You might love your partner, but can you have a good relationship with them if they’re too busy loving themselves? We’ve outlined the difference between someone who displays occasional tendencies towards narcissism, and someone with true narcissistic personality disorder – as well as how to navigate a relationship with each.
Wouldn’t it be a wonderful thing if, after a spin through the socially constructed and genetic whirlpool of human nature, we all turned out to be decent, caring and humble human beings? But in reality – as we know all too well – it takes all kinds of people to make a world.
Strong and healthy relationships form the foundation of our wellbeing, so how do we avoid the perils of unhealthy ones? Developing an awareness of those characters who will not be good for us, including those with significant narcissistic tendencies, is one way.
Narcissism – the meaning behind the buzz word
The use of psychological labels such as ‘narcissism’ has become more and more popular in recent years. But we often use them without a full understanding of their meaning. These labels were developed as descriptions of human behaviour and can exist across a spectrum.
“It’s true that narcissistic traits, tendencies, and ‘selfish’ behaviour have become more normalised in Western culture in particular, with an emphasis on the individual at the cost of community. Individualism is rampant.”
As you look around, you might see narcissistic traits and tendencies in friends, family, your own partner and maybe even yourself. From time to time, we all become a little self-focused and self-important, we want others to admire us and see us as special, and we might even be a little selfish or insensitive.
This is in fact quite normal and can even sometimes be healthy. But this behaviour doesn’t usually exclude an ability to be sensitive and caring to others. That’s why when talking about the meaning of narcissism, it’s important to keep things in perspective.
The difference between narcissistic traits and true narcissism
Most of the time when we refer to someone as a narcissist, it’s because we have experienced them as consistently acting in a self-important, selfish and insensitive way. On the other hand, we might call someone narcissistic when they are not doing what we want, and we don’t like the boundaries they may be setting.
The good news is that these behaviours are a long way from the extreme form of malignant narcissism that we call ‘narcissistic personality disorder’ (NPD), which is thankfully quite rare – less than 1% of the general population, and more common among men than women.
So while someone might be inclined to be a little selfish and self-important, that doesn’t mean they’re not capable of caring for others. The key factor to look for is whether an individual can be caring and sensitive at least some of the time.
What is narcissistic personality disorder?
While narcissistic behaviour exists on a spectrum, someone who would meet the criteria for NPD would consistently display at least five of the following criteria:
- Has an inflated sense of self-importance and an extreme preoccupation with one’s self
- Needs constant and excessive admiration and expects to be recognised as superior for their exaggerated, often unworthy, achievements and talents
- Is selfish and lacks empathy across numerous contexts – they are unable or unwilling to recognise the feelings or needs of others
- Has fantasies of unlimited success, power, brilliance, uniqueness, beauty or perfect love
- Believes he or she is ‘special’ and should only relate to other special people – looks down on people they believe to be inferior
- Has a strong sense of entitlement – expects favourable treatment or automatic compliance with his or her wishes
- Has a tendency to take advantage of others to get what he or she wants
- May display ‘caring and giving’ behaviours, but these are usually just to get what they want, or to make them look good
- Is envious of others or believes others envy him or her
What is it like being in a relationship with a true narcissist?
A person with NPD will have a lot invested in projecting an image of having a perfect and happy relationship. They’ll also want their partner to maintain this charade.
Often their partner will avoid telling others the truth about the relationship. They may seek to avoid embarrassment or hope that things will improve if they just tolerate or ignore the bad behaviour. They also learn that complaining only makes things worse, because their complaints are a wound to the ego of the narcissistic partner.
Ultimately, people with true NPD generally cannot be changed. Someone at the extreme end of this personality type will find it almost impossible to develop insight into how others see them.
This makes it difficult for them to accept any responsibility for behaviours that make their spouse or partner unhappy. In fact, they may respond to their partner’s or other people’s concerns with anger. They may tell lies or twist the truth, shift the blame, or even argue that they are the real victim.
Is it ever possible to have a healthy relationship with a narcissist?
If we are talking about a person who meets the criteria for NPD listed above, the answer would have to be ‘no’. It’s difficult to have a genuine and loving connection with someone who makes everything about themselves. Additionally, in many cases, those in relationships with someone who has NPD can experience ongoing psychological and emotional abuse – types of domestic violence – at the hands of their partners.
But if you do happen to find yourself in a relationship with someone who might simply display narcissistic tendencies, there is some hope.
Relationships that survive will rely on the partner having good self-esteem, strong boundaries, resources that are valued by the narcissist, patience, an even-tempered personality, and a reason to stay. Over time, your self-esteem will need good reinforcement from other parts of your life, like work or friends, to be maintained.
The success of the relationship will also depend on your partner being able to learn to respond well to your feedback. They may not respond with empathy and understanding at first, but if they can eventually acknowledge your requests in some way, then that signals some hope for the relationship.
If they can never accept or take your concerns on board, then the relationship risks becoming a lopsided and potentially psychologically risky connection – and one that’s ultimately likely to break down over time.
What the myth of Narcissus and Echo can teach us
Many of us are familiar with where the term narcissist comes from – the Greek myth about the beautiful young man, Narcissus, who falls in love with his own image in a pool of water. But the character often left out of this story is the mountain nymph, Echo, who falls in love with Narcissus and is rejected by him. When Narcissus, unable to stop staring at his own image, wastes away and dies, Echo mourns over his body until she too wastes away.
The experience of Echo teaches us an important lesson in how not to become a victim of a narcissistic personality. While narcissists can be attractive, charming and successful people, they can be limited in their capacity to look beyond themselves and care for others. A healthy relationship involves the ability of both partners to give and take.
How counselling can help
To get to a more balanced arrangement in your relationship, professional counselling can be important. You need to understand the basis for the apparent self-focus and insensitivity of your partner. While these things can come about for a whole range of reasons, they could also shift with some focused work with a therapist.
However, if your partner refuses to consider your views or the possibility of working on the relationship with the support of a third party like a therapist, and even suggests you should just look at yourself – these could be signs that change is going to be less likely.