When It’s All About Them: Being Involved With a Narcissist
Last month, we ran a piece about the legacy of narcissistic parents from Dr. Robin Berman, a practicing psychiatrist, Associate Professor of Psychiatry at UCLA, and author of Permission to Parent. To say that the piece resonated would not quite do it justice: It hit a nerve. And prompted many follow-up emails and questions, which primarily revolved around concern from readers that they might currently be involved with a narcissist, to debilitating effect. Below, Dr. Berman addresses the ramifications of romantic involvement with a narcissist, relationships that often kick off with so much fanfare they feel like a Disney cliché, before the fantasy fades and a darker reality emerges.
I’ve heard the story countless times. A client comes in confused, hurt, and disheartened, wondering what happened to her fairytale romance that started off with such a bang. Invariably some combination of these words come next: “Prince Charming,” “soulmate,” “man of my dreams,” “swept me off my feet,” “attentive,” “charismatic”…”so all in.”
I am a psychiatrist, not a psychic, but I can predict what comes next: The relationship spirals downward and this so-perfect-he-can’t-possibly-be-real man morphs into something else entirely. Often, something much more disturbing. He needs endless attention, yet nothing she does makes him happy. Everything she says is wrong, as he’s easily injured or angered. She starts to feel very alone in the relationship, confused, and unmoored. What’s worse, she might feel like she’s somehow to blame—that she should work even harder to please.
Often, the dynamics play out more insidiously. You talk about an issue, and your partner relates it immediately to something that happened to him; your story fades as his takes over. Or you and your partner disagree and somehow you end up second-guessing yourself, as if dissent threatens his very well-being. Any needs you communicate that aren’t in line with his may be thrown back at you as a character flaw. For instance, you tell your boyfriend you won’t be able to get together on your usual date night because of work, and his comeback is: “You’re just not available for a serious commitment right now, and I want a real relationship.” Suddenly you have a global problem and he is a victim. What a head-trip.
“Narcissists take everything so personally because underneath their grandiose bravado lurks profound self-loathing—they need to be shored up by constant external praise.”
If this all sounds familiar, perhaps you, too, are living with or dating a narcissist. The big, charming personality is typical of narcissists. Initially quite likable, they capture everyone’s attention. When they shine their light on you, it is easy to fall hard.
But that fall becomes painful when other narcissistic traits make themselves known. Narcissists are hypersensitive to any perceived critique. Feedback other than flattery feels like a slight and can trigger extreme anger. They feel deeply injured by criticism and have an excessive need for praise and admiration. Any time you express your honest feelings, you might stumble into your partner’s emotional quicksand. This is not what real love feels like.
Falling in love may put you off balance, but standing in love firmly grounds you. An absolute essential ingredient of a good relationship is emotional safety—you need to feel safe to be the real you! But it is very difficult to be yourself when you have such an emotionally volatile partner. Narcissists are often arrogant, self-important, and devoid of empathy. They are so in their own world they can’t even see you. It’s hard to stand in someone else’s shoes when you can’t see past your own. Narcissists see you not as you, but more as an extension of themselves.
To be seen and adored for who you really are, though, is the highest form of romance. I once heard that the word intimacy can be broken down into the words “IN TO ME YOU SEE.” It is so difficult for the narcissists in your life to truly see you and get you because they are focused on themselves. Their needs steamroll over yours. Talking about how you feel becomes exhausting and frustrating because they can’t truly appreciate your perspective and because you have to sugarcoat everything to not set them off.
“If he easily condemns those he previously cherished, chances are that dark light will shine on you at some point, too.”
A patient once told me this story: “When I was newly married, we saw the movie Inception. When we walked out of the theater and I said I didn’t like it, my husband flew into a rage. ‘What?! We love thought provoking movies! How could you not get that story?!’ I remember thinking ‘Who is we?’ His reaction was so full of wrath, I was scared to speak up. From that point on, more and more pieces of my true self went silent.”
This exemplifies how quickly the benign can become malignant and destroy emotional safety. Even disagreeing about what you think of a movie can trigger your partner’s disapproval or anger. Living with or dating narcissists feels like you have to tiptoe around minefields and are constantly on guard to not set them off. Narcissists take everything so personally because underneath their grandiose bravado lurks profound self-loathing—they need to be shored up by constant external praise. Their fuel is admiration, and they need you to reflect their magnificence because they truly don’t feel it themselves. Being that perfect, flattering mirror is depleting, and after awhile, your needs become enmeshed with theirs. You lose sight of where they end and you start. You become so busy shoring up the narcissist that you have nothing left for yourself. You tend to disappear.
Meanwhile, as you are doing all that work to build up your partner, he or she may be busy tearing others down. The classic example comes from Snow White and the narcissistic Evil Queen. Maleficent needs constant reassurance from her Magic Mirror that she, indeed, is the fairest of them all. But once Snow White comes into the picture, Maleficent feels threatened by the competition and sets out to destroy her.
“You may hold onto the fantasy that if you shore them up enough, they will eventually get around to taking care of you, too. Unfortunately, more often than not, this won’t be the case.”
In real life, narcissists need to cut down others to build themselves up. Even when you are in the glow of a new relationship, and the charm offensive is blindingly bright, watch for clues that all may not be well. If he needs to criticize others to show how grand he is by comparison, he will likely do the same to you. Besides noticing how he treats the people around him, look at his history. Is it filled with long-term friendships or littered with relationships—romantic or business—in which he has inevitably been wronged? If he easily condemns those he previously cherished, chances are that dark light will shine on you at some point, too. The narcissist who keeps himself elevated by putting down others eventually might become competitive even with you.
Narcissists hoard attention, interrupt conversations so that they can steer it back to themselves, and are more concerned with their feelings than anyone else’s. Their theme song is, “Enough about me, let’s get back to me.” If you are living with a full-fledged narcissist, you know first-hand how this can interfere with their ability to relate to you and to your kids.
“My marriage was great before we had kids. I knew that my husband needed a lot of attention, but I never realized how much, until I stopped giving it to him in the usual doses, because I was so busy caring for our baby. I could no longer be so focused on him. Our relationship got ugly fast.”
Before having children you had more energy to attend to the narcissist. Some narcissists feel threatened and jealous of the attention that you devote to your kids; other narcissists use their children to feed their ego; and others are so preoccupied with themselves that they completely neglect their kids. Of course, all of these are detrimental for a child.
“The journey to discovering your authentic self requires you to get painfully honest to work through your distressing feelings.”
Disagreeing with a narcissist or working through issues is extremely difficult. In addition to their inability to see your point of view, they cannot own their stuff. Their extreme defensiveness shuts down their ability to learn, and that impinges on your ability to grow as a couple. Narcissists simply do not make good partners.
You may hold on to the fantasy that if you shore them up enough, they will eventually get around to taking care of you, too. Unfortunately, more often than not, this won’t be the case. But if part of life’s journey is knowing yourself, the narcissist in your life can be a great teacher. The journey to discovering your authentic self requires you to get painfully honest to work through your distressing feelings. Here are some questions that can lead you to clarity and help you figure out whether you just need more tools to cope, or you really need to extricate yourself.
Why did you pick him or her? Does she remind you of the way you were loved by one or both parents? Have you just unknowingly repeated the scene of the original crime—your own childhood? Or are you trying, with your partner, to have a happier ending than you did with your parents?
Are you depressed? Swallowing anger and hiding your real self can lead to depression.
Are you exhausted from tap dancing around someone’s fragility? Do your constant attempts to please him require a hyper-vigilance that is draining? Are you working to hide your partner’s volatility and fragile ego from your kids and your friends?
Are you seeing things as they are, or are you making constant excuses? Try to get an honest picture of what’s going on. Don’t skew the data.
Do you feel like your needs are constantly overshadowed in spite of all of your efforts to communicate them? Have things gotten so bad that you’ve stopped trying to communicate them because it feels pointless? Or is there safe space for your feelings?
Are you being gaslighted? Narcissists have a tendency to deny things they said, or claim they said something else. They rewrite history. They are unaware of the impact they are having on you or others. This is crazy-making. Beware of this distortion and don’t buy into it.
Does your partner have a history of healthy, intimate relationships? Or is there a long-standing pattern of unstable relationships, whether romantic, friendly, or professional? History doesn’t lie, so pay attention to it.
How do you feel when you are with your partner: Separate and whole, or enmeshed and sucked in to their drama? Does being around your partner make you feel peaceful or on edge?
Since living with or dating a narcissist, do you feel like you are a better version of yourself? Take a moment to compare how you feel about yourself before you met your partner, and now.
Is this relationship worth saving? Be honest, how extreme is your partner’s narcissism—is it just a few traits, or is it more encompassing? Full-blown narcissism (see chart below) is hard to live with. A few traits can be manageable. If you choose to work on the relationship, know that at any time, the healthiest choice may be to leave.
In assessing the extent of the problem, be cautious when you see hints of a more evolved partner. Recognize whether these moments are fleeting or a bigger piece of the picture. Don’t make too much of the glimpses of improvement. Manage your expectations. The narcissist in your partner likely will not disappear. Unless there is consistent growth, decide if a sporadic connection is enough to sustain you.
B. SET PARAMETERS FOR STAYING
If you decide to stay in the relationship, both of you must recognize the problem and the role each of you plays in perpetuating it. Also, and this is crucial, he must commit to getting professional help in working to change his behavior. In a therapist’s office, as time makes him feel safe, he can get underneath the mask of grandiosity and access his true feelings. Then, ultimately, he can learn to replace the harsh self-critique with self-compassion, which is where real healing takes place.
If your partner is a full-blown narcissist and doesn’t want to get help or work on it, this should be a deal breaker. If you’re married to a narcissist, realize that you can’t fix him. No matter how much you try, his actual healing is going to have to come from within. No amount of external shoring up will ever be enough. Don’t make fixing a narcissist your life’s work. You have a different journey, one that is more inspired than repairing your partner.
* If you’re dating someone you suspect is a narcissist, tread carefully. What makes a great date may not make a great mate.
* If the narcissist in your life is getting help, remember it may be two steps forward and one step back. Give yourself a deadline so that years don’t elapse, leaving you in a perpetually dysfunctional relationship.
* Although it is likely your narcissistic partner loves you in his own way and does give you something—for instance, he makes life exciting, he’s vivacious and flattering—in the end, his own limitations may prevent him from consistently giving you the love you need. It may be 10% his affirming you in exchange for 90% you affirming him.
C. TAKE CARE OF YOURSELF
If progress is being made, you need to take care of you. Shore yourself up with a strong support network. Make sure that you have close friends that you feel safe enough with to share your truth—great girlfriends, a good therapist, a spiritual leader. Don’t screen the story; share it unfiltered. Speaking the truth is quite liberating.
* Learn to notice and take care of your needs, maybe for the first time.
* Set boundaries clearly, calmly, and firmly. Know where you begin and where he ends. Start small. It’s OK to not like the same movies. You don’t need to change your opinions to placate him. You may take flack for standing up for yourself. Don your invisible armor so that if he overreacts, you’re clear that it’s about him, not you.
* Work through your own anger to have empathy for the narcissist in your life. He never got what he needed, and his self-hatred is much greater than his self-love, even though it appears to be the opposite. Have massive amounts of empathy for yourself and compassion for your partner. And know that understanding him doesn’t have to mean staying in the relationship.
* Listen to your intuition, that deep place of knowing. You deserve to be happy, free, and at peace. You deserve safe and unconditional love!
What’s Your Real Love Story?
When it comes to romance, listen to your head and your heart. In healthy partnerships, both vital organs are aligned. Good relationships free your true spirit. They allow you to exhale with ease into feeling safe and cherished. To quote one of my dearest friends, a good partnership is an “elevator.” It brings out your best self. It does not force you to bury parts of yourself. You want a partnership in which you can not only fall in love, but then stand and ultimately grow in love.
Now that is what I call happily ever after.
Robin Berman, MD, is an Associate Professor of Psychiatry at UCLA and author of “Permission to Parent: How to Raise Your Child with Love and Limits.”
From the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition, 2013