- Narcissism is a mental health condition that causes a lack of empathy and low self-esteem.
- If you're dating a narcissist, set clear boundaries, practice patience, and make time for yourself.
- Signs you should leave a narcissist include them being abusive, gaslighting, or blaming you.
- Visit Insider's Health Reference library for more advice.
The term narcissist is commonly used to describe any self-centered person. But there's a difference between someone who is just full of themselves versus someone who is clinically diagnosed with narcissistic personality disorder (NPD).
NPD is a mental health condition found in about 5% of people. Only a mental health professional can make this diagnosis.
What is a narcissist?
Here are some common traits of people with narcissistic personality disorder and how they may present in a relationship:
- Charm: A narcissist may be charming and very sociable when you first meet them. They may shower you with gifts and compliments, a behavior called "love bombing."
- Lack of empathy: Narcissists lack emotional empathy, which means they struggle to share emotional experiences and foster compassion. In a partnership, this might manifest as a lack of emotional support or a disinterest in your feelings or perspective. You might feel a difficulty connecting with them.
- Low self-esteem: People with fragile self-esteem may fail to take others' needs into account or act in exploitative ways, says Seth Axelrod, PhD, psychologist at Yale Medicine.
- Insecurity: A 2021 study found that narcissists' grandiosity is actually a coping mechanism they use because they are deeply insecure. This insecurity can manifest in anxious or avoidant attachment styles. They may also be dependent on your praise and validation.
- Entitlement: A narcissist may feel entitled to your time and attention, and push back when you don't give them the affirmations they crave.
- Hypersensitivity: Narcissists are prone to hypersensitivity. So, they may have an adverse reaction and lash out if you try to criticize them. And, they are less likely to feel guilt after unacceptable behavior.
These characteristics can make a romantic relationship with someone who has NPD more challenging, since they focus more on themselves and their needs than their partner's.
Here are some tips for maintaining a romantic relationship with someone who has a narcissistic personality disorder.
1. Keep boundaries
Maintaining strong boundaries is important when dating someone with NPD.
"Boundaries convey your beliefs and values, and in a relationship with a narcissist, boundaries send the message that you are not falling for their antics," says Mara Maeglin, LCSW, a social worker with her own practice. Their antics may include centering the relationship around them and constantly needing external validation.
She cautions that you may need to regularly re-establish your boundaries if faced with pushback by your partner.
"You can say, 'Don't criticize me or demean my character. It's not ok, and if it continues, I will leave the room when you start,'" says Dana McNeil, PsyD, LMFT, a therapist and founder of The Relationship Place.
2. Clearly state your expectations
Tell your partner clearly and succinctly what your expectations are and what will happen if they aren't met — most likely considering a breakup, says McNeil. The idea is to distinctly honor your needs without an undercurrent of threat or manipulation.
While a boundary is a reaction to something happening, expectations can be set before any issue occurs. You are preemptively telling your partner what you expect from them and the relationship in order to stay in it.
Be prepared to follow through on any stated consequences of boundary crossing. Not having follow-through may indicate to your partner that they don't have to take you or your needs seriously.
3. Be patient
For people with NPD, their behavior is much more than an adjustable personality trait. Like any other mental or behavioral health condition, narcissists seeking therapy or additional assistance for their personality disorder will not improve after a couple of sessions.
"It's important to realize that narcissists can change, but the process is slow and positive change must be desired by the narcissist," says Carla Marie Manly, PhD, a clinical psychologist, relationship expert, speaker, and author.
4. Learn to step away when needed
Time for yourself is a good idea in any relationship, but may be even more critical when dating someone with narcissism.
"One of the key aspects of having a successful relationship with a narcissist is to learn to step away from the narcissist's charades and shenanigans," says Manly.
This also means cultivating friendships and interests that don't center on your relationship. Taking time for yourself may look like:
- Scheduling weekly dinners with friends
- Going on a solo trip
- Taking a painting class
- Go to individual therapy
5. Understand their actions are not a reflection of you
It's easy to internalize blame when a narcissist acts in a negative manner toward you. Remind yourself that these are symptoms of NPD and are more about what's going on in their internal world versus something wrong with you.
"How they interact is more of a reflection of their own chaotic internal world," says Maeglin. Of course, this doesn't excuse any harmful behavior towards you. She recommends shifting the way you interpret their behavior to not take it personally — easier said than done.
6. Be prepared to sacrifice
Yes, all relationships will require sacrifice at some point. But, when you're in a relationship with a narcissistic person, you may end up sacrificing more.
Manly reiterates that a person with NPD can change, but it must be of their own desire and accord. "A narcissist who is on the path to healing may be able to feel love for another person, but they may always default to putting their own needs first," she says.
Maeglin cautions this can come at the cost of exploring your own wants, needs, thoughts, and feelings. You may find yourself acting passively and agreeable to keep your partner happy. "You will likely have to give up a lot to receive little in return," says Maeglin.
You'll need to be practical about the reality: A true narcissist who lacks emotional empathy may not be capable of really loving you the way you expect or need from a partner.
7. Understand when you're being gaslit
Narcissists may try to gaslight you as a way of defending their behavior.
Someone who is gaslighting you may try to:
- Isolate you from your friends and family
- Question your mental health
- Minimize your feelings
- Deny what you know to be true.
If you notice this behavior, know that it is a red flag and indicates that you need to get out of the relationship to avoid further manipulation.
8. Preserve your self-esteem
Though a relationship with a narcissist often starts out romantic, once they see your flaws, things can change. After you commit to the relationship, narcissists may start to lose interest and be less attentive.
When confronted with something that meant to make them feel shame, a narcissist may resort to rage instead. This is why criticizing them can wound their self-esteem and drive them to be hostile toward you. When narcissists feel vulnerable, they may try to devalue you.
This is where it's important to protect and boost your own self-esteem.
However, if they are actively putting you down or picking an argument, it can be better not to defend yourself, Ramani Durvasula, a licensed clinical psychologist and narcissism expert previously told Insider. Rather, try to stay calm and "get out of the situation as quickly as possible and as gracefully as possible. It's a no win, so you may as well exit with grace."
9. Don't internalize blame
Narcissists often lack object constancy, which means they aren't able to see the good aspects of your relationship when they're blinded by anger.
Similarly, narcissists tend to project their own shortcomings onto those around them, especially the people closest to them, says Durvasula.
They also tend to deflect responsibility and may try to shift the blame to you. Blame-shifting allows them to take control of the relationship and your perceptions of it.
This can cause you to question your own behavior, internalize that blame, and be manipulated further.
This toxic behavior can pair with domestic abuse. At which point, it's important to seek help and get out of the relationship.
When to leave a narcissistic person
According to the relationship experts, these are some of the signs you should leave a relationship with a narcissist:
- You are questioning whether you want to stay in the relationship at all
- Your partner regularly gaslights you
- You often feel to blame for your partner's problems without them taking responsibility for any of them.
- You feel put down and underappreciated
- You're emotionally disconnected
- You have low self-esteem due to the relationship
- Your partner is emotionally, financially, sexually, or physically abusive
According to a 2021 review, narcissists are more prone to aggression and violence, especially when provoked.
If you've decided to leave the relationship, McNeil recommends doing so fast and clean. They may attempt to be more loving or become more toxic if trying to win you back.
"There is a good chance that dating a narcissist has isolated you from family and friends, so reconnecting with these close others is central to living life post-relationship," says McNeil. "If you find yourself questioning your choices or feeling regretful about them, revisit your reasons for leaving." Lean on your support network — friends, therapist, family — to help you stand firm in your decision about what's best for you.
A person with narcissistic personality disorder can be part of a healthy, happy relationship. However, at times, there can be a very fine line between making a relationship with a narcissist work and hurting yourself.
It's critical to remain aware of your boundaries and if you're continuing to benefit from staying in the relationship. Conversations with trusted and beloved friends might help you gauge if a relationship is healthy for you.