Are you in a relationship with someone who needs a constant flow of attention or validation? Does your loved one criticize you for no reason? Do you have a friend who insults you, but flies into a rage if they receive even gentle criticism? If this sounds familiar, that person might have a narcissist personality. A relationship with a narcissist can be difficult to navigate, but setting some clear boundaries can help.
What Is Narcissist Personality Disorder (NPD)?
Narcissistic people are generally quite grandiose individuals with an exaggerated sense of the accomplishments and talents. They perceive themselves as very important and assume everyone else does as well. Unfortunately, along with seeing themselves as the center of the world, they don’t develop much (or any) empathy for others.
The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5) states that a person with narcissist personality disorder must have five out of the nine following personality traits:
- A grandiose sense of self-importance
- A preoccupation with fantasies of unlimited success, power, brilliance, beauty, or ideal love
- A belief that he or she is special and unique and can only be understood by, or should associate with, other special or high-status people or institutions
- A need for excessive admiration
- A sense of entitlement
- Interpersonally exploitive behavior
- A lack of empathy
- Envy of others or a belief that others are envious of him or her
- A demonstration of arrogant and haughty behaviors or attitudes
The 7 Tips for a Relationship with a Narcissist
1. Start from a Place of Compassion
In a relationship with a narcissist, it’s not always easy to feel sympathy for their self-centeredness. However, it is better for your own emotional health to practice compassion.
A common myth about narcissism is that it stems from an extreme level of self-esteem. In truth, it’s more likely to be the reverse. Experts believe that narcissism is a reaction to fear, insecurity and low self-esteem.
When a narcissistic person lashes out with hurtful words or actions, it’s not necessarily about you. “Underneath their self-centeredness they are likely afraid of feeling flawed, powerless, unworthy or out of control,” says Neuharth. Knowing this may help you take their hurtful words or actions less personally.
Have some compassion for yourself, too. Setting boundaries is an important act that can improve the relationship. And it’s an important way for you to show respect for yourself, too.
2. Don’t Let Your Narcissistic Loved One Take Advantage of You
Narcissistic and self-absorbed people are very good at getting what they want. When you’re in a relationship with a narcissist, you may find they expect you to focus on their needs to the exclusion of your own. Neuharth says, “If someone is repeatedly focusing on what you can do for them, you have the right to say no or tell them you will think about it and get back to them.”
It can be helpful to think of some phrases that you can have ready when you need to assert yourself. This is useful if you find yourself getting flustered in the moment. Have a few phrases ready and you can avoid situations where you give in just because you don’t know how to say no. For instance:
- I’ll think about it.
- I’m satisfied I did the right thing.
- I have other priorities right now.
- I’ll let you know when I’m available.
- I need “_______.”
3. Put On Some Emotional Armor
The narcissist in your life is likely to think their ideas and opinions are better than yours. Their point of view is firmly entrenched in the “I am right” position. You’ll often encounter push back when you disagree with them, so be prepared to shield yourself emotionally. Take a deep breath and remind yourself that it’s not personal.
Try to avoid these kinds of situations when you’re feeling emotionally vulnerable. “It may be a mistake to discuss personal matters,” says Neuharth. “You may be vulnerable to ridicule or being dismissed.” If it does get to that point, it might be better to change the subject or end the conversation.
4. Choose Your Reaction
It’s easy to get aggravated or emotional around someone who’s self-obsessed. It is wise to change your expectations of their behavior. Narcissistic people don’t have a lot of emotional flexibility. They’re not able to step outside of their own worldview to see the world in another way. One consequence of this is that you can often predict how they’ll react in certain situations.
In any relationship, there are times when it’s better to say nothing. The same is true in a relationship with a narcissist. There will be times when they say or do something hurtful, and you’re unsure of how to react. But one thing you do know is that if you speak up, they’ll react badly to what they perceive as your criticism. At that point, it’s up to you to decide whether it’s worth challenging their behavior.
One exception is when it’s a boundary-crossing situation. If you feel it’s important to restate your boundaries, don’t hesitate to do so.
5. Stop Giving So Much
A relationship with a narcissist can sometimes feel like a one-way street. You give, and they take. One of the most important boundaries you can set takes one word, “Enough.”
“If you keep giving to someone who only takes and doesn’t appreciate what you are giving, you are teaching them to be a taker, not a giver,” says Neuharth. Whether it’s a friend who constantly asks for favors, or a partner who expects you to give way to all their preferences, it may be time to give less and do less.
It’s hard, but the first step in asserting yourself is to stop enabling selfish behavior. Make time for your own needs, instead of always focusing on theirs. When you have a choice to make, choose what you want, instead of what you think they want.
6. Make Yourself a Priority
Relationships always involve some give-and-take. Sometimes one person’s needs and priorities take over for a while, but things eventually return to normal. When you’re in a relationship with a narcissist, it can seem as though things never go back to normal. Their needs and priorities are always somehow more urgent.
Narcissists and self-absorbed people believe the world revolves around them. And they often expect that friends and partners share that belief. It’s vital that you insist the relationship allow for your needs, too. “If you’re not taking care of yourself, you will eventually have nothing to give and nothing to show for it except resentment,” says Neuharth. “Healthy self-care means boundary-setting.”
7. Consider Seeing a Therapist
Therapy isn’t just for people with mental health problems. If you’re conflicted about your relationship, seeking professional therapy can help you get some clarity. A therapist can also provide guidance as you start to work on setting boundaries in your relationship.
Why Are Relationships with Narcissists Difficult?
If you’re struggling with your relationship with a narcissist, you’re not alone. People with NPD appear to have strong, domineering personalities. The truth is, their self-image and self-esteem are often as fragile as a spider web. As a result, they have a strong, overwhelming need for validation and attention from others. And they hide their fragility as much as possible, both with self-aggrandizing behavior and by putting others down.
“As we grow, most of us learn that we aren’t the center of the universe, that other people have legitimate feelings and needs, and that we can’t always get what we want,” says narcissism expert Dan Neuharth, PhD, a licensed marriage and family therapist in the San Francisco Bay Area.
For narcissists, these lessons haven’t been fully learned. They’re likely to still think of themselves as the center of the world. Their feelings and needs still take precedence over everything and everyone else. They expect to always be able to get what they want, and they sulk or lash out if they don’t get their way.
These attitudes can make it hard to develop and maintain friendships and romantic relationships. For the other person, a friendship or intimate relationship with a narcissist can be exhausting, due to their constant demands and criticisms. The relationship tends to revolve around the narcissist, who resents any time where the focus isn’t on them. They may lie, manipulate or gaslight their partner to try and get their own way.
The Importance of Setting Boundaries
In any kind of relationship—whether it’s a familial, friendship or romantic relationship—setting boundaries is important for everyone involved. Boundaries inform others how you want to be treated. For narcissistic relationships, it’s pure survival.
If you’re not good at setting boundaries, it can feel uncomfortable to start doing it. But it’s vital to set and maintain strong boundaries, especially in a relationship with a narcissistic loved one. The fact that narcissistic people lack empathy means they have less motivation to respect boundaries. Being clear and consistent in enforcing your boundaries can help ensure your needs are met.
Some narcissistic partners can become toxic, making the relationship unhealthy. If you’re experiencing narcissist abuse, it’s not simply a matter of drawing boundaries anymore. The only adequate boundary will be to remove yourself from the toxic relationship with the narcissist. Of course, not all narcissists are emotional abusers. But, due to their narcissistic traits, their words and actions are often inadvertently hurtful. That’s why the seven tips to transform your relationship with a narcissist are all about boundaries. Print them, write them on note cards or do whatever you need to give yourself the pep talk to create healthy, compassionate boundaries. Without those boundaries you’ll end up feeling as though your needs have been completely overtaken by theirs.
Few people realize what they’re getting into when they start a relationship with a narcissist. It’s a difficult kind of relationship to navigate, but that doesn’t mean it’s impossible. By creating boundaries, you set the expectation that your needs, rights and contributions to the relationship are respected.