At least 1% of people in the USA display signs of Narcissistic Personality Disorder. That doesn’t mean, however, that they are all narcissists. It does mean that many men and women who have varying degrees of narcissism are involved in relationships with non-narcissists. So is it possible to have a healthy relationship with a narcissist?
What is Narcissism?
Narcissism is a personality disorder, and like all personality disorders there is a spectrum. Varying from mild narcissistic traits all the way through to full-blown narcissism.
According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), there are certain characteristics that indicate someone is a narcissist:
- Has an inflated sense of self-importance
- Is preoccupied with fantasies of success, power, brilliance, beauty or ideal love
- Believes that he or she is “special” and can only be understood by other special or high-status people
- Requires excessive admiration
- Possesses a sense of entitlement
- Takes advantage of others
- Lacks empathy
- Is often envious of others or believes others are envious of him or her
- Behaves in an arrogant, egotistical or haughty way
A person would need to display at least five of those criteria to be classified as being on the narcissistic spectrum.
Falling in Love With a Narcissist
It’s surprisingly easy to fall in love with a narcissist. Wendy Behary, author of ‘Disarming the Narcissist’, says, “Often times they are the most charming person in the room, radiating brightness and confidence.” And of course, we all want to place ourselves in the vicinity of the most charismatic person in any gathering. And when they turn their attention toward us, we are flattered. When they turn the headlight of personal attraction onto us, we are smitten.
It’s only later that we discover that their charm is, in fact, arrogance. They are so convincingly sure we will be bowled over by their irresistible personality that we fall right into their trap.
The first thing you have to come to terms with is what you think is real about them isn’t. You love a persona, not a real personality. You can only see what they decide to reveal to you. And usually what they reveal is not the truth. In the words of HG Tudor, a self-confessed narcissist, “You fell in love with an illusion. You fell hard and deep for something which never existed. The golden days that we created together were the twisted reflections of my manipulative hold over you.”
In a Relationship With a Narcissist
The second thing you have to understand is what binds you together is a mix of love and addiction. You become addicted to the emotional roller coaster. You crave their attention and they carefully drip-feed it how and when it suits them.
Medium and long-term relationships that involve narcissists can take many forms but there are usually some common factors:
- Coldness and distance.
- S/he shows no interest in your achievements or sorrows.
- Everything bad is your fault.
- Everything good happens because of them.
- You believe you make sacrifices in the name of love.
- Sometimes there is violence.
- You are always wrong, misguided, misinformed, and mistaken. Or so they tell you.
- You feel you are both actors in a stage play.
Maintaining a Relationship
One thing that stands out is that the ‘successful’, i.e. longer-lasting relationships where one partner is a narcissist, is that the other partner may also suffer a borderline personality disorder. Very often it takes the form of co-dependency. So what is lacking in the narcissist is made up for by their partner. It can never be healthy in the accepted sense, but it can work for them.
Should the non-narcissistic partner not suffer any mental disorders prior to the relationship, then one of two scenarios are likely to happen. The first is that you do become addicted to them and find it extremely hard to break away. In essence you become complicit in their manipulations. You allow it to happen. And then you allow it to continue. This generally has a devastating effect on you and your family, who can see from a distance what is going wrong. You explain, you defend, you justify… and you stay with your narcissistic partner.
The second scenario is that after a short time, you see your partner for exactly the person they are. You are not taken in by them. And you leave them. This may be much harder than you think. By removing yourself from them, you present a challenge. A delicious, irresistible challenge. And they will do all they can to get you back within their sphere of influence. It takes a strong person to make a clean break.
What if the Narcissist Makes an Effort
It’s rare but it happens. Narcissists who recognize their disorder and who receive therapy, may be able to control their tendencies. If the relationship becomes important to them, they can learn to modify their behavior. They can explain how it works for them.
One anonymous narcissist explains that his patterns of using and abusing women resulted in him understanding that all he wanted was to control them and be adored by them… yet it didn’t make him happy. He went into a program of therapy and eventually met someone: “I'm in a happy relationship with a wonderful woman with a dependent personality (I think it's a best match to the narcissist). I think we're doing just great – after almost five years together.” He goes on to say that most of the time he is able to interact with her on a reciprocal and loving basis but that sometimes his ‘narcissistic side’ emerges. He deals with it by taking full responsibility, and by always making amends for any unacceptable behavior.
Narcissist with Narcissist
Many narcissists say that they are attracted to others with similar personality disorders. The relationships are usually volatile and violent. They rarely last very long. They both enjoy the game-playing for a short time, but eventually grow bored with it, especially because they know where the other is coming from. They generally tend to move on—after both suffering long-lasting scars.
So is it Possible to Have a Healthy Relationship with a Narcissist?
Unlikely. You would have to be willing to subsume your whole personality to theirs. You would have to say goodbye to the person you are in order to be the person they want you to be. And you also have to know that it’s rare that you would ever be enough for them.
Having said that, if your narcissistic partner is willing to go into therapy and you are both willing to accept relationship counseling then you might stand a chance. Your partner would have to commit to openly sharing their thoughts and feelings, and you would have to make many sacrifices. It will never be a normal relationship, but eventually, as Andrea, who is in a 17 year relationship, says, “We’ve been calm and happy together for about seven years and it is so worth the first awful awful years of our relationship. I would happily do it all over again to get to the point where we are now.”
Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5)
Kristalyn Salters-Pedneault, PhD: Narcissistic Personality Disorder
National Institute of Mental Health: Borderline Personality Disorder
Peg Streep: Psychology Today: Is There Any Hope for Relationships with Narcissists?
Images via Pixabay