Many people who seek counseling are often jolted by the fact that they have been married to narcissistic partners. Their testimonials of how their partners swept them off their feet during the courtship and the roller-coaster ride thereafter are textbook cases of a narcissistic relationship. The narcissistic relationship pattern is plain to see. However, by the time the non-narcissist partner comes face to face with this reality, they are already too invested in the relationship.
Even as researchers have even been looking for ways to understand if one can spot a narcissist through their physical appearance, the ugly fact remains that true narcissists are difficult to spot. At least in the initial lovelorn phase, doubting your extremely loving partner of being a narcissist is not easy or even possible. Ironically, it is the narcissistic charm that makes people fall for them initially.
To shed light on the insidious ways of a narcissistic partner, Swaty Prakash, a communication coach with certification in Managing Emotions in Times of Uncertainty and Stress from Yale University and a PG Diploma in Counseling and Family Therapy with a specialization in couples counseling, writes about ways to find out if you are in a narcissistic relationship and dealing with them at different stages.
How To Spot A Narcissist In A Relationship
It often comes as a thunderbolt when aggrieved partners are told that there is a clear narcissistic relationship abuse pattern in their relationship. While the term ‘narcissism’ has gained much popularity in recent times, the fact that a narcissistic relationship is an abusive relationship comes as a surprise to many. People often toss around the term ‘narcissist’ when describing a high-headed, pompous, or self-centered person.
However, in terms of psychology, an individual with a narcissistic personality disorder is much more than that. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders lists nine traits of a narcissist but someone only needs to exhibit five of these narcissistic behaviors to clinically qualify as a narcissist.
- Grandiose sense of self-importance: A true narcissist believes that they are god’s gift to mankind and keeping them preserved is everyone’s duty and their right
- Preoccupation with fantasies of unlimited success, power, brilliance, beauty, or ideal love: They often exaggerate their role and contributions to personal and professional lives as well as their relationships, even as the reality points to the contrary
- Special and unique: A narcissist only befriends and hangs out with people who are successful, overachievers, and high-profile
- Need for excessive admiration: Someone with a narcissistic personality disorder wants their partners to constantly praise them. In reality, it is their deep-rooted insecurities that compel them to seek constant validation, especially from their partners
- Sense of entitlement: You will hardly see a narcissist being grateful for their successes or the people in their lives
Exploitative and manipulative: Narcissists tend to use various manipulative and arm-twisting tactics to make their partners follow their directions and give in to their whims
- Lack of empathy: Empathy is a not-so-common trait even in non-narcissists. However, being considerate of others’ situations or being impacted by someone else’s misery isn’t something a narcissist can even fake. Lack of empathy is a major red flag
- Envious and jealous: Envy and jealousy are defining characteristics of a narcissist. A narcissist is either claiming that the world is envious of their charisma and success or is burning with jealousy over someone else’s success or feats
- Arrogant and haughty: Screaming, showing extreme anger, and mingling with high-status people are only some of the traits that almost all narcissists tend to exhibit at some point and the arrogant traits are much more visible when they are in a romantic relationship
Related Reading: Exposing A Narcissist – What You Should Know
7 Stages In Narcissistic Relationship Pattern And How To Avoid Them
Just like narcissistic traits that define their entire personality, there is also a narcissistic relationship pattern that people affected by this disorder follow, often in almost identical order.
There are roughly 7 stages in the narcissistic relationship pattern. Or to put it more precisely, in the narcissistic relationship abuse pattern. While both male and female narcissistic relationship patterns are generally similar, we will list the differences wherever applicable.
Stage 1: The fairy tale beginning
This is arguably the most difficult stage to spot a narcissistic relationship. When two people are just beginning to fall in love, nothing seems wrong. You feel amazing, and your partner seems flawless. In this rose-tinted phase, when a narcissist partner is love bombing and is using extravagant dates to make the other partner feel like the most special person ever, there isn’t much room for doubt or even logic.
Yes, the love-bombing narcissistic relationship pattern is real. And if you are wondering how to spot a narcissist, this is an important narcissistic trait to watch out for. While the male narcissistic relationship pattern involves partners often using gifts and love to dazzle their partners, the female narcissistic relationship pattern often involves seduction to conquer the partner.
This is also the stage when they confide in you and tell you something that makes you feel really sorry for them. One of their manipulation tactics, this feeling helps them win you over in case all the wooing and charm hasn’t done enough!
How to deal with a narcissist in stage 1
We know it isn’t easy to not be overwhelmed and swept away by all the love that is showered on you in this stage, but remind yourself that it is just a stage, and while you feel amazing now, it wouldn’t last a lifetime. Be mindful when arguing with a narcissistic husband or wife and look closely. Once you realize that it indeed is a narcissistic relationship you are stepping into, prioritizing your well-being and self-care becomes vital. Remember:
- Go with your gut feel. If something is telling you that something isn’t right, chances are it isn’t
- If you feel so, look for the red flags and personality traits of a narcissist in your partner
- They might be their best versions to you but watch them closely while they deal with others. Are they the same with others?
Related Reading: How To Differentiate Between Love Bombing And Genuine Care
Stage 2: They build you up to break you down
Once the first stage of idealization has seeped in and the partner is totally in their awe, control, and charm, narcissists start getting bored, and thus begins the breaking them down process. The special treatment becomes patchy, and though the put-downs are quite subtle right now, narcissists begin the process of breaking their partners down quite deftly.
Those with narcissist personality disorder have a tough exterior but beneath that inflated ego is an ocean of insecurities and the fear of losing control. Driven by these two traits, narcissists tend to keep the reins of their romantic relationships in their hands, but don’t want their partners to leave them either.
Narcissistic love patterns are often laced with garbed abuse. Due to this blurred reality, non-narcissistic partners are caught feeling guilty and so the chances of them raising an alarm are low in the initial stages. As a result of a constant invalidation of their feelings, the non-narcissist partners convince themselves that they are in a healthy relationship and that any doubt cropping up is a figment of their imagination. They are often hellbent on rubbishing their doubts and feelings, often forgetting that sometimes love is not enough.
How to deal with narcissist partners in stage 2
If you find that your partner is playing psychological games with you, such as making you feel guilty for their mistakes, telling you time and again how tough or sad their lives were, swaying between love and anger regularly, trying to convince you that they are best that happened to you, you must wake up to the situation. You need to understand that these are all signs of narcissistic personality disorder.
If your partner is constantly trying to put you down through their words or actions, and their extreme anger and love feel threatening to you, consider it a warning sign. When acceptance, love and respect is lost in a relationship, it is important to call them out. Here is what you can do to push back and stand up to a narcissist in this relationship stage:
- Talk firm, set limits, and tell them how you feel
- Assert and set boundaries in the relationship
- Ask yourself if you really want to put up with such treatment, constantly sacrificing your own needs
Related Reading: Importance of Respect In A Relationship
Stage 3: They gaslight you
Psychologists often say that if the thought that “you need to record your conversations” with your partner has crossed your mind, you are probably a victim of gaslighting. Studies have confirmed that narcissists use various gaslighting phrases and tactics to exploit others, and their expert lying tactics make them completely convincing in it too.
Gaslighting is when a person intentionally distorts reality and makes the other person believe that whatever they are seeing or feeling isn’t real or true. Narcissists often use this tactic on their partners and use five techniques which are
- Withholding: They refuse to listen or understand
- Countering: They question your memory or sequence of events
- Blocking: They either block or divert the partners’ thoughts
- Trivializing: They belittle or dismiss the partners’ thoughts as unimportant
- Forgetting or Denial: Narcissist partners pretend to not remember
Narcissists don’t just want you to agree to them or abide by their rules but they also want you to believe that while they are the perfect ones, you are the one with all the faults and issues. And that despite all your flaws, the two of you have a healthy relationship.
How to deal with a narcissist in the gaslighting stage
Like we said earlier, if you are constantly told by your partner that your feelings and reactions are “over the top” and “irrational”, it is time to treat your feelings as warning signs and analyze the narcissistic behavior pattern of your partner. Ask yourself if you are a victim of narcissistic abuse and if actually your gaslighting spouse is making you doubt your own reality.
- Maintain a journal and write down the events as they happen. Evaluate them at a later stage. Do you see a pattern?
- Confront them. Instead of feeling guilty, take them head-on. They might not take it well but you need to call them out before it is too late
- Talk to a third person, who is sensible, mature, and if possible, neutral
- Imagine your closest friend in this situation and think of what would you want for them, that’s your cue too!
Related Reading: 8 Ways Blame-Shifting In A Relationship Harms It
Stage 4: You become the caretaker and they are the center
Are you in a relationship that began with you on the pedestal but the dynamics now are absolutely upside-down with you constantly fidgeting over their needs and likes? Are you in a relationship where you have rather voluntarily given up on your own needs and wishes to make way for your partner?
While relationships can often be lopsided, if your answer to the questions above is ‘yes’, the relationship is much more than lopsided. It is no where close to what healthy family dynamics look like, and is dangerous for your physical, emotional, and psychological well-being. In narcissistic relationship abuse, the non-narcissist partner often forgets self-care and ends up doubling up as the caretaker of their narcissist partner, often because it shields them from the discomfort of asking for their needs to be met.
How to deal with a narcissist in stage 4
Remember that it is not your duty or responsibility or domain to heal your narcissistic partner. While it is an extremely challenging task to shrug off this rather appealing caretaker role to a visibly vulnerable partner, please remember it is a symptom of something bigger and murkier.
They play the victim card and make you believe that besides you, no one knows their sorry life story nor does anyone have the power of proximity to heal them. But this claim of exclusivity is one of the warning signs, and a narcissist’s way of claiming their supremacy over you and others. This emotional neglect may seem insignificant in the beginning but can harm the emotional well-being of the partner at the receiving end of the deal.
- Step back and ask yourself if your partner ever asks about your wishes or that of other people
- Set realistic expectations and boundaries, and lay them out clearly
- You can’t give from an empty glass. So remember your self-worth, voice your needs, and have them met too
Related Reading: 11 Warning Signs Of Lack Of Emotional Connection In Relationships
Stage 5: They isolate you from others
A trademark pattern in a narcissistic relationship is a constant pull and push. A narcissist partner is riddled with an exaggerated sense of high self-esteem and thrives on being in control. To satiate their inflated egos, narcissists use all the tactics to devalue and push you away when the honeymoon period is over. However, whenever they are threatened by the thought of losing you, the narcissist will feel uncomfortable, and would once again resort to tactics to pull you back.
To keep this game of pull and push ticking, non-narcissistic partners mustn’t have a world beyond the one with the narcissists. So people with narcissistic tendencies often isolate their partners and draw them away from others, including friends, family, or a social circle. With time, this one relationship takes over all the other bonds in non-narcissist partners’ lives.
How to deal with a narcissist in stage 5
While spending lazy evenings in the arms of your beloved sounds like the secret to true love, in reality, being isolated from others stunts your growth, narrows your perspective, and often leaves you stranded.
Romantic relationships should not confine you as an individual but be a source of growth and positivity. Remembering this is the key to dealing with the fifth stage of a narcissistic relationship partner. Along with this, make sure you,
- Don’t isolate yourself from the rest of the world for one relationship
- Keep your social support close to you and be clear about it with your partner as well.
- Indulge in self-care, nurture space in relationship and step out of the existing life to enjoy some me-time with friends, family, and people you love
The fact that your life isn’t just about them will keep your partner’s narcissistic tendencies in check and may give you two more room to communicate and the relationship might actually head for a future.
Related Reading: How Spending Time With Friends Helps Improve Your Relationship
Stage 6: The final devaluation stage
When the narcissist partner realizes that you have been wooed and you are no longer the trophy they were vying for, the final devaluation begins. Once you are totally invested in the relationship, their narcissistic tendencies become more pronounced. Their controlling and dominating behavior leaves no energy or space for you.
However, if the non-narcissistic partner ever threatens them of breaking up, narcissists often immediately get in their “can’t live without you” avatar. Nearly every narcissistic relationship pattern follows a cycle of back and forth between the love bombing and devaluation stage.
How to deal with a narcissist in stage 6
By the time people with narcissist partners reach this stage, more often than not their self-esteem and self-worth have been fractured and their mental health is affected and they’re riddled with self-doubt and guilt. Strange as it may sound, they feel like they have wronged their partners and still the thought of breaking up with a narcissist partner remains distant.
They love themselves a little less and blame their actions a lot more, they are often a much sadder and dissatisfied version of who they were before the relationship began. While standing up to a narcissist at this stage can be hard, you must
- Be vocal: If possible, break this narcissistic relationship pattern of abuse on your own before it breaks your self-esteem. Take control of your own life because that is what you can control
- Talk to them but don’t stop at that: Narcissistic relationship pattern plays on a loop of highs and lows. And when you’re scaling the highs, it can feel like things will only get better from here on out but they only get worse and the cycle continues. The only way out is to not give too many chances to them or the relationship at the cost of your mental health or self-confidence
- Seek help: Mental health professionals can help you either come out of the relationship or be in a safer space if you want to continue being in the relationship. Friends, meanwhile, can help you know that it isn’t exactly your fault
Stage 7: Discard
Ironic as it may sound, narcissists pull their partners to their lowest, and then one day they decide to leave them because this new ‘lowly’ partner is not what they aspire for. One of the characteristics of a narcissist is how they feel about themselves. They always need to feel that they are the winners and one way to feel like one is by pulling others down. So people with narcissistic tendencies tear down their partners to the lowest of lows, break their confidence and self-esteem, make them feel guilty for everything that “went wrong” and finally leave “like the winner they always are”.
Related Reading: 12 Perfectly Valid Excuses To Break Up With Someone
How to deal with a narcissist in the discard stage
The only honest way to deal with a narcissist partner in the discard phase is by not dealing with them. Yes, you heard us right. When you know it’s time to break up, don’t wait. Before they decide to dump you and tear apart your self-esteem, pick up the pieces and step out. But before you step out, do step up to their vices and call them out.
Let them know how the relationship panned out for you and how from being the most lovable partner, they have sprung into being these irrational, manipulative beings. Let them know that what you thought to be a great relationship was but a nightmare that you wouldn’t want to continue.
However, not everyone is in a position to or willing to break up despite being trapped in a relationship. So if you still want to be in the relationship, prep for the hard road ahead. If you are in this stage of a narcissistic relationship, you have seen and been through enough warning signs. It is time to take some active measures to safeguard your mental health.
- Remind yourself that you deserve better treatment, love, a better partner, and a good relationship. Practice self-love
- Build a support group of empathetic friends and family so that you are not alone
- Talk to your partner about the issues. Be better prepared with facts, instances, and examples
- Try convincing them about going into therapy. There are online therapy options available for personality disorders too
- Seek therapy for yourself too. Narcissistic relationship abuse can leave the non-narcissistic partner with depression, low self-esteem, guilt, anxiety, and PTSD
- There is affordable online therapy available now; explore your options and seek help. If you’re considering getting help for yourself or your partner or as a couple, skilled and experienced counselors on Bonobology’s panel are here for you
- Narcissists have grand opinions of themselves, lack empathy, are envious, and want constant validation and admiration.
- Narcissists lovebomb their partners in the initials stages, but as time passes, the relationship becomes abusive and torturous
- Narcissists use many tactics like gaslighting, stonewalling, love bombing, and guilt-tripping to manipulate their partner
- Life with narcissistic partners can be extremely challenging, and non-narcissistic partners can end up with low self-esteem, fractured self-love, anxiety, depression, and even PTSD
You are the best judge of where you want such a relationship to head. However, it is important to be aware of the limitations and challenges ahead in a narcissistic relationship. Being in a relationship with a narcissistic partner often feels like being on a one-way street with someone who can’t think beyond themselves. While deep down they are scared and powerless, narcissists feed on this feeling to sound and behave quite the opposite. Pick your battles wisely but before that, make sure this battlefield is somewhere you really want to be.
30 Manipulative Things Narcissists Say In An Argument And What They Actually Mean
Gaslighting In Relationships – 7 Expert Tips To Identify And 5 Ways To End It
8 Common “Narcissistic Marriage” Problems And How To Handle Them
11 Early Signs Of A Controlling Man And How To Deal With Him
12 Warning Signs Of An Emotionally Unstable Partner And How To Cope
18 Early Signs Of A Possessive Boyfriend And What You Can Do
5 Signs Of A Dark Empath: Decoding The Most Dangerous Personality Type
What Does Being Engaged Mean? 12 Ways Your Relationship Changes After The Proposal
11 Expert-Backed Tips For Breaking Codependency In Relationship
17 Signs You’re With An Emotionally Immature Woman
How To Get Him Interested Again Fast – 18 Surefire Ways
10 Basic Rights In A Relationship You Should Know Of
Why Do Men Look At Other Women – 23 Real And Honest Reasons
Daddy Issues: Meaning, Signs, And How To Cope
“My Anxiety Is Ruining My Relationship”: 6 Ways It Does And 5 Ways To Manage It
Men With Mommy Issues: 15 Signs And How To Deal
23 Signs Of Emotional Invalidation In A Relationship
17 Signs You Are Dating An Emotionally Unavailable Woman
The Narcissist Silent Treatment: What It Is And How To Respond
15 Signs Of A Boring Relationship And 5 Ways To Fix It
20 Proven Ways To Make Him Feel Guilty For Hurting You
9 Reasons You Miss Your Ex And 5 Things You Can Do About It
How To Control Anger In A Relationship – 12 Ways To Tame The Temper