Dating has changed dramatically in the last decade. With texting being an integral part of relationships, to shifting gender roles, the dating world is in a constant state of evolution. The advent of online dating allows singles to easily meet a variety of people outside their circle of friends, and therefore, the odds of encountering a partner with personality issues have probably also increased. When previously, singles were introduced to “a good friend” as a potential match, now people are more apt to date complete strangers and encounter completely new relationship territory -- including dating a narcissist.
While the term Narcissist might be new to you, mankind has been aware of this pathology since ancient Greek mythology. Today, narcissism contributes to some of the most complex, confusing, and painful relationships with loved ones. If you’ve landed on this blog, perhaps you are looking to decode odd behavior from your partner, or you know that deep down inside -- things aren’t quite right.
Narcissism can be described as “someone who’s in love with an idealized self-image, which they project in order to avoid feeling (and being seen as) the real, disenfranchised, wounded self. Deep down, most pathological narcissists feel like the ‘ugly duckling,’ even if they painfully don’t want to admit it. (Ni, 2014) As a result, narcissists are looking for “supply” (as they do not relate to others as full individuals with separate and valid needs and feelings) who can confirm their grandiose, idealized self image (e.g., a partner who is very attractive or well-accomplished) and provide endless attention to fuel their importance and self-esteem.
“Narcissists” Versus Narcissistic Personality Disorder
Most people today would agree that they have heard the term “narcissist” thrown around rather loosely in recent years. Many times, the term is used in common language to describe someone who displays a high degree of self-focus, self-concern, emotional unavailability, and/or selfishness, to name just a few not-so-pleasant traits. However, there is a distinction between those are called “narcissists” and those who actually have symptoms of Narcissistic Personality Disorder.
DSM-V Diagnostic Criteria, which psychologists use to diagnose and treat, specify that individuals with Narcissistic Personality Disorder demonstrate a “pervasive pattern of grandiosity (in fantasy or behavior), need for admiration, and lack of empathy, beginning in early adulthood and present in a variety of contexts, as indicated by five (or more of the following:
- Has a grandiose sense of self-importance
- Is preoccupied with fantasies of unlimited success, power, brilliance, beauty or ideal love.
- Believes that she or she is “special” and unique and can only be understood by, or should associate with, other special or high-status people (or institutions).
- Requires excessive admiration.
- Has a sense of entitlement.
- Is interpersonally exploitative.
- Lacks empathy: is unwilling to recognize or identify with the feelings and needs of others.
- Is often envious of others or believes that others are envious of him or her.
- Shows arrogant, haughty behaviors or attitudes.” (American Psychiatric Association, 2013, p. 669-670).
In general, narcissists are generally self-focused, deceitful, secretive, unpredictable, and often skirt responsibility for their actions, while also being charismatic, captivating, intoxicating, and adorning. Below you’ll find more characteristics of this complex personality and the ways they manifest in relationship.
Relationship Dynamics with Narcissists
Whether your partner exhibits a few or all of the criteria for Narcissistic Personality Disorder, ask yourself if these behaviors are familiar in your relationship:
1. Cyclical treatment
One of the hallmarks of being in relationship with a narcissist is three distinct phases (Gray, 2013) within the partnership -- glorification, devaluing, and discarding. The glorification phase begins such relationships and is marked by a fairy tale-type, all-consuming, courting phase. The narcissist is excessively attentive at this stage and sweeps their love interest off their feet. In the devaluing phase, the partner is made to feel unworthy and confused as the narcissist withdraws or is inconsistent in their attention -- sometimes overnight. This phase climaxes into complete disregard, when the narcissist imposes the silent treatment or withdrawal to exert control over the target. These phases can last anywhere from hours to years.
2. Problems obeying boundaries and rules
Whether within the world and in the confines of your relationship, narcissists like to violate limits whenever possible. This dynamic coincides with their tendency to disregard and devalue others’ needs, personal space, and feelings (Ni, 2014). This lack of sensitivity and respect is demonstrated even outside the relationship as the narcissist violates social norms, such as laws, rules, and boundaries, and enjoys getting away with it.
Narcissists are master manipulators. Using what feels like modern-day brainwashing techniques, guilt, shame, and reverse psychology are often employed as means to help a narcissist get what they want. Gaslighting is a common technique used during the devaluing phase in which the narcissist makes the partner feels as if their perception of the abuse is inaccurate (Arabi, 2014). Because narcissists cannot take accountability for their actions, they use gaslighting as a means to blame their partner for their reaction with stories such as “you are too sensitive,” “you’re crazy”or “your behavior made me do this”.
Control is a narcissist's greatest weapon and at the core of their behavior. Narcissists seek to manage the cadence, intensity, and timing of all aspects of the relationship -- from communication to spending time together. They can also use infidelity and triangularization (forming relationships with two partners as once) as a means to maintain their “supply” but also to create jealousy as a way to control the partner's emotions (Arabi, 2014). Dishonesty is rampant as narcissists attempt to maintain their stories and manage their “supply”.
How You Feel With a Narcissist
Chances are that being in a relationship with a narcissist has resulted in a roller coaster of feelings and confusion. You are most likely feeling:
This fancy term is a more succinct way of explaining the uncomfortable tension that results from having two conflicting thoughts at the same time. The narcissist creates an environment in which it’s not clear what will happen next. This lack of consistency can cause his/her partner anxiety and a deep inner turmoil as they engage in a dialogue of self-blame wondering why they’ve received inconsistent responses from their abuser. Because the narcissist makes their partner feel as if they have found their “soul mate” in the early glorification phase, the partner has a very difficult time accepting the reality of the situation as the relationship unravels. Unfortunately, the partner has often fallen in love with an illusion, or the idealized partner, not at all the real person. This reality can sometimes takes years to reconcile and healing is almost often more complete with the help of a professional.
Narcissists are known to financially, sexually, and emotionally test limits. Because of their cyclical behavior, for some through infidelity they can leave their partners feeling worthless. As narcissists have difficulty valuing whole aspects of their partners (as compared to parts that make the narcissist feel good about him/herself), partners can feel like they are a toy that is played with by a child, forgotten and eventually tossed to the side when they no longer meet their needs. . It’s important to talk through the trauma of this dynamic and get the relationship therapy you need for healing. Know that the narcissist has significant difficulty being capable of love and respect, and that your self-worth is not tied to their destructive behaviors. Nothing you could have done would have changed the outcome of the situation.
A top trigger for narcissists moving into the devaluing and discarding phases in a relationship is challenging their behavior, standing up for yourself, or asking for consistency and respect. Unmasking a narcissist tends to enrage them and they use these phases to punish or retaliate against their partner. After suffering through days or weeks of the silent treatment, the partner is trained that they must continue to positively feed the narcissist's self-image to receive the attention and glorification they are accustomed to having. Any challenge to that idealized self-image and the narcissist will withdraw affection in an effort to create a negative feedback loop that helps them maintain control of their “supply”.
If these behaviors and circumstances are familiar to you, chances are you’ve become entangled with a narcissist lover. This relationship is known to be one of the most difficult to manage, overcome, and heal from. Bree Bonchay, LCSW, shares that “narcissistic abuse is a betrayal of the heart, soul, mind, and spirit, and often times the wallet too. It corrupts and completely shatters what we thought was reality and tarnishes our faith in humanity. For this reason, it takes awhile to restore our equilibrium and process the trauma of our experience. Putting the pieces of your life back together and rebuilding yourself is not an easy, pain-free process, but it is a worthwhile one” (Bonchay, 2015).
Dr. Hick offers a decade of experience in working with such relationship dynamics and can provide you the support, validation, and proactive healing plan you need to reclaim your life and happiness. Contact The Center for Shared Insight today and learn how we can support your journey with a narcissist and help you reprogram your relationship patterns to find healthy, sustainable love.
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American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (5th ed.). Arlington, VA: American Psychiatric Publishing.
Arabi, S. 2014. 7 21. Five Powerful Ways Abusive Narcissists Get Inside Your Head. Retrieved from https://selfcarehaven.wordpress.com/2014/07/21/five-powerful-ways-abusive-narcissists-get-inside-your-head/
Bonchay, B. 2015. 7 2. 11 Mental Tips & Tricks To Move On After Narcissistic Abuse. Retrieved from https://relationshipedia.me/2015/07/02/11-mental-tips-tricks-to-move-on-after-narcissistic-abuse/
Grey, S. 2013, 9. The Three Phases of A Narcissistic Relationship Cycle: Over-Evaluation, Devaluation, Discard. Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/communication-success/201409/10-signs-youre-in-relationship-narcissist
Ni, P. 2014, 9 14. 10 Signs That You’re in a Relationship with a Narcissist. Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/communication-success/201409/10-signs-youre-in-relationship-narcissist