- Narcissism is based on universal human needs, but some people are willing to hurt others to get these needs met.
- There are three subtypes of narcissism: grandiose, malignant, and covert.
- Once you recognize the effects of narcissistic behavior on your relationship, you'll need to protect yourself and set appropriate boundaries.
You’re at a dinner party, and your partner is dominating the conversation; when you try to break in, he smiles and casually insults you in front of everyone with a lightly demeaning comment that makes everyone else laugh. Or, you’re trying to tell your partner about the awful week you’ve been having, but she doesn’t seem to be listening … and then she interrupts you to mention something insignificant that happened to her that day. Or, you’re in the middle of an argument, and you’re feeling hurt by the critical things your partner is saying to you, so you try to stop and reset the conversation—but your partner refuses to apologize, seeming preoccupied with something you said or did. What’s going on here?
Narcissistic behaviors similar to those mentioned here can exact a heavy toll on romantic relationships. To fully understand what’s going on, the popular understanding of narcissism (a kind of heightened, but common, self-centeredness) must give way to a more nuanced take. For instance, narcissism isn’t rare, or even unusual. It’s universal: everyone has narcissistic needs, which is another way of saying that every person needs to be appreciated for their good qualities by the important people in their lives. (These normal narcissistic requirements are said to emerge in infancy—when we’re likely to interpret the world as an extension of ourselves, and as a way of meeting our biological and emotional needs. Think about it: when a baby cries, someone rushes in with a bottle or a breast; when a baby smiles, its happiness is often reflected by the smile of a caregiver.)
But clinical narcissism, or the narcissistic personality, goes far beyond the ordinary. People with prominent narcissistic needs tend to focus on their own concerns at the expense of others in their lives. Their extreme self-centeredness often masks an empty core, which they heedlessly, desperately, and sometimes even skillfully try to satisfy by seeking others’ approval. Most narcissists lack empathy, and their behavior is dominated by efforts to meet their own deep need for validation. They may hurt people with their words or their actions, but without knowing they’ve done so, as they don’t possess the empathy necessary to really feel others’ pain.
The classic narcissistic personality can be further divided into three subtypes: grandiose, malignant, and covert. Grandiose narcissists often believe they are superior to others, even to an unrealistic or irrational degree. They often assume they deserve to be the exception to the rules and assumptions that govern our interactions; they sometimes believe they can only be understood by people who are just as special as they are. Malignant narcissists, on the other hand, tend to behave in a much more hostile manner. As reported by fellow Psychology Today blogger Lisa Firestone, Ph.D., they can inflict pain on the people in their lives without a lick of remorse. They are focused on their own goals and needs, to which they feel entitled no matter who is harmed in the process. Less obvious, perhaps, than the typical malignant or grandiose narcissist is the covert narcissist, whose needs for admiration are similar to those of the other subtypes, but whose behavior is distinct: they may pursue validation in a similarly single-minded way, but often seem more introverted and less like a “big” personality. Covert narcissists strive to conceal their craving for validation beneath a more socially appropriate, less attention-getting facade.
When you first get together with someone meeting the criteria for narcissistic personality disorder, you might be overwhelmed with this person’s charm, humor, or social skills. You may see them as the “life of the party,” as Firestone says. This could create a feeling of gratitude, as though you’re lucky that they chose you as their partner. (For a while, they may also seem to perceive you this way, as well; remember, a narcissist most needs the approval of a person whom they judge to be equally exceptional.) After a while and a few minor conflicts, however, you may begin to feel manipulated by your partner. A narcissistic partner might see you in a black-and-white way, insisting that you’re either all good, or all bad. You might also notice more subtle traits like a quickness to anger, or more typical ones like delusions of grandeur. You’re quite likely, of course, to feel as though your partner disregards your feelings when making important decisions; it’s a consequence of their lack of empathy.
As your relationship develops, you are likely to feel disillusioned or even betrayed by the apparent changes in your partner. The considerate, thoughtful person who was so focused on you when your relationship began may seem to have been replaced by someone much more self-centered, who ignores the way you feel. Loneliness may set in, as you no longer feel “seen” or appreciated by someone who now seems to care only about receiving, not doling out, validation. The change in your partner might make you question yourself, too; some people in this position describe the feeling as being “gaslit.” You may feel as though your partner is feeding off your compliments, or subtly criticizing you in ways that seem to aggrandize themselves. In general, narcissistic people see their partners as extensions of themselves—much like a tool they might use to satisfy their own unfathomable needs for attention and appreciation.
Although you may have come to care about the person you now see as narcissistic, if you’re wondering what you can do next, and questioning whether you should stay in the relationship, you do have options. First, ask yourself why you are in the relationship with this person—that is, which of your characterological needs they may fulfill. Do they make your life more fun because they’re lively when you’re quiet? Do they help you feel more confident because they’re aggressive when you’re shy? More to the point, how does this person affect your sense of self-worth? Do you, too, feel bigger and more important when your partner seeks the spotlight, just because you’re connected to them? Alternately, if you get down on yourself when they criticize you, is this bad feeling consistent with your own private self-doubts?
No matter how you feel when you’re with your partner, keep in mind that you deserve to be treated like an equal. Even if their actions imply that you’re less important than they are, you don’t have to accept it. Connect with your friends or family members; use your support network to shore up your sense of yourself, and confirm your notions of what is (and is not) appropriate in a mutually respectful romantic relationship. At this time you may also want to seek psychotherapy, which is often helpful for making big decisions or navigating significant life changes. And if you do come to the point of choosing to break up with your narcissistic partner, don’t be surprised if they panic. Breaking up with a narcissist might threaten their internally fragile, or even empty, sense of self, and it could provoke them to lash out. Their last resort, as you stand up for yourself, will likely be anger; it helps them avoid feeling helpless as they confront the possibility that they will be alone with their needs. Your narcissistic partner may assume that you will always be there to make them feel appreciated, but in the end, your own psychological well-being must come first.
To find a therapist, please visit the Psychology Today Therapy Directory.
Clarke, J. (2021, October 20). Covert Narcissist: Signs, Causes, and How to Respond. Retrieved from https://www.verywellmind.com/understanding-the-covert-narcissist-4584587
Firestone, L. (N.D.). In a Relationship with a Narcissist? What You Need to Know About Narcissistic Relationships. Retrieved from https://www.psychalive.org/narcissistic-relationships/
Kassel, G. (2019, January 30). 11 Signs You’re Dating a Narcissist — and How to Get Out. Retrieved from https://www.healthline.com/health/mental-health/am-i-dating-a-narcissist
Lancer, D. (2016, March 18). Narcissistic relationships. Retrieved from https://psychcentral.com/lib/narcissistic-relationships#4
Milnes, A. (N.D.) 15 Signs You Are In a Relationship With a Narcissist (And What to Do). Retrieved from https://www.lifehack.org/823381/relationship-with-a-narcissist