By Shelley Flannery
If you are in a relationship with a narcissistic abuser, hoping for things to change, don’t hold your breath. Narcissists hold themselves in such high regard that everyone else—including their partner—is beneath them. They view themselves as being perfect, so there’s no reason for them to change.
Upon first meeting them, narcissists will come off as intelligent, important and attractive. Why? Because they tell you they are.
“But as you get to know him further, the bloom starts to come off of the rose,” says Laurie Endicott Thomas, author of Don’t Feed the Narcissists! “From your perspective, you’re getting to know the real him. From his perspective, you’re stepping out of line. That’s when he goes from trying to bamboozle you to bullying you.”
How to Know if an Abuser Is a Narcissist
Shannon Thomas, LCSW, author of Healing from Hidden Abuse: A Journey Through the Stages of Recovery from Psychological Abuse says you can tell if you’re in a relationship with a narcissist if they never admit fault or take responsibility for anything.
“Narcissistic abusers twist things around through gaslighting, through triangulation, through projection, and it’s always somebody else’s fault,” she says. “A lot of times, the narcissist will get very angry and walk out of counseling sessions. They never want to talk authentically about what is their part in causing conflict in the relationship. They will deflect over and over and over again.”
Another sign, she says, is being cool, calm and collected—sometimes even amused—when their partner is clearly distraught.
“Narcissistic abusers get entertainment out of the chaos they create, and that’s very different than just an average person who has some things that they need to work on in life,” Shannon says. “They know the game that they’re taking the victim on.”
Domestic Violence Is Not a Mental Illness
Make no mistake about it, being diagnosed—either by a psychiatrist or a self-diagnosis—with narcissistic personality disorder does not excuse abuse. It just means an abuser has two problems—mental illness and choosing to control and abuse their partner.
“We learned decades ago that, with rare exceptions, domestic violence is not caused by mental illness. Domestic violence is caused by sexism, entitlement, a history of allowing husbands to abuse wives and continued lax enforcement,” says Barry Goldstein, a nationally recognized domestic violence author, speaker and advocate, and an expert advisor for DomesticShelters.org.
“Abusers who are mentally ill have less inhibitions and so their abuse is often more severe. This is why the myth of domestic violence being caused by mental illness started as these attacks tend to be more memorable,” Goldstein says.
“With narcissists, abuse is a choice,” says Shannon Thomas, though advocates by-and-large say all abuse is a choice.
And though Thomas says some abusers could see change with a batterer intervention program, advocates often warn about these programs rarely bringing about fundamental differences for any abuser, especially narcissists.
“We’ve looked at the research in narcissists having a very, very low level of lasting behavioral changes,” says Thomas.
If You’re Trapped in a Relationship with a Narcissist
If you think you might be in a relationship with a narcissistic abuser, realize that he or she will never change.
“If someone chooses to stay, the only way to stay safe is to be very, very clear about what they’re dealing with, because narcissists have a rollercoaster pattern,” Shannon says. “They’ll have really great moments or days where they seem to be attached and loving and kind and supportive, and then, very quickly, we’ll get that downward spiral and the twists and the turns. That rollercoaster ride is never going to change. This will go on the whole relationship.”
If you decide you don’t want to deal with those ups and downs, you should create a safety plan and leave. But even if you choose to stay, Shannon suggests the survivor seek counseling from a therapist trained in narcissistic personality disorder or one who is trauma trained. Psychology Today offers a robust provider database that’s searchable by specialty.
And in an effort to understand the narcissistic abuser better, read “20 Ways Manipulative Narcissists Silence You.”