We’ve all had to deal with difficult people in our lives, whether that be a coworker, a parent, a friend, or a partner. But if you’ve had to deal with a narcissistic person, you know how frustrating and exhausting it can be to put up with. The person, no matter who they are, seems to only care about their own wants and needs. Sometimes they put on airs, or maybe they’ll act super nice one day and then turn around and insult you the next. The good news is that detecting a narcissistic relationship pattern isn’t hard once you know what to look for.
What is a Narcissistic Relationship Pattern?
Narcissism is described as a condition in which people have an unreasonably high sense of their own importance. They need and seek too much attention and want to be admired by others. Narcissistic people may lack the ability to understand or care about the feelings of others. They also tend to lack self-worth and are easily upset by criticism.
This combination of issues can cause narcissistic people to center themselves above everyone else and exhibit controlling behaviors in relationships, such as gaslighting or playing the victim. Undermining others can help boost the narcissistic person’s self-esteem. They might also expect others to cater to them and refuse to accept accountability for their actions.
All relationships are different and have different dynamics, but narcissistic relationships are almost always unbalanced and unhealthy. Narcissistic people will often be exploitative and enter into relationships where they can gain something, rather than genuine connection. They often want status, wealth, connections, or someone who feeds their ego. Once that person no longer provides what the narcissistic person needs, they will often be discarded.
What Does a Narcissistic Relationship Pattern Look Like?
The most common stages of a relationship with a narcissistic person are as follows:
The narcissistic person will very quickly connect with you and make you feel special. They may put you on a pedestal and make you feel like you’re the best friend, partner, or employee they’ve ever met. The relationship often moves into this stage extremely quickly, and you may experience love-bombing, a phenomenon in which the narcissistic person showers you with affection and attention to gain power over you.
The narcissistic person will begin slowly devaluing you using criticism, backhanded compliments, gaslighting, comparing you to others, and stonewalling, a technique narcissists use where they refuse to communicate or express their emotions, essentially cutting you off. This often causes you to fawn over them, which boosts their ego and reinforces their behavior.
Just before you start getting tired of the abuse, the narcissistic person will begin idealizing you once more. They may profusely apologize for their behavior and swear it won’t happen again. But once they’re sure you’re back in their pocket, the devaluation stage will return. Rinse and repeat.
In this stage, the narcissistic person will suddenly decide they have no use for the relationship, or realize they’ve found someone else who will give them what they need more efficiently, and discard you, abruptly ending the relationship. They may also use devaluation techniques, express nonsensical anger, or use other abusive tactics to maintain control over you despite the relationship ending.
This exploitative cycle comes from the fact that narcissistic individuals tend to become bored of relationships easily. Because they have a tendency to belittle others in an effort to protect their own sense of self, they will often struggle in long-term relationships, but do very well in short-term ones.
9 Signs of a Narcissistic Relationship Pattern
1. They have trouble with empathy.
Narcissistic people lack genuine empathy for other people. As mentioned above, they often fail to recognize or care about the feelings and needs of others. Sometimes they will exhibit something called “intellectual empathy,” or the ability to recognize or understand someone else’s emotions. However, they still won’t truly empathize with you. They can know you’re feeling hurt and not care as long as you’re stroking their ego. In a relationship, this looks like:
- “Sorry you feel that way.” (Not acknowledging their harm)
- Ignoring obvious anger or upset cues
- Never asking how your day was or what’s wrong
- Never helping you soothe during stressful moments
2. They react poorly to criticism
Narcissistic people tend to be defensive in relationships because they want to maintain and protect their ego. They will often react to criticism with anger or defensiveness, as though they have been attacked or threatened. They might engage in personal attacks or victimize themselves to deflect the criticism. This looks like:
- “Well I’m sorry I’m such a terrible partner.”
- “How could you say something so mean?”
- The narcissistic person cuts you off or immediately enters a devaluation stage
- The narcissistic person stonewalls you or performs other passive-aggressive behavior
3. Anger or extreme emotions
People with narcissism struggle with emotional regulation, or the ability to self-soothe and control their emotions when needed. This can lead to mood swings, angry outbursts, or even bouts of anxiety and depression. This can look like:
- Randomly lashing out at you
- Becoming highly defensive or combative
- Stonewalling or becoming withdrawn
- Struggling with returning to an emotional equillibrium
4. Constant Criticism
Narcissistic people are insecure, at heart. They do what they do because they crave positive reinforcement and reminders that they are a good person. Despite not being able to accept criticism, narcissist individuals often dole it out liberally. They do this to deflect attention from their own flaws, or, sometimes, to get what they’re thinking about themselves off their chest without putting themselves down and creating cognitive dissonance. This can look like:
- “You’re really bad at that.”
- “You’re too sensitive; it was just a joke.”
- “Why are you always seeking attention?”
- “No one else would put up with you like I do.” (This is often used in the Devaluation stage to gaslight the non-narcissistic partner into staying with them.)
5. They violate your boundaries
If you or a friend has young children, you are likely familiar with boundary-testing. A toddler will walk over to something they shouldn’t be touching, hear your stern warning, and then look right at you and smile as they slowly reach for the glass on the table. They are testing your boundaries to see which ones you’ll really maintain, and which ones are more malleable. The narcissistic person does the exact same thing. After all, if they can control where your boundaries lie, they can control any other aspect of you. This can look like:
- Invading your personal space
- Demanding to go through your phone
- Expecting you to be available to them at all times, no matter what
- Demanding that you share all of your feelings and thoughts with them
6. They isolate you
One major and obvious relationship red flag is when your partner tries to cut you off from friends and family. A narcissistic person wants you only to rely on them. This can make it harder for you to seek support if you decide you want to leave. This can look like:
- “Your friends are so rude. Why do you hang out with them?”
- “Does your mom always talk to you like that? Why do you keep contact with her?”
- “You’re ALWAYS spending time with Leslie, why can’t you make more time for me?”
- “I bet they talk about you behind your back.”
7. They are not open to compromise
The single most important tool a healthy couple can have is good conflict management skills. Unfortunately, this is something that people with narcissism lack. They often struggle to provide the emotional support you need due to their lack of empathy, which can build up resentment over time. Unfortunately, they will likely dismiss you if you bring it up and refuse to change. After all, asking them to change is a sort of criticism. This can look like:
- “Why should I have to change for you?”
- “I don’t remember saying that.”
- “I can’t deal with your drama. I’m leaving.”
- “I don’t see why you’re so upset about this.”
8. They are emotionally unavailable
Narcissistic people very much struggle with vulnerability. Because they have such a negative self-perception, anything that makes them feel vulnerable or weak is really hard for them. They would instead prefer to focus on their own needs and satisfaction, causing a lack of emotional reciprocity. This can leave you feeling unfulfilled and lonely. This can look like:
- “That reminds me of this amazing thing that happened to me…”
- “This is too intense. We don’t always have to be talking about our feelings.”
- “Why do you need constant reassurance? It’s draining.”
- “I’m too busy right now.”
9. The relationship feels confusing or unstable
Because of the repetition of idealization and devaluation, the relationship can feel confusing or unbalanced. The narcissistic person lacks emotional vulnerability and regulation skills, so they may get angry for no reason or withdraw out of nowhere. The narcissistic person benefits from keeping you on your toes, because the more confused you are, the less likely you are to pick up on their patterns and leave. If you’re feeling confused or like your relationship is off-balance, it’s important to seek support, either from friends, family, or a therapist.
Being With a Narcissistic Person
Narcissistic abuse can leave lasting wounds that require professional help to heal, so its important to recognize the pattern and get out of the relationship as soon as it is safe for you to do so. Their abuse can range from mental and emotional to sexual and even physical violence, depending on the person.
Aside from the lasting damage, dealing with a narcissistic individual can simply be exhausting. Because of their repetitive loving and leaving, you can feel destabilized, disoriented, and confused in the relationship. You might spend hours a day wondering what’s gotten into your partner, and this wondering and walking on eggshells can be incredibly draining.
Additionally, even in the discard phase– or if you’ve seen the pattern and broken it off earlier– the abuse can continue. Many people say they feel like a shell of their former self, and they may continue to receive harassing texts or other means of communication, even years down the road.
How to Break the Pattern
The first step, obviously, is to recognize the signs. If you’ve determined that you’re in a relationship with a narcissistic partner, you have two options. You can attempt to heal the toxic relationship, or you can end it altogether. Neither option is easy, but one or the other must be done.
If you decide to heal the relationship, it will take a lot of work. You will need to do the following:
- Seek professional help: Narcissistic people to acknowledge that they have a problem and also be willing to get help to sort it out. This can be a huge challenge for someone who struggles with criticism and self-worth. Also keep in mind that narcissists are manipulative, and may agree to go to therapy to keep you around, only to quit a few months later and go right back to their abusive patterns.
- Set and maintain boundaries: This will be hard, too. Narcissistic partners is used to getting what they want, and you’re likely used to giving them what they want. Both of you need to commit to setting and maintaining boundaries. I would recommend working with a couples’ counselor to come up with boundaries together so that both of you can come to an agreement on what is reasonable to expect of the other.
- Practice communication skills: Your narcissistic partner is not great at emotional regulation or being vulnerable. But a relationship is built on vulnerability and trust, so being more open with you is something they’ll need to get used to. They may be more open to writing their feelings out. If that’s the case, I would recommend keeping a journal together where you can share your feelings back and forth in writing, or keeping a separate chat log for this purpose.
- Use educational resources: There are plenty of narcissist people out there who have acknowledged and worked through their toxic behaviors. Encourage your partner to seek out that advice from others.
I will be frank and tell you the latter option, breaking the relationship off entirely, is the easier of the two. According to one therapist, it takes roughly seven attempts to leave a narcissistic relationship completely, but with the right support, you can make the process a lot smoother. Make sure you have a safety plan in place before you break the relationship off, and if it feels safer to do so, it is totally okay to ghost them. Just make sure you block any modes of contact they could have with you.
If there are children involved in the relationship and you have to stay in touch, document all communication in writing using factual language. A narcissistic partner will make the breakup a very drawn-out and emotionally-charged experience, so the fewer emotions you contribute to it, the easier it will be. If you or a loved one are experiencing narcissistic abuse and need help, reach out. At Modern Era Counseling, our therapists specialize in trauma and unhealthy relationship patterns, so you can get the advice you need to break the pattern as soon as possible. Give us a call at (704) 800-4436 or click here to get started today.