Recovering from a Narcissistic Relationship

People frequently come to me and say they have been hurt by a relationship with a person they suspect is narcissistic. They feel damaged by the way they have been treated, and they’ve come to therapy trying to make sense of what they have been through.

As I discuss what narcissism is, the different ways it can appear, and how to get some perspective on your experiences, I’ll be using the example of having a narcissistic partner. This information, however, also applies to a narcissistic parent, friend, or coworker.

The Definition of Narcissism

Narcissism is a personality disorder. It involves rigid patterns of thinking, feeling, and behaving that can be found across pretty much all aspects of the person’s life.

Symptoms include:

  • Persistent need for admiration

  • Lack of empathy

  • Sense of great self-importance

  • Preoccupation with fantasies of power, success, brilliance, etc.

  • The belief that they are special and can only be understood by other special people

  • A sense of entitlement

  • A tendency to exploit others

  • A tendency to focus on envying others or being envied

  • An arrogant attitude

The Root of Narcissism

The symptoms described above are surface level representations of narcissism. These are characteristics that can be readily observed by others.

At its core, though, narcissism is about hiding from a self-hatred so powerful that it would send someone into a terrifying spiral if they came face-to-face with it. We all have times when we dislike or even hate ourselves; however, a narcissist’s most secret self is a rageful, pained creature that none of us would want to encounter.

A narcissist will engage in all sorts of destructive behavior to avoid becoming conscious of just how much they hate themselves. They must focus on the idealized version of themselves, or they risk drowning in pain.

As a result, narcissists may displace disappointment with themselves onto the people around them. Rather than face a moment when they felt foolish or unimportant, they will instead find ways to make the people around them out to be the true disappointments.

Overt vs. Covert Narcissism

There are different forms of narcissism and they can look quite different.

Overt narcissism is the type of narcissism we often see on display in politics and pop culture. It tends to be loud, pushy, angry, and deceitful. The focus is on puffing up its chest and demanding others recognize its inherent greatness. Perceived slights are met with rage.

Covert narcissism can look more like depression. Their self-hatred is closer to the surface. They hold a belief that they are supposed to be perfect, yet their imperfections feel spotlighted, leading to a spiral of shame and anxiety. This person is filled with never-ending need for others to help them feel special, yet preoccupation with their pain prevents forming healthy relationships.

How to Deal with a Partner’s Narcissism

This is a tough one.

On the one hand, there is a real pain and fragility at a narcissist’s core. It’s understandable to feel sympathy for this. As a therapist, when I work with narcissistic clients, it’s valuable that I frequently remind myself of that vulnerability so that I can maintain empathy and encourage change.

As a partner, your responsibilities are different. While a good partner generally tries to be supportive and encouraging, it’s not your job to fix anyone.

To be honest, you are limited in what you can truly do. It takes intensive therapy and a deep desire for change for a narcissist to evolve into a healthier person. This is well outside what a romantic relationship, even a loving one, can provide.

Very importantly, if your partner’s narcissism leads to abusive behaviors, your safety and well-being must come first. Take seriously the importance of disentangling yourself from a relationship that hurts you.

Recovering from a Narcissistic Relationship

The first step to recovery is recognizing that this process may take time.

It is disorienting to be in a relationship with someone who has a distorted view of reality and is emotionally manipulative. They draw you into their way of thinking, and before you know it, you feel miles away from who you used to be. You may be left with a sense that you weren’t a good enough partner or that you were the root cause of all your relationship’s problems.

I’m certainly not able to see through my computer screen and glean the truth of the role you may have also played in your relationship’s problems. However, I will say if your former partner is narcissistic, there was nothing you could have done to satisfy their deep craving to be seen as perfect and to have a partner who is perfect enough to further their own sense of worth.

Your focus now has to shift to reconnecting with yourself. A narcissist’s needs are so all consuming that they can distort your relationship with yourself. This is the time to slow things down, to turn inward, and to give yourself time to heal.

Reach out if you’d like to talk about how therapy can further assist you with this process.