Recognising and coping with a narcissistic partner
As we embark on 16 Days of Activism for No Violence Against Women and Children, I want to reflect on a type of abuse that is often hidden or not recognised as abuse: narcissistic abuse. Narcissistic abuse may involve physical violence but is predominantly a form of emotional abuse. I want to say categorically that it is not perpetrated only by men. While statistically narcissists are more likely to be men than women, it’s a trait that both sexes can and do display. However, because the 16 Days campaign focuses on violence against women, for the sake of this discussion I refer to men abusing women. This does not mean I believe all narcissists are males. If you think you might be in a relationship with a narcissist, this article is for you.
Narcissists are everywhere. It is, unfortunately, not a rare trait. However, it can be quite hard to identify because narcissists are often popular and successful. They are “the life of the party”. And as long as they are the centre of attention, they come across as genial and attractive. They are very concerned with appearance – both theirs and that of those around them – so they often attract good-looking partners. The narcissist enjoys having a partner who makes them look good. To the outside world, the two look like the dream couple.
How to spot a narcissist
In addition to being very superficial, the narcissist has a long-standing pattern of not having empathy. They tend to be very arrogant and entitled. They constantly seek admiration and validation, and can’t tolerate frustration or disappointment. Under these conditions they tend to explode in a rage. Temper tantrums are a characteristic of the narcissist. They tend to be dishonest and are controlling. They are hypersensitive to criticism, yet can be very critical. They can dish out criticism but can’t take it.
However, not all narcissists come across as grandiose. There is a flip side – a covert, vulnerable side. The covert narcissist tends to be resentful, sullen, angry, and moping. They feel the world is unfair and unjust and they are a victim. A narcissist may be one or the other, but both tendencies can also be present in same person, depending on how their life is going at the time. Both types of narcissism are about a lack of empathy, entitlement, and arrogance. Ultimately, they just don’t care about other people.
Narcissism vs. NPD
You may have heard the term Narcissistic Personality Disorder and wonder how that differs from narcissism. According to Dr Ramani Durvasula, a clinical psychologist who specialises in narcissism, the difference is technical. In psychiatric terms, a trait is classed as a disorder if the person is suffering impairment or distress due to their symptoms. But many narcissists have no impairment – they are very successful. Narcissism is a trait, not a disorder. The people whose lives are impaired or who suffer distress are the people who experience narcissistic abuse, not the narcissists themselves. According to Dr Durvasula, true NPD is present in c. 1-5% of people. However, narcissism as a trait affects a much greater percentage of the population.
Narcissistic abuse is not a well-articulated phenomenon, partly because narcissism is a personality trait rather than a disorder. In general there is a pattern of psychological neglect, invalidation and dehumanisation that causes distress to the individual who is the subject of the abuse. Being on the receiving end of a chronic lack of compassion, lack of respect, lack of mutuality, and cold indifference can cause symptoms resembling PTSD. In its less severe manifestation, a sufferer may feel hopeless and helpless, and they have a notable lack of self-esteem.
“But he loves me”
The narcissist may tell his partner he loves her. He may even mean it when he says it. He thinks he loves her because he pays the rent, buys her gifts, etc. That’s love to him. But the reality is a narcissist is not truly capable of love because they are not capable of empathy. It’s not possible to love someone without caring about how they feel. Narcissists view human relationships as conveniences.
Yet many women stay in a relationship with a narcissist because they believe in the “beauty and the beast” fantasy: “If I just do this, wear that, say this, don’t do that, I can turn the beast into a prince.” This delusion can keep people in a relationship for a long time, says Dr Durvasula.
Signs you’re dating a narcissist
When you start dating someone, it’s always wonderful. It’s no different with a narcissist. If they shower you with gifts or call you several times a day, it’s intoxicating. You bask in the attention, which is flattering and exciting. They seem very charming. But they are also love-bombing you, which should be a huge red flag, except that it can be very hard to spot when you are enjoying the attention. But fail to answer their calls or turn down a date because you have a prior commitment, and they tend to be jealous and may throw a tantrum.
Other signs that you are dating a narcissist include a lack of loyalty. They may still chat to their ex-girlfriend, but forbid you to have anything to do with your ex. They engage in gaslighting, i.e., making you doubt your own reality. “I never said that” is a common riposte of the narcissist. If you get to the stage where you feel the need to record your conversations to prove you’ve heard what you’ve heard, it’s a clear sign this may not be the partner for you. And narcissists tend to get pleasure out of others’ misery. If you notice your partner basking in a colleague’s failure or a friend’s disappointment, it’s another sign that you should get out, before the misery they’re enjoying is yours.
Dr Durvasula says that narcissists can improve with therapy. They can learn more socially acceptable behaviours, but under stress will revert to type. She calls this the “rubber band theory”. They can be stretched so far, but will ultimately bounce back to what they know. Narcissists can learn to present a better appearance to the world, but they never truly change their behaviour. In other words, they can learn to turn up on time (lack of punctuality is a narcissistic characteristic because only their time matters) but not to listen when they get there.
Should I stay or should I go?
If you are in a relationship with a narcissist, you do not necessarily need to leave. You may genuinely love the person. You may have children together and family life is meaningful (though you probably have to do most of the parenting “heavy lifting” – narcissists as parents are often not capable of giving children the nurturing and love they need). There may be financial reasons for staying (though if that’s the only thing stopping you from leaving, please give us a call – we can help). If you decide to end the relationship, be aware that it will be messy. Narcissists do not like to be left. If you are married, the divorce will be ugly. If you have children, there will be custody battles. If you choose to leave, SD Law can help.
It is possible to stay in a narcissistic relationship (as long as you are not being physically abused or coercively controlled – we do not condone continuing to endure intolerable treatment). Dr Durvasula’s advice to those who choose to stay is to manage your expectations of the relationship. Deep emotional needs must be met elsewhere. This does not mean being unfaithful to your partner, but rather cultivating healthy friendships that provide the emotional enrichment lacking in your intimate relationship. There are coping skills you can learn in order to live with a narcissist. Most importantly, don’t try to change them. It’s not possible. Rather cultivate other relationships, engage in self-care, and fill your life with meaning and purpose, whether through work, children, hobbies, community activities, or a combination of these. If possible, she recommends undertaking therapy. It will help with moments of frustration. People who are in relationships with narcissists ultimately feel they’re not enough. Don’t fall into that trap. Never was it more true that “it’s not you, it’s him”. Narcissism is a trait that needs validation. Unfortunately the rise of social media has been an enabler – a drug – for narcissists. The dopamine “hit” of Facebook likes and Twitter retweets is validation mainlined.
Don’t suffer abuse
Someone who displays narcissistic traits may be vain and irritating, but is probably unlikely to become severely abusive or controlling. However, if you suffer physical or sexual abuse, or are being emotionally abused or controlled, i.e., your partner constantly belittles you, won’t let you see your family or friends, controls your access to money, or dictates your movements, this is an unhealthy relationship and you may want to consider ending it.
SD Law & Associates are experts in divorce and family law and have dealt with many cases of narcissistic abuse in intimate relationships. If you are living with a narcissistic spouse and considering divorce, or just want to discuss your options, we can guide you through the process with compassion and dignity. Contact Simon on 086 099 5146 or email email@example.com for a confidential discussion.
- Emotional abuse by partners – a real-life example
- 16 Days of Activism for No Violence Against Women and Children
- I am a child of domestic violence, and I am breaking my silence
- Tackling gender-based violence – the “second pandemic”
- Are you in a relationship with a narcissist?
- Divorcing a narcissist? You may face these behaviours
The information on this website is provided to assist the reader with a general understanding of the law. While we believe the information to be factually accurate, and have taken care in our preparation of these pages, these articles cannot and do not take individual circumstances into account and are not a substitute for personal legal advice. If you have a legal matter that concerns you, please consult a qualified attorney. Simon Dippenaar & Associates takes no responsibility for any action you may take as a result of reading the information contained herein (or the consequences thereof), in the absence of professional legal advice.