Should I stay or should I go? Recognising narcissistic personality disorder and making an informed choice about your relationship
Even the healthiest of relationships have their challenges, because humans are complex creatures and our emotional states are not always in sync with our partner’s. If you suspect your partner is a narcissist your situation may be particularly testing. Understanding their behaviour and developing a coping strategy is crucial for your emotional wellbeing. While leaving might seem like the obvious solution, some people choose to stay for various reasons. These may include shared responsibilities, children, social or family pressure, or genuine love. Coping with a narcissistic partner requires you to strike a delicate balance between self-preservation and maintaining as healthy a relationship as possible. What are the signs you are dealing with a narcissist? How can you look after yourself, whether you choose to commit to the relationship or end it?
What is narcissism?
Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD) is a mental health condition characterised by an inflated sense of self-importance (sometimes called grandiosity), a constant need for admiration, and a lack of empathy for others. As with many personality disorders, there is no clinical test for it. Psychiatrists and psychologists look at personality traits, behaviour and attitudes when making a diagnosis of NPD. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM) – the “bible” of mental disorder classifications in the US and used widely around the world by health professionals – states that an individual does not have to display all the characteristics associated with narcissism to be considered a narcissist. In fact, a person only needs to exhibit 55% of the identified characteristics to be given a diagnosis of NPD. What are those traits?
Key behaviours of Narcissistic Personality Disorder
If we were to sum up narcissism in one sentence, we would say a narcissist is someone who believes they’re better than everyone else. However, that is an over-simplification. In fact, some narcissists have very low self-esteem and NPD is their way of compensating. Their constant need to be the centre of attention stems from a deep sense of personal inadequacy. There are also different types of narcissists. Not all are grandiose. Some are vulnerable or covert narcissists. Harvard clinical psychologist Craig Malkin describes narcissism as a tendency that exists on a spectrum, and experts recognise multiple types of narcissism, including sexual narcissists (those who admire their own sexual prowess) and cerebral narcissists (those who think they are intellectually superior to others), among others. Below we look at the classic behaviours of the stereotypical grandiose narcissist, the type you are most likely to meet (or maybe are already in a relationship with).
Narcissists often have an exaggerated sense of their own achievements and talents. They believe they are always right, and they expect constant praise and admiration. They may belittle others to maintain their perceived superiority.
Lack of empathy
One of the hallmarks of NPD is a profound lack of empathy for the feelings and needs of others. Narcissists struggle to understand or acknowledge the emotional experiences of those around them. As a result, narcissists rarely form a true emotional connection with another person, and real love is unlikely. They may think they are in love, but they are incapable of truly loving another because of their inability to understand feelings.
Manipulative behaviour and lack of accountability
Narcissists are skilled manipulators who use charm and charisma to control and exploit others. They may resort to gaslighting to make you doubt your own reality. They don’t take responsibility unless everything is going their way. Instead, they often place blame on someone else to maintain their own image of perfection.
Intense need for validation
Narcissists need constant affirmation and validation to sustain their fragile ego. They crave attention and may become angry if they think they are being ignored, or defensive if they feel their superiority is in question.
Narcissists lack boundaries. They invade your space both emotionally and physically. This can take the form of needing to know every detail of your life while remaining secretive about their own. They believe everything belongs to them.
Fear of ridicule and inner shame
It may sound counter-intuitive, but narcissists are constantly afraid of being ridiculed or rejected and struggle to trust other people. They perceive everything as a threat and frequently misread subtle facial expressions or interpret them as negative. This is because of their underlying low self-esteem, which is masked by their arrogant behaviour.
They also don’t feel much guilt because they think they are always right, but at the same time they have a lot of internal shame and often bury their insecurities and fears.
Should you stay or should you go?
As family lawyers, we have seen the destructive effects of narcissism on a marriage or long-term relationship. In some instances, ending the relationship is the only way the narcissist’s partner can protect their own identity and mental wellbeing. However, we have seen other couples successfully navigate the impact of narcissism in their relationship. Factors that influence the decision to stay or go include the level of narcissism at play – we all have some level of narcissism and the behaviour spans a wide spectrum; how much self-esteem and independence the partner has; and other factors discussed above, such as family and shared responsibilities. Psychologist Carla Marie Manly says, “Provided there is no abuse at play and you feel good about remaining in the relationship, there are ways you can learn how to lovingly tolerate – and even connect with – the narcissist in your life.”
Only you can make this decision. Below are some tips to help you plan either your relationship exit or your coping strategy for staying.
Breaking free from a narcissistic relationship
First, seek support. Talk to a trusted friend, a family member if you can, or a therapist. Narcissists often isolate their partners, so maintaining or re-establishing your support system is crucial. Clearly define and enforce your boundaries. Even before leaving, tell your partner what behaviour is unacceptable and be prepared to uphold those boundaries. This will help you regain your self-confidence. Focus on your wellbeing. Find activities you enjoy or pick up hobbies you may have dropped to please your partner. Make your mental and emotional health your priority, whatever your partner does to stop you leaving or win you back. Be aware that their tactics may range from pleading and apologising to threats and recriminations. Be prepared and don’t let the tactics succeed.
You will need to regain control over your life by fostering independence, which means reconnecting with your friends (if you have been alienated from them), your interests, career goals and personal growth. Then plan your exit. This may take a while, if you are financially dependent* and/or if you have lost contact with your support network. But it is not impossible. Don’t be afraid to ask for help. The friend or therapist you confide in can help you develop an exit plan.
Once you have taken the step of ending the relationship, it’s vitally important to have no contact or limited contact only. If you have children, it will be impossible to avoid your ex-partner completely. But try to restrict contact to matters relating to shared childcare. If you are going through a divorce, let the attorneys do the talking. You don’t have to negotiate with your narcissist ex.
Breaking free from a relationship with a narcissist is challenging but can be done. Seeking support, establishing boundaries, prioritising self-care, and planning a safe exit are the steps that will enable you to escape the grip of a narcissistic relationship.
Staying in a relationship with a narcissist
A recent study from Germany, published in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, surprised researchers when it found that having a partner who exhibited a high level of narcissistic behaviours did not negatively impact the romantic partner’s mental health. With the usual research caveat that “more research is necessary to validate these…findings”, the results broadly confounded expectations. Researchers stated, “The expected direct effects on romantic partners did not emerge.”
So, if you decide your relationship is worthwhile and rewarding, how can you look after yourself and foster a healthy, loving partnership? Perhaps unsurprisingly, some of the advice mirrors the tips for safely exiting.
Clearly define your personal boundaries and communicate them to your partner. Look after your mental health and develop or reinforce emotional resilience. Participate in activities that give you personal satisfaction, not just the ones your partner enjoys. Allow yourself time to recharge – living with a narcissist can be exhausting, even if you love them! Cultivate a strong support system outside of the relationship. Share your experiences with trusted friends or family who can offer emotional support. Learn to detach emotionally from the narcissistic behaviour. This doesn’t mean you suppress your emotions; instead, create some mental distance from the behaviour to protect yourself from the emotional impact of their actions. Remember: it’s not you, it’s them!
Your emotional independence is your lifeline. A strong sense of who you are outside the relationship will give you fulfilment and bolster your resilience. Don’t allow your identity to be subsumed by your partner or the relationship. If possible, work towards financial independence. If there ever comes a time when you can no longer remain with your narcissistic partner, a degree of financial autonomy will provide a sense of security and an escape route.
Loving your partner
Depending on your partner’s level of self-awareness, you might consider couples therapy. If this feels impossible, individual therapy could provide you with guidance and support. It’s important to have realistic expectations of your partner. Accept that they are unlikely to change. Managing your own expectations may help you avoid disappointments. Focus on what you can control, which is your response to their behaviour, rather than their behaviour itself. Communicate effectively. With a narcissist, this means being clear about your needs and using calm, assertive statements. Avoid confrontation; it is likely to trigger defensiveness and put an end to meaningful conversation. Sometimes conflict will be necessary. Some issues are too important to avoid discussing or accept without challenge. Choose your battles and save your energy for situations that really matter. Don’t waste it on petty skirmishes.
Choosing to stay with a narcissistic partner requires resilience, self-awareness, and a commitment to personal growth. It’s OK to seek help, and support is available in South Africa even if a private therapist is beyond your means.
SD Law & Associates are experts in family law and have dealt with many cases of narcissistic behaviour in intimate relationships. If you are considering divorce, want to consolidate your relationship with a postnuptial contract, or just want to discuss your options, we can support you with compassion and dignity. Contact attorney Simon Dippenaar on 086 099 5146 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
- Divorcing a narcissist? You may face these behaviours
- Dealing with a narcissist
- Covert narcissism#
- Narcissistic abuse – What is it and how do you handle it?
*Look out for our series next year for women on achieving financial independence after divorce
The information on this website is provided to assist the reader with a general understanding of the law. While we believe the information to be factually accurate, and have taken care in our preparation of these pages, these articles cannot and do not take individual circumstances into account and are not a substitute for personal legal advice. If you have a legal matter that concerns you, please consult a qualified attorney. Simon Dippenaar & Associates takes no responsibility for any action you may take as a result of reading the information contained herein (or the consequences thereof), in the absence of professional legal advice.