- Isabelle Morley, PsyD
Dealing with a Narcissist
If you are currently in a relationship or going through a breakup/divorce with a narcissist, here are some strategies for being effective while also protecting yourself.
From my previous post, you now know if your partner or ex meets criteria for Narcissistic Personality Disorder. If you are in fact dealing with a narcissist, you need to change your approach, and fast.
Your instinct may be to double down on being honest and vulnerable, and attempt to bring the person into a space of empathy and repair. This instinct would be wrong. Don't get me wrong, with a partner who doesn't have this disorder, that would be a great approach, but with someone who has NPD, you will only get hurt.
This is because you're not dealing with someone who has empathy. They won't feel bad that you feel bad, and they will only see your emotional appeals and vulnerability as things they can take advantage of.
So, with that in mind, let's look at some realistic ways of engaging with someone who has NPD that get your needs met while also protecting you.
Learn Everything You Can
Read every book, article, blog post, and research study. Educate yourself about the common traits and patterns of narcissists. You don't want to go into this blind. Arming yourself with knowledge will help you see through their tactics and avoid being manipulated.
Figure Out What You Want
The first step in navigating this relationship is deciding what you want from it. Do you want to leave the relationship? Or do you want to stay but get some needs met by this person? If it's the latter, I'd prepare for a transactional relationship where you negotiate (explicitly or not) what each of you is getting out of the arrangement. And be prepared to experience some ups and downs with your partner as you ride the rollercoaster of their inconsistent affection.
Also, Strongly Consider Leaving
Staying in a relationship with someone who has NPD is not something I would recommend. Partners with this disorder are unreliable, self-focused, manipulative, uncaring, and even cruel. They often engage in abusive behaviors to control their partners. So while there may be some legitimate emotional or pragmatic reasons for why you might stay, don't be too quick to rule out the idea of leaving.
Narcissists are good at convincing people that they are the best thing in the world and that without them, you'll be nothing. That without them, you'll falter and fall. That no one will love you and you'll be alone forever. But none of this is true, it's just their attempt at manipulating you and retaining control in the relationship. Embrace the idea that you would be okay without this relationship and, in fact, you might thrive without it. Don't let their threats and the resulting fear hold you back from a life without them.
The challenges of leaving a narcissist can be considerable, and are probably worthy of their own post, but don't let this stop you. With the right strategies and support system, you can get out and start living a happier, healthier life without this person.
Embrace the idea that you would be okay without this relationship and, in fact, you might thrive without it.
Think About How to Be Effective
As a a general piece of advice: you need to think about how to be effective with this person. Strategies that might work with an emotionally healthy partner will probably not work with someone who has NPD. Think about this person- how they operate, what they want or need from you- and how this information can influence your approach.
Your goal is to get your needs met and giving up the belief that you can get them see your perspective. Because I'll tell you right now, they will never see your perspective, and even if they did, it wouldn't help you.
Don't Make Emotional Appeals
If you remember from our analysis of Shiv and Tom's relationship from Succession, engaging in the demand-withdraw pattern with a narcissist is simply not productive. Authentic and emotional appeals will not get you what you want.
This is not a relationship where you should be your most authentic, vulnerable self. That will leave you too vulnerable. You need to protect yourself, find effective ways to get what you want, and let go of the idea that you can create an emotional connection or repair with this person.
This is not a relationship where you should be your most authentic, vulnerable self. That will leave you too vulnerable.
People with NPD are not moved by such things because they have a serious deficit in empathy, and they will see your vulnerable requests as giving them the upper hand in the relationship.
Don't bother trying to help them see your side or how you're feeling. Don't waste energy on explaining why their actions hurt you or damaged your relationship. First of all, it won't work, and second of all, it will make them feel even more in control.
Also, Don't React Emotionally
Narcissists push boundaries and gaslight, hoping to make you upset so that they can paint you as the emotionally unstable one. They will try to dysregulate you because this will make them feel more in control and allow them to shift the focus to you.
Stay calm and focused. See through their attempts at intentionally upsetting you. By staying grounded and logical, you will prevent the conflict from escalating. Remember, emotional appeals don't work and only give them more material for manipulating you. If you need help staying calm, try some strategies for grounding yourself and take a break from the interaction if you need to.
Narcissists push boundaries and gaslight, hoping to make you upset so that they can paint you as the emotionally unstable one.
Set Strong Boundaries
People who have NPD are likely to cross boundaries repeatedly and without remorse. If you let them do this, they will learn that they can get away with violating your boundaries without consequence. Decide what your lines are and hold to them no matter what.
Have you communicated that coming home at 2am with no explanation and smelling like alcohol is unacceptable? Next time it happens, hold them accountable. Don't let them explain away their behavior with fake excuses or by turning the blame on you somehow.
Create a Support System
You will need people for the occasional reality check and to provide you with support. Being with someone who has NPD can make you doubt your judgment and question your own reality (which is the result of gaslighting). Surround yourself with people you trust who will confirm that you are not crazy, that your requests are not unreasonable, and that you deserve to be treated with respect.
Surround yourself with people you trust who will confirm that you are not crazy, that your requests are not unreasonable, and that you deserve to be treated with respect.
Also, creating this support system means you won't be alone. Narcissists can engage in the abusive strategy of isolation so that their partners depend entirely on them for their social, emotional, and financial needs. It's another way of maintaining control. Don't let them take away your social life. Maintain your relationships with family, friends, and coworkers.
Finally, Consider Individual Therapy
Navigating a relationship with someone who has NPD can be incredibly confusing, distressing, and damaging. It helps to have an expert on your side. Finding support from a therapist can help you with all of these strategies. Individual therapy can give you more information on narcissists, figure out ways to be effective with this person, help you set and hold boundaries, strengthen your emotion regulation skills even in the face of psychological abuse, and stand by you as you build your social support network.
Unfortunately, couples therapy is probably not helpful. Narcissists are not good candidates for couples therapy because they don't take responsibility for their behaviors, always see themselves as being the victim, are generally defensive and blaming, and lack empathy. You can certainly stilly try, and sometimes it helps to have a third party (i.e., the couples therapist) point out the problem and hold them accountable in session, but also keep in mind that many narcissists are excellent manipulators and might be able to effectively paint themselves in a positive light during sessions. For example, they might act like they're engaging in therapy in good faith, pretend they truly care about your feelings, talk about wanting to change, etc., but it will all be an act to look good to the therapist. It's probably a better strategy to do individual therapy for yourself, where you can get plenty of support.
And Remember, This Is Not Health
I feel odd writing this blog post because much of this advice is in direct contrast to what I'd recommend for any healthy relationship. For example, I usually encourage people to be authentic and emotionally vulnerable when interacting with their partners, whereas with a narcissist it's actually a liability to act this way.
This is not a healthy relationship.
So please remember: this is not a healthy relationship.
You deserve to have a partner who cares about how you feel, doesn't try to win every interaction, wants the best for you regardless of how it impacts them, values you, respects your boundaries, and is willing to work on the relationship with you.