Narcissists and relationships

Being in a relationship with a narcissist can be extremely toxic. The word narcissist is thrown around a little too often these days but what does it actually mean? What is a narcissist? How do they act within the relationship and how does this affect the other person?


Let us begin by looking at the traits, generally, of a narcissist or someone with narcissistic personality disorder. There are many traits and some may be a contradiction of others:

  • Grand and self-important.
  • Seek admiration.
  • Lack of empathy - they don’t care about others.
  • Love power and think they are amazing.
  • Believe that they are special and unique and the envy of others.
  • Arrogant and show a false persona.
  • Their career is amazing and they love to brag about the future they have planned.
  • Obsessed with the ideal love fantasy.
  • Believe they have a high status and look down on others.
  • Sense of entitlement and may even break the law.
  • Coercively controlling including bribery.
  • Take advantage of others in order to achieve.
  • Controlling in relationships.
  • Pathologically lie, perhaps about their ‘abusive childhood’ or even their ‘fairy tale childhood’. They also tell unnecessary lies about unimportant things.
  • Relationships are a form of manipulation.
  • Can’t accept criticism and blame others for their shortcomings.
  • They need control over small things such as being late for a date or forgetting their wallet.
  • Boasts about achievements, which most will be false.

What are the different types of narcissism?

Narcissism is split into categories which are as follows:

Covert narcissism

These narcs can be hard to spot. They are often married with children and present themselves to the world as a family person; a nice, genuine person who would do anything for anyone. They rarely lose their temper and will give you what you want.

However, the put-downs are frequent and they are passive-aggressive. It’s all about them! They sabotage special days and find it difficult if the attention is not on them. They gaslight and blame you always and you are rigidly controlled. They shut you down or say “Let's agree to disagree.”

Overt narcissism

Overt narcs are generally seen in much shorter relationships. They have a real lack of empathy and are often known to be lawbreakers. They possess the same traits as the covert narcissist but on a much more short-term basis. 

Altruistic narcissism

The altruistic narc will shower you with generous gifts to keep the relationship going, but be aware, the giving of gifts will need an audience so that the watchers can praise them on how wonderful they are. They may also give to charities (which will be bragged about) and will possess a false persona.

Malignant narcissism

The malignant narc will possess antisocial behaviour and will dehumanise others.


The crier has traits of the covert narc, imposes bad treatment as well as plays the victim. "Why me?", "What did I do?", etc. They are very much in victim mode and believe they deserve a break.

What are the stages of a relationship with a narcissist?

Being with a narcissistic partner can result in narcissistic abuse. There are three stages to the relationship of a narc. These are ‘love-bombing’, ‘devaluing’ and ‘discarding’.
The relationship begins with love bombing. The narc doesn’t see you as a person or a potential mate. They see you as an object to be used - a love object. As the relationship begins, they will shower you with attention, make you feel special, listen intently to you and work their magic to form a bond with you. This may seem quite ‘normal’ but, in actual fact, what they are doing is gathering information!

They are looking for the vulnerability in you and often seek a lot of commitment early on, which will appear as too much too soon. They promise you that they will take you somewhere special (they won’t) and be full of charm and charisma. They are very convincing as they are great actors!
Once the stage of love bombing is complete, and the love object is completely won over by the narc, the next stage begins - devaluing. The narc will begin to see and point out flaws in their love object. The place they found for you during the love-bombing phase is slowly ripped down and you lose your place.

They are irritable, snappy and irrational. They are very two-faced and range from sweet to aloof and to rage in seconds. You go from hero to zero feeling confused and upset. The narc withdraws their attention, often stays out of contact, and cancels arrangements. It’s very confusing for the love object at this point as they are wondering what is happening. 
The final stage of the relationship is discarding. The narc leaves or goes missing for days or even months. They may disguise it as needing space or time to think but the truth is that their cycle of torment is complete and they are bored. If the relationship ends or the narc disappears for a while, they are likely to come back, they haven’t finished with you just yet.

The cycle begins all over again with the love bombing, coupled with some manipulation so you think that the break-up was your fault. They work through that cycle as many times as they can. They are likely to have their next victim all set up and ready if they don’t already have more than one of you on the go at the same time.

What causes someone to be narcissistic?

Well, the short answer isn’t set in stone, however, there are a couple of reasons such as childhood trauma (being stuck at that age), being spoilt and lack of love that is at the forefront of why.
If you recognise this pattern of behaviour, it’s time to seek out therapy. A good therapist can offer you the space and time that you need. You are the victim/survivor, your energy is likely to be all gone but you can recover from this. It is also possible that once you are able to escape this abusive cycle you may be suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

What about couples therapy with the narcissist?

Well, this creates a huge stage for the narc’s performance. They will present with a
false persona; they may sit quietly and try to convince the therapist that they are a reasonable and calm person. At the first session, they may not look at their partner and address a question to the therapist such as, “Can you see what they are like?” They will do their best to get the therapist on side.

Often, after a couples session, the couple is asked to attend a session individually. This is a fantastic opportunity for the narcissist and they may relish the idea to talk about themselves and present as the perfect partner. They may also complain about how their needs are not being met as, of course, it’s all about them.
The love object finally has an opportunity to talk openly to the therapist, often confused and timid. However, this is a perfect opportunity for the therapist to listen without judgment, to support and have a safe space for the victim. 

How therapy can help?

At this point, the client may be in crisis. Distressed, isolated, alone, embarrassed, ashamed, don’t know who they are and may think they are going mad. A therapist will need them to tell their story whilst remaining open-minded. The effects are devastating as the client may be experiencing practical loss such as financial, business, time and children. They may feel like they have wasted so much time.
The physical effects may present as withdrawal symptoms, shock, experience weight loss, sickness, shock, vomiting or loss of life.
The therapist will need to allow them to offload as they may possibly have not disclosed this to anyone else. The therapist will need to support the client with anxiety management techniques and will need to tread carefully, making them fully aware of how damaging the relationship is and allowing them to make their own choices and support that. The client may even defend their partner, make excuses, distract or deflect. They may use delaying tactics and bargain when they feel they should leave. 

You have to reset the boundaries, what’s acceptable and not. Further support, friends, family, GP, social services, etc. The therapist will need to work with the client on setting boundaries, working out what is and isn’t acceptable.
In conclusion, the victim/survivor is the wronged person and it is in no way their fault that they were manipulated by the narc. Narcissists are attracted to shining people who have something special about them such as being bubbly and vivacious. They are not attracted to dull people; they see themselves reflected in the shine. Tender-hearted people are easier to manipulate and especially those with unresolved abandonment issues appeal more. The victim becomes co-dependent on the narc as they are often someone who always puts others before themselves. 

How to avoid entering a relationship with a narcissist

By looking out for the following, you can protect yourself from falling into this trap:

When going on a first date, the narc will need control of the destination. If you make the suggestion they will reject it. They are likely to change the plan just before the first date and the date will not be by where they live. They may suggest somewhere flashy and amazing or somewhere cheap and disappointing. This may seem odd as they may have been telling you how successful they are. They may be late, they may text when they are late to see if you are there. They want you to be grateful when they arrive. 

They will give lots of compliments and flattery which may seem over the top. Their body language may mimic yours to gain trust so you can move your body in different positions to see if they follow your lead. When the bill comes, the narc will have forgotten their wallet or their card will be declined.

They will ask lots and lots of questions and will try and work out your use. Some may be inappropriate questions about finances, wages, mortgage, etc. They are looking for a story of vulnerability such as bad experiences with your ex-partners. Refrain from offloading on the first date. They will be looking for commitment very early on. Healthy-minded people don’t do instant relationships. Avoid behaviours that trigger attachment such as kissing, hugging or touching.

Be the leading role in your own film. This is your life and you deserve to be in charge!

The views expressed in this article are those of the author. All articles published on Counselling Directory are reviewed by our editorial team.

Share this article with a friend
Telford, Shropshire, TF2
Written by Nicki Cawley
Telford, Shropshire, TF2

As I counsellor and psychotherapist I understand the issues in the articles I write. I try my best to keep my writing as simple as possible to allow anyone to have a read. No jargon needed! I feel passionate about all of my articles and write them so that I can help as many people as possible. Thank you for reading.

Show comments

Find a therapist dealing with Relationship problems

All therapists are verified professionals

All therapists are verified professionals