If you weren’t so stupid, I wouldn’t have to correct you so often.”
This means that it is highly likely that during the relationship, they will repeatedly hurt your feelings, both accidentally and on purpose. You need to be prepared for this as it is an inevitable and inescapable part of being in a relationship with a narcissist.
- Narcissists lack the capacity to see themselves and other people realistically
Narcissists lack “whole object relations”: “Whole object relations” is the capacity to simultaneously see both the good and bad qualities of a person and accept that both exist. This capacity is normally developed during early childhood through copying your parents and, most importantly, through being seen realistically and accepted and loved for who you are by your parents, despite your imperfections. This capacity can be acquired later if the person with NPD is sufficiently motivated and has appropriate psychotherapy.
Without “whole object relations,” narcissists alternate between two extreme views of themselves and other people: either they are:
- Special, perfect, omnipotent, and entitled (all-good), or
- Unworthy, flawed, defective garbage (all-bad).
What this means for you, their mate, is that they cannot see you in a realistic and stable manner. You, too, are either “special” or “worthless.” Narcissists can quickly switch back and forth between these two alternative views of you depending on how they feel in the moment.
This has little or nothing to do with you. Early in the relationship, they are likely to see you as perfect, flawless, and special (all-good). Then, as they get to know you and begin to see the imperfections that we all have and the ways that you differ from their ideal fantasy mate, they are likely to switch to seeing you as irredeemably flawed (all-bad).
Happiness is temporary: This lack of “whole object relations” plays itself out during the relationship on a moment-to-moment basis. This makes any happiness that the two of you ever feel together temporary and fragile. It is vulnerable to being disrupted unexpectedly because narcissists are so hypersensitive and unable to maintain a stable, positive image of you when they feel angry, hurt, disappointed, or frustrated by you.
Narcissists lack “object constancy:” In essence, this means that the moment that your narcissistic mate feels something negative, it disrupts the positive connection between you, and everything positive flies out the window. Your whole positive history with them and everything nice that you have ever done for them is now totally out of their awareness. You are left wondering how this can happen: one minute your mate is totally loving and the two of you are so happy, the next minute your mate hates you.
The answer is that the lack of “object constancy” is a consequence of not having “whole object relations.”
Remember, if they cannot simultaneously see you as having both liked and disliked traits and behaviors and accept you as a whole person, they can only switch back and forth between loving and hating you. This switch is totally dependent on which aspect of you or which of your behaviors, the liked or the disliked, is foreground in the moment. Think of this like a camera that can only see what is immediately in front of it in the present. The past does not exist for a camera.
Example—Rosie and Al watching television
Rosie and Al were sitting on the sofa watching their favorite television show. They were happy and cuddling. Rosie got up to go to the kitchen for something and Al felt annoyed about her leaving. He thought: “How dare she interrupt our television watching like that. She can’t really care very much for how I feel if she just gets up and leaves!” Al became more and more annoyed as he thought about it. By the time Rosie returned, he was furious and wanted to punish her. All the good feelings he had experienced a few minutes before were gone.
Rosie (still feeling all the warm feelings about Al) returned and sat back down next to him expecting to pick up where they left off. Instead, Al angrily said: “How dare you leave like that! You are so inconsiderate. Don’t you care at all about how I feel?” Needless to say, the rest of the evening did not go well and by bedtime, they were no longer speaking to each other.
If you are going to be in a relationship with a narcissist, you need to prepare yourself for situations like the above. They are inevitable. Because you and your narcissistic mate are two different people with vastly different sets of sensitivities, some comment or behavior that you see as innocuous may suddenly trigger your narcissistic mate’s underlying insecurity. Now the good feelings disappear and he or she hates you and starts angrily devaluing you. It can be quite a shock to anyone normal. Ten minutes ago everything was fine, but now you find yourself in the middle of a nasty fight defending yourself against a host of unfair accusations. This leads us directly into my next point that you need to know.
(2) WHAT IS REALISTICALLY POSSIBLE AND WHAT IS NOT
- Narcissists can never accept blame
Because narcissists see only two choices, they are either perfect or worthless, they are rarely willing to accept any responsibility for what they do wrong. They view accepting blame as admitting that they are flawed and worthless. If they do that, their self-esteem plummets and they are extremely vulnerable to self-hatred. They also unconsciously expect you to despise them and make them feel even worse.
Post-fight reality: The next morning Al woke up in a better mood and went to give Rosie a hug. He was shocked when she rejected his physical advances. “What’s the matter with her?” he wondered. Of course, last night’s fight was totally out of his consciousness because now he felt good. Rosie, however, blamed him for starting an unnecessary and ridiculous fight that had ruined their evening and said so.
Rosie wanted Al to take responsibility for the fight. Al, being a narcissist interpreted this as Rosie wanting him to feel humiliated, and instead of accepting his share of the blame, he shifted total responsibility for the fight to her. “If you hadn’t suddenly decided to get up and leave, everything would have been fine.” Now they were back fighting again.
- Narcissists do not apologize
Because narcissists find it too humiliating to accept blame, they are unlikely to ever be willing to apologize—even when they clearly know that they were wrong. It is therefore highly unrealistic to expect a narcissistic mate to apologize.
The reparative gesture: Narcissists will often later make sweet little gestures that are their equivalent to an apology, like buying you a present or letting you pick where to go out to dinner. If you want the relationship to continue on a better note, accept their reparative gesture without demanding an apology.
Al’s gift to Rosie: On some level, Al knew he had contributed to their fight and had overreacted to Rosie’s behavior. He decided to buy her a pretty gold bracelet that he knew she would like. That night over dinner, he took out the box with the bracelet and said, “Here, I saw this and thought of you.” Rosie fussed over the gift, immediately kissed and thanked Al and never mentioned the fight again. She understood that the gift was the apology that he was unable to put into words and that it was now time to move on.
Rosie also had a comforting thought that she did not share with Al: “I think that, given how things have been going, I am going to get a lot of jewelry in this relationship and very few apologies. I will have to remind myself of that when he starts our next fight.”
- Pick your battles
You need to be prepared to let minor, unintended insults go. It is best to carefully pick your battles. If you tell your narcissistic mate every single time he or she hurts your feelings, the relationship will sour, you will find yourself in a continuous state of war, and nothing will be gained. Save those fights for serious and intentional insults that cross certain boundaries that you are prepared to defend by leaving the relationship. And, you must be prepared to leave the relationship, if your narcissist refuses to respect those boundaries. Most narcissists will say and do anything that they feel like if you let them.
- Narcissists are unwilling to process past fights
After a fight with your mate, you may want to go back and discuss what went wrong and how to do it better next time. Narcissists will usually refuse to do this because it feels as if you are rubbing their nose in their past mistakes.
Use “we” language: It will work better if you use “we” language and talk about how the two of you want things to go forward in the future.
Example: “I know we both love each other and want things to go well. I think that we can both agree that in the future we both need to be extra kind to each other and a bit more mindful about how we phrase things.”
(3) DECIDE WHERE YOUR BOUNDARIES ARE AND DEFEND THEM
- Narcissists do not respect (or even notice) other people's boundaries
This means that you need to be clear about what sort of narcissistic bad behavior is tolerable and which is intolerable. Left to their own devices, narcissists will cross most lines that other people automatically respect.
For example, many narcissists think nothing about criticizing your taste in clothes, your relatives, or your most dearly held beliefs. Many will hit below the belt (what belt?) in a fight and say ugly and disgusting things to you and afterward act as if nothing happened.
Example—Betty and David and cheating
Betty’s boyfriend David found evidence that while he was away on a trip, she had reconnected with an old boyfriend. When he confronted her, she said, “You are a fat, ugly pig. I am doing you a favor by having sex with you. You should be grateful and shut up!”
Betty was surprised when David said that she had crossed a boundary and that he never wanted to see her again. When she realized that he meant it, she begged him to stay and give her another chance.
Betty really liked David and was only reflexively repeating with him the way her mother had talked to her father. It had not occurred to her that she was crossing a boundary and that David would take her words seriously and leave her. In her mind the words meant nothing and she was just punishing David for confronting her with the evidence of her cheating on him.
- Some narcissists do not mind creating humiliating public scenes
This can range from them angrily insisting that the two of you get up and leave a restaurant because they feel the service is insultingly slow, even though you are perfectly happy staying, to them yelling at you on the street and walking away from you.
You need to decide if this is something you can live with at all and, if so, where the line is for you. Any narcissist who does this once is likely to do this repeatedly. It is part of how they cope with what they perceive to be insults to their self-esteem.
Example—Patty and Chad on a date
Patty was beautiful and knew it. She also was highly narcissistic and felt entitled to do and say whatever she wanted whenever she wanted. She had learned that most men were grateful for her company and the opportunity to perhaps have sex with her at the end of the evening.
Chad was out on a first date with Patty. When she got insulted at something he said, Patty got up and walked away from him and left him sitting in the restaurant by himself. She expected him to race after her apologizing and begging her to come back. Instead, Chad stayed seated and ordered a drink. Then he texted Patty and said: “I didn’t mean to insult you. Let’s start over. Why not come back and enjoy the meal with me and see where this takes us.”
Patty chose to accept his apology, and came back to the table (in reality she had not gone far) and they proceeded to have a lovely evening. Both pretended nothing had happened and just moved on.
Chad had earned Patty’s respect by not chasing after her and also by the calm and clever way he had handled her bad behavior.
For Chad, the boundary was clear. He had done as much as he was willing to do. If Patty had not come back, or had continued to berate him, he would have ended the relationship then and there.
- Verbal abuse may escalate to physical abuse
If you do not draw any boundaries around verbal abuse, your mate may escalate to abusing you physically. Unless you are a masochist and enjoy being beaten, I suggest you stop them right at the beginning. It may start somewhat innocuously, but then it will quickly escalate if you allow any form of physical abuse to continue.
Example—Netta and Harry at dinner
Netta and Harry had been married for a year when he progressed from yelling at her when he was angry to grabbing her arm. Netta told herself he was just overwrought and had not really hurt her so she let it go.
The next time it happened, they were out to dinner with another couple and Harry took offense at something Netta said and kicked her hard under the table. She loudly said, “Ouch, stop that!” Embarrassed, Harry scowled at her for the rest of the evening and barely spoke. It was a very tense dinner with the other couple and Netta talking and trying to pretend that everything was normal.
When Harry and Netta got home, he started yelling at her. In his mind, he was the victim. “Don’t you ever do that to me again in front of anybody or I will really hurt you.”
Netta finally realized that a real boundary was being crossed. She also realized that she had better take a stand or her marriage would quickly become a living hell.
She said: “Harry, I love you and I want to make our marriage work. You need to know that it is never acceptable for you to ever lay a hand on me again. I don’t care how mad you are. I am always willing to discuss it with you and I will apologize if I am wrong.”
Harry tried to make excuses and blame her for everything. Netta persisted until she got him to agree that he would never lay a hand on her again or threaten her with physical violence. Harry realized Netta was serious and if he did not want her to divorce him, he had better be more careful about how he treated her.
Of course, being a narcissist, Harry “forgot” once or twice and had to be reminded by Netta where the boundary was. But Netta did keep the boundary very clear and Harry accepted that he had to keep well within it.
Punchline: It is never easy to be in a relationship with a narcissist. It will, however, go smoother if you educate yourself about what you can realistically expect, learn a few “tips” about how to deal with narcissistic bad behavior, and clearly decide where your boundaries are and are prepared to defend them.
This article is an expanded version of my answer to a Quora post: “What is the best way to deal with a Narcissistic in a relationship (10/21/17)