How Does Narcissism Affect Relationships?

This simple-sounding question is quite complex because the narcissist doesn’t actually form ‘normal’ relationships that are mutual, reciprocal, grow as one gets to know another over time, or take into consideration the needs of others. The narcissist, male or female, though most often male, is focused on himself.

Such people don’t actually “relate” but they converse, act, and respond with their own benefit always in mind.

They may know how to sound as if they are listening to the other’s wishes or point of view, but they are really just waiting to get what they want to please their own sense of accomplishment or satisfaction.

The narcissist’s difficulty loving someone else

Despite appearances to the contrary, the narcissist doesn’t really love himself and therefore can not love another.

Their overly self-focus prevents them from seeing the other person as a separate individual with their own needs, wants, intents, beliefs, and desires. Love requires that.

From their easily slighted point of view, the other person exists to fulfill their needs only. Due to this sense of “entitlement,” they can’t really “see” another human being, so they cannot muster up or even understand actual empathy, and the other virtues that take another into careful consideration necessary for loving.

How do you know if you’re in a narcissistic relationship?

If you are a reasonably accepting, kind person who values humanity, you may likely work overly hard to communicate with a narcissist not realizing perhaps for a long extended period of time, that it is not you who doesn’t understand him, but he who doesn’t even know to try and understand you.

If you’ve never had this experience before you may find yourself baffled, unsure, puzzled, self-doubting, self-critical and looking to yourself as if you’re at fault for misreading the narcissist’s intentions.

It takes a long time for a “good” human being to fathom others aren’t considerate, aware of other’s needs, entirely self-focused and self-absorbed, and only interested in you if what you do or say benefits them. If, however, the light bulb goes off, or your friends or family question your self-criticism, they may alert you that you are off base.

This may be the rudest awakening that the other person, the narcissist, is not in your ballpark when it comes to relationships. It may only slowly dawn on you because you are more self-critical than accustomed to finding fault with others, that you are accustomed to blaming yourself for disagreements or mean and cruel negative responses to your behavior than questioning others, and eventually begin to consider that you are feeling exploited, misused, taken advantage of and in the end quite lonely because you, as a person, aren’t recognized.

When the light bulb starts to blink and even shatter, you are startled and then afraid that you have not interpreted the narcissist’s actions accurately. That is a flaw in your good character that has made you naïve, but not bad or to be seen as a fault.

Your integrity that has taken a life time to build you finally recognize is highly worthy of recognition.

Related: 25+ Signs You Are in a Narcissistic Relationship

What if you stand up to a narcissist?

Once you are enlightened, you may out of the kindness of your heart and belief in humanity, think you can change the narcissist if now you begin to stand up to him.

You speak up. You set boundaries. You expect him to respond because you are clear now and less afraid to be direct.

But to your naïve surprise, your illusions are shattered once again as the narcissist comes back with his own demands rather than responding to yours which have probably been put in a delicate, empathic manner—to no avail.

Related: Will a Narcissist Come Back After No Contact?

Only now as you begin to feel your guilt creep in as if you have been the unreasonable one, you identify more clearly that you are not indeed to blame, but being maltreated and your intentions are not at all understood.

Why? Because there really is no actual relationship.

How do you reclaim your sense of self in this abnormal relationship?

As your confidence builds with your newly developing trust in your own understanding of what’s happening, you may hear yourself voicing your own authentic views that may either fall on deaf ears or perhaps, hopefully, disarm the narcissist.

“I’m sorry you see me that way, but you are mistaken. Your perception of me is false and I can no longer just let it pass by without pointing it out.”

“I accept how you feel because and only because you never give me a choice, but your anger directed at me is clearly misplaced. I’ve become your target even when I am not your enemy. It’s time for you, not me, to question why your anger bursts out so easily or you give me the silent treatment.”

“I cannot control how you see me, but you cannot control me either. I have my own points of view, wishes, intentions, thoughts, desires, and even ambitions. These views are not meant to thwart your needs as you misperceive them. I tell you this not because I am heartless, but in fact, because you need to know yourself better.”

The narcissist may not stick around to hear you out with these extended comments. But briefer ones will just be ignored.

Such statements above come from genuine understanding and desperate hopes that your relationship can change.

Can narcissistic people change and form real relationships?

This of course becomes the key question if you still can endure and wish for a relationship with the narcissist which may now be long term.

At first, it depends on whether the narcissist can believe at some level that your values will benefit him. But they will still be seen as your values not yet his.

It is only when what you seek isn’t seen for how it satisfies a need only in the narcissist, that you may have broken a little chip off their self-protected armor.

If they find they fear losing you for good, must face their own inner loneliness, and lose years of building up a family life that they actually do desire, you may have a chance to develop an authentic, genuine relationship.

Don’t raise your hopes too high without professional help. Ironically, narcissists need a great deal of empathy in treatment with a talented therapist who understands the narcissist has never learned how to trust.

The narcissist who is only being empathized with at first, not redirected, not given advice, not criticized, may capture the essence of another person caring about him.

The key to that is the words, “another person.” If the narcissist can see the professional as a separate individual who is not daunted by his wish to control him or her, perhaps the therapy will hold. If it does, this is a fair and now realistic time to feel some beginning hope.

If you are not a part of the therapy, but only see your partner afterward, you may notice some disorientation, some unsettled feelings, a softer voice, diminished urgencies to be unkind and even cruel.

At the very best, you may find the narcissist discovers remorse, even guilt. This may take several years of sustained regular treatment, but if you can tolerate the wait, and feel your long term investment in life with the narcissist isn’t one you want to give up, this can give you hope for an honest to goodness relationship.

Related: Will a Narcissist Ever Find True Love?

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Website: Laurie Hollman, Ph. D.
Laurie Hollman, Ph.D. is a psychoanalyst with specialized clinical training in infant-parent, child adolescent, and adult psychotherapy and is an expert on the Narcissistic Personality Disorder.

She is an authority on modern parent-child relationships who has published six award-winning parenting books and her book on narcissism. Her newest book in 2021 is Playing with Baby: Research-Based Play to Bond with Your Baby from Birth to One Year.

She has been on the faculties of New York University and the Society for Psychoanalytic Training and Research, among others.