Surviving a relationship with a narcissist

Narcissists can sap their romantic partners of all their energy. How can you move on from narcissistic abuse?

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Jan 12, 2022 UPDATED
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If you’ve been in a romantic relationship with someone who has narcissistic personality disorder (NPD), you’ve likely been abused.

Narcissistic abuse is psychological abuse: both mental and emotional. It can also include financial abuse. And, in the most extreme cases, narcissistically abusive relationships can include physical or sexual abuse. 

What is narcissistic personality disorder (NPD)? 

NPD is a condition that causes some people to feel more important than others. People with NPD literally cannot care about others as much as they care about themselves. Because they focus so much on themselves, it can be hard for narcissists to be loving, supportive partners.

A narcissistic partner can manipulate you into feeling confused, disoriented, exhausted, incompetent, inferior, isolated—the list goes on and on.

** A note here about language: I’ll be using the term “narcissist” as shorthand for a person who has the condition known as narcissistic personality disorder. This is not intended to be a judgment on those who have this condition; narcissism is a disordered adaptation to one’s context, not a choice.

While some narcissists are conscious of their abusive behavior, many are not. Their disorder can lead them to believe their actions are normal. In fact, most narcissists don’t believe they have a problem at all, so they’re not likely to seek treatment.

As for the rest of us, for the most part, we are never taught how to spot—and protect ourselves from—people with NPD. 

So the first step toward recovery from narcissistic abuse may be recognizing that this person actually has NPD. From there, you can begin to make sense of what happened during the relationship. 

It’s not uncommon for incredibly bright, healthy people to get sucked into relationships with narcissists. Narcissists are often very charming. They can use this charm to manipulate situations to their benefit. But things don’t remain charming for long.

Relationships with narcissists are toxic

People with NPD cannot to have healthy, authentic, loving relationships. For starters, they lack empathy. They simply don’t acknowledge other people’s feelings. 

For someone with NPD, other people are merely the source of what’s called their “narcissistic supply.” Narcissistic supply is to a person with NPD what a fix is to a junkie: It’s a need they have for attention and energy. This supply essentially feeds physical, mental and emotional needs.

In my interview with Sharie Stines, PsyD, LPCC, who works with survivors of narcissistic abuse, she said narcissistic supply comes in many forms, including:

  • Attention, both positive and negative

  • Compliments and praise

  • Feeling powerful (including having power over you)

  • Feeling in control (including controlling you)

  • Emotional energy, both positive and negative

  • Accomplishments like winning

  • Sex and

  • Addictive substances or activities—which is one reason narcissists are extremely likely to have struggle with substance abuse.

Being the source of this supply can leave a romantic partner feeling left drained, demoralized, and exhausted. 

The following are a few of the myriad ways narcissists might use a partner to gain energy and otherwise fill their needs in a relationship.

A Monarch by SimplePractice infographic that defines narcissistic supply and lists the different forms of it.

Narcissists don’t listen, they lecture

One of the first things you might notice about a narcissist is the talking. Odds are you know everything about the narcissist in your life, but they know little about you. That’s partly because narcissists don’t listen. They lecture or monologue. 

Narcissists need your full attention, and there’s no better way to ensure they get that attention than by filibustering.

According to Julie L. Hall, author of The Narcissist in Your Life, narcissists monologue because they:

  • want control

  • need attention

  • see themselves as expert authorities

  • feel greater entitlement to speak

  • don’t care what you have to say unless it relates to them

  • believe they are above codes of fairness and reciprocity

  • feel powerful, making you submit

When narcissists do listen, it’s often to learn information that they can use against you later: to manipulate you and guilt you into doing what they desire. 

Narcissists can’t handle pushback

In spite of their external bravado, people with NPD are incredibly fragile inside. They can’t tolerate the slightest criticism. And they “have secret feelings of insecurity, shame, vulnerability and humiliation,” according to the Mayo Clinic

Narcissistic abuse can be subtle and it happens gradually, over a long period of time.

Narcissists can go from Jekyll to Hyde with no warning. Even when everything seems to be going well, if a narcissist interprets something you say as criticism, they can turn on you suddenly.

People with NPD insist on getting what they want, when they want it. They often throw tantrums when they don’t get their way, or use their rage—or the threat of it—as another way to control and dominate others. 

A Monarch by SimplePractice illustration of a man wearing a black and white striped shirt, black pants, black shoes, and a black messenger bag.

Did I experience narcissistic abuse?

It’s shockingly easy to spend years in a close relationship with a narcissist and not even realize you’re being abused. Narcissistic abuse can be subtle and it happens gradually, over a long period of time.

Love-bombing

In the beginning, someone with NPD will turn on the charm and sweep you off your feet; they’ll shower you with attention and praise. Your relationship will be energizing, exciting, intoxicating. They can be kind and generous. 

It’s not uncommon for incredibly bright, healthy people to get sucked into relationships with narcissists.

This may not sound like abuse, but it is merely the first phase of the relationship—the idealization phase, according to Stines—and it lays the groundwork for trouble to come. Stines says the idealization phase is followed by the devaluation phase, which is filled with narcissistic abuse, then the discard phase, when the narcissist will leave you.

Gaslighting

When you confront a narcissist about a lie, an abusive action, or any other transgression, they’ll typically do one of two things:

  1. They’ll twist it around to make it your fault ("you’re too sensitive", "you take things too seriously"), or

  2. they’ll use a technique called gaslighting

The term gaslighting comes from the 1944 movie Gaslight, in which a husband manipulates his wife into thinking she’s insane. Narcissists can be experts at this form of psychological abuse.

Essentially, they abuse you twice:

  • Abuse 1: They lie to you.

  • Abuse 2: Then they convince you that you misunderstood what they’d said, or that the first abuse never happened.

Isolation

Gaslighting is particularly awful when it’s combined with another narcissist specialty: isolation techniques that cut you off from friends and family. Without this support system, you become completely dependent on the narcissist.

Combined with gaslighting—which can lead a person to not even trust themselves—this can be catastrophic.

Triangulation and projection

Triangulation is another common narcissist manipulation technique. In this case, a narcissist will try to create an artificial love triangle by involving a third person in your relationship.

This creates an abundance of narcissistic supply: energy and attention from two different people. It feeds a narcissist’s endless need for admiration.

Triangulation is often accompanied by projection. The narcissist may project all of their own positive qualities onto an exciting new playmate, idealizing that person as “perfect.” Simultaneously, the narcissist may project all of their negative traits onto you, denigrating you as “utterly flawed.” 

What are the lasting effects of life with a narcissist?

Being in a relationship with a narcissist can leave you:

  • feeling powerless

  • feeling worthless

  • filled with shame, guilt and humiliation

  • with an overactive nervous system that’s always on high alert

  • with depression, anxiety and mood-related issues

  • with cognitive dissonance

  • afraid to get into another relationship

  • financially insecure, and

  • with non-existent boundaries. 

How to heal from narcissistic abuse

Getting over a relationship with a narcissist is utterly unlike getting over any other relationship. Narcissistic abuse cuts deep. But it’s definitely possible to heal.

Here are several steps Stines recommends you take on your path to recovery:

  • Adopt a mantra. Remind yourself that it’s not your fault. (Stines recommends making “It’s not my fault” your daily mantra.)

  • Grieve. You experienced real losses. You suffered trauma and heartbreak. The relationship—and the future—you envisioned didn’t happen. Grief is normal and necessary.

  • Get to know yourself again. What do you enjoy?

  • Find your voice. Learn to express your boundaries.

  • Take good care of yourself. Prioritize self-care.

  • Don’t take things personally. Remember that other people’s actions are about them and often come from their woundedness.

Tips to dealing with a narcissist

It’s important to cease contact with the narcissist. If that’s not possible—perhaps because you’re co-parenting or still going through a divorce—they recommend using a technique called grey rock. The idea is to become as bland as a grey rock.

No matter what the narcissist says or does, you don’t react.

By becoming a grey rock, you stop being a source of narcissistic supply. You become boring and useless to the person with NPD. However, there are times when this technique can be dangerous, particularly with a violent narcissist, so it’s important to be cautious. 

Find a therapist who specializes in narcissistic abuse

In many cases, it’s wise to find a therapist who understands narcissistic abuse and the unique dynamics of a relationship with a narcissist.

Recovery likely will take some effort. But no one is worth being in a relationship with if you lose yourself to be with that person.


If you think you've been a victim of narcissistic abuse, consider seeing a mental health professional. Monarch can help you find a therapist who specializes in overcoming abuse in relationships.

Article originally published Mar 25, 2021. Updated Jan 12, 2022.

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