Having a close relationship with someone with narcissistic personality disorder can be frustrating. It may also be really hurtful at times.
As a mental health condition, narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) may manifest differently in every person.
Some people might experience less intense symptoms and can have long-term relationships.
Others might have developed defense mechanisms that lead them to use manipulation tactics on their partners, friends, and family members.
In either case, NPD is not a personal choice. It’s not a sign that someone is a “bad person.”
What may be tagged as “problematic behaviors” is a group of symptoms of a condition that may cause great distress and distort the way someone sees themselves and others.
On the other hand, being at the receiving end of hurtful behavior can also affect your well-being and mental health.
How can you handle narcissistic behaviors in a relationship? We explore the answer in this article.
NPD is one of 10 personality disorders characterized by fragile self-esteem, need for admiration, low empathy, and self-centeredness.
“Narcissism is a disorder in which individuals have difficulty maintaining realistic and stable self-esteem,” explains Mark Ettensohn, PsyD, a psychotherapist who practices in New York and California.
“Individuals with more severe narcissism typically have difficulty recognizing that other people have feelings, and often prioritize their own needs over the needs, feelings, and rights of others,” he says.
To diagnose NPD, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) says that the person must persistently exhibit at least five of the following nine symptoms:
- a grandiose sense of self-importance
- preoccupation with fantasies of unlimited success, power, brilliance, beauty, or ideal love
- a belief that they’re “special” and unique
- a need for excessive admiration
- a sense of entitlement
- interpersonal manipulation tactics to achieve their own ends
- a lack of empathy
- arrogant, haughty behaviors and attitudes
Not everyone with NPD will experience all these symptoms or in the same intensity.
More importantly, narcissistic personality goes beyond a number of behaviors or attitudes. Only a mental health professional can accurately diagnose the condition.
Also, everyone may at some point show any of these behaviors. This doesn’t mean that they have a personality disorder.
For example, you may want praise and admiration from certain people, or you might use some manipulation tactics in your relationships. This alone does not translate into having the disorder.
Understanding that narcissistic personality is a mental health condition and not a personal choice is important. It doesn’t mean you have to accept being treated in a way that may hurt you, though.
Most people with the disorder aren’t fully aware of how they behave or the consequences these behaviors might have on others. It’s part of the condition’s complexity.
This is essential to understand because it might help you realize that trying to “change” them or “show” them their wrong ways may not always be fruitful.
The opposite may happen: Calling them out on their actions could sometimes result in rage and vindictive behaviors.
“Recognizing that narcissism exists on a spectrum is important,” Ettensohn says. “Not all forms of narcissistic pathology are equal, or equally disruptive to healthy relationships.”
In all cases, it’s important for you to develop coping skills that can protect you from getting hurt.
1. Educate yourself on narcissistic personality disorder
One of the best ways to protect yourself from the emotional distress of being in a relationship with a narcissistic personality is to understand the disorder.
Learning about the symptoms and complexities of NPD can help you develop empathy for your partner but also protect yourself from believing anything they do or say is “personal.”
Indeed, understanding NPD can help you depersonalize any insults, criticisms, and otherwise hurtful actions.
Acknowledging that it’s not about you but rather their own mental health condition is a powerful tool in managing a relationship with someone who has a narcissistic personality.
2. Don’t idealize your partner
People with NPD may be charming, engaging, and confident at times. Consequently, they can draw people in with their attitude and energy.
As with any other relationship, it’s important not to idealize the other person but rather see them as they really are, including their not-so-charming moments.
This means you might want to look at how they treat other people, how they talk about previous relationships, and how they behave with you when they’re upset.
Having realistic expectations for what you’ll be able to get out of your relationship is important. This also involves not justifying their behavior when you feel hurt.
3. Clearly communicate how their actions affect you
Since people with NPD may be less likely to be aware how their behaviors affect you, it’s important that you make your concerns heard.
Staying quiet just for the sake of “keeping the peace” might work against you in the end.
When someone lives with NPD, any criticisms, even slight ones, can rub them the wrong way. Being prepared for a strong reaction or defensive attitude when you talk with them is also important.
“Protecting yourself from narcissistic abuse involves not allowing another person to demean, diminish, or trample your authentic thoughts and feelings,” Ettensohn explains.
“Sometimes, a simple assertive statement like ‘Hey, my feelings are important, and I don’t feel that you are listening to them or taking them seriously,’ is sufficient,” he says.
4. Set clear boundaries
Some people with NPD may feel entitled to intrude on every part of your life.
In their eyes, your main purpose in life may be to serve their needs. They might not fully realize you have your own needs.
Setting boundaries can be incredibly beneficial for managing a healthy relationship.
“When dealing with any individual who is behaving in an inappropriate manner, I would recommend setting clear boundaries using simple and clear communication, and being willing to walk away if the other person does not respect the boundaries that you set,” Ettensohn says.
It’s also important to lay out these boundaries clearly and acknowledge when they’re disrespected or challenged.
Maybe your partner constantly texts or calls you when you’re out with friends, demanding your attention. They may even become really upset and accuse you of not giving them the attention they need at the moment.
Verbalizing your boundary then is important.
You may reply with a simple “I’m busy, and I’ll get back to you when I can.” You could also be more specific and say something like, “Please don’t disrupt me when you know I’m spending time with friends or family.”
Expect pushback, but try to hold firm.
5. Don’t internalize hurtful comments
Of course, building thick skin is easier said than done. Some people are naturally more sensitive than others, and it may be difficult not to let hurtful behaviors get to you.
It’s crucial to internalize the fact that their actions aren’t a reflection of you. They’re manifestations of a personality disorder.
Taking criticisms and insults personally will quickly degrade your confidence and self-worth.
Growing thicker skin can help you maintain a healthy sense of self and a realistic expectation of your relationship.
This doesn’t mean overlooking unacceptable behaviors, though. Even if they have a mental health condition, they don’t have the right to persistently mistreat or demean you.
6. Develop a support network
In some cases, you might not receive the support and attention you need from a partner with NPD.
Cultivating new friendships and maintaining existing bonds can help you get emotional fulfillment outside your relationship.
Some people with NPD might attempt to isolate you. They might try to maintain dominance and control, so they have your attention all the time.
This might make sustaining other bonds challenging at best.
However, consider that you also need attention and support. If you’re not getting enough from the relationship, you have the right to look for it somewhere else.
7. Get your own therapist
Whether or not your partner is receiving treatment for their mental health condition, it can also be a good idea to speak with a therapist yourself.
In addition to helping you learn about and understand your partner’s narcissistic personality, a therapist can provide guidance and support.
While you may be receiving blatant or subtle messages that your needs don’t matter from your partner, a therapist can remind you to prioritize yourself.
A mental health expert can also help you recognize when your partner uses manipulation tactics or other narcissistic tactics and when this behavior crosses into abuse.
8. Prepare ahead of time if you choose to leave
Leaving a relationship with someone who has NPD can be extremely difficult.
Some people with NPD may have a difficult time letting you go without trying to pull you back in repeatedly. In some instances, they might want to have the last word, too.
Whether someone is sowing doubt in your judgment or making you feel guilty for leaving, it’s important to remember the reasons why you made the decision.
It may also be necessary to prepare beforehand and lay out clear reasons for leaving.
Though it can feel like an effective means of correcting behavior, threatening to leave and then failing to follow through may backfire.
It may give them more power and reaffirm there’s no need for them to change.
Consider saying you’re leaving only when you’re actually prepared to do so.
It can also be helpful to cut off communication entirely, as they may make attempts at drawing you back to them.
Ending a relationship is always difficult. You may still have great love for your partner, even if their NPD has affected you significantly.
But when behavior crosses into emotional or physical abuse, it’s time to leave.
“Sometimes, you need to make a determination whether or not the relationship is likely to improve,” says Ettensohn, who is author of “Unmasking Narcissism: A Guide to Understanding the Narcissist in Your Life.”
“It’s time to leave any time someone behaves violently or threatens violence,” he added.
According to Ettensohn, other signs it may be time to leave is when your partner repeatedly fails to recognize your feelings and engages in:
- emotional abuse
- verbal abuse
- physical abuse
- sexual abuse
“Or if you feel strongly in your gut that the relationship is unhealthy and is likely to stay that way,” it may also be time to leave, Ettensohn says.
- feeling isolated from your friends and family
- doubting your self-worth
- having a difficult time enjoying activities
- feeling fearful to be yourself or act in certain ways around your partner
- frequently feeling guilty for expressing your opinion or needs
It’s natural to hold out hope that your partner will change or grow out of their narcissistic personality.
Research does show that some narcissistic traits may decrease with age.
Long-term psychotherapy can also be
However, if they choose to pursue therapy, offering praise and encouragement for their decision may motivate them to continue treatment.
If change happens, it’s often a slow and gradual process that takes time, but it is possible.
Being in a relationship with someone with narcissistic personality may be challenging.
Although not by personal choice, the way someone with the disorder behaves can be hurtful and abusive in some instances.
The constant need for praise, low empathy, and use of manipulation tactics may affect your bond with someone with NPD.
This is why it’s important to establish clear boundaries and plan different ways to manage their attempts to exert control.
Deciphering where manipulative behavior ends and abuse begins can also be hard.
You may want to consider talking with a mental health professional if you suspect you’re in a relationship with someone with narcissistic behaviors.
These resources can help:
- American Psychiatric Association
- American Psychological Association
- Asian Mental Health Collective
- Association of Black Psychologists
- National Alliance on Mental Illness
- National Institute of Mental Health
- National Queer and Trans Therapists of Color Network
- Inclusive Therapists
- National Domestic Violence Hotline and Chat Support