RECOGNIZING NARCISSISTIC ABUSE IN ROMANTIC RELATIONSHIPS
By Lorin Harrott
Dealing with a narcissist can be an infuriating experience in any situation and being in a relationship with one can be even more difficult. But being in a relationship with a narcissist who has become abusive can be one of the most difficult and dangerous circumstances someone can experience. Narcissistic abuse in romantic relationships can be both emotionally and physically damaging and is often hard to recognize, even for the victim.
Many of these relationships start quite happily. Narcissists can be very charming and convincing, especially if there is something or someone they want. And although the level of abuse can vary, most narcissists do tend to become abusive as time goes on, making narcissistic abuse in romantic relationships very real.
Is Your Abuser A Narcissist?
It‘s important to understand that not all abusers are narcissists. Physical and emotional abuse can happen for a variety of reasons – none of them justifiable, but they aren’t all due to a narcissistic personality. True narcissists have a mental disorder called Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD) and although it can affect women, narcissism is much more common in men.
Recognizing narcissism in an individual can be tricky. Because they crave approval and attention they often work hard to make people like them, drawing others into their world and making them feel wanted and included. And in a romantic relationship this is exactly what we want, so in the beginning this behavior can look like genuine love. But that special feeling a narcissist can create for someone is short lived as they quickly turn the focus to themselves.
Narcissists have a distorted view of themselves, believing that they are entitled to considerations and treatment that other people aren’t. They see themselves as unique and special and tend to lack empathy for others, having a general disregard for other people’s feelings. So while narcissists can often seem exciting and charismatic especially at the beginning of a relationship, almost all of their actions will be driven toward fulfilling their own needs and feeding their own self-image. This lack of concern for others and pain they inflict can mean that relationship abuse at the hands of a narcissist is particularly cruel.
Narcissistic behavior typically has deep underlying causes often going back to childhood and relationships with parents and family. Their behavior evolves over time from coping mechanisms they develop to protect themselves. Later on this turns into abusive behavior as they use the people around them as stepping stones for personal gain. The causes for these behaviors can be complicated and take time and professional help to recognize, deal with and overcome.
What Is Narcissistic Relationship Abuse?
Narcissists, despite their egotistical and self-serving nature, are dependent on those around them for validation. They need others to feed their ego and confirm the idea that they are special and better than everyone else around them. This kind of constant validation and reassurance is most easily and consistently found – or forced – in a romantic relationship.
Narcissistic abuse can occur in any close relationship, but because a love connection and bond makes us vulnerable and easily manipulated, it’s more prevalent in romantic relationships than others. The abuse can take nearly any form as well – physical, emotional, sexual, or mental but always has the same goal – power, control and self-validation.
Dr. Kurt has counseled many people dealing with narcissistic abuse in their relationships. When asked about it he had this to say,
A common description for partners of narcissists is that they ‘walk on eggshells’ or ‘try not to upset him.’ Romantic relationships are supposed to be about love, acceptance and trust. Unfortunately, narcissistic abuse in your relationships produces just the opposite. We all should feel safe to be ourselves with our partners, if you don’t then see this as a problem that needs to change.”
Relationship abuse by a narcissist partner creates shame and feelings of inferiority for their victim. In this way the narcissist feeds their need to feel superior and avoid their own deeper feelings of shame or inferiority. Remember, these behaviors are often used as coping mechanisms to mask the deeper issues that need to be dealt with.
Abusive behavior by a narcissist is used to manipulate or intimidate someone into doing things that serve the narcissist, or in order to continue to prove to themselves that they are superior. They are not bothered by guilt over the pain they inflict and instead will justify their behavior as necessary, shifting the blame for their actions onto their victims rather than accepting any responsibility themselves.
Because the damage they are doing is calculated, deliberate, and causes a victim to question their own worth, narcissistic abuse can be particularly dangerous. Eventually a victim of narcissistic abuse in a relationship will start to see themselves as existing for no other reason than to take care of their of their partner and that partner’s ego. The result of such an abusive situation is that their own sense of self and their own identity can become completely lost.
How Do I Know If I Am Dealing With Narcissistic Abuse?
Narcissistic abuse, especially when it’s emotional or mental, can be hard to recognize even for the victim. Victims can be confused by their own feelings of both love and guilt, assuming that somehow they are responsible for the behavior of their partner. And a narcissistic abuser will encourage this perception by telling their victims directly that they are at fault.
See if any of the following seem familiar.
- Your life isn’t yours anymore. Being in a relationship with a narcissist is exhausting. Their needs always come first and their need for constant reassurance can feel like a full time job. Over time your life can feel like it’s only about making your partner happy and serving their needs. If your life, goals, needs and desires have gotten pushed to the side or forgotten altogether in lieu of your partner’s you are likely dealing with narcissistic abuse.
- You think constantly about how to make your partner happy. In a healthy relationship each partner works on their own happiness as well as taking pleasure in making their partner happy. Often those two things are intertwined. When you are in a relationship with a narcissist the only happiness that matters is theirs. A narcissistic abuser will use verbal harassment, emotional manipulation and even emotional blackmail to ensure that the focus is always on them and their satisfaction. If you find that you are constantly trying to find ways to make them happy, especially at the expense of your own happiness and with no reciprocation, there is something wrong.
- You doubt yourself constantly. A narcissist needs to be right, special and in charge. They won’t share that role with others because it challenges their feelings of superiority and causes feelings of self-doubt within themselves. So an abuser who is narcissistic, especially in a romantic relationship, will make a point of ensuring that you are always wrong – even if you are right. Over time victims will find that they no longer trust their own feelings or instincts.
- You live for their approval. Along with victim’s self-doubt will come a need for approval from the abuser. Because a narcissist works hard to appear and feel in control and always right by degrading and demeaning those around them, approval or compliments from a narcissist are extremely rare. For this reason a victim of narcissistic abuse will become conditioned to crave and seek approval from their abuser. In the same way the victim focuses on ways to make their partner happy they also start to believe that they aren’t successful or worthy unless their abuser says they are.
- You have no other close relationships. You may have superficial friendships or acquaintances, but a victim of narcissistic abuse in a romantic relationship will eventually find themselves isolated from any other close relationships. These relationships take time and attention away from the narcissist and they require that time and attention in order to maintain their self-image. These other relationships also, whether they are with friends or family, can threaten the perception a victim has of their abuser so the abuser will work hard to discourage this and eventually break the ties their partner has with anyone other than them.
If any of these situations sound familiar it’s very likely that your partner is a narcissist and your relationship with them has become abusive.
In a relationship with a narcissist the abuse often starts in subtle ways and then escalates over time. Because of that narcissistic abuse in a relationship can take a long time to recognize and confront. But it has to be dealt with. Not only will it not get better on its own it’s also quite possible that the emotional abuse will turn into physical abuse at some point.
The longer narcissistic abuse in a relationship goes on, the longer it will take to recover. So if you recognize any of these circumstances in your relationship or someone else’s it’s time to get help.