Many people who have had a relationship with someone with narcissistic traits come away with the question: Can a narcissist really love you?
A hasty answer would be “No.” However, there is a distinct difference between someone who is diagnosed with narcissistic personality disorder and a person who has narcissistic traits.
People with narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) have traits that are in opposition with the ability to love another person, at least in the way that people without NPD understand love. These traits include a lack of empathy, a sense of entitlement, and a tendency to exploit others for personal gain.
However, NPD exists in just a small number of people — an estimated
NPD is a mental health condition characterized by pathological personality traits of grandiosity (an inflated sense of self), attention-seeking behaviors, and lack of empathy.
According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th edition (DSM-5) criteria for diagnosing NPD, an individual must have five or more of the following features:
- inflated sense of self-importance, or grandiosity
- arrogant behaviors and attitudes
- envious toward others
- lack of empathy
- exploits others for their own advantages
- an excessive need for admiration
- preoccupation with fantasies of unlimited success, power, intelligence, or beauty
- sense of entitlement
If someone in a relationship has NPD — be it a family, friend, or romantic relationship — symptoms can cause significant challenges.
Someone who is diagnosed with NPD does not really possess the ability to love another person in the way most people understand love. It may sound harsh, but many of the features of NPD are antithetical to love.
Narcissists may show you love and act in loving ways, but this tends to be conditional, in that displays of love depend on what you can give them in return. For people with NPD, relationships tend to be transactional.
Love is not self-serving, proud, boastful, exploitative, or envious. A relationship — whether romantic or platonic — with someone who is diagnosed with NPD can be toxic, drama-filled, and in some cases, traumatic.
An individual may find themselves being gaslit, “love bombed,” and manipulated.
It’s important to establish and maintain healthy boundaries when in a relationship with someone who’s diagnosed with NPD. This is a serious mental health disorder and treatment for the disorder is strongly encouraged.
However, setting boundaries may not be enough to keep you safe. If you think there are elements of abuse in your relationship, it’s important to talk with someone who can help.
Find help for domestic abuse
If you think you may be experiencing domestic abuse, support is available:
- You can call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 800-799-7233 for free, confidential, 24/7 care and support.
- You can contact loveisrespect.org by calling 866-331-9474 or texting LOVEIS to 22522 for support if you think you could be in an abusive relationship.
You can also visit The National Coalition Against Domestic Violence (NCADV), a domestic violence prevention advocacy group with a list of resources for relationship abuse help.
Someone can have narcissistic traits without meeting the criteria for an NPD diagnosis. Many people act in narcissistic ways at some point in their lives.
Too often, people refer to someone as being a “narcissist” because of behaviors or attitudes that resemble the features of NPD. It’s important to understand that having narcissistic traits does not mean a person is not able to love someone.
The way that features impair functioning in multiple areas — identity, self-direction, empathy, and intimacy — of a person’s life is the difference between an NPD diagnosis and having narcissistic traits.
Both past and current life circumstances can evoke multiple features, but may not necessarily be an ingrained part of who someone is (their personality).
A broad, general example of this would be someone who experiences a season of financial hardship after years of financial wealth. They may be preoccupied with fantasies of the wealth and power they used to have. They may also feel superior to others, become envious of those who are wealthy, and tend to gravitate toward people who make them feel important.
This individual may present with features of NPD, but these features are connected to their circumstances and not necessarily their personality.
In other words, just because a person may possess features of NPD, does not mean they don’t have the ability to love. However, it is quite possible that their capacity to love may be limited.
Any relationship with someone with features of NPD can be frustrating and difficult. When you love someone, it’s hard to walk away from them despite their imperfections. So, when you find yourself loving a narcissist, leaving may not be an easy task.
Therapy is strongly encouraged to assist with navigating relationship challenges.
Relationships with someone who has narcissistic traits can involve abuse, which could be emotional, physical, or sexual. If you find yourself in an abusive relationship, you can find yourself out of it, too — there is lots of help and hope available as you navigate your way.
However, what if you’re in love with someone who has narcissistic character traits, but not narcissistic personality disorder? In these cases, you may want to try some of the following:
- Seek counseling or therapy: Therapy can provide a safe space for you to process your feelings and explore your thoughts about your relationship. Engaging in therapy helps you understand yourself, identify your triggers, and develop coping skills.
- Practice self-care: It’s important to not lose yourself in the relationship. Taking time out for yourself allows you to reset and refocus on what is most important to you.
- Education: Educating yourself on NPD and narcissism can help you understand your significant other. In addition, the more you’re educated about the topic, the more equipped you will be to address problems and issues that arise in your relationship.
Whether it’s describing a partner in a failed relationship or an A-list celebrity, narcissism appears to be the new buzzword for describing individuals who are perceived to be selfish or self-centered.
According to a 2018 paper, “Conceptual confusion in defining NPD may render this disorder particularly prone to being attributed to individuals, especially those in public limelight, without taking a full history and examination, failing to confirm functional impairment, or diagnosing on the basis of a single trait.”
Therefore, it’s important to note that only a licensed mental health clinician can diagnose someone with NPD.
If you or someone you love is suspected to have NPD, it’s important to be evaluated. Help is obtainable and treatment options are available.
DRK Beauty Healing is a mental health and wellness company for Black, Latinx, Indigenous, South Asian, East Asian, and all women and nonbinary People of Color to discover, experience, and create their unique well-being journey. They offer free therapy through their nonprofit initiative, one of America’s leading free mental health resources. They also provide access to a broad range of affordable resources (e.g., support group sessions) from culturally responsive therapists, faith-based teachers, and practitioners of various spiritual, healing, and occupational modalities. DRK Beauty Healing believes its holistic approach to healing will ultimately empower People of Color across the globe to forge their unique path to wellness.