How to have a relationship with a narcissist

Are you close to someone you suspect is a narcissist? Do they care only about themselves and emotionally hurt you? Are you questioning what sort of relationship, if any, is possible with this type of person?

Narcissists believe they’re superior to others, which gives them the right to do whatever they want, regardless of how it affects the people around them. Their behaviour is toxic and spending time with a narcissist is hard on your mental health, especially if you don’t understand how a narcissist’s mind typically works.   

If you’re trying to maintain a relationship with a narcissist, you may be struggling. Narcissistic behaviour typically makes healthy relationships very difficult. However, it is possible to have a relationship with most narcissists, as long as you accept important realities about what they’re capable of, what you can expect from them, and what they’ll struggle to do. This is easier if you understand the motivations, priorities, and beliefs of a narcissist.

By learning about narcissism and what is typical of a relationship with a narcissist, you can protect your mental health and be less disappointed by the limitations of your relationship. Having a relationship with a narcissist is almost always a struggle and it will likely never be ideal, but you can have a relationship with some narcissists without damaging your mental health.

What is narcissism?

What is it like being a narcissist? How do narcissists think? How can you identify narcissistic personalities?

It’s very common to hear someone describe someone else as a narcissist. But what does this actually mean?

Narcissism exists on a spectrum from a pronounced diagnosable condition, to relatively mild personality traits that are obvious only in certain situations.

Narcissistic personality Disorder (NPD) is the most severe form of narcissism. Like other personality disorders, NPD affects how emotions and other people are understood, which in turn affects behaviour. Although there is disagreement on the percentage of the population who are true narcissists, the numbers are low, so it’s more common to know someone with narcissistic characteristics rather than a true narcissist.

One of the most pronounced and influential characteristics of a narcissist is their belief thatthey’re superior to everyone else. Other people don’t matter to a narcissist. This causes them to lack empathy so they don’t understand or care about anyone’s thoughts and feeling besides their own. They think they’re smarter and more capable than everyone else, so they’re controlling and bossy. They don’t believe they’re capable of making mistakes, so when they do something wrong, they blame someone else. They refuse to accept their insecurities so they project them on to others. They act however they want, because the rules don’t apply to them. Basically, narcissists think they’re the greatest person possible and don’t care about anyone but themselves.

Narcissists believe that life is a game of winning and losing, and they’ll do whatever is necessary to win. This includes lying, cheating, manipulating, exploiting, and casting people aside when they’re no longer useful. Being a winner means being strong and envied, while only losers make mistakes and have weaknesses and vulnerabilities. Because they refuse to acknowledge their own vulnerabilities or consider their shortcomings, narcissists can’t listen to their internal voice to understand what would make them feel fulfilled and happy.

Because narcissists can’t make themselves feel proud or happy, they need to receive validation and admiration from others. To make sure they’ll always have people who can give them the positive feedback they need, they look for people they can manipulate and control.

Despite their seemingly unshakeable self-confidence, narcissists are actually very thin-skinned. They take all criticism personally and will never accept that they could be wrong. When they’re confronted with a mistake they made, or even just given constructive criticism, they can explode into anger or retreat into victimhood, depending on whether they’re an overt or covert narcissist.

Overt narcissists are easier to identify and they fit with the more mainstream view of what a narcissist acts like. Overt narcissists are driven by success, and often achieve it. A number of CEOs, politicians, and actors are overt narcissists.

 Some common characteristics of overt narcissist include:

  • Big, extraverted personalities
  • Eager to share their thoughts and experiences
  • Proudly bragging about the unethical things they’ve done, like cheating and lying
  • Being openly callous and demanding, but still very good at getting people to like them

Covert narcissism is much more subtle and therefore harder to identify because they rarely act in ways that most people associate with narcissists.The covert narcissist appears to be a shy, quiet, kind-hearted individual who often inspires compassion and protective instincts in the people they’re trying to manipulate. They tend to be more aware of their intense fear of criticism, humiliation, and failure than overt narcissists, so they take greater measures to avoid situations that could lead to these types of experiences. However, this often causes them to be unable to accomplish their goals and makes them very envious of people they see as being more successful than they are. When they get upset, they’re more likely to be passive-aggressive and/or play the victim, although they can spend a great deal of their time giving the appearance that they’re trying to please others. But no matter how kind and giving a covert narcissist can appear to be, their motivations are recognition and getting themselves ahead. They’re still narcissists who will lie, cheat and manipulate without worrying about how this can hurt others.

Some narcissists can switch between being overt and covert depending on who they’re trying to please. When getting to know people, narcissists are playing a character that they adapt to whatever they think will be the most effective. They try to convince people that their character is real but behind closed doors, they’re a very different person.

Narcissists can attract people to them because they’re excellent actors and people-readers. They can scan a room to identify who will be the most susceptible to their charms and mould themselves into the type of person their new victim will want to admire.

Regardless of how they portray themselves, narcissists by definition are mentally unhealthy, toxic individuals, and having a relationship with them can harm your mental health.  

Are meaningful relationships with a narcissist possible?

Despite the challenges, there are reasons to have a relationship with a narcissist. You could want to stay with a partner, have a meaningful relationship with a parent or child, or feel committed to a friend you aren’t ready to give up on.

Healthy relationships are based on mutual respect, equality, trust, and communication. You should feel safe to be yourself, know that your faults are understood and forgiven, and you’re encouraged to flourish and grow. But highly narcissistic people don’t value relationships the same way most people do. They don’t want to share emotional experiences, they aren’t interested in someone else’s goals and ideas, and they don’t understand the value of respect.

Because they consider themselves superior to others while disregarding emotions and not wanting any input from others, they can’t form meaningful connections.

If you want to attempt to have a healthy relationship with a narcissist, you’ll need to accept some realities about what is and isn’t possible.

Narcissists can make people feel loved, but they aren’t able to experience love the same way as others. Because they’re usually excellent manipulators, narcissists know how to make people fall in love with them. They can be very charming and generous with attention, compliments and gifts. But this is just a performance designed to attract an admirer and isn’t genuine affection. Therefore, narcissists can suddenly switch off their love, leaving you wondering what happened. They tend to do this once they’ve lost interest in someone or feel they’ve gotten all they can out of them.

Some narcissists can build a positive relationship with partners. But these relationships are more like friendships based on shared interests since narcissists don’t understand emotional intimacy and don’t want to develop the greater understanding of a person that comes with healthy relationships, so these relationships can only grow so far.

Relationships with narcissists have a higher chance of being healthy if you practice some of the following techniques. This is by no means a complete list, so there could be approaches that would help you that aren’t listed below.

1. Set boundaries for what you refuse to accept

Narcissists will say and do anything if you let them. And as they keep getting away with treating you however they like, their behaviour will most likely escalate. They could get in the habit of screaming emotional abuse at you and ordering you not to leave when they’re angry. Overtime, this could turn into physically preventing you from getting away from them and becoming violent.

Because narcissists don’t understand boundaries, you’ll need to clearly communicate them and set consequences for if they’re broken. This could be refusing to be shouted at and a consequence is leaving the relationship or cutting off contact for a certain amount of time. If you don’t stand up for yourself, you can end up being abused.

2. Minimise their need to use you to inflate their ego by feeding it.

Give narcissists plenty of compliments and be appreciative of them so they get the adoration they need, and let them direct your conversations. While you’re doing this, have a sense of humour. You could count how many times in a conversation a narcissist changes the topic to what they want to discuss or find out how long they’ll talk without stopping for you to say something.

However, this isn’t a practical approach for all personality types. If you would feel fake or uncomfortable going along with a conversation you aren’t enjoying or falsely fawning over someone to make your life easier, then this approach likely isn’t for you.

3. Choose which fights are worth having.

If you confront a narcissist every time they hurt your feelings – accidentally or on purpose – you’ll have very little peace. Save fights for when a serious boundary has been crossed.

4. Don’t try to discuss most fights after they’ve happened

Narcissists won’t understand why you would want to talk about a fight. For them it’s over once they don’t feel upset about it and if you bring it up afterwards, they’ll believe you want to shame them. When you do feel the need to talk about a fight, use “we” language so they’re less likely to feel attacked. You can say things like “I think that we really need to work on our communication. We keep on misunderstanding each other and getting angry. We’ll have to work on this if we want to be happier”.

5. Don’t be offended when a narcissist makes everything about themselves

They will ask you how your day went so they can cut you off to tell you about their life. Rather than getting upset, understand that this is simply the way a narcissist’s brain works.

6. Look for the good in them

They might not have admirable qualities every day, but almost everyone has at least some traits you can like. Use that to remind yourself why you don’t want to cut ties with this person when they upset you.

7. Don’t take anything a narcissist says personally

Their insults don’t reflect who you are as a person or what you’ve done – when a narcissist feels fat, they’ll say you should lose weight.

Because a narcissist doesn’t understand emotions and lacks empathy, they’ll hurt your feelings without realising. They’ll also be intentionally hurtful and won’t care. They can do things like telling you that you’re stupid, ugly, and a failure without realising or caring how offensive this is. To them it’s just a self-apparent truth and they’re doing you a favour by letting you know.

Boosting their ego will always be more important to a narcissist than any relationship. If they’re having a rough day and need to feel better about themselves, they’ll bring you down. Not because of who you are, what you’ve done, or any other personal reason – if you’re the nearest person they can bring down, you’re just the most convenient victim.

8. Accept that how they think of you will change

Narcissists don’t understand that all people have flaws and make mistakes. To them, people are either perfect or worthless. As their feelings change, their view of you will change too. This can happen very quickly and be unsettling, but to a narcissist it’s rational behaviour.

9. Anticipate sudden mood changes

Narcissists can’t remember an emotion after it’s passed so they can switch from being fun and loving to angry and spiteful in an instant if something upsets them and changes their mood.

You could be shopping with a narcissist and having a good time until you make what you think is a harmless comment, like a that shirt wouldn’t suit them. This can cause a narcissist to believe that you’re attacking them and trying to make them feel humiliated – “How dare she say that! Doesn’t she know I’ve been trying to lose weight! She said that just to mock me and make me feel fat. I’ll tell her how I feel!”. As they suddenly become furious at you, the fun you were just having disappears and they angrily lash out. Because you thought nothing of your comment and are still in a good mood, this attack will seemingly come out of nowhere and you’ll be shocked at how angry they’ve become. While this is often upsetting, it’s simply how narcissists process and respond to their emotions.

Having a relationship with a narcissist requires many different sacrifices and understanding that it will very likely always be one-sided. You’ll need to accept that they will never truly respect your feelings or stop being hurtful. Rather than asking yourself if they care about you, you should ask yourself if you benefit from the relationship. Are you getting your needs met? If not, does this negatively affect you? If it does, what are you going to do about it?

It is possible to spend time with someone who is mentally unhealthy without being negatively affected, but it takes a great deal of energy and strong defence mechanisms to do so. Most people who have a narcissist in their life will eventually experience negative thoughts and behaviour patterns, and can even develop a mental health condition themselves. If you’re close to a narcissist, be aware of how damaging they can be and be careful of how you allow them to affect your mental wellbeing.

The effects of narcissistic abuse

Living with someone who is mentally unhealthy will have negative effects on your physical and emotional health. Research shows that living with someone with narcissism has worse consequences for your mental health than any other condition.

Because narcissists understand how to use and manipulate people without pushing them away, the effects of being close to one are often subtle and you may not understand how you are, or have been, affected by a relationship with a narcissist. Narcissistic abuse builds up to affect your mental health, confidence, and sense of self.

Narcissists can try to discredit you by telling your friends and family embarrassing stories or nasty things about you, even if they aren’t true. Tolerating your crazy behaviour earns them sympathy and admiration for being so selfless and patient. This also makes you more isolated and easier to manipulate since you can’t talk to other people for support or get an outside perspective on how unhealthy your relationship is.

Consistently being criticised and devalued erodes your self-esteem and confidence in your ability to make good decisions. If a narcissist keeps making negative comments – like you can’t get anything right and that you wouldn’t be able to manage without them – eventually you’ll start believing them.

Narcissists use gaslighting to make you doubt your memories, your perception of fights, and ways they’ve hurt you. They’ll tell you a different version of what really happened or claim that you misunderstood their intentions. You can begin to believe you’re the one who starts fights, gets angry for no reason, or that no matter how much you try you just can’t understand them.

Some people lose their self-identity to accommodate a narcissist. If there’s a fight every time you want to go out with your friends, you can start to stay home to avoid arguing. Or you let them have their way because you don’t have the energy for a long debate about who deserves to have the final say in decisions. Over time you can end up making more and more sacrifices to try to keep a narcissist happy and forget about what you used to enjoy.

Narcissists don’t truly understand that people have their own wants and needs. They think only of themselves so they won’t realise that you’re sacrificing your personality to satisfy them.

Realising you’ve been the victim of narcissistic abuse can take a very long time, but the effects are real. You can develop anxiety, depression, and other conditions associated with poor mental health. If you’ve been abused, you may need to work on your mental health, on your own or with a professional, to fully recover.

Can a narcissist change?

Is it possible for narcissists to change so you can have a rewarding relationship?

Some narcissists may realise they need to change in order to have a happy life. However, the nature of narcissism makes self-discoveries like this very rare. Since they struggle to examine their emotions, think they’re infallible, and prefer to blame their problems on others, it’s very difficult for a narcissist to realise they’re the cause of their struggles. Unfortunately, because narcissists can rarely accept the idea that they may be wrong, very few can come to this realisation.

More frequently, people in a narcissist’s life will insist that they have to change. They may seem to agree, but this can be a form of manipulation and they’re still convinced that they know best.

Narcissistic habits can be too deeply ingrained into the psyche of some narcissists and change will be impossible. But for some, if they truly want to become more happy and mentally healthy, they can make positive changes and overcome their toxic habits. In order to do this, they have to realise that they’ll be happier if they change, because they won’t change to stop hurting others.

If you know a narcissist who has been working on changing, don’t celebrate too early. People can be committed to change for a while – and really mean it – but become tired of the effort it takes or start to think that their old habits served them better. Some people can seem to have improved for years before they eventually start sliding back into their old ways. True change requires wanting to adopt new behaviours. This can take years or even decades, so it requires patience and commitment.

Although narcissists can change, it’s unlikely to happen. You’re often better off working on your own happiness and accepting them as they are, rather than waiting for a narcissist to change.

If a narcissist is making you unhappy, it’s important to take care of your own mental health. You can use their behaviour as a catalyst to examine your own. Spending time with someone mentally unhealthy should illustrate to you the importance of regulating your emotions, being vulnerable, and acknowledging your mistakes and flaws.

If you’ve been trying to get a narcissist to change, lead by example to show them what being mentally healthy and self-aware looks like. Whether they choose to follow your example or not is their choice. But by trying to better yourself while becoming increasingly aware of how you can be healthier, you’ll be improving your own mental health. This will make you less affected by the negativity that comes from being around a narcissist.

Just because someone else won’t take care of their mental health – even if they need to change more than you – doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t work on your own growth and healing.

Stacks of traffic cones - You need to take measures to protect yourself in a relationship with a narcissist
You need to take measures to protect yourself in a relationship with a narcissist

People with narcissistic traits can treat you in ways that are very harmful to your mental health. You might not be ready to cut a narcissist out of your life, even though the relationship is unhealthy. While some people are too toxic to be around and stay mentally healthy, it can be possible to have a relationship (of sorts) with many narcissists that doesn’t impact your wellbeing.

This involves being realistic about what you can expect from the relationship, mentally distancing yourself from their cruel treatment, and enforcing boundaries.

However, having a relationship with a narcissist often requires accepting that they probably won’t change and they’ll never truly value you as an individual; instead, they’ll think of you as someone who serves the purpose of making them feel good about themselves.

Not all people can be happy in a relationship that is so one-sided. If you can’t accept never truly being cared for by someone close to you and you can’t stop taking their mistreatment personally, you may need to end your relationship to protect yourself.

Having a relationship with a narcissist is almost always very challenging, but if you understand the beliefs and motivations that drive their behaviour, you can insulate yourself from the most harmful qualities of how they treat you.

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