I Need Out of This Relationship, NOW! Part 2: Narcissistic Personality Disorder in Relationships

What do Gilderoy Lockhart, Gregory Anton, Miranda Priestly, and Patrick Bateman all have in common? They are all fictional characters with narcissistic traits. Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD) is part of the Cluster B Personality Disorders in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders 5th Edition. Other Cluster B Personality Disorders include Antisocial Personality Disorder, Borderline Personality Disorder, and Histrionic Personality Disorder. According to clinical psychologist Dr. Craig Malkin, “a personality disorder is a pervasive disturbance in a person’s ability to manage his or her emotions, hold onto a stable sense of self and identity, and maintain healthy relationships in work, friendship, and love. It’s a matter of rigidity.”

Diagnostic Information. According to the Mayo Clinic, NPD “is a mental condition in which people have an inflated sense of their importance, a deep need for excessive attention and admiration, troubled relationships, and a lack of empathy for others. However, behind this mask of extreme confidence lies a fragile self-esteem that is vulnerable to the slightest criticism. Narcissistic personality disorder causes problems in many areas of life, such as relationships, work, school, or financial affairs. People with a narcissistic personality disorder may be generally unhappy and disappointed when they are not catered to and given the special favors or admiration they believe they deserve. They may find their relationships unfulfilling, and others may not enjoy being around them.” The individual “is preoccupied with fantasies of unlimited success, power, brilliance, beauty, or ideal love.”

A tool that can be used to measure the narcissistic trait is the Narcissistic Personality Inventory (NPI). This questionnaire can help to determine if an individual has a healthy level of narcissism, or if the characteristics they are displaying are more of a pathological nature. If you were to take the test and scored above 30, it would be beneficial for you to seek help from trained professionals. As with any other mental health diagnosis, people with features of NPD must also have a disruption in their daily functioning to qualify for the diagnosis. For example, a person may be worried at times, though not meet criteria for Generalized Anxiety Disorder.

Childhood roots. Parents typically want what is best for their children. They want them to do the best they can and excel. What happens, though, when a parent tells their child, they are great, when in actuality they are average? Giving your child false confidence in their abilities is a two-fold problem in that the parent wants so badly to be the parent of an extraordinary child and then the child begins to think that they are the best at everything and thus establishes a superiority complex for themselves. The child now feels that they are the smartest, the fastest, the most talented among their peers. When this ideology is cultivated and nurtured at home by one or more parents, it begins to become true to the child. 

According to many scholars, individuals who grow up to develop NPD as adults were likely neglected as children, which in turn makes it nearly impossible to form healthy attachments that ensure the child feels cared for and loved. Their parents perhaps saw these children as a method of meeting their own needs, meaning that the parent is concerned only with getting something out of the relationship with their child that they are not able to form a healthy attachment to their child. Using a child to meet one’s own needs is not an example of unconditional love. Children’s brains are resilient; therefore, they can adapt to their environments. When a parent expects greatness from their child, the child then does their best to meet these expectations for the small chance that their parent will be proud of them if they do well enough. 

Love is conditional. If the child is not the best at everything, they are a disappointment to their parent(s). Even if the child does their absolute best, the parent will not accept them unless they are the best. These parents do not concern themselves with what the child wants, but rather what will make them look best to their colleagues, friends, and the rest of society. Being raised believing that love is a condition to be met sets the stage for the rest of the child’s life and will end up with the child confusing achievement with happiness and love.

The unruly child. If the child is continuously put down and devalued because they cannot meet their parent’s unrealistic expectations, they will typically begin to rebel. When there is more than one child in the household, there may be an identified “good” child and a “bad” child. The “bad” child is often belittled and devalued as a member of the household because they cannot live up to and meet their parents’ expectations. According to Dr. Elinor Greensberg, Ph.D., CGP, children will typically end up one of three ways: defeated, rebellious, or angry. 

  • The defeated child will give up. Since the child understands that they are nothing and have no potential, they will not try to achieve anything. These children are likely to turn to drugs, alcohol, gambling, or other addictions to manage the shame and self-hate that they experience. 
  • The rebellious child will do everything in their power to prove their parents and the world that they are distinct. They show that they are unique and superior in everything they do. Being the best becomes their lifelong goal, to achieve greatness, though, there will always be a voice inside them that will criticize every mistake they make.
  • The angry child grows up to be just that, angry. They target their anger at their parent(s) or anyone who triggers memories of their parent(s). For these individuals, it is not enough for them to solely achieve a goal; they must lash out as well.

When a child is brought up with these kinds of expectations, it is sure to affect them for the rest of their lives. One of the biggest things that this kind of upbringing will change is the child’s self-esteem. The child will either think so highly of themselves that they feel the ground they walk on needs worshipped, or that the individual will need validation from everyone to feel like they are doing a good job.

Traits. People with these characteristics need to seek help to learn not only what their disorder entails, but how to manage it and educate those in their lives on how best to help them when others are in their presence. There are some, though, that do not recognize they have an issue, or they do not care to get help. Those individuals who do no see that they have a problem are the ones where knowing what to look for and how to get out that you need to be aware of.  

More specific traits to look for when you think you might be in a relationship with someone who could have a diagnosis of NPD include, “a sense of entitlement or superiority, lack of empathy, manipulative or controlling behavior, strong need for admiration, focus on getting one’s own needs met, often ignoring the needs of others, higher levels of aggression, and difficulty taking feedback about their behavior.” There are more traits one might exhibit, and the above list is by no means a comprehensive list of behaviors one with NPD might display. Each of these traits will be discussed further in the following paragraphs.

Sense of entitlement or superiority. Individuals diagnosed with NPD have a sense of always being right about anything and everything. They perceive themselves to know more than anyone else in the room. They feel that they are better than anyone at anything they do. They see themselves as being more successful than others in their chosen field of occupation, though not based on actual achievements. They are sure they are more attractive than any other person. 

Due to all of these factors, they then expect that others treat them in a way that proves that they are better than anyone else. They require preferential treatment by anyone around them, regardless of whether or not they have earned it or deserve it. The narcissist believes that the world revolves around them, and they do not have to do anything in return. When they get confirmation of this, they are the first to boast and brag. 

Lack of empathy and compassion. Someone diagnosed with NPD cannot feel empathy.  As a consequence, they are not able to provide empathy or compassion, either. Insight is a crucial component in vulnerability and trust and is thus an essential element in a relationship. Narcissists only care about how their partner, in any capacity, can meet their own needs, regardless of what they have to do and whom they hurt in the process. When they do hurt someone else, they show little to no remorse and will often blame the other person for their hurtful actions.

Manipulative or controlling behavior. Narcissists NEED to be in control of everything. They will dominate, manipulate, and victimize anyone and everyone they can to gain the power they seek and require. Narcissists will give only to take away, regardless of the situation or circumstances. They will play games with their partners’ feelings and lives to ensure that they are getting what they want in the exact way they want it. Not only will the narcissist manipulate and control their partner, but if they can, they will control the friends of their partner as well. The narcissist will also hold their partner hostage by shaming them, threatening them, and demanding that they meet their every need or else there will be consequences. 

The narcissist can control and manipulate easily because they are typically charismatic and persuasive. They are sociable and engaging, and they make you feel like you matter to them. In the beginning, they will likely give you all of their attention and make you feel special, when in reality they are reeling you into their grasp and using what they learn about you to keep you ensnared.

Strong need for admiration and validation. Individuals diagnosed with NPD love to talk about themselves to anyone who will listen. If you are having a conversation and begin to talk about other things, the narcissist will make sure the topic gets back on them. When you disagree with the narcissist, they will likely ignore, correct, or dismiss what you say to stay in a favorable light. In the era of social media, it is easy for individuals with NPD to get their need for admiration met. They crave and demand attention and validation, often using multiple outlets such as Instagram, Facebook, and Snapchat. Narcissists will flood their social media accounts with photos that put them in the best light and prove the point that they want, regardless of whether what they post it depicts the truth or not. “Some narcissists have an exaggerated sense of self-importance, believing that others cannot live or survive without his or her magnificent contributions.”

One way that narcissists achieve this need for admiration is to present a false image of themselves. They will often do things that make them look like they are a genuinely pleasant person who does good things for others. Again, in the era of social media, a picture can depict one thing, and the general public would never know the truth, especially if this person is a celebrity. “In a big way, these external symbols become pivotal parts of the narcissist’s false identify, replacing the real and injured self.” 

Focus on getting one’s own needs met, often ignoring others. Narcissists are only interested in getting their individual needs met. Usually, this will result in one-sided relationships. They are often self-absorbed and conceited. The narcissist will use anyone and everyone to get what they want, regardless of their connection to them. They do not care about boundaries and blatantly ignore others’ feelings, thoughts, personal space, and belongings. If there is a rule that needs to be broken to meet the needs of the narcissist, they will dismiss it entirely regardless of consequences and social norms. Also, they might make decisions for others, regardless of their wants or needs, so long as the narcissist’s needs are satisfied. “They hijack your emotions, and beguile you to make unreasonable sacrifices.”

Higher levels of aggression. Partially due to the narcissist’s inability to empathize, they are more prone to be aggressive and frequently abusive toward their partners when they are not getting the admiration and attention they crave. This abuse can come in many forms, including physical, verbal, emotional, psychological, financial, and sexual. Narcissists are incredibly over-reactive to criticism. After criticism happens, the narcissist will then need to re-establish their superiority over the individual who criticized them, more than likely in an aggressive manner. 

One way that some narcissists show aggressiveness is to spread negative emotions. They do this for several reasons, including keeping their victim feeling insecure, to gain any attention (because to them even negative attention is attention), and to make themselves feel powerful. When a narcissist is feeling like they are not getting the kind of praise and devotion they require, they might have a temper tantrum to gain this attention. 

They often will get jealous and possibly lash out if their partner obtains praise for an achievement. Another adverse reaction could also appear if the narcissist is not publicly thanked or called out as the main reason that the partner was able to be successful. Similarly, the narcissist will act in a petulant manner if they have a setback or are disappointed in some way. 

Difficulty taking responsibility for their behavior. Narcissists have very low self-esteem, most likely bred in childhood. They are easily slighted and are incredibly vulnerable to criticism, as well as needing constant reassurance that they are the best/most important. Narcissists will avoid taking responsibility for their actions at any cost. They will deny an event happen, joke about it, or blame anyone else that can be not to have to look poorly, and they will do it in the most hurtful and harmful ways.

Relationships. Individuals are often drawn to narcissists at the beginning of the relationship, mainly because they are charming and likable. They make you feel good about yourself in a way that makes you believe that out of anyone they could have chosen in the world, they handpicked you to be with them. This type of thinking and charming applies to professional relationships, as well. In time, regardless of the nature of the relationship, the narcissist will begin to show their true selves and will likely become controlling of you. If you question them or their motives, they will become hurt and will probably lash out. Their reactions will be over the top, full of blame, and possibly aggressive. 

Narcissists struggle in relationships because they cannot portray feelings they do not possess. Just like if you do not know how to do something you cannot teach someone how to do it, you cannot feel for someone emotions that you do not have. Narcissists have fragile self-esteem and do not fully understand unconditional love. Therefore, they cannot give unconditional love to a partner. The ‘love’ that they show to their partner is only in terms of what their partner can do for them. In a professional relationship, this may present as the narcissist using those around them to make themselves appear better than they are. They are willing to sacrifice their partner to make themselves feel validated and superior.

Those diagnosed with NPD struggle with commitment because they have never had anyone be committed to them. The relationships they grew up on and learned from were conditional, therefore giving them an unhealthy template from which to work. They are condescending toward their partners and will likely make the same mistakes over and over again. These mistakes might get bigger and more elaborate in hopes that “this time” they will work. 

Narcissists NEED to have a constant supply from those around them to feed their needs. If you take away the supply, you take away their resources, and they starve. 

“Victims” of an individual with NPD. The main focus so far has been on what the narcissist thinks and feels, how they behave, and possible reasons why. Now I would like to focus on how their partner might think, feel, and act.

Depending on how long you have been in a relationship, you might not recognize that you are being abused by the narcissist in your life. There are many signs and things you can ask yourself. The more ‘yes’ answers you have, the more likely you could be in a relationship with someone who could be a narcissist.

  • You find that your partner’s conflicts have now also become your conflicts. You apologize for something your partner did or said, or you make excuses for their bad behavior.
  • You are feeling hopeless or worthless and may not recognize yourself anymore (the more time they can keep you under their control, the more susceptible you are to their manipulative ways). You may feel numb and like you cannot feel excited about anything anymore. You cry more than you used to, and they make you feel like it is your fault for feeling the way you do. You feel misunderstood and like you have no voice anymore. You feel angry like you might explode at any given time. You are overwhelmed with your life and feel anxious often.
  • You find yourself documenting (voice recording or writing them down) fights or events so that when your partner tries to ‘remember’ them differently, you have proof that what you remembered is correct. Because narcissists are chronic liars, you may find yourself playing detective by stalking their social media to confirm or deny what they have said or done. 
  • You feel like you are always “walking on eggshells” with what you say and do. You do not want to rock the boat, so you control your behaviors and words so that you will not be lashed out on. You go along with what your partner says or wants, regardless of if you believe it is a good thing or not, for fear of ‘punishment’ if you do not comply. You also might find yourself telling lies to avoid angering your narcissistic partner. Similarly, you find yourself being afraid of what your partner might do next. You cannot seem to make your partner happy no matter what you do or say or how you act, which makes you feel indecisive about making even the smallest decisions. You find yourself dreading going home to your narcissistic partner.
  • You find yourself starting or increasing the amount of alcohol or drugs you use, stop eating, or begin overeating to cope with the behaviors and abuse from the narcissist. You may even completely stop caring about yourself anymore.
  • You start looking for information to help you understand what is going on with your partner and what is happening to you as a result of your partner’s abuse.
  • You have difficulty trusting anyone anymore.
  • You might believe that if you change something you are doing or how you are, your partner will change as well, and the relationship will be happy. Alternatively, you find yourself thinking that if things could go back to the way they were at the beginning of the relationship would be better/more comfortable.
  • You have tried multiple times and ways to confront your partner about their behaviors and gotten nowhere, which has frequently left you irritable. If/when the relationship does end, they make you feel responsible for it for not meeting their unrealistic expectations. 

It is possible to get out of these types of relationships and heal. The final part of this series will address how to do this.

REFERENCES:

Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders. (2013). Arlington, VA: American Psychiatric Publishing.

Greenberg, E. (n.d.). How Do Children Become Narcissists? Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/understanding-narcissism/201705/how-do-children-become-narcissists

In a Relationship with a Narcissist? A Guide to Narcissistic Relationships. (2017, September 15). Retrieved April 10, 2019, from https://www.psychalive.org/narcissistic-relationships/

Narcissistic personality disorder. (2017, November 18). Retrieved April 22, 2019, from https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/narcissistic-personality-disorder/symptoms-causes/syc-20366662

Ni, P. (2014, September 14). 10 Signs That You’re in a Relationship with a Narcissist. Retrieved April 19, 2019, from https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/communication-success/201409/10-signs-youre-in-relationship-narcissist

Webber, R. (2016, September). Meet the Real Narcissists (They’re Not What You Think). Retrieved April 19, 2019, from https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/articles/201609/meet-the-real-narcissists-theyre-not-what-you-think

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