Recognizing a Narcissistic Relationship

Narcissistic Traits/Narcissistic Personality Disorder

The purpose of this post is to help identify the signs of narcissism in a romantic partner or spouse. The signs can be subtle or obvious depending on the individual and circumstances. Know that someone can exhibit traits of narcissism without fitting the criteria for a personality disorder. Whether a person has traits or the full disorder; a relationship with someone with narcissism is challenging, draining, and traumatic. For this blog post, the term narcissism describes those with significant traits of narcissistic personality disorder (NPD), as well as those who meet all criterion for NPD. 

Overt Narcissism

There are two general sub-types of narcissism, overt and covert.

First, those with overt narcissism are the “type” people think of when they think of NPD. Overt narcissists openly praise themselves and their achievements. They tell you how wonderful they are, how much money they make, how intelligent they are, and about the important people they know. They believe they are superior and deserve to be around others who are of their stature. Overt narcissists respond with explosive anger when challenged or wounded. A partner with overt narcissism will treat you well as long as you agree with them. But, express an opinion or position that is at odds with their views, and they will turn on you.

Overt narcissists received special treatment as children. As a result, they continue to demand special treatment from others in adulthood. They usually are married more than once, and are likely to cheat on their partner. They leave relationships if they are not treated as special or with privilege. Overt narcissists are openly jealous, controlling, and possessive. A relationship with an overt narcissist is full of conflict. Overt narcissists lack self-esteem and need the adoration of others to validate their worth. Overt narcissists are public and brash about their superiority, they are ones to control and command a room.

Covert Narcissism

Covert narcissists appear more sensitive, vulnerable, and easier to like. I describe this type as the wolf in sheep’s clothing. Covert narcissists are helpful, appear easy going, and even humble. Underneath that kind and caring facade is a deeply insecure person with fragile self-esteem. They need to feel superior, and demonstrate superiority through control. When slighted, whether real or perceived, covert narcissists lash out. They are the victim in every situation. 

Covert narcissists experienced subtle neglect or abuse in childhood. They are preoccupied with their image, and especially how their partner views them. When offended, they react swiftly with defensiveness and anger. You are either with them, or you are against them. Their way is the only way. Those with covert narcissism require constant praise and affirmation, but find little need to provide the same to their partner. When they do demonstrate generosity or caring it is because it benefits them. Covert narcissism is most apparent at home, because they weak and insecure and lack the confidence to be brash like the overt narcissist.

An Example

This example is from my own experience. Birthdays early in our relationship were very special and often included expensive presents and elaborate evening out. That, however, changed dramatically over the years. It changed as I grew stronger and more outspoken. The last several years of the marriage my birthday looked like this: The day of my birthday he was mad and wouldn’t speak to me, let alone acknowledge it was my birthday. I had no idea why he was mad as things were fine the day before. I was heartbroken. I felt weak for wanting acknowledgement of my birthday.

The day after my birthday he was apologetic, sorry for how he acted. He did something “extra special” the day after to make it up to me. I had two options, I either had to be grateful for the apology and the gifts after my birthday; or deal with more conflict. When I chose to stand up for myself, it led to literally hours long conversations. These conversations didn’t end until I was in tears. He always said after I cried how he felt like we really connected, I felt emotionally and mentally battered.

What Behaviors Will I Notice?

So, what might I notice when in a relationship with someone with narcissistic traits or NPD? Remember, no one person will ever exhibit all of the behaviors. You may experience other behaviors that are indicative of NPD, and are not on this list. It is important to trust your gut! Others may not see what you are experiencing. If you are asking “is it really that bad?” trust me it is. People don’t ask that question for no reason. 

  1. There is little empathy for your needs or feelings.
  2. Your partner is always right.
  3. Your partner is highly sensitive to criticism whether real or perceived.
  4. Your partner must be the best or associate with the best people.
  5. Your partner does not admit fault and will deny having done or said something rather than say they are sorry.
  6. Your partner is demanding and controlling.
  7. Your partner will use information you confided in them about personal issues to their advantage in an argument.
  8. Your partner is highly critical of your flaws and will point these out to you.
  9. Your partner will refuse the same standards of behavior they hold others to. 
  10. Your partner struggles to acknowledge special occasions that aren’t about themselves i.e., someone else’s birthday, graduation day, Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, etc.
  11. Your partner may actively ruin special days that are not for them.
  12. Your partner is volatile and easy to anger and blames you for it.
  13. Your partner believes they are the victim of others. 
  14. Your partner has a history of bad relationships. They may talk incessantly about how wronged they were by a prior partner. They will have a difficult time letting it go.
  15. Your partner will never identify their own faults and resists identifying behaviors they need to change.
  16. They are unfaithful or have affairs. 
  17. They are envious of your relationships with family, friends, or even with a pet. 
  18. You feel emotionally alone.
  19. You question if you are crazy and doubt your memory of events.
  20. You feel that you cannot hold onto how a conversation or argument started because the flow is circular and convoluted. 
  21. You may feel like you cannot live without your partner.
  22. You felt extremely special at the start of the relationship and now feel devalued and degraded.

*This is not an exhaustive list of all of the things you may feel in a relationship with someone with narcissism. 

Consequences for the Partner

Being in a relationship with a narcissist is physically, emotionally, and mentally devastating. Your self-esteem feels shattered and you question if all of the things your partner says about you are true. You aren’t sure how to leave, or if you can stay. You may fear for your children’s emotional and mental well-being. You probably have done or said things that you aren’t proud of, and are dealing with the pain and shame.

Fall in Iowa

There is no simple way to leave, but it helps to have support. Remember, staying quiet doesn’t protect you; talk to those you trust. No one can tell you whether to stay or whether it’s time to go. Both are hard in this type of relationship. To stay is hard because the cycle of abuse continues. To leave is hard because it will not be simple. You will likely lose contact with family members of theirs that you love, and there is likely to be retribution. You know what is right for you. I am here to help. 

*Source material used in this blog post content:

All Relationship Matters. (Accessed 11/22/2021). Are You in a Narcissistic Relationship?

Are You in a Narcissistic Relationship? (