You meet the love of your life. Charming, attractive, confident, attentive, like you in many ways… what more could you ask for? Maybe you even tie the knot. Then gradually you begin to notice a change in your partner’s behaviour towards you. You experience unwarranted criticism, outbursts of jealousy and anger or… perhaps hardest of all to deal with… the silent treatment. You are confused as to what you have done to deserve this. Subjected to this abusive behaviour, you start to feel inadequate. You may even begin to doubt your sanity.
But it’s not you. You are in a relationship with a narcissist. What is a narcissist and how do you recognise narcissistic personality disorder? Given that a trait of narcissists is the ability to destroy the self-esteem of others, narcissism can be very difficult to identify…because we assume that we are at fault in the relationship. We don’t consider that it might be the other person… the narcissist.
Narcissus – in love with his own reflection
Where does the term ‘narcissism’ originate? If you’ve ever studied Greek mythology you may remember that Narcissus was a beautiful young man who fell in love with his own reflection. In fact, it’s a bit more complicated than that. He fell in love with the image in the pond, not realising that it was his own face reflected back at him. He drowned, unable to leave behind the beauty of his image. He was proud and disdainful of others; thus his name is the origin of the term narcissism, a fixation with oneself and one’s physical appearance.
Narcissism & narcissistic behaviour disorder
Narcissism is generally accepted to be more than simply an obsession with one’s looks, a trait which is more commonly called vanity. Vanity may not be an attractive quality but one can be vain without being a narcissist. In fact in psychological circles a distinction is made between narcissism and narcissistic personality disorder, the latter being a much more extreme and dysfunctional version of the former; but laypeople tend to use the terms synonymously.
Individuals with narcissistic personality disorder generally believe that the world revolves around them. They typically have an inability to empathise with others and need to be the focus of attention at all times. Narcissists are often arrogant and display a complete lack of empathy for other people. They have a persistent need for admiration, which must be constantly forthcoming at work and especially in relationships. They possess a distorted self-image, unstable and intense emotions, are overly preoccupied with vanity, prestige, power and personal adequacy, and have an exaggerated sense of superiority.
How can you tell if your partner is a narcissist?
Because those with narcissistic personality disorder are often physically attractive and charming when you first meet them, it can be very difficult to separate their qualities from what you come to perceive as your own shortcomings as a result of their manipulation of you. The website psychologytoday.com lists the following symptoms to look out for:
- Reacts to criticism with anger, shame or humiliation
- Takes advantage of others to reach his or her own goals
- Exaggerates own importance
- Exaggerates achievements and talents
- Entertains unrealistic fantasies about success, power, beauty, intelligence or romance
- Has unreasonable expectation of favourable treatment
- Requires constant attention and positive reinforcement from others
- Is easily jealous
- Disregards the feelings of others, lacks empathy
- Has obsessive self-interest
- Pursues mainly selfish goals
If your partner behaves like this, it can be utterly debilitating to your mental health. Clinical treatment is rare because most narcissists avoid therapy. Narcissists can learn to be more caring about others, especially when included in social groups; but the process is exhausting and you may become very damaged along the way.
So what should you do?
Sadly, most of the time the only constructive solution for the individual trapped in a narcissistic relationship is escape. For your own mental wellbeing you need to remove yourself from the source of the destruction – the narcissistic partner, especially if you have children. This can be difficult to do, especially since you have probably normalised your situation so that you don’t recognise the abuse for what it is, or you blame yourself for any problems in your relationship.
Contact a psychologist
You are not crazy. And help is available. A good psychologist will help you see how you are being manipulated and empower you with coping strategies and solutions to recover your mental stability and move forward in a proactive way. Most medical aids will cover therapy sessions and there are many free counselling services available. Lifeline in Cape Town is contactable on 021 762 8198. If you resolve to end the narcissistic relationship, we will handle the dissolution of your marriage or partnership sensitively and carefully. You’ve been through enough already.