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Narcissistic Relationship

or common reactions during conflict?
  • 1 April 2024
  • 10min

In today's society, the term "narcissism" is often thrown around in discussions about relationships and human behaviour. But what does it really mean to be a narcissist and be in a narcissistic relationship? How does this differ from behaviours driven by self-interest or typical responses to emotional distress? In this article we will explain and highlight these differences to help navigate relationships.

How do I tell if a person is a narcissistic

Narcissism is a personality trait characterised by an excessive fixation on oneself and self-image, often combined with a lack of empathy for others. A person exhibiting narcissistic traits tends to have a strong desire for admiration and validation from others, and a tendency to exploit and manipulate others to fulfil their own needs and desires.

Narcissism can be part of a personality disorder called Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD), but it's important to distinguish between having narcissistic traits and having a diagnosed personality disorder.

It is important to know that in moments of tension or emotional distress, individuals may inadvertently, in the heat of the moment, display behaviours that could be perceived as narcissistic. True narcissism is characterised by a pervasive pattern of grandiosity, a constant need for admiration, and a lack of empathy across various contexts, not just in moments of conflict within close relationships. Individuals with narcissistic personality disorder typically exhibit these traits consistently over time, impacting their relationships and daily functioning.

Here are some indicators of narcissistic traits

1. Inflated self-image: A narcissist has an exaggerated sense of self-importance and often looks down on other people. They may speak about themselves in grandiose terms and behave as if they are superior to others.

2. Need for admiration: They require constant affirmation and attention from others to feel valuable and significant. They may seek validation by boasting about their achievements or expecting others to admire them.

3. Lack of empathy: Narcissists typically have a deficient ability to empathise with other people. They don't care about hurting or harming others and are often disinterested in others' feelings and needs.

4. Manipulative behaviour: They can be skilled manipulators and may use various tactics to control and dominate other people. They may lie, manipulate, and gaslight to get their way.

5. Sensitivity to criticism: Narcissists struggle to handle criticism and rarely take responsibility for their own actions. They often react with anger or defensiveness when confronted with criticism or feedback.

6. Jealousy and competition: A person that is narcissistic can be extremely jealous and competitive, especially when comparing themselves to other people. They might feel envious of others they perceive as threats to their own self-image or status.

How does a narcissist act in a relationship

In a relationship, a narcissist may be charming and charismatic at first, making it difficult for their partner to see through. But over time, their manipulative and controlling behaviours begin to surface.

A narcissist tends to view their partner as an extension of themselves and expects their needs and desires to always come first. They may be emotionally detached and uninterested in their partner's feelings and needs. Instead, they see their partner as a means to fulfil their own needs and desires.

Narcissists often struggle to handle criticism and rarely self-reflect. Instead, they react with anger and defensiveness and may even attempt to humiliate their partner to protect their own ego. Their lack of empathy also makes it difficult for them to understand and respond to their partner's emotions. In a narcissistic relationship the partner that is narcissistic can behave in a number of ways, and their actions can be manipulative and harmful to their spouse. This can lead the partner to blame themselves and develop a diminished self-esteem.

Distinguishing narcissistic behaviour from reactions in relational distress

In moments of tension or emotional distress one or both in a couple may display behaviours that could be perceived as narcissistic. These behaviours can arise as natural reactions to stress, rather than indicative of a deeper narcissistic tendency.

One such behaviour is defensiveness. When feeling attacked or challenged during disagreements, individuals may instinctively become defensive, focusing on self-preservation rather than empathetic understanding. It could manifest as deflecting blame onto others or refusing to acknowledge one's own faults, resembling narcissistic behaviour. However, it's important to recognize that this reaction stems from a primal urge to protect oneself rather than a chronic need for superiority.

Similarly, a lack of empathy or understanding in heated moments doesn't necessarily indicate narcissistic behaviour in a relationship. People may become so overwhelmed by their own emotions or perspective during conflicts that they temporarily lose sight of their partner's feelings. This temporary lapse in empathy doesn't equate to a fundamental lack of empathy characteristic of narcissistic personality disorder.

Even moments of manipulation or control during disagreements can occur as individuals attempt to regain a sense of power or control over a situation. While these behaviours may resemble manipulation tactics associated with narcissism, they often arise from a place of vulnerability and emotional reactivity rather than a calculated desire to dominate. In these cases it might be helpful to understand more of the underlying emotions and pains.

Individuals with narcissistic personality disorder exhibit these traits consistently over time, impacting their relationships and daily functioning. In contrast, the behaviours displayed in the heat of the moment are often transient and situational, influenced by the intensity of emotions and the dynamics of the disagreement. Recognising this distinction can help prevent unnecessary labelling or misunderstanding in relationships.

If you try to see the whole picture and not just what happens in the heat of the moment or in your relationship as it is right now, how do you perceive your partner? For example, a tendency to talk calmly after a conflict, offer apologies, and engage in self-reflection can indeed be healthy signs. These behaviours demonstrate an awareness of one's impact on others, an ability to take responsibility for one's actions, and a willingness to repair and improve relationships.

Narcissism vs selfishness

The difference between a narcissist and a person who is simply selfish can be subtle, but it's important to understand to navigate relationships in a healthy way. A person who acts selfish typically focuses on their own needs and desires but still shows empathy and consideration for other people's feelings. They are aware of how their behaviour affects others and may be willing to compromise to keep their relationships healthy and balanced.

On the other hand, the narcissist lacks this ability for empathy and consideration. They are fixated on their own self-image and don't care about hurting or manipulating others to fulfil their own needs and desires. They are often unaware of how their behaviour affects others and are unable to change their behaviour even when it's clear that their narcissistic behaviour is damaging their relationships.

Are you in a narcissistic relationship?

It's important to remember that not everyone who exhibits some narcissistic behaviours and traits is a narcissist. Many people may be selfish at times or tend to be focused on their own needs and desires. When problems arise in a relationship it’s common for the individuals to blame the other one for being selfish, insufficient or just a bad person when in fact it is the relationship dynamic that exaggerates these behaviours. It's only when these traits become widespread and consistently negatively impact all their relationships (not just one specific relationship) that they might be considered narcissistic.

It's also important to understand that narcissism can be a result of various life experiences and environments, such as trauma or neglect during childhood. Some personality traits and behaviour patterns may also reinforce narcissistic tendencies. Therefore, it's important not to stigmatise people who exhibit some narcissistic traits but instead try to understand the underlying causes of their narcissistic behaviour in a relationship.

Navigating with a partner and narcissistic behaviour in a relationship can be challenging and sometimes painful. However, it's important to remember that you deserve a healthy and respectful relationship. Setting boundaries, taking care of one's own health and well-being, and sometimes seeking professional help can be important steps towards freeing oneself from a destructive relationship with a narcissist.

It's important to separate between narcissism, self-interest and common reactions in conflicts in order to navigate relationships in a healthy way. Understanding the differences between these concepts can help one identify potential problems and make decisions that promote their well-being and happiness in long-term relationships.

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