January 10, 2022 |Gideon Hanekom

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Can a person have a healthy (or any kind of) relationship with a narcissist? This article examines this question, which receives 12,100 Google searches each month at the time of writing.

Narcissism appears to be widespread in society, and many people appear to encounter narcissists in relationships on a regular basis.

But, aside from being a popular catchphrase, what precisely is narcissism, and how does it differ from NPD or narcissistic personality disorder?

That and more will be covered in this post, so keep reading.

To begin, let’s define narcissism, which appears to be an umbrella term for anyone who exhibits some features of self-importance or self-love; both of which are not necessarily negative traits and can also signify high self-esteem or confidence; and then we’ll look at whether or not it is possible to have a healthy relationship with a narcissist.

The definition of narcissism and narcissistic personality disorder

Narcissism can be defined as an excessive amount of self-love or adulation, combined with a lack of empathy for others.

Furthermore, narcissists frequently have difficulty relating to others and are very self-centred.

But, what exactly is the difference between having narcissistic traits and having a narcissistic personality disorder?

According to Mitra & Fluyau (2021), narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) is a pattern of grandiosity, a need for admiration, and a lack of empathy per the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM–5).

The disorder is classified in the dimensional model of “Personality Disorders.”

NPD is also highly comorbid with other disorders in mental health, for example, antisocial, histrionic, borderline, schizotypal, and passive-aggressive personality disorders.

Persons with true NPD can often present with impairment in maintaining work and relationships.

Relationship with a Narcissist

NPD appears to be widespread in society, yet there has been little research on the subject.

Approximately 1% of the population, according to an article on PsychAlive.com, is thought to be affected by NPD.

Many persons with NPD, on the other hand, do not seek therapy, and as a result, they are never diagnosed.

According to research, men are more prone than women to being narcissistic.

Furthermore, men account for around 75% of those who have been diagnosed with NPD.

However, despite the fact that practically everyone possesses some self-centred or narcissistic characteristics, the vast majority of people do not fit the criteria for having a personality disorder.

The DSM-5 defines NPD as follows:

The essential features of a personality disorder are impairments in personality (self and interpersonal) functioning and the presence of pathological personality traits.

To diagnose narcissistic personality disorder, the following criteria must be met:

A. Significant impairments in personality functioning manifest by:

1. Impairments in self-functioning (a or b):

a. Identity: Excessive reference to others for self-definition and self-esteem regulation; exaggerated self-appraisal may be inflated or deflated, or vacillate between extremes; emotional regulation mirrors fluctuations in self-esteem.

b. Self-direction: Goal-setting is based on gaining approval from others; personal standards are unreasonably high in order to see oneself as exceptional, or too low based on a sense of entitlement; often unaware of own motivations.


2. Impairments in interpersonal functioning (a or b):

a. Empathy: Impaired ability to recognize or identify with the feelings and needs of others; excessively attuned to reactions of others, but only if perceived as relevant to self; over-or underestimate of own effect on others.

b. Intimacy: Relationships are largely superficial and exist to serve self-esteem regulation; mutuality constrained by little genuine interest in others‟ experiences and predominance of a need for personal gain

B. Pathological personality traits in the following domain:

1. Antagonism, characterized by:

a. Grandiosity: Feelings of entitlement, either overt or covert;

self-centeredness; firmly holding to the belief that one is better than others; condescending toward others.

b. Attention seeking: Excessive attempts to attract and be the focus of the attention of others; admiration seeking.

C. The impairments in personality functioning and the individual‟s personality trait expression are relatively stable across time and consistent across situations.

D. The impairments in personality functioning and the individual‟s personality trait expression are not better understood as normative for the individual‟s developmental stage or socio-cultural environment.

E. The impairments in personality functioning and the individual‟s personality trait expression are not solely due to the direct physiological effects of a substance (e.g., a drug of abuse, medication) or a general medical condition (e.g., severe head trauma).

So, as you can see from this, narcissistic traits and true narcissism are two different things.

Relationship with a Narcissist

Narcissistic traits are common in people and can be seen in many different personality types.

Narcissistic traits are also often characterized by an inflated sense of self-importance, a need for admiration, and a lack of empathy.

People who have narcissistic traits may be arrogant, competitive, and demanding.

They may also have a hard time taking criticism and may be hypersensitive to any perceived slight.

In contrast, however, true narcissism is a psychiatric disorder (NPD) in which a person has an abnormally inflated sense of self-importance, a need for admiration, and a lack of empathy.

We also know that individuals with true narcissism are usually very conceited and often have problems maintaining relationships or careers.

However, that being said, although they may not meet the clinical criteria for NPD, some experts caution that there is a growing segment of the population who is exhibiting an increasing number of toxic, narcissistic traits, which are having a negative impact on their lives and on those close to them, even if they do not meet the criteria for NPD.

In other words, whether a person has been diagnosed with NPD or not, their narcissistic traits can still negatively impact their own lives or the lives of others around them.

A relationship with someone who displays these traits might cause the same level of difficulty as a relationship with a person who has been diagnosed as narcissistic.

So, let’s now turn our attention to narcissism in relationships, its traits and symptoms, and look at whether one can have a healthy relationship with a narcissist.

The signs and symptoms of narcissism in relationships

The difficult part is knowing whether you are in a relationship with a narcissist, or are they just overly confident or perhaps even arrogant.

In this section, we’ll look at various signs and symptoms (also known as red flags) of narcissism in relationships to help you assess your situation better.

There are many signs and symptoms of narcissism in relationships.

Some of the most common include a lack of empathy, a need for admiration, and a sense of entitlement.

Narcissists also often have difficulty taking other people’s feelings into account and may be very selfish.

They may also be very critical of others and have a need to be in control.

Many narcissists have strong self-esteem issues and may have very low self-confidence.

In fact, according to a BBC.com article, a narcissist’s behaviour is often motivated by low self-esteem and a persistent need for self-validation rather than self-love.

Some of the other signs include the following:

1. A tendency to always be right.

If a narcissist feels strongly about something, they may become unreasonable and inflexible in their positions.

They may constantly try to change the subject, attack others, or make unreasonable demands of others.

2. A strong need for superiority and special treatment.

Narcissists expect special treatment and may become very upset if they don’t receive it.

3. Exaggerated emotions.

Narcissists tend to constantly show their emotions or pretend to be very sad, happy, or angry when they are not.

relationship with a narcissist

4. A tendency to blame others.

Narcissists are likely to point fingers and make other people the cause of their problems.

5. A need for constant attention.

Narcissists have a very high opinion of themselves and will not accept others as having as much value or importance as they do.

As a result, they may expect others to pay them more attention and do more for them.

6. A lack of empathy.

Narcissists are often very cold and insensitive to others.

As a result, they are unable to see things from other people’s points of view.

7. An inability to show or experience gratitude.

Narcissists will expect others to constantly shower them with praise and positive attention but won’t do the same in return.

8. An exaggerated sense of entitlement.

Narcissists believe that they are special and superior to others and should be treated that way.

They expect others to cater to their every need and do as they say.

9. Grandiose sense of self-importance.

Narcissists think highly of themselves and value others only insofar as they can benefit them.

They believe that others should admire them, respect them, and do whatever it takes to make them happy.

10. Erratic, irresponsible, or impulsive behaviour.

Narcissists are not very good at resisting temptation.

They may impulsively spend money, take risks, or act out in other ways without thinking through the consequences.

The effects of narcissism on relationships

As you can expect based on the list of signs and symptoms of narcissism in relationships above, narcissism can have a devastating effect on relationships.

They may be unwilling to work on a relationship that has become frustrating and draining for them.

They are often very egocentric, thinking of themselves first and others last.

They may be unwilling to compromise or take others’ feelings into account, which can lead to lots of conflict and a lack of intimacy in relationships.

Additionally, people who are narcissists often have an inflated sense of self-importance and a need for constant admiration which might also explain why narcissists are prone to affairs and other types of betrayal.

They need as much self-validation and admiration as they can get.

relationship with a narcissist

Also, narcissists often lack empathy and have an unrealistic sense of their own abilities which can sometimes lead to social distancing and even loneliness, which only leads to further narcissism.

But why are people narcissists in the first place?

Are they born that way, or do they grow that way over time?

Is it possible to modify it?

That seems especially prudent in light of our discussion of being in a relationship with a narcissist.

Are people born narcissists or do they develop the personality trait over time?

There is no definitive answer to this question as it is still up for debate among experts.

Some believe that people are born with narcissistic tendencies, while others argue that the personality trait develops over time, often as a result of socialization experiences during childhood.

For example, Brummelman et al. (2015) argue in their paper, “Origins of narcissism in children,” that little is known about the origins of narcissism.

However, they illustrate in their study that parental overvaluation fosters narcissism in children, with parents believing their child is more exceptional and deserving than others.

In comparison, parental warmth fosters children’s self-esteem through expressing care and gratitude toward their children.

According to them, their data demonstrate that narcissism is partially a result of early socialization experiences and imply that parent-training interventions can assist in kerbing narcissistic development and mitigate its societal consequences.

You can read their whole study here if you’re interested.

Also, maybe you have some personal views on this that you would like to share in the comments area below.

Now, we’ve already covered a lot in this post, and there’s still a lot to think about, but the main question we want to address is, can you have a healthy relationship with a narcissist?

Is it ever possible to have a healthy relationship with a narcissist?

Truthfully, there is no easy answer when it comes to having a relationship with a narcissist.

While it may be possible to have a healthy relationship with a narcissist, it will most likely require a lot of work and patience.

Psychologists still have different opinions on narcissism and relationships.

Some believe that narcissists are incapable of forming healthy relationships, while others believe that narcissists are capable of forming healthy relationships but only if they are able to recognize and address their own narcissism.

Overall, most psychologists agree that it is possible to have a healthy relationship with a narcissist, but oftentimes such relationships are problematic.

For example, if the narcissist is abusive, then it would be difficult to have a healthy relationship or any kind of positive relationship for that matter.

relationship with a narcissist

However, even if a narcissist is not abusive, most people who try to have a healthy relationship with a narcissist usually end up getting used and discarded.

As a result, if you are considering dating or are already in a relationship with a narcissist, it is critical to create boundaries and be assertive to get what you need from the relationship.

Although it may seem paradoxical, you sometimes have to set limits with the individual who is attempting to impose their agenda on you and urge that they stop.

It’s important to remember that many narcissists are incredibly charming and persuasive, especially in the beginning, so it may be difficult to stand up to them later on.

At the beginning of a relationship with a narcissist, their behaviour may seem normal.

After all, they seem to be perfect partners, but if you look past the surface, there are red flags everywhere.

Unfortunately, some people may not want to see them.

So, it’s critical to be on the alert for any behaviour that implies a narcissistic personality disorder or narcissistic tendencies right from the start to avoid getting drawn into an emotionally draining or, worse, harmful relationship.

At this point, I’m sure you’re wondering why, since having a healthy relationship with a narcissist doesn’t seem possible, narcissists intrigue us so much and do we even fall in love with them, at least at first?

We’ll briefly look at that in the final part of this post.

But, why do we love narcissists (in the beginning)?

Contrary to popular belief, we initially admire narcissists for their exploitative, entitled behaviour, but this admiration does not endure long.

Despite their self-centeredness, arrogance, entitlement, and predatory behaviour, narcissists are fascinating.

According to the research, we are oddly attracted to their self-centred personalities, their power and animosity, their sensitivity and sadness, at least temporarily.

Extreme narcissists are ultimately rejected when they disclose their actual personalities to those around them.

For example, researchers led by Mitja Back decided to look into the matter (Back et al., 2010).

They asked 73 first-year students who had never met previously to go around the classroom and introduce themselves to each other one by one.

Each participant was judged on their likeability by their peers and videotaped for further examination.

All of the students completed questionnaires following the session, one of which assessed their narcissistic personality traits.

The following are the findings:

At first glance, narcissists appeared to be more popular.

Others initially favoured self-identified narcissists over non-narcissists.

Participants were especially taken by narcissists’ attitudes of entitlement.

Among the four dimensions of narcissism they examined: leadership/authority, self-admiration/self-absorption, arrogance/superiority, and entitlement/exploitativeness, it was the latter that most accurately predicted liking.

Narcissists also tend to have a more attractive appearance, tone of voice, and movement.

relationship with a narcissist

Narcissists in this study were popular because they possessed more endearing facial expressions, a more confident speaking tone, fashionable clothing, trendy haircuts, and were more amusing.

Of course, all of these effects are only temporary.

Narcissists are frequently exposed and rejected since few individuals will tolerate self-absorbed, bossy, arrogant, and exploitative friends for too long.

However, based on this study, there are numerous paradoxes in narcissists’ behaviour.

Three of these are explained by this research:

  • Why do people persist in being self-centred when it undermines their relationships with others?
  • Why do narcissists diminish others’ worth, while they are so reliant on them for adulation?
  • Why are narcissists incapable of recognising the pattern of initial attraction followed by rejection?

The first two are somewhat explained by the fact that narcissistic behaviour appears to be attractive to others when it is initially displayed.

Selfish behaviour appears to provide them with a rush of adoration, which they get hooked to while discounting others in the face of inevitable rejection, which they mask by seeking out new individuals to idolise them.

Additionally, the reason narcissists may be unable to recognise this cycle is that their friends and partners do not stay around long enough to inform them in a way that they believe it and desire to change it.

To conclude…

In conclusion, what it seems we can take away from this post is that it is possible to have a healthy relationship with a narcissist, but it will take a lot of work.

You need to be able to set boundaries and stand up for yourself.

It’s also important to have a support system to help you through the tough times.

Narcissists cannot easily be reasoned with, so you need to know how to assert yourself and make them understand your position without feeling guilty or shameful.

If you are in a relationship with a narcissist, I urge you to seek help from a therapist who is trained in treating narcissistic personality disorder.

If you have any experience or thoughts on the topic, please let us know in the comments below.

About the author

Gideon Hanekom

Gideon Hanekom is the creator of TheRelationshipGuy.com, a popular relationship blog that ranks among the top 50 relationship blogs in 2024. The website helps couples to create happier, healthier, and more intimate relationships. Gideon is a trained professional counsellor and holds post-graduate degrees in Theology and Psychology. His articles have also been featured on respected platforms such as Marriage.com and The Good Men Project.

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