It’s not easy to break up with a partner who has exhibited narcissistic traits. Knowing what to expect and planning for their reaction can help, though.
So you’re thinking about leaving a relationship with a person who has narcissistic behaviors.
If you’ve made the decision to go forward with the breakup, you’ve probably been thinking about this for a while. You might have even decided to break up with them before but felt hesitant to go through with it anticipating some of their reactions.
These are valid thoughts and feelings to have.
Whether the person you’re in a relationship with fits the criteria for narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) or — more likely — they have narcissistic traits, you may feel that you’ve been negatively impacted by some of their narcissistic behaviors.
Some of these behaviors may include a tendency to put themselves above others and to treat others without empathy.
This may have resulted in some emotional and mental health effects like:
- complex post-traumatic stress disorder (C-PTSD)
- loss of self confidence, self assurance, and sense of self
- feelings of worthlessness or shame
- physical symptoms like aches and pains
- feelings of uncertainty or confusion
Some encouragement: These are all perfectly acceptable reasons to break off a relationship. And it’s also natural to still feel love for them even if you know you don’t want to continue in the partnership.
Even if you feel conflicted about the breakup, it helps to remember that it’s not always easy to prioritize your own health and safety, but it’s often worth it — and that’s exactly what you’re doing.
It can help to plan ahead so that you have a clear idea of what you want to communicate and how to end the discussion if the partner tries to derail it.
Focus on your ‘why’
Having well-defined reasons — like how the relationship negatively impacted you — can help you stand your ground and move forward with the breakup when it gets tough.
That said, you don’t have to share your “why” with this person, especially if you feel this will lead to attacks or arguing.
Think about what you want to say
While the specifics are up to you, keeping things brief and sticking to the basics can help.
Ashley Hudson, a licensed marriage and family therapist in Yorba Linda, California, agrees.
“It is important to be direct, short, simple, and to the point. Give no room for argument or persuasion,” she explains.
If you’re still not sure how to get the message across, Hudson suggests something as simple as saying, “This relationship is not healthy, and I am leaving the relationship.”
Make a plan
Before starting this conversation, consider any other plans you might need to make first. These could include:
- how you’ll share this news with your children, if you have any
- how to protect yourself financially if you share finances or rely on this person for income
- finding a safe place to stay if you’ll need one
Resources for intimate partner violence
If you’re afraid to break up with your partner because you think they might hurt you or you’ve experienced abuse from them before, you don’t have to do this alone. Support is available:
- Chat with an advocate from loveisrespect.org who can help you create a safety plan and find local resources.
- Call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 800-799-7233 or text START to 88788 for support and resources.
Jennie Lannette, MSW, a counselor in Columbia, Missouri, emphasizes that it’s not uncommon to have a difficult time splitting up for good with a partner with a narcissistic personality, it’s often for the best.
“Often the most difficult [part] of leaving a narcissistic partner is staying away,” she says.
You might also reconsider your future communication and social media connection during this time.
“The best advice I can give is to make a clean break,” Lannette explains. “Plan to have no contact for at least 1 month. Block numbers, accounts, anything you can to cut off contact.”
Your partner may react in some different ways. They might try everything they can to get you to change your mind and take them back — or they might move on eerily quickly.
Lannette explains that when you leave someone with narcissistic traits, it’s likely that they’ll try many tactics to get you to stay.
“They may try flattery, apologizing, getting angry, threats, love bombing, you name it,” she says. “Be prepared for that, and stick to your plan. Remind yourself that things always return to the status quo in the relationship.”
Bargaining happens when the person you’re breaking up with reacts by begging, pleading, or making promises that they’ll do better. They might say something like, “Please, just give me one more chance. I promise I’ll never do X again if you don’t leave me.”
How do you handle this?
Hudson suggests boundaries as the first line of defense. “The person will initially sound very apologetic and will tell you exactly what you would like to hear to stay in the relationship and control [your] behavior,” she says.
Setting clear boundaries is a good way to demonstrate to this person that you’re serious about the breakup, but Hudson emphasizes that a partner with narcissistic traits may move on to another tactic, like blaming you, when bargaining doesn’t work.
The blame game involves highlighting your faults in the relationship.
If your partner blames you for the end of the relationship, you might even start to feel like they’re right. But no matter how true or untrue their accusations are, it’s important to know this tactic isn’t part of a constructive relationship.
Catherine Blake, a certified divorce coach in Andover, Massachusetts, says they might also blame you for things you haven’t done.
“They might insult you or trigger you with accusations often of what they themselves are actually doing,” she says.
In some cases, the blame can verge into a type of emotional manipulation called gaslighting. For example, someone with narcissistic personality traits might say something like, “You’re the one who cheated first,” when they were the only person who was unfaithful in the relationship.
When they do this, Blake recommends not responding to their accusations.
One way to do this is called the grey rock method. To use this method, try to minimize your reactions and even facial expressions as much as possible. This is one way to make the person feel like their attacks aren’t working, deescalating the situation.
Love bombing takes place when your partner showers you with affection, love, or even gifts to keep you with them.
When it comes to relationships with someone high in the narcissism spectrum, love bombing tends to be part of a cycle — and it often happens at a turning point in the cycle when they know you might be ready to leave them.
Love bombing can make you feel like the “bad guy” for leaving the relationship or make you question whether the relationship was really that bad to begin with.
Once you’ve made up your mind to break things off, it’s a good idea to create some distance between you and this person and remember that love bombing is just part of the narcissistic manipulation cycle.
It’s unlikely that someone who has engaged in a pattern of love bombing and mistreating you in a relationship is going to stop all on their own.
Starting a smear campaign
You might find that once you’ve broken things off with a person high in narcissism, they begin talking to others about you. While this doesn’t happen in every breakup, it’s also not uncommon.
The person with narcissistic traits might spread rumors about you online or try to paint you as a bad person to mutual friends.
It’s important to remember this isn’t your fault, and you didn’t do anything to deserve it. One way to combat this is to surround yourself with supportive loved ones as you plan the breakup.
Hudson emphasizes that in addition to bringing in emotionally supportive people who stand with you in your decision to leave the relationship, it can help to seek professional support.
“It’s imperative to seek therapy to process the relationship, be aware of the red flags, understand the attraction towards a narcissistic partner, and what a healthy relationship entails for the future,” she explains.
Maybe you broke up with your narcissistic ex and they moved on way too quickly. Maybe they’re even the one who broke up with you.
Either way, it can seem harder to move on when it feels like you didn’t have as much control over the end of the relationship.
Even if you did have more control over the end of the relationship, healing can be challenging.
Some tips for easing this transition include:
- Staying away from self-blame. You might have thoughts like, “How could I have let this happen?” But it’s important to remember you’re not responsible for anyone’s behavior except your own. You didn’t do anything to cause or deserve mistreatment in the relationship.
- Taking time to grieve. Even if the relationship made you unhappy, it’s natural to feel sad or lost when it ends. Grief is a common reaction to the end of a relationship. It’s OK to let yourself mourn the relationship.
- Making a clean break. It’s often advisable to cut yourself off completely from this person if possible. This could mean stopping all in-person contact and blocking them across social media.
- Using this as a chance to rediscover yourself. If it felt like your partner controlled many aspects of your life, a breakup could be an opportunity to reconnect with sources of joy in your life. You might catch up with an old friend or get back into a hobby you once enjoyed.
- Creating a map of what you need from future relationships. There’s no rush to jump back into relationships right away. But this breakup could be an opportunity to reflect on (and maybe write down) what qualities you want and don’t want in any future partners.
It’s not easy to separate from someone with narcissistic traits, but taking the plunge may boost your self-esteem, confidence, and satisfaction with relationships in the long run.
Managing the fallout of this kind of breakup isn’t something you have to do alone if you don’t want to.
Working with a mental health professional — especially one who specializes in supporting people with C-PTSD or who have been in hurtful relationships with narcissistic personalities — can help you heal and gain skills to build mutually beneficial emotional connections in future relationships.