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BY: T. Franklin Murphy | October 1, 2018 (modified January 19, 2023)
The characteristics common of narcissism typically are disastrous for relationships. Often leaving is the only recourse.
We don’t plan it. It’s not our goal to be entangled with a self-serving ass. But occasionally, after the dust settles, we realize our partner isn’t the dreamy prince (or princess) we thought. We are then tasked with escaping the nightmare. We have seen enough movies, watched too many true crime dramas, to know that leaving can be dangerous. I want to bust a myth, however. Not all narcissists are evil. While breaking free from their grasps may be challenging, it typically won’t be fatal. Moving forward, away from the terror, may be the only path to a sane existence. These changes strike at the heart of the narcissist's sense of importance, leaving must be done with caution and planning, attending to danger signs, and utilizing resources.
The label 'narcissist', like any other label, groups a wide range of personalities under one umbrella. We fling the word carelessly onto anyone showing the slightest self absorption. Words help us define what we experience, and “narcissism” can clarify our experience with those that have little concern for us and others.
We often interchangeably use narcissism to describe a person with a little selfishness, thinking they are the same as those inflicted with Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD). A person with benign levels of narcissism can still contribute to healthy relationships. Those diagnosed with NPD most likely will never provide the love and warmth we desire from an intimate partner.
Lori C. Helms explains, "being selfish, self-centered, or full of yourself doesn't necessarily qualify someone to be diagnosed with NPD; they may only have a large dose of narcissistic traits" (2020).
Leaving a Narcissist is Difficult
Leaving any relationship is difficult. Our lives collapse from the shattering foundation of the ruined relationship, and we must rediscover ourselves. When a relationship fails to provide needed sustenance, the ensnared partners struggle through a loss of self, hopes and dreams. The couple often stagger between anger, disappointment, emptiness, and hope. A broken relationship creates conflict—in the home and in the heart. Healing from breakup requires a lengthy rediscovering of a self outside of the relationship.
If by happenstance, our partner is a narcissist the course becomes a little rockier. Narcissists possess an inordinate number of characteristics that contribute to relationship breakdown. Their constant reframing of reality to fit their glorified self-perception often leaves a partner holding the blame. Traditional companionship is weakened, for the relationship to function power must lie with the narcissist. The partners of narcissist need a strong sense of self and plenty of outside resources to support their own psychological and social needs. This is possible, and many people have found ways to make these relationships work.
However, if you are socially inhibited, and have little outside retreats, it’s far better to spot the narcissist early and avoid the heartache that certainly will follow. Unfortunately, narcissists do not wear a sparkling necklace, broadcasting their honorary status of the self-congratulatory, entitled, greatness club.
The narcissist typically has spent considerable amount of time perfecting their image. They are not the shy goofball in the corner, but the handsome, entertaining man that keeps the crowds enthralled.
Early Thrill of Relationships with Narcissists
Most relationships with an ego-thriving maniac starts with an exciting rush. The lucky partner cannot believe she (or he) has been chosen. The bad stuff comes later. The narcissist loves to sweep potential lovers off their feet, becoming the partner of their dreams—too much too soon. The narcissist is a master of luring victims into her web. Narcissists fawn over their new captives. Attention is addictive. (Dangerous Relationships).
As these relationships progress, the signs of trouble are evident to everybody but the victim. Narcissists are professionals of reframing reality (gaslighting). It is not uncommon for victims of abuse to feel unnatural guilt for being assaulted. Slowly reality is shifted, and the obvious becomes obscure.
Leaving a relationship with the narcissist is difficult because the flow of lies riddles our logical, distorting our sense of right and wrong. Our intended escape feels as a betrayal and the narcissist plays with this drama to a heightened crescendo: “I can’t believe you are doing this to me. All I have done is love you.”
Relationships with narcissist feature a big start and a disastrous finish (The Narcissist Epidemic). As enticing as a big start of instant love, constant attention, and declarations soulmate might be, beware. By committing early, becoming too attached, or giving the narcissist too much power, the cycle begins, and the relationship moves to more dangerous and disrupting stages of control.
To avoid the common pitfalls by overlooking danger signals, it’s essential to define what is dangerous from a position of safety, before the entanglements of a relationship begin. By defining the red-flags before committing, we are more likely to identify unhealthy behaviors when they occur. Controlling, blaming, shaming, or (emotionally or physically) harming behaviors must be identified and confronted.
Healthy people, often unskilled in relationships, may exhibit some of these behaviors but when confronted, they work to modify their actions—not the narcissist.
Narcissism is one of humanity’s more stubbornly intractable traits (The Narcissist Next Door). Sandra L. Brown writes, “You will never love him into safety, sanity, or sanctity.” (How to Spot a Dangerous Man). If you are dating, or married to a narcissist confronting harmful behaviors, not only fails to improve the relationship, but invites further and more severe attacks. The narcissist’s ego must remain superior, suggestions that the relationship is troubled is deflected and projected on the flawed partner.
Since control is often characteristic of a narcissist, us leaving presents a problem, possibly stirring violent or dangerous responses. We can’t diddle dawdle between going and staying. The problem will never be resolved, the back and forth continues the agitation and possibility of aggression. Once decided, work with outside resources to develop a safety plan.
It’s essential to be aware of predictors of a dangerous reaction: a history of domestic violence proceeding separation, refusal to accept finality, obsessive controlling jealousy (pathological), A history of threats to self and others: “If you leave me, I’ll kill myself (you, the other man, the children).”, a history of threatening with a weapon, a marked deterioration in mental health and increased substance abuse, and stalking (Familicide-Suicide: From Myth to Hypothesis and toward Understanding).
Love can be beautiful and engaging, giving richness to life; but it also can be frightening and dangerous. Before jumping into the dating world, take time to review the dangers. Assess what you did right and wrong in the past, read insightful books such as Dangerous Relationships by Noelle Nelson, and then carefully move forward.
Do not blindly commit to the first exciting date that sizzles you with fun, showers you with gifts, and radiates with confidence, this may be the sparkling show of a narcissist. Instead, search a little deeper. Does the person have a history of commitment, caring and teamwork? Can they give you what you need beyond tickling your immediate need for attention?
Leaving a narcissist is always possible, with careful planning and adequate support; but avoiding the hurt, the psychological damage, and the gnawing fear of a threatening return is much better.
Birch, Adelyn (2016). Boundaries after a Pathological Relationship. CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform
Brown, Sandra L. (2005) How to Spot a Dangerous Man Before You Get Involved. Hunter House.
Campbell, Keith W., Twenge, Jean M. (2010)The Narcissistic Epidemic: Living in an Age Of Entitlement. Atria Books
Engel, B (2002) The Emotionally Abusive Relationship: How to Stop Being Abused and How to Stop Abusing
Helms, L. C. (2020). The Narcissist: Why They’re Never Satisfied and Always Hunger for More. Published 9-22-2020. Accessed 2-18-2021.
Johnson, C., & Sachmann, M. (2014). Familicide‐Suicide: From Myth To Hypothesis And Toward Understanding. Family Court Review, 52(1), 100-113.
Kluger, Jeffrey. (2015) The Narcissist Next Door: Understanding the Monster in your family, in your Office, in your Bed--in your World. Riverhead Books
Nelson, Noelle (1997) Dangerous Relationships: How to Identify and Respond to the Seven Warning Signs of a Troubled Relationships. Cambridge, MA
Summit, Victoria (2013)How many Lies are too Many? Spot Pathological Liars, Cheaters, Con Artists, and Narcissists (Gaslight Survivor Series Book 2), CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform
Whitaker, P. (2017, February 17). I Am Special and I Am Worthless: Inside the Mind of a Narcissist. New Statesman (1996), 146(5354), 55.
White, G. M., & Berghuis, D. M. (2016). Self-Identified Christian Women and Divorce: The Recovery and Discovery of Self. Journal of Psychology and Christianity, 35(2), 175.