How to Love a Narcissist

“Well, enough about me.  What do you think of me?” This famous line, which is supposed to be funny, is not so humorous when it is delivered by the attractive, prospective romantic partner sitting across from you, for whom you are developing feelings . . . despite the narcissistic red flags flying in your face. 

If you suspect you are dating a narcissist, or at least someone displaying narcissistic qualifies, do you stay or do you go?

To Some Extent, We Are All Lovers of Self

Being in a relationship with someone who is selfish or self-centered is not an insurmountable problem.  We all behave selfishly at times.  Yet some people are self-focused to the extreme, incapable of maintaining satisfying interpersonal relationships with friends or family, much less sustaining healthy relationships with romantic partners.  

Whether or not such people would actually be diagnosed with clinical narcissism, they   present relational challenges due to their narcissistic traits.  Sure, they might be lots of fun.  Showy, outspoken, and a blast to hang out with, they might be perfect short-term relational partners.  Yet in terms of long-term compatibility, it might not be long before the bloom is off the rose.

If you are considering embarking upon a serious relationship with a narcissist, you have accepted the fact that a tiger does not change its stripes, and are willing to take the good with the bad. Therefore, in order to make the best of your relationship as a loving partner, there are some personality and behavioral characteristics you will have to accommodate.

Narcissists Want Perfect Partners

Is “perfect” the term you would use to describe yourself?  If not, consider what a relationship would be like with someone who expects you to be.   

Peterson and DeHart (2014) in “In Defense of Self-Love” note that narcissists prefer partners who are admiring, but also perfect—because perfect partners enhance the narcissist´s own self-esteem.[i]  

Consider whether a narcissist is genuinely interested in you, or how you can enhance his or her self-image.  You want to be more than an accessory or an arm charm.

Narcissists Can Be Nasty

We have all seen couples behaving rudely toward each other in public.  Although we politely try not to stare, we wonder if they are having a bad day, or have a bad relationship. According to research, the explanation for the bad behavior might be a narcissistic partner.

Peterson and DeHart examined how narcissists behave during relational conflict. They used observational methodology in their study, having participants observe a videotaped conflict discussion.  They found that during a conflict with a romantic partner, people high in narcissism engaged in more negative behavior such as insulting, name-calling, and criticizing.  Afterwards, they reported feeling less committed to their relationships—while noting their partners felt more committed.  

Narcissists Are Defensive

Peterson and DeHart concluded that their findings indicated narcissists derogate romantic partners during and after relational conflict as a method of defending themselves against relationship threats. Yet in the long run, such behavior could destroy the relationship.

They note that research establishes that people who respond to relationship threats by decreasing closeness may eventually prompt rejection from their partners.  And couples that respond to conflict by withdrawing, criticizing, and expressing contempt for each other are most likely headed for a breakup. 

A Narcissist´s Bad Behavior Can Be Contagious

One risk we run with a partner who behaves badly is that we might reciprocate.  With narcissistic partners, research reveals this is indeed the case.

In a study entitled “Narcissism and Observed Communication in Couples” (2017), Joanna Lamkin examined the impact of narcissistic women on their male partners.[ii]  She found that narcissistic women exhibited high amounts of hostility, as did their male partners—who displayed more anger when the female partner was highly narcissistic. 

Another significant finding in Lamkin´s study is that unlike some personality traits that can prompt positive and negative emotions, narcissism was not found to be associated with positive affect in any fashion. 

Loving a Narcissist Requires Patience and Understanding

Obviously, there are various levels of narcissistic characteristics, which can cause various levels of relational disruption.  If you have a partner who is selfish or self-centered, displaying patience and understanding will enhance the strength and satisfaction of your relationship.

Consider that we all behave selfishly at times, and are self-centered by nature.  Understanding the risks of pursuing a long-term relationship with a narcissistic partner may provide some insight into the person behind the persona, and a glimpse of some of the potential issues you might face. 

References

[i] Julie Longua Peterson and Tracy DeHart, ”In Defense of Self-Love: An Observational Study on Narcissists´ Negative Behavior During Romantic Relationship Conflict,” Self and Identity 13, no. 4, 2014, 477-490.

[ii] Joanna Lamkin, “Narcissism and Observed Communication in Couples.” Personality and Individual Differences 105, 2017, 224–228.

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