The term narcissist gets used quite a bit these days. It carries pejorative connotations and people use the tag to describe family members, workmates or media personalities who act in an obnoxious and overly self-involved manner. Like any personality trait however, narcissism lies on a continuum, spanning from what might be healthy narcissism (e.g., a confident self-assured leader who cares about others) through to toxic or pathological narcissism (e.g., a self-absorbed bully who has no empathy). If a person’s narcissism gets in the way of their work, relationships and life in general, then they may have Narcissistic Personality Disorder or NPD (for a comprehensive coverage of narcissism and how to deal with it see “Disarming the Narcissist” By Wendy T. Behary.
In a romantic relationship, a narcissist is one type of emotionally unavailable partner whose failure to meet your emotional needs is going to be especially damaging. Narcissism can manifest in different forms and there can be different surface or behavioural presentations of the narcissist. Some narcissists demonstrate quite obvious grandstanding and entitled behaviours, whiles other lack these ‘showy’ behaviours and instead may be more passively self-absorbed and quietly belittle others. There can be many surface behaviours or coping styles of the narcissist.
While it may not look like it, most narcissists are suffering on the inside. They are often very fragile people who are caught up in an unending cycle of needing to elevate themselves while putting others down. This is done so they can protect themselves from accessing deep seated feelings of inadequacy and unworthiness. One of the most effective (yet destructive) ways to do this, is to launch into over-compensatory behaviours which aim to keep people in their place (i.e., this place being well below them) so that they can feel secure and/or superior in themselves. Needless to say, narcissists usually have few true friends and have a lifelong struggle with relationships. Narcissists are very often deeply dissatisfied on the inside, but their persistent struggle to avoid feeling any form of vulnerability keeps them separated from others. A narcissist will rarely, if ever come along to therapy so that they can modify their personality. In general, they only seek help when their world collapses in the form of occupational losses, family and relationships failures and of course chronic depression. In their mind, it is always other people’s fault and other people who are causing all the problems.
Both men and women can be narcissistic although the behavioural displays can look a little different across the sexes. Anywhere between 2 – 6% of people in the general community will qualify for NPD, although in mental health populations this is considerably higher. More men than women tend to have narcissistic personality disorder both in the general community and in clinical samples. High levels of narcissism is a risk factor for depression, because people who are narcissistic tend to have unsatisfactory relationships, struggle with loneliness and social disconnection and often sabotage their own success in the work-place (at least eventually).
But what of relationships? How might you tell if your new partner is narcissistic? The first thing to emphasize here is that anyone can get into a relationship with a Narcissist, but not everyone stays in such a relationship. If you choose to stay in a relationship which is not good for you, there is another agenda going on for you. If this is the case, your own schemas are getting in the way of you making wise decisions. It may be that you were raised by a narcissist and therefore find the dynamics of your romantic relationship ‘familiar’ at a deep level. It may be the case that the ‘vulnerable child’ within you is still looking for love and approval from an attachment object that doesn’t treat you very well. This is what we call “schema chemistry”. In my experience working with clients, it usually takes them about 3 months to get a good idea of their partner’s personality and to evaluate the relationship clearly.
If you are involved with a narcissist there are usually early warning signs but these are often over-looked by people with early abandonments and who were emotionally deprived as children. For example, the male narcissist usually comes on very strong at the start of romantic relationships. He is likely to pull out all the stops and engage in grandiose displays of affection. He’ll give you lots and lots of attention early in the relationship and might promise the world to you. Of course, he does this all without really know anything about you – at least not the real you. If he says he loves you, what he may really mean is that he loves the way he feels when he is with you. These types usually want to secure a relationship very early, the chemistry is likely to be super strong and there is lots of early frequent contact. Some might say “completely over the top”. However, if you were abandoned and emotionally neglected early in life (with or without the addition of early abuse), then your vulnerable child (ie, your inner child who holds all the pain of childhood), we feel extremely soothed by all this attention (ie, “someone loves me, someone cares for me, finally”). It will feel good to her (your inner child) and she will want to continue the ‘relationship’ – even though another part of her might be starting to feel a bit uncomfortable. Behaviours from the narcissist like verbal taunts and disguised insults, possessiveness and negative comments about your body, may all be received through the filter of early relationship dynamics. Such treatment may be perceived as ‘love’ and attentiveness by partners with abandonment, abuse and emotional deprivation schemas (especially if also raised by a narcissist).
A little while into the relationship, the critical and/or controlling side of the narcissist may start to emerge. When the heat and dust settles and you start to reveal more sides of yourself and perhaps start to ‘ask something’ of the narcissist – the problems start to surface. Essentially at this stage, he is likely to start finding it very hard to tolerate your subjectivity. In other words, when he realises he is involved with another human being who has emotional needs and actually wants some of these needs to be met – he back tacks, because all he actually wanted was someone to provide him with endless unconditional attention and devotion. He wasn’t counting on having to provide that himself. When you start making demands (which may not be demands as such but more like simple requests in a relationship), you might find that he starts to distance himself. This tends to be the beginning of the end for the relationship – which is a good thing if you can cut it off at this stage.
Sadly, some woman cannot end it here and their schemas drive them to become subservient partners to the narcissist. Their sense of low self-worth is reinforced by the behaviours the narcissist dishes out. They become ‘trapped’ in a cycle of wanting approval from their partner and trying to be more loveable, more obedient or more doting, in the hope that one day their narcissist will turn around and give them the love and nurturance they so desperately crave. Woman who stay with narcissists long-term tend to see themselves (at the core) as ‘less than’, with low self-worth and a dependent personality style (ie, a strong dependence/incompetent schema).
Written by Dr Gemma Gladstone
NB: Both men and woman can be narcissistic. In the above blog I discuss the example of a narcissistic man in a relationship with an emotional deprived woman. This is a very common relationship dynamic observed by therapists. The reverse can also be true.