When they first started dating, Jane found Jack to be charming. He was charismatic and confident, and she fell in love with him.
But after getting to know Jack better, Jane began to notice a different side of him. He wanted to be the center of attention most of the time, and he wanted to be the one in charge of everything they did together. He didn’t always remember her birthday, but he expected her to make a big fuss on his. Whenever something did not go the way he wanted, he would tell Jane it was her fault. Sometimes he would even say insulting things to her in front of their friends, then later say he was just being funny.
While this story is fictional, it is consistent with stories told by people who have been in a relationship with a partner who has a narcissistic personality disorder.
If we are willing to be honest, most of us have at least some narcissistic traits. But these flaws don’t cause major trouble. On the other end of the spectrum, there are people whose narcissistic beliefs and behavior are so pronounced that they are diagnosed with narcissistic personality disorder, or NPD.
“Narcissistic features and traits are probably common, but NPD is rare,” says UNC Health psychologist Catherine Forneris, PhD. “It can be exhausting, frustrating and embarrassing to be in a relationship with someone with NPD largely because the relationship revolves around that person. As a result, the non-NPD person must deal with that person’s judgments, demands and self-centeredness.”
What Is Narcissistic Personality Disorder?
It is estimated that less than 1 percent of the U.S. population has NPD. About 75 percent of people diagnosed with NPD are men, Dr. Forneris says.
Of course, if your spouse or significant other has NPD, then the fact that NPD is rare is of no comfort to you. Also, if you are in a close relationship with a person who is narcissistic, then their behavior can become a problem for you whether or not they are ever diagnosed. If you are in a relationship with such a person, what can you do to cope with it?
First, Dr. Forneris says, it’s important to understand the condition. The American Psychiatric Association defines NPD as “a pervasive pattern of grandiosity … need for admiration, and lack of empathy.” The person with NPD will exhibit five or more of the following:
- A grandiose sense of self-importance, exaggerating achievements and talents
- A preoccupation with fantasies of success, power or brilliance
- A belief that he or she is special or unique and should only associate with other high-status people
- Requires excessive admiration
- A sense of entitlement, expects compliance with his or her wishes
- Takes advantage of others to achieve his or her own ends
- Lacks empathy
- Envious of others or believes others are envious of him or her
- Arrogant, haughty behaviors or attitudes
Educating yourself about NPD will help you understand its possible origins, the strengths and vulnerabilities of the other person, and effective ways for you to interact with that person.
“People with NPD can be highly critical, distant and dismissive of their partners,” Dr. Forneris says. “Over time, the partner can feel drained, rejected, invisible, unheard, resentful, disrespected and lonely.”
In the worst cases, the partner of someone with NPD can spend years of their lives trying to feel love and respect in the relationship, which doesn’t happen, Dr. Forneris says. “Over time their self-esteem suffers, and they can become unrecognizable to themselves and others.”
Taking Care of Yourself if Your Partner Has Narcissistic Personality Disorder
In addition, Dr. Forneris says, learning how to take care of yourself when you are in a close relationship with someone who has NPD is very important. This could include any of the following:
- Radically accept the person with NPD for who they are. This does not mean that you agree with the person or are willing to tolerate certain behaviors, but rather that your expectations align more fully with reality.
- Accept that the person with NPD may need professional help—as might you—and accept that you cannot “fix” the person with NPD, love them enough to make them better, or to help them accept you or the world.
- Speak up for yourself and establish and articulate clear boundaries with the person with NPD, including the benefits and consequences of not honoring them. Try to describe these boundaries, benefits and consequences in specific and objective terms. For example, “If you are going to be home late, please call or text me. When you come home late, I start to worry. I would feel better knowing that you are all right and less stressed when you got home if you would do that.” Be prepared for pushback and maintain your stance in a firm and compassionate way.
- Do not validate the invalid or accept blame or responsibility when it is not warranted, or as a means of keeping the peace. This just reinforces the negative communication and behavioral styles of someone with NPD and will likely build resentment.
- Establish a support system, which might include therapy with a qualified mental health professional. It can be emotionally exhausting working or living with a person who has NPD, and you need healthy relationships to maintain your own sense of health and well-being.
- Accept that you may need to move on, especially if the relationship is abusive. If you feel unsafe and need support about how to safely exit the relationship, please contact the UNC Hospitals Beacon Program.
If you need help with a mental health concern, request an appointment with UNC Adult Outpatient Psychiatry by calling (984) 974-5217.