Recognizing and Recovering from Narcissistic Relationships

By Kyle Shiver, LPC

The urge to love and be loved is deeply engrained in our DNA. Research is continually showing an unmistakable relationship between living in isolation and experiencing disease, mental health challenges, and early death. Living life apart from others is as harmful to our well-being as chain smoking, while living a life with authentic intimate connections is correlated with longer and healthier lives. When this innate urge to connect is healthily balanced with enough self-love to lay boundaries around behaviors that are not okay with the individual, it helps us live satisfying and productive lives. But just as every human strength has its shadow, so too it is possible under certain conditions for the urge to connect to drive us into (or keep us locked into) toxic relationships with people exhibiting narcissistic traits. If our urge to connect overrides our ability to value ourselves and demand dignified treatment, we can find ourselves in relationships at the cost of our identity, self-esteem, and concept of healthy love.

Narcissism is a personality disorder that can be treated and maintained but not cured, and can only be diagnosed by a licensed mental health professional. It is a set of behavioral, cognitive, and emotional traits that render a person incapable to maintaining deep connections with others because of their inability to see beyond themselves. Many people live with narcissistic traits and do not meet the criteria for a disorder, and others exhibit enough traits to be diagnosed with Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD). While none of the narcissistic traits or behaviors in isolation denote a diagnosable personality disorder, individuals may benefit from learning the warning signs of narcissistic relationships to prevent the degradation of self and lengthy self-repair that follows.

One of the first warning signs and the first stage of a narcissistic relationship is a quick pace laden with idealism – especially if it is attuned to our life’s moments of low self-esteem. Narcissistic people are skilled at sensing vulnerabilities. They sense when giving individual’s low self-worth and loneliness is activated, and they may take the opportunity to provide the individual with high levels of complimentary reinforcement. This is welcomed and even thrilling to the target individual. The narcissistic person will idealize them, placing them on a pedestal and painting them in an overwhelmingly positive light. The target individual may find the narcissist professing their love at a time that feels premature. They may buy expensive gifts and make grandiose gestures to make the individual feel special, and they may push the idea of cohabitation or engagement before it feels appropriate. Again, in isolation this may not be indicative of a narcissist (it may truly be a case of fantastic chemistry!), but it should be noted, and it may benefit the individual to watch for signs of the second stage of a narcissistic relationship.

The second stage of a narcissistic relationship is that of devaluation. In this stage, the narcissist will begin to degrade, demean, and lie to the other person in the relationship. One of the most common and insidious tactics the narcissist may use is gaslighting. Gaslighting is a particularly harmful form of lying. Not only does the narcissist tell untruths, but they convince their partner that what they saw and heard did not occur. This leads the narcissist’s partner into questioning their own thoughts and feelings. It discourages their partner from listening to their intuition and culminates in deferring completely to the narcissist for truth and security, even though the narcissist has created a false foundation for the relationship. In the devaluation phase, narcissists use their partner to meet their own emotional needs, and withhold from meeting their partner’s needs. Though their partner may be affectionate and loving, the narcissist may keep demanding more and more attention to the degree that their partner finds themselves exhausted and in a one-way relationship. Their partner becomes the giver and the narcissist becomes the receiver. The partner may become resentful and angry, and the narcissist may convince them that they have an anger management issue. This is a particularly risky phase of the relationship – especially if the narcissist uses physical abuse to assert control over their partner. If a partner finds himself or herself in this situation, it may require professional help to ensure safety while navigating an exit from the relationship.

After the narcissist has had their fill and no longer needs the particular emotional resources their partner provided, they will discard them – usually abruptly, and usually at the most painful time for the partner. Often, the narcissist will discard during or right before important milestones such as their partner giving birth, graduating from school, getting married, starting a new career, or anything that would serve as an emotionally significant and joyous moment for their partner. The timing of this discard ensures that their partner will always remember them – that the breakup will leave a lasting impact on the partner so the narcissist will always be the center of their thoughts and feelings. This leaves the partner dazed and confused, and traumatized – left to pick up the pieces of their lives on their own. The partner of the narcissist is often left with soul-crushing self-doubt, low self-esteem, and an aching loneliness.

Recovery from a narcissistic relationship requires time and effort – effort to reconnect with their identity, to rekindle their trust in their intuition, and to learn to love themselves in spite of the aching loneliness. The combination of these symptoms leave the individual vulnerable to the narcissist’s almost certain ‘boomeranging’ back to them for emotional support once their other emotional resources run dry. This is why it is essential for the individual to refrain from entering any romantic relationships before they can recover enough self-love and self-trust to recognize red flags and avoid narcissists in their future. If this work is not done, not only is the partner left open to more traps set by the old narcissist’s boomerang tactics, but also leaves them ripe for the picking of a new narcissist in their future. Empathetic, caring, giving people without enough self-love to lay healthy boundaries for themselves are low-hanging fruit for narcissists. If you find yourself in or recovering from a narcissistic relationship, seek help from a licensed professional. Individual talk therapy is one of the most effective tools for repair and prevention.