Therapists on how to identify a narcissist so you can break the cycle.
Every relationship has its issues. In-laws that are a little too involved, differences in sex drives, disagreements about money—these can all be bumps in the road to a long-term, happy relationship. But there are bumps in the road and then there are immovable boulders, and being in a relationship with a narcissist definitely counts as a boulder. And for some people, a narcissistic relationship pattern emerges.
Psychotherapist Tiffany Rowland, LCSW, says that there is literally nothing good about dating a narcissist. “I can’t offer any strengths to dating a narcissistic individual. Often those relationships are unhealthy, toxic and damaging,” she says. But here’s the tricky thing about narcissists: They can be super charming at the beginning of the relationship, so they aren’t easy to spot right away. Maybe you’ve found that, for some reason, you're repeatedly drawn to narcissists. If your goal is to be in a happy, long-term relationship, it’s time to break this cycle.
How Dating a Narcissist Can Affect You and Your Relationship
If you aren’t sure whether the person you’re dating is a narcissist or not, therapist Sarah Levine-Miles, LCSW, says there are some specific behaviors to be on the lookout for. “A narcissist’s main goal is to feel important, liked or valued,” she says. Levine-Miles says that a hallmark of narcissism is acting entitled and pitching a fit when they don’t get what they want. If your partner is rude to waiters, constantly seeking validation from you and others, is not open to criticism, and can never be at fault, they are likely a narcissist.
Both Levine-Miles and Rowland say that it’s impossible to have a healthy relationship with a narcissist. Levine-Miles says that disagreements are never constructive because the narcissist can’t see themself as wrong. She adds that there is no room for your wants or needs because what the narcissist wants or needs takes precedence.
As you can probably imagine, being in a relationship with a narcissist can greatly affect one’s mental health. “Dating a narcissist can be mentally and emotionally exhausting. It’s challenging enough to manage your own mental wellness, but adding a narcissist to the mix will be mental overload,” Rowland says.
Levine-Miles says that dating someone who feels they are never wrong can lead to depression, anxiety or feelings of worthlessness. “It can lead to feeling like you’re walking on eggshells because you don’t want to set them off,” she says.
Clearly, no one is hoping for this type of relationship. So how can you make sure you stop falling for narcissists for good?
Reasons Why Someone May Keep Attracting Narcissists—and How To Break the Cycle
Both therapists say that there are a few reasons why someone may continue to end up in relationships with a narcissist. “At first, dating a narcissist can feel very exciting because it tends to be intense,” Levine-Miles says. “Narcissists can be very charming and shower someone with lots of big, romantic gestures.” Rowland agrees that love bombing is common for narcissists. She says that someone may be seduced by these grandiose displays of affection before they have time to connect the dots.
Levine-Miles says that some people may be drawn to narcissists because they have a desire to “fix” someone. “Some people can have a feeling of devotion; wanting to help someone or seeing potential in them and wanting to change them,” she says. Her advice? Date someone who is already someone you want to be with, not someone you hope can become someone you want to be with.
Rowland and Levine-Miles both say that awareness is key to breaking the narcissist relationship cycle, especially early on. Instead of getting distracted by love-bombing, Rowland says to pay attention to how they act when they’re with you. Are they engaging in active listening or are all your conversations centered around them? She says to pay attention to how you feel when you’re with them. Do you feel anxious because you aren’t sure how they’ll act when you see them? Do you feel self-conscious or bad about yourself? “A narcissistic person can be clever but eventually your intuition will start buzzing and you must pay attention to that feeling about the person you’re dealing with,” Rowland says.
If you feel the need to make excuses for your partner (or potential partner) or find yourself covering for them to your friends, Levine-Miles says that this is a red flag. Ask yourself why you feel the need to lie about aspects of your relationship with your friends.
Even if there are happy moments and glimpses of what could be, ultimately there is no happy ending if you are in a relationship with a narcissist. If you are currently in a relationship that you want to end but are scared to do so because of your safety, Levine-Miles says to talk about an exit plan with a therapist. If you don’t have a therapist, consider calling The Domestic Violence Helpline (1-800-799-7233).
Everyone deserves to feel valued and loved in their relationship. Don’t let a narcissist get in the way of that. This time, it’s about you.