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Do you think that your partner might be a narcissist? What are common signs of narcissistic behavior in a relationship?
Spotting a narcissist can be hard because they’re very good at hiding their behavior. There are a few behaviors, however, that are easy to point out if you know what to look for.
Below we’ve listed five signs of narcissistic behavior in a relationship that are red flags.
1. Building You Up and Tearing You Down
One sign of narcissistic behavior in a relationship is a repeating pattern of showering you with love, compliments, and affection to suck you into a relationship, only to then tear you down psychologically through covert and direct insults. Power by Shahida Arabi says that this tends to end with the narcissist cruelly abandoning you, though they are likely to try to maintain control and start the pattern all over again with false promises of changing their behavior. Arabi refers to this as the “Idealize-Devalue-Discard” cycle.
This tactic is effective because, at the neurological level, it establishes a biochemical addiction to the narcissist. The narcissist’s false charm and over-the-top expressions of love (what Arabi calls “love-bombing”) tend to make you invested in them quickly, and it leads to high amounts of the brain chemical dopamine that makes you feel good.
Arabi then says that when the narcissist begins to turn on you and withhold that affection, you’ll strive to please them to get back to that level of dopamine. By erratically flip-flopping between love and cruelty, the narcissist creates what psychologists call an “intermittent reward” that makes the dopamine rush even more intense when they finally treat you well. Arabi compares this to when people play slot machines, and they can’t stop playing because of the randomness of the occasional earnings.
Attacking Your Self-Esteem
Arabi writes that during the stages of hurting you psychologically, the narcissist may use outright insults, like “You’re so bad at your job” or more covert tactics that they try to hide their malice behind. For example, they might express fake concern by saying, “I’m worried that you don’t make enough money to meet your needs,” knowing full well that you do. Arabi says that this type of insincere statement is intended to make you feel worthless and inadequate (which makes narcissists feel better about themselves). Arabi adds that because of their pathological envy, narcissists will especially target areas in which you’re successful and confident.
Narcissists may also damage your self-esteem by speaking poorly of you to others, often projecting their own faults onto you. For example, they might tell everyone in your friend group that you’re controlling and rude to them. This constant trash-talking (what Arabi calls the “smear campaign”) is intended to damage your reputation to the point of causing social isolation, so you’re even more dependent on them. Arabi says that this also reduces your ability to confide in others about the abuse, thereby making it less likely that you’ll be able to hold the abuser accountable.
Lastly, Arabi says narcissists often strategically talk about other people in a way that makes you feel bad about yourself by comparison. Arabi calls this “triangulation” because the narcissist brings a third person into the relationship dynamic, even though that person may not even be aware this is happening, and the information is often false. For example, the narcissist might bring up their ex-partner frequently, talking about how talented they are or other positive traits. Similar to the covert insult examples, the narcissist might target either the areas you like about yourself (to erode your confidence) or the areas you’re particularly insecure about (to inflict a deeper psychological wound).
The next common sign of narcissistic behavior in a relationship is gaslighting, in which the abuser makes you feel like the abuse isn’t actually happening or that your negative reaction to their abuse is unwarranted. Power says they might achieve this with blatant denial, like “That never happened,” or by feigning innocence and implying that you’re overly sensitive. For example, they might use statements like “I didn’t know you would get so upset about that—I didn’t mean any harm,” even when they intentionally hurt and triggered you.
Arabi explains that this tactic is highly damaging because it makes you question whether the abuse is really happening and makes you feel ashamed for being too sensitive or critical. This ultimately gives the narcissist more ammunition to harm (an additional insecurity to target) and reduces your ability to call them out or hold them accountable.
Narcissists in relationships tend to feel entitled to their feelings and desires, even if they hurt their partner. Entitled people don’t learn from failure and challenges to become empathetic adults.
The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck by Mark Manson says that entitled people feel they deserve rewards they didn’t earn, and convince themselves they’re doing great things when they’re not, which is an example of narcissistic behavior in a relationship.
At the extreme, entitled people are self-aggrandizing—if something good happens to them they believe it’s because they’re great; if something bad happens then it’s not their fault. They do whatever they feel is necessary to maintain their self-image and status, including abusing others.
The real gauge of a person’s self-esteem is how they feel about their flaws and bad experiences, not how they feel about their positive experiences.
Manson says that if you have genuine self-esteem, then you recognize your flaws and work to fix them. If you have a fragile self-esteem that comes from entitlement, then you do everything you can to hide your flaws (even from yourself) and deny that they exist.
Narcissists See Their Behavior as Justified
Far from feeling conflicted or guilty about their abuse, many abusers see their behavior as justified and even necessary for the relationship to function. In Why Does He Do That?, Lundy Bancroft notes that while many of his clients fully understood that they were causing harm, they rationalized their behavior, saying things like, “I’m not like one of those men who would hit a woman for no reason.”
In the abuser’s mind, the victim actually causes the abuse by stepping out of line or upsetting them. The abuser expects their partner to behave according to their rules, and whatever controlling or retaliatory action they take is either necessary to control their partner or “not that bad” compared to truly meaningless cruelty. According to Bancroft, it’s this self-justification that makes abusers get worse over time, as increasingly violent and aggressive behavior will become acceptable to them if it allows them to maintain control over the relationship.
4. They Put Up a Front With Others
According to licensed counselor Jay Reid, a narcissist can turn off their narcissistic persona and turn on the charm when there’s a risk that someone might witness his abuse and bring consequences to bear. Several victims recount that as soon as the police showed up, their abuser became calm and articulate, downplaying what happened or depicting her as hysterical.
Why Does He Do That? discusses how abusers, in general, will also often wait until they’re behind closed doors to turn on a partner, even if what upset them occurred hours or weeks earlier. Many victims remain trapped in abusive relationships because their abuser is so good at switching between personas that no one believes such a likable person could be abusive.
This ability to quickly switch between personas is sometimes discussed in psychiatry as a trait of sociopathy or personality disorders. While any abuser can switch personas, this is a common narcissistic behavior in a relationship. When a person lacks empathy or is unable to form strong emotional attachments to others, it’s easy for them to treat people with extreme charm or extreme cruelty—their behavior isn’t motivated by genuine feeling, but by a desire to “win” a social interaction and get what they want, and they feel little to no guilt for the emotional impact their behavior has on others.
While most abusers aren’t full sociopaths or narcissists, they do tend to lack empathy for their victims. This absence of feeling similarly enables both the abuse and the abuser’s ability to manipulate others into seeing only what he wants them to see—a charming, trustworthy, and nonviolent person.
A narcissist’s suppression of the self—to avoid disapproval, conflict, or strong emotions—leads them to frequent disappointment. In fact, their indirect and avoidant nature results in an angry cycle of self-victimization.
In No More Mr. Nice Guy, Robert Glover stresses that in their frustration with life, a so-called “Nice Guy” is often far from nice. In fact, their indirect and avoidant nature results in an angry cycle of self-victimization that is often seen in narcissists:
A narcissist does something to appear nice → He stews in silent resentment when things don’t automatically go his way → Unable to contain his anger any longer, he eventually lashes out via tantrums, passive-aggressive behavior, or even abuse.
Glover notes that because he avoids addressing the root cause of his tantrum—opting to “fix” the reactions of others instead—the cycle continues indefinitely.
The Victim Mentality
This cycle is often referred to as a disorder of its own: the victim mentality. Psychoanalyst Manfred F.R. Kets de Vries presents a similar cycle when discussing victimhood. Just as a narcissist believes he must people-please to get what he wants out of life, de Vries’s victim stage is defined by a belief that all control over your life rests in the hands of external forces. And like a narcissist’s eventual angry outbursts, his victimizer stage sees the “victim’s” feelings of powerlessness turn into a rage that gets taken out on the innocent people around them.
However, unlike Glover, de Vries adds a final rescuer stage, in which the “victim” decides to “rescue” others in an attempt to fix everyone’s problems except their own. When someone tries to help the “victim” in return, they invent reasons to resist this assistance to unconsciously affirm their victim status and elicit more attention.
This is by no means an exhaustive list of narcissistic behaviors in a relationship, but these are warning signs you can look out for. A narcissist can trap you in an unhealthy relationship if you ignore the signs, which can be damaging to your mental health. When you notice a red flag, remind yourself that you deserve to be with someone who treats you with respect.
What are other signs of narcissistic behavior in a relationship? Let us know in the comments below!
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