If you are currently in a relationship with a narcissist, have been involved with one in the past, or have a narcissistic friend or family member, you are likely wondering if they can ever have a healthy relationship.
I know that is something I have thought about when dealing with my narcissistic mother. She just doesn’t seem to have the skills necessary for healthy interactions. It’s a valid question to ponder, given the complexities of narcissistic personality disorder (NPD).
The short answer is that it’s not likely a narcissist will be able to have a healthy relationship, but they can form long-term relationships. Many narcissists can develop relationships that last many years, but the characteristics of narcissism prevent them from behaving in healthy ways.
Read on to learn about a few narcissistic character traits that act as barriers to a healthy, happy relationship.
What are the Narcissistic Barriers for Healthy Relationships?
Narcissism experts like psychologist Elinor Greenberg note that narcissists have certain personality traits that create barriers to successful relationships.
You can see more of what Dr. Greenberg has to say about narcissistic couples here. She says, “If we want more knowledge about whether any two particular Narcissists could be happy with each other in a long-term relationship, we need more information about the two Narcissists.”
Still, she notes that there are several narcissistic character traits that make it difficult for any narcissist to have a happy relationship.
They Lack Empathy
One of the most significant barriers for a narcissist to be happy in a relationship is their lack of empathy. Lacking empathy is probably the number one reason why a narcissist has difficulty forming healthy relationships.
Most people can put themselves in another person’s place and understand why they feel the way they do. That’s called empathy, and it’s an essential interpersonal skill to have when forming relationships of any kind.
Narcissists notoriously lack this ability. That means they really can’t understand why you’re so upset when they casually lie to you or gaslight you or use any of the many other manipulative tactics they have in their arsenal. They simply don’t know how to ‘walk a mile in your shoes,’ and so, they don’t fully understand the impact their actions have on your emotional state.
Another problem for narcissists is that they think in binary terms. In the narcissist’s mind, there is no gray area. You’re either with them, or you’re against them. If you don’t live up to their very high expectations, then you’re against them, and they will do everything in their power to make your life miserable.
They are Self-Absorbed
The next problem narcissists have is that they are extraordinarily self-absorbed. For the narcissist, everything is about them. You are merely an extension of them, and that’s why they don’t believe your emotions or needs count. They expect that you will unconditionally support and love them.
If you express a need, they see that internally as a suggestion that they have somehow failed you. That’s not acceptable to a narcissist, and the response is often one of narcissistic rage. They fly into that rage because they can’t face any kind of criticism, no matter how gentle it might be.
Even something as mild as a different opinion can send the narcissist into a blind rage. As Greenberg notes, they see that as the actions of an enemy and will respond accordingly.
They Devalue Others
Then finally, a barrier in any relationship–involving a narcissist or not–is if one partner consistently devalues the other. Any time you’re not complimenting or expressing love for a narcissist, you’re at risk of being devalued. It’s the particularly damaging go-to response of the narcissist when they feel they are being criticized in any way, and it can result in narcissistic victim syndrome.
It’s also common for narcissists to devalue anyone they see as a threat to their shaky self-esteem. Dr. Greenberg points out that any relationship where one partner expresses contempt for the other (either verbally or nonverbally)or fails to give their partner enough positive reinforcement, is likely to fail.
Expressing contempt for their partner and other people in their life is typical for people with NPD. They also rarely offer up much in the way of positive reinforcement, in part because they are unable to see that you might need that given their lack of empathy. That doesn’t bode well for narcissists having a successful, healthy, or happy relationship.
While these are the barriers that often prevent narcissists from having a healthy or happy relationship, they can form relationships. They can even be quite charming when you first meet them. But can their relationships last even if they’re not healthy?
How Do Narcissists Thrive in a Relationship?
If you have a narcissist in your life, you likely know how charming they can be when they want to reassure you or get their way. That charm is what typically attracts people to narcissists in the first place. Unfortunately, it rarely lasts beyond a few months, and after that, you’ll only see it sporadically. Even so, there are many reasons why people stay in a relationship with a narcissist.
One of the most common reasons is codependency. A codependent person is someone full of insecurities to the point where they feel the need to cater to the other people in their lives, even if it means they can’t get their own needs met. In fact, someone with a codependent personality is the best person for the narcissist who craves attention all the time.
Another common reason people stay in an abusive relationship with a narcissist is trauma bonding. A trauma bond is an unhealthy relationship between an abuser and the person they are abusing. You might have heard it called Stockholm Syndrome.
The name comes from a bank robbery in 1973 where several captives in the bank formed a sympathetic bond with their captors. It’s common for people who endure narcissistic abuse to form trauma bonds with their narcissist. Once that happens, it’s hard to see that you’re being abused.
Finally, it’s very common for empaths to become involved with narcissists. Empaths are often attracted to narcissists because they want to help them. They see their fragility and want to help them become better, stronger people. Narcissists love empaths because they give them attention and the narcissistic supply they so desire.
If you’re in a relationship with a narcissist and you have any of these traits, you’re likely giving them exactly what they thrive on — a supply of attention and adoration that they use for self-validation. That’s how a narcissist can thrive in a relationship.
Can Narcissistic Relationships Last?
Despite the barriers and unhealthy nature of a relationship with a narcissist, it can often last for many years. Narcissists have an uncanny ability to know when they’ve pushed you too far, and that’s when that famous charm makes its reappearance.
They will often do whatever it takes to get you to stay because they need you. Narcissists need the external validation you provide for their fragile self-esteem. It’s that simple.
The reality is that unless the narcissist in your life is actively seeking help, it’s unlikely they will be able to form a healthy relationship.
If you’re with a narcissist and unwilling to leave, the best thing you can do is to heal any emotional trauma you may have experienced and set firm boundaries that you’re willing to enforce. In that way, you can meet your own needs because it’s unlikely the narcissist will be helpful in that regard.
Now that you understand a little more about how narcissists behave in relationships, you might be interested in this post about the signs you’re dating a narcissist.
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