Narcissism by nature of the personality structure manifestation makes it hard for a narcissist to engage in authentic and intimate relationships. People who engage in a relationship with a narcissist will often be subject to the lack of connection, empathy and intimacy. They may find themselves under fire of allegations that they are too controlling and smothering. Even though these accusations will be part of narcissist’s distorted reality, there will often also be some pathology related to why someone gets involved with a narcissist in the first place. Usually such pathology will be unconscious.
Spotting you’re in a relationship with a narcissist
Intuitively, you may think that a relationship with a narcissist is something you’ll easily spot—after all their presentation should be quite telling. However, from my experience working with partners of narcissists in therapy, it is rarely so in reality.
Often times people will not see their partner’s traits as narcissistic. And even when they know they are involved with a narcissistic type, they will usually disregard or undermine some of the signals, as though they fall for narcissist’s false self.
Therefore, similar to narcissist’s distorted perception of reality of self-awareness, it is usually also that their partners will fall for the illusion, misinterpreting narcissistic traits for self-esteem, independence, personal autonomy and spontaneity, when in reality, this is the distorted false self, inviting idealised and idealising projection from others.
Narcissism and the need for control
Control is a big thing with people presenting with narcissistic personality traits or narcissistic personality disorder. Even though this should not be taken as a definite sign of narcissism—other mental health presentations may also signify the need for control—it can be one of the indicators for narcissistic personality.
Relationship issues can indicate you’re involved with a narcissist. The partner is the first to suffer, whereas the narcissist themselves will usually only break further down the line—some too far down the line to do anything about it, but regret their false lives. A narcissist will rarely come to psychotherapy or counselling because of themselves, but rather to “fix” others around them—only to realise that is not something that can happen and that the real issue is with them. This often happens in couples therapy, when people that find themselves in a relationship with a narcissist drag them into therapy.
Through therapy, narcissist can realise that they in fact do not have any control over the world. Sense of loss of control, if severe enough, can be accompanied by anxiety or depression, since they interpret this loss as them being bad and insufficient. This is sometimes their first step in seeing that they have another true self and that the one they regarded as true is in fact a mask.
Narcissist fears real relationships
Because the origin of narcissistic personality disorder, and narcissistic personality traits in general, are closely related to the loss of early relationship, a narcissist’s main coping mechanism will be avoidance of intimate and authentic relationships. Any relationship with a narcissist will hence be carrying this toll.
(Related reading: Development of Narcissism or Bringing Up a Narcissist)
This does not, however, mean that a narcissist will not engage in relationships, but it does mean that this engagement will not be emotionally empathic, authentic and true. It also might mean that the engagement will only be to fulfil the need of their grandiose false self as a “perfect person with a perfect relationship”.
A relationships with a narcissist can have an “on-and-off” feel to it. You never know whether you’re in or out. The psychological bond is weak and this, in most cases, is felt rather than seen. If they are confronted about their engagement in the relationship, they will usually respond with intellectualisation or rage. This will leave their partner confused and doubting their own judgement.
A narcissist will, hence, use the relationship either as a vehicle for the narcissistic glow or in order to escape feelings of abandonment. This is also part of the reason why narcissists will not tend to end their relationships by themselves even when they want out. They will push the partner so far that the partner will eventually end up doing it.
Narcissist and the need for freedom
Perception of freedom is important to a narcissist because it allows them not to get too close to anyone. Their childhood relationships have gone bad and they won’t allow that to happen again. Their omnipotence and grandiosity are their defence from getting hurt again. They are in a relationship with their own false self.
Freedom in relationships today is quite a common theme in modern cosmopolitan society. (Related reading: Narcissism in Narcissistic Society)
If someone presenting with narcissism is used to being ignored for being “normal” as a child and they were only seen when overly presenting, exhibitionistic and grandiose, they will regard normalcy as something bad—as something that makes them bad and not worthy.
Normal relationships therefore don’t go together with narcissistic presentation. Normal is boring to them and they will need “freedom” to get out of it. Normal for narcissists is the same as non-existent. They are terrified of it.
If you find yourself in a relationship with a narcissist, it will be no use trying to change them—they will only do it when they see it. But there might be use in exploring your own patterns in relation to why you got yourself into such relationship and how you can change that in the future.