It’s common to hear the term narcissist — it’s become a therapy buzzword. Many will describe a narcissist as someone who thinks highly of themselves, is self-centered, and doesn’t empathize with others. It’s not uncommon to hear others comment about their relationships with remarks like, “My ex was a narcissist! He only ever thought about himself” or, “My partner can be so narcissistic, she thinks she’s above everyone else.” But is every person we label as a narcissist genuinely narcissistic? Not likely. Studies show that around 1-6% of the population qualifies as narcissists. So, while your partner may be self-centered and inconsiderate, there’s a much lower chance that they are, clinically, a narcissist. 

There are specific criteria surrounding a narcissism diagnosis. As mentioned above, while some may show traits or tendencies of narcissism, they are not a full-blown narcissist. Although the term narcissist is often overused in today’s culture, true narcissism is still prevalent. Read on to learn more about narcissism and how you can identify if you’re in a relationship with a (true) narcissist.

What is narcissism, really?

It’s important to understand that every human has some degree of healthy narcissism. We all think about ourselves and want recognition from others. We want to be seen and known. The longings do not mean that you are narcissistic; it just means you crave connection. 

The origins of narcissism often lie in childhood, sometimes due to experiences of trauma or rejection, and symptoms will begin by early adulthood. While self-importance is undoubtedly part of narcissism, it is actually about lacking a core sense of self. Narcissists often have low self-esteem and are envious of others who seem more important than them. When narcissism moves beyond a healthy level of self-esteem, it can become a diagnosable personality disorder. 

Below are some of the main criteria for narcissistic personality disorder, according to the DSM-5: 

  • Arrogance in behavior and attitude
  • Envious of others
  • Entitlement, such as expecting special treatment
  • Exaggerated sense of self-importance
  • Preoccupation with fantasies of success, admiration, love
  • Lack of empathy
  • Superiority to others

One key criterion for narcissism is a pattern of the above behaviors. On occasion, everyone struggles with envy, wanting to be admired, or feeling entitled. For the narcissist, this behavior is not a once-in-a-while occurrence but rather a frequent pattern.

3 Signs That You May Be in a Relationship With a Narcissist

Do some of the above criteria sound familiar to you? If you’re questioning whether you may be in a relationship with a narcissist, it may be helpful to look for any signs that indicate narcissism traits. Remember, this is less about an occasional occurrence and more about a pattern of narcissist signs:

1) Love bombing

Love bombing occurs when your partner showers you excessively with gifts, affection, or compliments. Typically, this starts early on in the relationship, as they may attach to you instantly and claim to be in love with you early on. However, in reality their love cannot be that deep so early on. Although it may feel good on the surface to receive special attention and feel loved, it can be used to take control from you down the road. It is a form of manipulation, as all of the compliments and gifts can make you feel as if you owe your loyalty to the partner, or that your worth is tied to what they say about you. It also makes it much harder to leave if the relationship becomes abusive or unhealthy when your partner can use extravagant apologies or gifts to guilt-trip you. Additionally, they may disrespect your boundaries by making you feel guilty for not going the extra mile – e.g. “I thought you really cared about me” or “I would sacrifice XYZ for you, can’t you do the same?”

2) Control

Control can occur when, as mentioned above, your worth becomes attached to what the narcissistic partner says about you. They may make you doubt yourself by manipulating you to believe their version of events, which is called gaslighting. You may feel crazy or irrational as a result. This can also affect your other relationships, as the narcissist may coerce you to prioritize them above all else. Also, the narcissist may project on you, saying that you’re the one who is insecure or can’t be relied upon, when in fact they are the ones engaging in such behavior.

3) Idealization and devaluation

Idealization and devaluation occurs throughout the relationship with a narcissist. The partner may see no flaws in you and praise everything about you, to the point where you may question if they really know you. They may put you on a pedestal, romanticizing all of your qualities so that you feel pressure to live up to who they think you should be. When you don’t live up to this standard of perfection (which is not possible, since we are human and have flaws), they may discard you without a second thought. Suddenly, they go from not being able to live without you to pushing you away and putting you down. This often turns into a cycle of abuse, where the narcissistic partner can gain back your favor through extravagant apologies, only to reject you again down the road.

If these descriptions sound familiar to you, we encourage you to process your next steps. A therapist can help you determine how to set boundaries and whether or not you want to stay in the relationship. You can also seek resources to further educate yourself, as there are many books and podcasts on the subject of narcissistic abuse.

My Partner (May Be) A Narcissist…Now What? 

While these criteria can be helpful to determine if you are in a relationship with a narcissist, we recommend seeking professional help for further support in moving forward. Anyone in a relationship with a narcissist needs to set boundaries and have a strong support system outside of the narcissist. A highly motivated narcissist can change through the help of long-term therapy. You can contact us today to get started. 

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