How To Know If The Person You're Dating Is A 'Healthy' Vs 'Unhealthy' Narcissist
Because we all have some narcissistic traits.
"Narcissism" is a term that gets frequently thrown around, but the way it’s commonly used in modern dating and relationship advice is often unclear or inaccurate. The word certainly conjures up a negative image! However, we all fall somewhere on the scale between pure selflessness and complete arrogance. When the word narcissist is used casually, most people are referring to the outer edge of typical behavior on that spectrum, as opposed to a pattern of pathological behaviors that might lead to a clinical diagnosis of Narcissist Personality Disorder (NPD).
You will have difficulties developing emotional intimacy, trust, and closeness with a narcissist, as they're too wrapped up in themselves and what’s important to them to be emotionally available to others. They might use you only for self-gratification, never giving of themselves and keeping the relationship completely imbalanced. Furthermore, given that narcissism can shift dangerously into psychopathic or sociopath territory, relationships with a highly narcissistic person can pose serious challenges and risks.
What is healthy vs. unhealthy narcissism?
We all have moments when we're tired, stressed out, or angry. We can all become self-absorbed to the point of shutting out what others want, need, or feel. And we can all become critical and even attacking of others on occasion. And, of course, healthy self-love helps us to be optimistic and secure in the face of these and other negative emotions. However, those with narcissistic personality disorder go far beyond normal self-involvement.
The American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM5) defines NPD as "a persistent manner of grandiosity, a continuous desire for admiration, along with a lack of empathy ... as signified by the existence of any 5 of the next 9 standards:
A grandiose logic of self-importance
A fixation with fantasies of infinite success, control, brilliance, beauty, or idyllic love
A credence that he or she is extraordinary and exceptional and can only be understood by, or should connect with, other extraordinary or important people or institutions
A desire for unwarranted admiration
A sense of entitlement
Inter-personally oppressive behavior
No form of empathy
Resentment of others or a conviction that others are resentful of him or her
A display of egotistical and conceited behaviors or attitudes
Psychologist, author and narcissism expert, Dr. Craig Malkin further categorizes these behaviors into what he refers to as the core "3 E's" of narcissism:
Exploitation: A willingness to do whatever it takes, including lie and manipulate, to get their needs met.
Entitlement: An attitude that you or the world owe them, often accompanied by rage.
Empathy-impairment: People with NPD can seem empathic, but it’s a dysfunctional form of empathy that can suddenly vanish when it does not suit their needs or they become preoccupied with their own feelings.
If you recognize signs of narcissism in your partner, you may be in a tough spot trying to figure out if you should stay with them and learn to cope, or leave. There are several important factors to consider when dealing with NPD in any marriage or relationship.
Here are three signs you cannot ignore if you suspect you're dating a narcissist, and must leave the relationship immediately:
1. You're experiencing abuse of any sort
Certainly, this is true of physical abuse, but psychological abuse of any kind should never be tolerated either. Their behavior may be relentless criticism, continually tearing you down with insults and condescension, swearing at you, calling you crazy or gaslighting you.
It's completely their responsibility to stop this behavior, not yours. The same is true of hitting, pushing or threats of violence. If your partner doesn't end their abuse, you simply can’t have a healthy relationship.
2. They are in denial about their behavior
This person has to at least be able to acknowledge something’s wrong, even if it’s as simple an admission as, “I think I need help.” If people can’t recognize their problems, they will never get better.
3. They show signs of psychopathy
This pattern of cold, remorseless lies and deceit may hint not just at impaired empathy, but a profound absence of empathy. The chances of a psychopathic narcissist (often called a “malignant narcissist”) improving their behavior is slim to none. If this is the case, it’s definitely time to flee!
Narcissistic arrogance and hostility from a partner can bring out the worst in anyone. It may be tempting to tiptoe around the nastiness coming at you, but walking on eggshells is not a way to live! Alternatively, you may lash out in hurt and anger. None of these reactions make the relationship any healthier. You need to find your voice and speak up if it is safe to do so. Do not do this if you fear physical violence. One of the better ways to speak up is by going under the surface of the escalated reactivity or the silence and shut-down you're tempted to fall into.
This two-step strategy offers the best chance of eliciting empathy:
(1) Start by affirming the importance of the relationship.
(2) Next, voice your hurt in a vulnerable way, expressing your feelings of sadness, fear, loneliness, shame, and/or longing for love.
For example, you might say, "You’re a very special person to me, so when you ignore me, I feel shut out and unimportant,” or, “You mean the world to me, which is why I feel worthless in your eyes when you criticize all of my decisions.”
People who are capable of any empathy at all will soften when they hear these statements. If they don’t, that’s a major red flag, and a reason to consider leaving the relationship, even if you need help doing it. Finally, if a narcissistic partner refuses to seek therapy, that should also the final nail in the relationship's coffin.
Dr. Marni Feuerman* is a licensed psychotherapist and author of Ghosted and Breadcrumbed: Stop Falling for Unavailable Men and Get Smart about Healthy Relationships available on Amazon and everywhere else books are sold. Sign up for her newsletter to keep in touch and get the latest content on love, dating and relationships.
*Author note: This article was originally written for and appeared on YourTango.com.