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Can You Spot A Narcissistic Relationship Pattern?

Written by Sarah Norman

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  • relationships

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May 4, 2023, 8 min read

The word narcissism is commonly interpreted as selfishness and a sense of entitlement, but in fact there is much more weight behind this word than most people realise. Aside from someone displaying occasional narcissistic tendencies, it is possible to be diagnosed with something called Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD). This is a very complex disorder that is often difficult to understand, and can be difficult to spot signs of if you are in a relationship with someone with NPD.

Here, we will dive into what it means to be in a narcissistic relationship pattern, how to know if you are in one, and how to deal with (or work through) things if you do find yourself in a relationship with someone displaying these traits.

At Augmentive, we aim to provide holistic, tailored mental health support to everyone so they can live their life to the fullest, so if you have questions about relationships or Narcissistic Personality Disorder, we’re here to help.

What is a narcissistic relationship pattern?

A narcissistic relationship pattern is a relationship being negatively affected due to one or more people in the relationship having Narcissistic Personality Disorder. There is often a cyclic nature to relationship behaviours when dealing with someone with NPD, which is why we call this a relationship ‘pattern’.

This cycle often includes the following stages:

  • The Idealisation Stage: When a narcissist will ‘love-bomb’ their partner with the aim of making them feel special, loved and important. They may act like they don’t want to be apart from you, and convey overly intense feelings early on in the relationship.
  • The Devaluation Stage: When a narcissist will start to undermine their initial love-bombing by saying or doing things to make the other person feel insecure. This could be backhanded compliments, unnecessary criticism, comparison to others, cutting contact or communication for certain periods of time, and more.
  • The Repetition Stage: This is the constant cycle between the idealisation and devaluation stages. The narcissist will continue to repeat this over and over again, which can slowly wear the other person down while also making them feel like they should stay as more love-bombing is just around the corner.
  • The Discard Stage: Finally, when the narcissist no longer has use for the relationship, they will reject the other person, usually by ending things. The other person may feel blindsided by this.  

Is Narcissistic Personality Disorder a real disorder?

Yes. Although the word narcissism is used a lot in society, in psychology terms Narcissistic Personality Disorder is used to categorise people who have an inflated sense of their self-image, and use dysfunctional behaviours as a result.

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th edition (DSM-5-TR) published by the American Psychiatric Association includes a list of traits for NPD, including:

  • A pattern of self-centeredness and entitlement
  • An arrogant attitude and behaviour
  • A sense of superiority and an expectation of special treatment
  • A lack of empathy and consideration for others around them
  • An excessive need for praise and admiration
  • A cocky, patronising and often demanding attitude
  • Use of manipulative language and behaviours, particularly in relationships
  • An exaggeration of their achievements or abilities
  • A negative reaction to any criticism
  • A desire for power and success

How do I know if it’s a disorder or if they’re just being nasty?

Often it can be difficult to discern between legitimate Narcissistic Personality Disorder, and someone who is simply behaving in a nasty way or engaging in narcissistic behaviours once in a while.

One way to know one from the other is to look at the possible causes of NPD. Researchers believe genetics could play a part in the cause of Narcissistic Personality Disorder, however some other factors thought to be at play include childhood abuse, childhood neglect, excessive parental attention, and unrealistic expectations from parents. If you believe someone you are in a relationship with has a history of these things, and they are displaying some of the following signs of NPD, it is possible they have this disorder.

What are the signs of a narcissistic relationship pattern?

As well as the cycle of behaviours described above, you may also notice signs of NPD such as:

  • An inability to empathise with you
  • Hyper-sensitivity to any criticism, and sometimes an aggressive reaction to it
  • Extreme emotions such as anger or irritability
  • Constant criticism of you, and making unfounded accusations
  • Manipulating how you feel and act through their words or actions
  • Isolating you from family and friends in order to remove your support system
  • No ability to compromise during discussions or arguments
  • A cold attitude, or emotional unavailability
  • A feeling of confusion about where you stand in the relationship

“Relationships with narcissists are held in place by the hope of a ‘someday better,’ with little evidence to support it will ever arrive.” – Dr. Ramani Durvasula, psychology professor at California State University speaking on the School of Greatness podcast  

How do I know if I’m in a narcissistic relationship pattern?

Anyone may display one of the traits above, but if your partner is showing multiple signs, this could be an indication of a narcissistic relationship pattern. According to a 2021 paper on Pathological Narcissism, the narcissist may establish emotional dependence by first love-bombing to show how serious and committed they are, then either gaslighting by suggesting you are making things up or overreacting, and/or isolating you from loved ones, and lastly, abandoning you when the relationship is no longer interesting or useful to them.

It can be difficult to spot these toxic traits and red flags, so if you are confused and have questions, remember you can reach out to a therapist with experience in the area of narcissistic relationship patterns.

"Underneath the so-called narcissistic personality is definitely shame and the paralyzing fear of being ordinary." Brené Brown, Researcher, Professor and Author

How do I know if I’m a narcissist myself?

If you are experiencing relationship issues and wonder if you could be the person with Narcissistic Personality Disorder, this can be difficult to discover. Doctors use a certain criteria to determine if someone has Narcissistic Personality Disorder, so you can visit your doctor or mental health professional to discuss this. They may have you fill out a questionnaire to find out whether you meet the criteria, or test you for other mental health conditions.

It takes a level of self-awareness to tap into the above signs of NPD in yourself, but speaking to a qualified therapist with experience in this area can help.

How do I spot red flags and early signs of a narcissistic relationship pattern?

It can be difficult to spot red flags early on in a relationship, especially if you are in the initial happy stages. If you have just started dating someone, there are a few phrases and behaviours that may help you identify any red flags. A qualified therapist can help you with these, but some examples could be:

  • Do they make negative comments such as “my family wouldn’t approve of you”?
  • Do they give a negative reaction when you attempt to assert your own boundaries in the relationship?
  • Do they belittle other people in order to boost their own ego?
  • Do they seem to fly off the handle easily, or does their mood go ‘hot and cold’?
  • Do they criticise you a lot and accuse you of things for no reason?
  • Do they make you feel guilty for spending time with other people?
  • Do they give you the ‘silent treatment’ often?

Keep in mind there is so much nuance involved in both relationships and mental health conditions, so while we can share the most common advice from therapists and professionals, each individual case and relationship is unique. For this reason, it is usually best to speak to a therapist who can assess the situation on a case-by-case basis, and give you more tailored advice.

“Many people feel that things will change — they enable it and justify it. People should really learn to say, ‘No’ [to narcissism and understand] that it’s not acceptable — the tantrum and entitled behavior is just not okay. The key to saving yourself from a narcissistic person is to detect it early and to set boundaries.” – Dr. Ramani Durvasula, psychology professor at California State University speaking on the School of Greatness podcast  

Can you work through a narcissistic relationship pattern?

It may seem like ending up with someone with Narcissistic Personality Disorder is a relationship beyond repair, and in many cases this is true because someone with NPD who does not seek help is likely unable to accept any criticism or responsibility for the issues in the relationship.

However, as with many mental health conditions, narcissism falls on a spectrum. This means there are different levels of it and the person you are in a relationship with may present some but not all of the aforementioned traits. You may choose to stay with a narcissist for this reason, or for other reasons.

If they are aware of their toxic behaviours and are willing to work on this to make you feel more at ease in the relationship, there may be hope for them to improve their attitude long term, but this does often require help from a professional. Working on this with a relationship counsellor can offer some useful outside perspective, and they may advise some exercises to improve your communication and set boundaries.

Be aware that when it comes to emotional abuse, you must be certain no lines have been crossed, and that your partner is indeed capable of changing their behaviours. Any physical, sexual, or extreme emotional abuse is not OK, and you should seek help in leaving the relationship as soon as you can. If you are unsure of where the line should be drawn, seek advice from family, friends, or a professional.

According to experts, if narcissistic abuse goes on for long enough, a victim can develop mental health conditions like anxiety, depression or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), so it’s important not to let the behaviour continue unchecked for too long.

How to (start to) work through a narcissistic relationship pattern

If the relationship does not involve any serious abuse and you are both trying to make changes, there are a few ways you can work on improving it. Here are some things that might help the situation:

  • If you have been solely focused on the needs of your partner in the past, start by expressing your own requirements in the relationship — you deserve to have your needs met, so tap into your feelings and prioritise them.
  • Remove yourself from the situation if things become emotionally intense. You are allowed to have a break, give your partner space to realise how they have behaved, and come back together at a later date to get back on the same page.
  • Get outside support. Narcissists tend to isolate their partners from others, so bring those people back into your life and get their perspective and advice. Your partner should not be attempting to make it difficult for you to see friends and family.
  • Set clear boundaries, communicate what is and is not acceptable behaviour, and talk to your partner straight away if any red flags arise. The sooner they realise how their words or actions are being perceived, the sooner they can take accountability and work to fix things.

“Putting yourself first isn’t selfish, it is a requirement to be in a healthy relationship. Take a step back and observe.” - Colleen Murphy, writer; ‘How a Narcissist Trains You to Comply’

Whether you’re feeling off-kilter or want to shake up your routine, our state-of-the-art mental wellbeing platform gives you quick and seamless access to world-class support on your terms, from private mental health assessments and reviews, to finding qualified and approved mental health professionals for the support you need: join us today.

If you have a question about Narcissistic Personality Disorder or relationship issues, and think you may need advice, we’re here to assist on your journey. Our free 15 minute consultation can guide you to the most relevant specialists to answer your questions and discuss next steps.

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