Narcissistic personality disorder in romantic relationships

Narcissistic personality disorder in romantic relationships

Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD) is a maladaptive behavioral pattern characterized mainly by both superiority and grandiosity feelings, together with an excessive need for admiration and a significant lack of empathy towards others. When an individual with this behavioral and personality pattern enters into a romantic relationship, it undeniably affects its dynamics.

How does a narcissist behave in romantic relationships?

In general, five traits that an individual with this diagnosis may exhibit within their romantic relationship can be identified:

  • Need for admiration: These individuals crave constant admiration and seek validation from their partners. They expect their partners to consistently praise them and highlight their achievements.
  • Lack of empathy: Empathy is a crucial ingredient within a healthy relationship, but individuals with NPD often lack it. They demonstrate difficulties, and even an inability, to understand the both their partners’ emotions and needs. In effect, they prioritize themselves above all.
  • Manipulation: They may choose manipulation as the primary means to get what they want in the relationship at any cost. Emotional blackmail is often used to keep abuse of power.
  • Competitiveness: They tend to have a need to stand out and play a leading role. They enjoy frequently being the center of attention. In fact, they do not tolerate it well if this does not happen. This can lead to competitiveness within the relationship, resulting in the exhaustion and depletion of their partner.
  • Idealization and devaluation: Narcissistic individuals show a tendency to idealize their partners at the beginning of the relationship. However, if their partner fails to meet their expectations, they often devalue them quickly.

What does a narcissistic person seek in their partner?

The priority of an individual with NPD is to fulfill their own needs and desires in the relationship, even at the expense of their partner’s well-being.

Considering the previous section, narcissistic individuals are in search of a partner who satisfies their need for admiration while reinforcing their sense (or complex) of superiority. Indeed, it can be pleasurable for them to make their partner feel inferior while praising their own attributes above those of their life companion.

Another criterion in their partner selection is based on material and/or economic interests beyond romantic or emotional intentions. In other words, they might choose someone as a partner just because they are provided these benefits.

Moreover, they tend not to acknowledge their mistakes but rather by criticizing and magnifying the flaws of others. Additionally, they try to impose their rules and interests even if it means disregarding the rights of their partner.

How to detect if your partner is a narcissist?

Identifying a person with NPD  at the beginning of a romantic relationship can be a significant challenge, as they often exhibit great charisma. However, based on the discussed narcissistic behaviors in romantic relationships, we can define some warning signs:

  • Lack of both empathy and emotional responsibility: A lack of empathy, understanding, and an inability to put themselves in their partner’s shoes could be a decisive indicator. Without empathy, emotional responsibility cannot exist; in other words, the narcissistic person will not recognize that their actions directly affect and compromise their partner’s emotions.
  • Constant need for admiration and manipulative behavior: While it is natural to seek validation from our partner, it becomes a cause for concern if your partner constantly seeks praise and validation at the expense of your needs; especially if he/she employs manipulative behaviors when expectations are not met or as a strategy to exert control over you. Narcissistic abuse often goes unnoticed because it tends to be emotional in nature, such as covert devaluation and disdain.
  • Egocentric nature: If your partner consistently positions themselves as the “main character”, showing little or no interest in your concerns, together with the above signs, it could be an indicator of narcissism within the relationship.
  • Abrupt attitude changes: This refers to the tendency to easily shift from idealizing the partner to devaluing them without any apparent reason.

At this point, it’s important to highlight the presence of “love bombing” as a seduction and manipulation strategy. During the idealization phase, there are exaggerated displays of love, compliments, attention, and even excessive gifts at the beginning of the relationship to control the other person and also to create a dependent relationship.

After a short time, the person with narcissistic traits begins to show a different side and devalue their partner. They no longer appear as the charming and excessively attentive person we knew at the beginning but as someone hostile who openly criticizes and punishes their partner if they do not meet expectations. Consequently, compliments, gifts, and displays of love shift from intense to nonexistent. Given that a high level of emotional dependence has typically developed by this phase, breaking the relationship becomes very challenging because the partner harbors hope of regaining the initial love of the narcissistic person and they may even blame themselves for having “lost” it, potentially normalizing being disrespected and mistreated.

For a better understanding and further exploration of this topic, you may find it useful to read various sections of our blog on other personality disorders, gaslighting, and emotional dependency.

How to deal with Narcissistic Personality Disorder in a relationship?

Determining how to handle NPD within a romantic relationship is complex due to a blurred line in terms of awareness (both of their actions and the harmful behavioral and personality patterns towards others). Indeed, if someone lacks awareness of what they do and how it affects the people they interact with, it becomes challenging for them to take responsibility and modify their way of interaction. However, it is believed that the narcissistic person does possess this kind of awareness although he/she refuses to acknowledge it because it contradicts their grandiosity pattern.

Nevertheless, with effort, patience, and understanding, it is possible to improve the dynamics of the relationship with a narcissist. The following are some guidelines that can be useful for addressing narcissism in a relationship:

Looking for information and understanding:

Gathering information about narcissistic personality in the partner is the initial step to address it. Once the behavioral and thinking patterns of narcissistic are known and understood, dealing with them becomes more manageable.

Promoting open Communication and empathy:

Working on honest and open communication alongside empathy is essential for any relationship but becomes indispensable if one of the partners has a narcissistic personality. Encouraging the narcissistic person to express their feelings and thoughts is recommended to reduce hostility and potential confrontation. However, the partner should also feel confident expressing their needs and desires without fearing possible punishment from the narcissist.

Establishing boundaries:

It is necessary to define your own limits, what you can accept, and what you are not willing to tolerate (e.g., manipulative behaviors). Once your boundaries are defined, communicate them to your partner with respect and empathy, even if they may not have the ability to do the same. This could help prevent narcissistic manipulation and abuse in the relationship.

Prioritizing self-care and support networks:

It is crucial to take care of your own emotional well-being through self-care behaviors and keep social support networks (friends and/or family) outside the relationship to address and set boundaries for the exhausting demands of narcissism in the romantic relationship.

Assessing the relationship:

It is necessary to consider the possibility of ending the relationship if your mental and emotional health is severely compromised.

These five points are often addressed in therapy, both individual and couples therapy. Couples therapy, in particular, is a highly effective tool for dealing with narcissism. In therapy, a safe environment is provided to work on empathy and communication within the relationship, to define boundaries, to identify destructive behavior patterns, and to provide guidance on addressing them.

In summary, dealing with narcissism within a relationship usually requires time and commitment, as long as the narcissistic person is willing to seek support and shows a willingness to improve the relationship. In this scenario, it is especially important to learn to identify signs of narcissism in a romantic relationship.

If, after reading this article, you feel identified or you are involved in a relationship that you find difficult to manage, do not hesitate to contact us.

Bibliographic references

Day, N.J.S., Townsend, M.L. & Grenyer, B.F.S. (2022). Living with pathological narcissism: core conflictual relational themes within intimate relationships. BMC Psychiatry 22, 30.
Janusz, B., Bergmann, J.R., Matusiak, F. & Peräkylä, A. (2021). Practices of claiming control and independence in couple therapy with narcissism. Front. Psychol. 11.
Ronningstam, E. & Weinberg, I. (2023). Narcissistic personality disorder: patterns, processes, and indicators of change in long-term psychotherapy. Journal of Personality Disorders, 37 (3).

Laura N. Roza Amengual
Psychologist B-02389