The word “narcissism” is one that has gained more understanding in our culture as of late, with an increasing number of people recognizing what it means: the personality trait that makes people think of themselves first, elevating their own importance to the detriment of their ability to truly connect and empathize with other people. In its most extreme form, Narcissistic Personality Disorder, a person has a sense of entitlement and ego so outsized that it causes problems in their daily life and relationships with others. A person with Narcissistic Personality Disorder has a chronic need to be admired, and believes themselves to be so above other people that they are willing to exploit others without guilt. Frequently, they are obsessed with success and want badly for the trappings of their public life to reflect how special they think they are. In relationships, they can be quick to put themselves over others, or even refuse to empathize with others’ needs in the first place. They can be jealous, arrogant, and cold.
So, does this mean they are more likely to be abusive?
To answer this, we need to look additionally at the risk factors for becoming an abusive partner. As I’ve written about with controlling behavior, the stereotype of an abuser fitting a certain demographic profile that is easy to spot is inaccurate. In fact, even physical abusers can often appear mild-mannered and unassuming in the presence of others. But what’s going on inside? Personality-wise, there are a lot of classic signs. Controlling partners and abusers are often easily insulted and overly jealous. They can be self-centered to the point of wanting to get their way always, without taking others’ wants or desires into account. They often assume that they know best compared to their partner, and can be incapable of truly empathizing with them. All of these traits very readily correspond to narcissism, but of course not all people who exhibit signs of narcissism go on to be abusive. So what determines who will versus who won’t?
Perhaps it is most helpful to think along the lines of a spectrum.
By definition, a narcissistic person is more likely to act in a way that is not particularly considerate of other people. They will typically look out for their own needs above all else and are willing to subordinate the needs and feelings of others without much consideration. And they justify their ability to do this, because they believe themselves to be special and more deserving (even if this is a shell that was created as a response to an injury to their self-esteem.) Simply put, a person who is narcissistic is more likely to hurt others around them, if we use a broad definition of hurting that includes being inconsiderate, emotionally invalidating, and toe-stepping. In other words, they can be frustrating– or downright difficult– to be in a relationship with. Now, some people who are narcissistic will stop there. What about the ones who go further?
One important component is how they handle anger. Often, anger is one of the catalysts for a narcissistic person to become more overtly abusive, in both physical and emotional ways. A person who abuses often feels rage at having been “wronged,” or believes that their partner is not holding up their end of the bargain and needs to be punished. Abusive people often feel jealous and want revenge. Or they feel frightened that their partner will go on to be independent from them, and so they lash out to keep their partner too frightened to leave. A past history of violence is very troubling, and is a very significant risk factor. That’s because it shows that a person has been willing to cross a certain threshold of behavior in the past, and like with much out-of-bounds behavior, that can make it a bit easier (and more likely) to do it again– especially if the anger issues have not been worked on. A problem with drugs or alcohol can make an abusive person more likely to lose control, eroding the inhibitions and judgment that usually keep their behavior in check. Money concerns can threaten a person’s sense of self enough to make them lash out and feel despondent, especially a narcissistic person whose self-worth comes from their public persona. Irritability in the form of increased anxiety, or also the irritability that can come from depression or a manic phase can also make a narcissistic person more likely to lash out, as their central nervous system is on edge and more overreactive to perceived threats. There is even some evidence that in heterosexual relationships, if the man is narcissistic, his anger is more likely to be directed toward heterosexual women– including his partner– than toward other groups. This suggests yet another possible risk factor of narcissism when it comes to the propensity toward abuse of a partner.
So, we can view a narcissistic person’s typical behavior patterns within relationships as existing on a spectrum, with not-particularly-kind on the mildest side, to completely toxic and unequivocally abusive on the other. While almost all narcissistic people’s self-absorption has the potential to cause problems in relationships, not all will be abusive in a classic sense. When narcissism is coupled with certain additional risk factors, however, the combination can be troubling indeed.
Worried about an abusive or controlling relationship? Be sure to see:
If you need help within an abusive relationship, please check out www.thehotline.org.
For more of Dr. Andrea’s pieces on relationships:
Dr. Andrea Bonior is a licensed clinical psychologist and keynote speaker on the faculty of Georgetown University. As the longtime voice behind the mental health advice column Baggage Check in the Washington Post Express, she is also the author of The Friendship Fix and the recent Publishers’ Weekly Best-Seller Psychology: Essential Thinkers, Classic Theories, and How They Inform Your World. She speaks to audiences across the nation about emotional health, motivation, and relationships.
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