Having a relationship with a narcissist is no easy task. Narcissists are often angry and offended so easily that you feel like you are walking on eggshells around them. Life with a narcissist is full of emotional upheaval because there are no predictors or consistency to what will come next. This is what makes a relationship with a narcissist a bit tricky. You may feel like you’ll be punished, but you don’t know why or when. What drew you to the narcissist – the charm, entitlement and the know-it-all personality – becomes what appeals to you and appalls you.
Narcissists act this way due to characteristics of their personality disorder. Narcissism is Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD), a Cluster B Personality Disorder. It’s a mental health issue. The main traits that fuel the turmoil the narcissist causes are:
- High control and low empathy – Narcissists have a shameless need to control by any means necessary. Low empathy contributes to the narcissist’s ability to be desensitized to any pain this may cost the other person.
- Sense of entitlement – Narcissists also feel entitled to whatever or whomever they feel would serve them best. No one or no thing is off limits. Narcissists are among the people who feel they deserve it all, no matter what. They may feel like they’ve earned whatever it is they want by simply existing.
- Taking advantage of others – Narcissists will manipulate and do almost anything to get what they want. Lying, cheating, stealing, gaslighting and using passive aggressiveness are tools the narcissist may use at any given time. Nothing is off limits if it gets the narcissist what he or she wants.
Although it’s not easy to deal with a narcissist, there are some ways to manage your reactions. Here are some tips on how to handle a relationship with a narcissist:
1) Understand the Cycle of Abuse
There are four stages to the cycle of abuse with a narcissist:
Love bombing – this almost always happens is the initial stage of a relationship with a narcissist. Narcissists are typically very charming. They like to inundate you with attention and adoration. The narcissist may send flowers, take you to the nicest restaurant, text or call often and push for intimacy quickly. You may feel as if you have found your soulmate. The narcissist may say things such as “You are the love of my life” or “I’ve never felt this way before” very early on. But careful – the narcissist is wearing a mask. You’ve met Jekyll, but underneath, you will soon meet Hyde. The mask falls off when the love bombing ends.
Tension building stage – All the secrets you shared and the love you thought you had come back to haunt you during this stage of the cycle. The narcissist begins to subtly discredit you or notice things that don’t please him or her. Actions you thought your partner appreciated are no longer good enough. Even worse, the standards keep changing. You wonder where your prince charming or princess has gone. This is where you begin to walk on eggshells. Your every thought and all your energy is focused on how to please the narcissist and get back to how the relationship was in the beginning. The trouble is, you can’t. The narcissist has you right where the narcissist wants you: working consistently to please him. Now you’ve met Hyde. The mask has fallen off. You are meeting the authentic person underneath the mask.
The Eruption – The eruption happens most likely when you know it’s building, but you don’t know when the narcissist will blow. The tension building stage has progressed to the narcissist flying into a fit of rage to release all her anger and resentment. There is often yelling and name calling. Sometimes there is physical abuse. (If you are a victim of physical abuse, please get help immediately. The number for the Domestic Violence Hotline is 1−800−799−7233. You can also chat online with a professional at www.hotline.org.
Hearts and flowers – Then, blessedly, the narcissist is done with the fury. The rage has abated. In its place, you find a simulated nice person where the angry person was. This is where hoovering begins. It’s almost identical to love-bombing, but with slight nuances. Hoovering is an emotional abuse technique used by narcissists and other manipulative personality types to suck their victims back into a relationship with them because they’re running low on their narcissistic supply. Hoovering happens because the narcissist feels better due to her release of anger and frustration, and shouldn’t you feel better, too?
Likely, you are cowering in the corner and plotting your escape. The narcissist understands that. Then they turn on the charm once again. Narcissists are skilled at empty apologies such as “I am sorry but know how to push my buttons” or “I am going to change. That won’t happen again. But I can’t act better unless you act better.” The narcissist says she loves you, and “Can’t you help me change? I need you.” She begs for another chance.
This last stage is emotional quicksand. It’s where victims of abuse get stuck. We believe that this is really the last time the narcissist will become that outraged and lash out. We think, “Finally. He’s released his anger and he will go back to the person that I met at the beginning of the relationship.” So, we wait. And the cycle of abuse starts all over again.
Learn as much as you can about narcissistic personality disorder. Watch videos and read articles and books about narcissistic abuse. This website and our YouTube channel “Surviving Narcissism” are great starting points. Look up terms as they relate to narcissism. Some critical verbiage to understand includes the terms gaslighting, word salad, empathy, triangulation and love bombing. The adage “Knowledge is power” is accurate. The more you know the more you can make an informed decision on your next step.
Here are some brief definitions of the terms you need to know if you think you are in a relationship with a narcissist:
Gaslighting – This is a form of emotional and psychological abuse which distorts a victim’s sense of reality. The narcissist uses this method to manipulate the other person in the relationship to believe things that are usually false. Gaslighting can happen around experiences or conversations. The narcissist may say something like “That didn’t happen” or “I didn’t say that”. Gaslighting is also called “crazy-making” because it leaves the victim doubting everything, he or she knew to be true and relying solely on how the narcissist sees the world. Therefore, again, the narcissist is in control.
Word salad – This is another way the narcissist verbally manipulates the other person in the relationship. It’s a way to leave the victim off-kilter and where the narcissist doesn’t have to engage in difficult conversations. Fore example, the victim may want to talk to the narcissist about finances. The narcissist says something like,” That’s not important. We first need to talk about how you load the dishwasher. And don’t get me started on how you are raising our kids.” The issue at hand is never discussed. And that’s exactly how the narcissist wants it.
Empathy – Empathy is the ability of a person to share and understand the feelings of another. Lack of this crucial understanding is the most common trait among all narcissists. Empathy cannot be taught or learned. Some psychologists believe you are either born with it – or not. This vital characteristic in a relationship can help the relationship grow and evolve. Without it, the relationship is one-sided.
Triangulation – This occurs when one person often brings a third person into the relationship as a point of reference or to take sides in an argument. It’s a manipulative technique that a narcissist uses to convince his or her victim that the victim is wrong and needs to change in order to be correct. It’s another form of control for the narcissist. For example, a wife may be compared to her narcissistic husband’s ex wives or girlfriends so she will dress, cook or have intimacy differently. It’s a way to instill a competitiveness in the relationship so that the narcissist gets what the narcissist wants.
Love-bombing – Is the stage at the beginning of a relationship with a narcissist. The narcissist showers the other person with excessive affection and attention in order to gain control or significantly influence their behavior. The love bomber’s attention might feel good, but the motive is all about manipulation.
Narcissistic Injury – A narcissistic injury occurs when narcissists react negatively to perceived or real criticism or judgment, boundaries placed on them, and/or attempts to hold them accountable for harmful behavior. Basically, the one doing the damage (the narcissistic) turns the tables and becomes the victim.
3) Establish Boundaries
Boundaries are knowing and setting what your limits are. Boundaries that you need in a relationship with a narcissist best made when you identify your mental, spiritual, emotional and physical limits. And stick by the rules you don’t allow others to cross. For example, if you refuse to have a conversation when the other person is yelling, you state, “I agree we need to discuss them but when you can do so calmly, without yelling, we can do that.” And you walk away.
Remember the narcissist hates boundaries. It is difficult, but not impossible, to establish them,. You just must be firm and stand your ground. A good undestanding of healthy boundaries are an absolute must when it comes to your relationship with a narcissist.
4) Remember YOUR Truth
Do your best to remember what you were like before you entered a relationship with a narcissist. Write down your morals, values and life goals. Clearly understand what your responsibility is and what isn’t. Living with a narcissist can distort your idea of what you are truly accountable for.
5) Remember THE Truth
The narcissist has a personality disorder. This is a mental health issue, and most of the time, it’s one that cannot be healed or corrected. The best thing the other person in a relationship with the narcissist can do it take care of himself or herself and remember the truth.
6) Practice Self-Care
Self-care is basically you are taking care of you. It’s like that adage “You do you”. For everyone, self-care looks different. For some it may be phoning a friend or coffee with your brother. For others it may be a long walk in nature or a massage. While in a relationship with a narcissist, it’s important to some small act of self-care every day.
7) Find Support
Narcissists are skilled manipulators at isolating their victims. This is a precarious position for those involved in a narcissistic relationship. The victim needs all the support and care available. Friends and family members can be life savers when it comes to helping the victim stay in touch with reality. If friends or family members cannot understand the toxic relationship the victim is in, online support groups can help immensely. Almost every member of these support grounds has experienced narcissist abuse and understands the gravity of the situation.
Note: I lead closed recovery group on Facebook called “Victorious Voices”. You can find it here.
Other supportive necessities are finding a good therapist or narcissistic abuse recovery coach. Ideally, it’s both. The victim needs support and affirmation that he or she is okay. The therapist can help the victim understand how he or she got here and how to set boundaries. A narcissistic abuse recovery coach will help with a roadmap to leaving the narcissist or healing from the damage the narcissist has already done.
8) Don’t Count on Therapy for the Narcissist
Many victims of narcissist abuse ask the narcissist to go to therapy as a couple or alone. There’s a caveat here, due to the narcissist. As we’ve established, the narcissist is a skilled manipulator, and he or she won’t be above manipulating the counselor. The narcissist likes to play the victim – hence the term narcissist injury – and a therapist’s office can be a good place for the narcissist to slip into that role. That said, therapy for the narcissist likely won’t work. But therapy or not, it doesn’t excuse the bad behavior of the narcissist. And it doesn’t mean that you don’t get help.
9) Accept the Narcissist
Again, he or she isn’t likely to change. The narcissist is the narcissist. Lundy Bancroft is a psychologist who worked with over 2,000 abusive men over a decade. Dr. Bancroft writes in his book Why Does He Do That; Inside the Minds of Angry and Controlling Men that he saw only a handful of abusive men change. Dr. Bancroft states that true change takes an enormous amount of work, both in individual and group therapy. Any transformation can take years.
Dr. Ron Garber, a psychologist in the Dallas, Texas, area, tells some clients that they can either get a thicker skin to make the relationship work, or they can leave. Any change or evolution will take place with the healthier party in the relationship – not the narcissist.
10) Move On
If the above suggestions and strategies don’t seem to work, or you’ve already tried them, it may be time to move on. Years of emotional, mental, verbal and psychological abuse can manifest themselves physically. Some survivor of narcissist abuse report having depression, anxiety, panic attacks, major health issues and even suicidal thoughts. If this is you, please reach out to the National Domestic Abuse Hotline at 1-800-799-7233
It’s important to learn why you have narcissists in your life or why you are drawn to them. For many of us, there’s been a series of narcissistic relationships. That’s called “complex trauma.” For example, you were raised from childhood by a narcissistic parent. Children of trauma become reactionary and watchful as a survival mechanism. They try to predict the abuse and stay away, or they work endlessly to please the narcissistic parent. Often this behavior translates into remarkably intuitive adults, to the point of being empaths. Narcissists sense a grandiose supply from empaths, and the cycle continues. A key step to recovery is learning what triggers your choices and why you can’t break the cycle.
Then, you can begin healing. This is often a time of immense grieving and then moving on from the abuse. You learn to leave it behind, from physically to emotionally to mentally. You can find peace and joy on the other side of this cruelty.
As a narcissistic abuse recovery coach, I wish there were a magic pill to help those who have suffered narcissistic abuse. Unfortunately, there isn’t. But it is possible to recover. Healing is a time of immense grieving and moving on from the abuse. You learn to leave it behind mentally and physically. You become a survivor.