Happily-ever-after is an ideal that many believe and pursue and numerous studies have suggested that the key to happiness lies in a thriving marriage. I am also convinced that when couples come together and decide to get married, they do not have the thought of a divorce on the horizon.
To many, marriage is not a frivolous decision but one where he or she has deliberated and decided to entrust oneself to the other legally. Imagine the horror when shortly after the wedding bells, you discover that your spouse turned out to be someone that you don’t recognise and ends up hurting you so deeply that you wonder how you even got to this point: being romanced to being discarded. This is what it is like to be in a relationship with a narcissist.
Let’s explore the traits of a narcissist.
The following are the 9 official criteria for Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD):
- grandiose sense of self-importance
- preoccupation with fantasies of unlimited success, power, brilliance, beauty, or ideal love
- believes they’re special, unique and can only be understood by, or should associate with, other special or high-status people or institutions
- need for excessive admiration
- sense of entitlement
- interpersonally exploitative behaviour
- lack of empathy
- envy of others or a belief that others are envious of them
- demonstration of arrogant and haughty behaviours or attitudes
In essence, a narcissist has an excessive sense of self-importance over and above the needs of others. There is a sense of grandiosity and arrogance; and a lack of ability to empathise and experience reciprocity within intimate relationships. They are typically charming and charismatic. The early stages of the relationship are almost always exhilarating, romantic, powerful and intense. Love-bombing is a tactic where NPD makes you feel so special and loved that you can’t help but fall deeper in love with him or her. Most narcissists only reveal their true colours when they are in conflict. And when you no longer serve their needs, they discard you from their lives or make it a living hell for you.
Imagine the adverse and trauma that one experiences when you wake up one day and realises that the love you’ve received is not real and permanent.
The following are the lasting psychological and emotional impact of being in a relationship with a person with NPD:
- “I don’t know what is real anymore.”
Survivors of persons with NPD have the inability to trust their own judgment. Because gaslighting is a key feature in this toxic relationship, they lose touch with what is the reality. Gaslighting is defined as a form of manipulation, emotional and psychological abuse that results in a slow dismantling of a victim’s self-trust and judgment.
- “It is all my fault. Everything I do is wrong. I trigger him/her. I deserve his/her anger.”
Because a person with NPD will never assume responsibility for anything (they believe they do no wrong), they turn it around and project their emotions on the survivor. The survivor is the one who is over-sensitive and would ask irritating questions that trigger them to react. The consequence of this is that the survivors feel powerless and start to blame themselves for not being good enough for their partner.
- “I am worthless and deserve nothing
From the constant criticizing and undermining from a person with NPD, the survivors begin to accept the narrative that they are the problem and suffer from low self-esteem. They may start to withdraw from their family and friends who are concerned and question the relationship. They also hide their partner’s behaviour and lie about it.
- “I am going crazy”
This is related to point #1. Because a person with NPD constantly lie and intentionally say things that make the survivors question their reality, they start to think that they are crazy for having those questions. They feel confused and lost all the time.
- “I don’t know. I can’t decide. It will be wrong anyway.”
They have great difficulty in making decisions because they start to believe that they can’t do anything right. This is the message that is drummed into them persistently and this could extend into other aspects of life, such as in their work.
One of the common frustrations that my clients, who have survived persons with NPD, have often expressed: ‘how is it possible that they missed the warning signs’. Because of the suffering that they have been through, they have asked for the warning signs to be shared so that more can be aware and watch out for them in their relationships.
They believe that the world revolves around them. They are not able to empathise and therefore can only see from their point of view. When things do not go their way, they get very upset and may threaten to end the relationship. Everything is on their terms. For example, my client shared that when they were dating, the partner dictated when to meet according to his schedule. Not knowing better, she accommodated. That is a red flag. Also, when they no longer have use of the partner, they have no qualms to simply discard them by being emotionally unavailable, refusing to communicate and abandoning the partner.
- Frequent threats and emotional blackmail
If you feel like you are perpetually walking on eggshells not knowing when your partner will explode on you, chances are he/she has NPD. Threats and emotional blackmail are their tools to control and get you to submit to their wants. E.g., Go ahead and leave, I never needed you anyway. I’ll tell everyone what a mean person you are.”
- They act entitled and rules don’t apply to them.
They believe that their needs are more important than their partner’s. There will be no reciprocal gestures unless there is an ulterior motive to get what he or she wants. Because of the self-importance and arrogance, they believe that they can do as they please as long as they don’t get caught. They deserve special treatments.
- Obsessive focus on the external
This applies to how they dress and carry themselves. Typically they are attractive, have material possessions and are of certain social status. They appear to be an excellent “catch”. They will go all out to inflate their status and standing. Another client told me that her husband, a covert narcissist, was charming and social. His real self only surfaced when they were on their own and when he felt threatened by her. This creates problems as people may not believe her when she tells her challenges.
- They are master manipulators and schemers.
The key emotions that you feel when you’re with a narcissist are guilt, shame and confusion. The hallmark of a person with NPD is the inability and unwillingness to take responsibility for any action and word. Consequently, they project their emotions onto the survivors and make them feel guilty and responsible. They can also be verbally abusive and are good liars. They scheme and twist the words of the survivors to their advantage. They have no issue in making their partners the bad guy and spread rumours that paint themselves as the victim. The bottom line is this: they need to make themselves feel good at the expense of everything and everyone. When they don’t get what they want, they will withdraw either physically and /or emotionally from the partner. They may give the silent treatment, be passive-aggressive, stonewall and/or ignore the partner. At the end of it, the partner will accept the blame and promise to not upset them next time.
- They are hot, then cold.
When they want something, they will go all out to get it. As such, in the early stages of the relationship or when they are on a mission to keep you under their control. They will pull out all the stops to make you feel wanted, admired and loved. One moment, you could be the most important person in their lives and in the next, when you don’t agree with them on something, it could be a trivial matter, you would become a worthless person that is undeserving of his/her respect and love. The switch from hot to cold is unnerving and they will make the survivors think that the problem lies with them.
In spite of the detrimental impacts of being in a relationship with a narcissist, the good news is that it is possible to heal from it. I have supported and seen my clients live a meaningful and flourishing life following the breakup with a narcissist. Though the journey may not be easy, if one is willing to work with a professional to go deeper and understand the pattern of relationships in their lives, they can find healing and freedom.
What are the steps to heal?
- Educate yourself on NPD and accept that it is a disorder. Know that you are not alone and you are not the problem. Raise awareness for it. The World Narcissistic Abuse Awareness Day is on 1 June. Get involved and when you are ready, share your story. You can empower and help others by sharing your experience courageously.
- Get professional help as dealing with trauma can be complicated. Learn to connect the past to the present; typically, the dynamics between the person with NPD and the survivor is one that the latter is familiar with. It is not uncommon that upon the realization that the partner has NPD, the survivor can see that a family member could be one as well. Those who persist in such toxic relationships are usually accustomed to such dynamics from childhood.
- Practice boundaries – physical and emotional. Have zero contact or keep it to a minimum should you share the care of the children. The survivors are usually empathic and attuned to the feelings of others. Be mindful not to take on feelings that are not yours. Have clarity on what is your responsibility and discard those that are not yours.
- Build a strong foundation – focus on one’s strengths and resilience, in ending the relationship and working through the issues. Find meaning in it by rewriting the narrative.
- Forgive and work on self-love. Self-compassion is a critical component in recovering. Learn to take good care of yourself – physical, emotional, psychological, spiritual, social.
- Pay attention to your body as trauma is stored in your body. Practice mindfulness to bring yourself to the present moment when you’re triggered by difficult memories. The triggers will still be there, and the healing process will be imperfect and a work-in-progress.
- Focus on the good – that is in you; the work that you have put in to heal and maintain your well-being by learning new skills and maintaining good habits. Celebrate quick wins when you are able to enforce boundaries or not take on responsibility for how others are feeling.
- Embrace a healthy relationship. After being in a toxic relationship for a long time, being in a healthy relationship can feel weird and scary. You aren’t sure what to make of it. The lure to get back to what is familiar albeit negative for you is high. Be aware of it and put measures in place so that you can recalibrate when you feel threatened.
Let’s remember that significant relationships in our lives will impact our mental well-being. Even as we focus on the benefits of positive relationships and promote it, we also need to provide support for those who have been through traumatic and toxic relationships. The key is to remember that relationships should enhance your lives and motivate you to be a better version of yourself. When there are disempowerment and manipulation in the relationship, it is not healthy, and you can make the decision to get out of it.
Healing comes with returning your focus to yourself, acknowledging your feelings and emotional experience and taking responsibility for yourself. Through the right help and therapy, you can learn new skills, to regulate your emotions, have better communication and understanding, and help yourself break the cycle of unhealthy patterns. Your resilience can be enhanced, and a flourishing life is once again within your reach.
1 DSM-IV and DSM-5 Criteria for the Personality Disorders