By Margaret Paul
Oftentimes when it comes to talking about narcissists, we’re talking about how to identify them in our lives so we can cut them out as soon as possible. But in reality, especially when it comes to romantic relationships, not everybody may be so eager to head for the door.
Perhaps you’re feeling a bit blown away because you’ve just realized that your partner—someone you love—is a narcissist. You feel very connected to this person, but you also feel turmoil and confusion because you know you’re not being treated as well as you could be and don’t know what to do.
Unlike the two other “dark triad” personality types (psychopaths and Machiavellians), there’s a lot of nuance and differentiation among narcissists. Some narcissists are worse than others; some are simply annoying but tolerable while others’ selfishness and self-importance manifest as outright cruelty toward the people around them. Depending on the specifics of their behaviors and character, it’s fully possible to make a relationship with a narcissist work. But to move forward, here are five things you must do:
1. Identify the real reasons you want to stay in your relationship.
First of all, you need to be certain you are staying for the right reasons—and not because you are scared to be alone, scared of what the narcissist might do, addicted to the drama that occurs with your narcissist partner, or are trauma-bonded to the narcissist (which can happen when your narcissistic partner is similar to one or both of your parents). Be honest with yourself: Why do you really want to stay?
Narcissists are not easy people to be around, as you’re probably well aware of by now—they lack empathy, they’re entitled, they brag a lot, and they’re very willing to put you down to keep themselves feeling high. And yet, for all the good reasons a person who finds themselves dating or married to a narcissist might want to leave, there are still some perfectly valid reasons they might want to try to make the relationship work. Some examples:
- You have children and don’t want to break up the family, and your partner is OK as a parent.
- There are financial issues to consider.
- Your partner isn’t having affairs, isn’t physically or verbally violent, and isn’t substance-addicted. (If they are, then trying to make it work isn’t a good option—you need to make plans to leave.)
- Your partner is fun to be with. They can be very exciting when they want to be.
- When you do connect, it feels good.
Spend some time reflecting on what you gain by staying. Talk to a trusted friend or a professional to help yourself explore your real desires, needs, and motivations.
2. Gauge your narcissistic partner’s willingness to receive help.
For your relationship to work, your narcissistic partner will need to be proactive about changing—and that means they need to seek out professional help. The problem, of course, is that narcissists generally refuse to acknowledge their own flaws and see everyone else but themselves as the real problem. If this is the case, then you either need to 100 percent accept that nothing is going to change—that you get what you see—or you need to leave the relationship.
If your partner says they’re willing to start down a path toward change and healing, be sure to back off and let them find their own professional help. If you try to find the help for them, they will likely resist or find something wrong with the person you chose. If they are sincere about getting help, they will take charge of the process themselves and make sure it happens. If they don’t, then you need to accept that they are not going to get help.
3. Stop trying to control your partner’s behavior.
Most of us, as we were growing up, learned various forms of control to get love and avoid pain. Controlling behavior is any behavior that has an agenda attached to it—behavior that is an attempt to get your partner to change and to see things your way. Some controlling is overt, such as anger or threats, and other controlling behavior is more covert, such as giving up your own needs to try to get a certain response from your partner.
Here are just a few examples of ways you might be attempting to control your partner’s behavior:
- Apologizing when you know that you haven’t done anything wrong, taking responsibility to appease your partner.
- Giving yourself up by complying with your partner’s demands because you hope to stave off anger and blame or get approval.
- Constantly tiptoeing around, walking on eggshells to not trigger your partner.
- Excusing or explaining away your partner’s behavior to yourself or to others, putting it off on their childhood or their level of stress.
- Making yourself responsible for your partner’s feelings while ignoring your own.
- Getting angry or withdrawing, hoping to punish your partner enough to get them to change.
- Threatening your partner in some way, such as with leaving or with finances.
- Frequently blaming your partner for your pain, hoping they will care and stop doing hurtful things.
Sometimes controlling behavior may seem well-intentioned, but it’s nonetheless unhealthy. Any time you are trying to control your partner rather than focusing on taking care of your own feelings and needs, you are abandoning yourself. It will not only result in you feeling even worse—because you are trying to control something you can’t control—but it will likely also create resistance. This is true in all relationships but especially so when it comes to narcissists, who generally hate being controlled.
In addition, trying to control in both overt and covert ways is your participation in the dysfunctional system you are in. If you have any chance of making this relationship work, you need to heal your end of the codependent system.
In order to stay and make it work for you, you need to stop trying to be responsible for your partner’s feelings and focus on taking responsibility for your own feelings instead. That means developing a strong, loving inner adult who speaks up for you rather than gives yourself up.
4. Seek out other sources of care.
Narcissists will almost always prioritize themselves, their own desires, and their own viewpoints, and it’s best to not expect them to be there to take care of your feelings. If you want to stay, then you need to be realistic and accept that you need to get your support and caring elsewhere, such as from family and friends, and let go of believing that you will get genuine care from your partner. Part of taking loving care of yourself is making sure that you get the support and connection you need in your life.
5. Learn to love yourself well.
While narcissists tend to have little motivation to change, people tend to treat us the way we treat ourselves. In other words, your partner’s treatment of you might be mirroring your own self-abandonment. You might find that the more you learn to love and value yourself and treat yourself as you would treat someone you love, the better your partner treats you. It doesn’t mean that your partner is healing, but we can indeed train people to treat us the way we want to be treated.
It’s your job to make yourself happy, which will begin to happen naturally as you learn to treat yourself with love.
You’ll have to decide for yourself whether you’re willing and able to do all five of these things if you wish to continue being in a relationship with this person. Narcissism doesn’t need to be a deal breaker, but it certainly changes the very nature of your relationship and will require a lot of strength and self-love for you to find peace and joy in it.