We’ve all met someone with narcissistic traits. They’re self-centered, and manipulative, and they act like they’re entitled to other people’s time and energy. You’ve probably told yourself that you’d never be in a relationship with a narcissist.
But if you’re reading this article, you’ve most likely found yourself in just that kind of relationship.
Like anyone else, a narcissistic person wants love and connection. He’s good at presenting himself as loving and interested at the beginning of a relationship. But once he’s gotten what he wants the love bombing isn’t exciting anymore.
Now, you might feel like you’re dating an emotional vampire.
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Before we get too far, I have to take a moment to discuss the psychology of personality disorders and narcissistic behavior.
According to the Five Factor Model of personality development, there are 5 main personality traits that everyone shares1. They are:
These personality traits can be expressed in varying degrees, which impacts how we interact with the world around us. For example, people with higher openness would be open to trying a new restaurant. On the other side, someone with lower openness might want to stick to their go-to food order.
People who show narcissistic traits would probably score on the lower end of the agreeableness spectrum. They tend to have less interest in others’ thoughts and feelings.
Lower agreeableness does not automatically mean someone has Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD). Plenty of people get bored listening to their boss during a meeting. Some people really don’t like to talk to strangers on airplanes. That’s not a disorder.
A person living with NPD has a diagnosable disorder that disrupts their ability to hold a job, maintain intimate relationships, and develop meaningful connections2. Diagnosing someone with NPD, or any other personality disorder, should be left to trained professionals. There are other mental health symptoms associated with the disorder that need professional assessment.
There are a lot of armchair psychologists who want to throw around diagnoses.
But without training, you might find it hard to differentiate between someone with a personality disorder and a guy who’s just an asshole.
Moving forward, any time I write “narcissist,” know that I’m talking about everyone who shows high levels of narcissistic traits, not just those with NPD.
A narcissistic partner can really wear you down. Between the manipulation and verbal abuse, your sense of self-worth has probably plummeted. You’ve probably tried couples counseling. He’s probably made and broken all the promises to treat you better. You’ve probably tried to break up with him before.
You can’t gently encourage someone who engages in narcissistic abuse to stop.
If he’s not committed to changing his behavior in the relationship, you can't make him. It’s time to leave. For good, this time.
Chances are, you’ve tried to break up with him before. I bet that when you tried to break up, you found yourself talking in circles. You may have even ended the conversation apologizing for making a big deal out of nothing.
Narcissists are great at making you question yourself until you fold.
If you’re ever trying to say no to someone who is manipulative, always document your reasons. By having things written out, you can see in a list form exactly how often he’s caused you emotional distress.
Be specific with this list. Document the who, what, when, and where of the event. Identify how you felt, and why. Take note of his reaction to your emotional pain.
At this stage, you’re accumulating solid evidence for two reasons. The first is so that you know the particulars of what you’re going to talk about with him. The second is to remind you of why you’re leaving in the first place.
Don’t get rid of this list. You’ll probably be adding to it before this is all said and done.
Once you’ve gathered enough evidence, it’s time to plan out exactly what you’re going to say and how you’re going to say it.
In Dialectical Behavioral Therapy, clients are taught useful interpersonal effectiveness skills3. One of those skills is to come up with a script, from the acronym DEAR MAN. This tool is meant to help you organize your statements and build your confidence.
I can’t train you in the whole thing in an article, but I can give you some pointers.
First, pick one incident that you are going to reference during the conversation. This will be your anchor situation. You know the ins and outs of that conflict (because you wrote it down!). You’re going to state what’s happened in a short bland statement.
Example: Three days ago, you chose to go to your friend’s house after promising me that we would spend time together.
Second, you’re going to identify how you feel and why. Make sure you use I-statements, and keep things brief.
Example: That made me feel anxious and angry. When you do things like that, I feel like you don’t care about my feelings.
Third, you’re going to make your break-up statement. This needs to leave no room for argument. Make your intentions clear and be specific about your timeline.
Example: I’m not going to stay in a relationship where I feel disrespected. Our relationship is over and I will be taking my stuff back to my apartment tonight.
By following those steps, you’re making statements that you know are true and asserting yourself. When you look back on the conversation, you can be confident that you said what you needed to and didn’t get pulled into an argument.
(I highly recommend writing your script down on a flashcard or your phone. That way if you get flustered, or he tries to distract you from your main point you can find your place again. If you can practice with someone who can coach you through it, that would be even better.)
When ending a narcissistic relationship, you have to be prepared for guilt trips and manipulation. Being broken up with can create what is called a narcissistic injury. This blow to his self-worth can lead to lashing out.
Prepare to be on the receiving end of love bombing, which may remind you of the beginning of the relationship. This tactic may involve promising to address your needs. He may even appear to be keeping those promises. But these actions are meant to make you doubt your decision and stay, not create permanent change.
You should also be prepared for him to try any of the other manipulation tactics he’s used to gain control in the past. He may try to give you the silent treatment. He may try to justify staying together to talk it out. He might poke at any self-esteem issues he thinks will make you back down.
When we run up against a boundary that we can no longer get past, we tend to test it. I don’t know that I’ve ever seen someone not tug on a locked door that they thought would be unlocked. We usually tug at least twice. It’s a natural human reaction.
When you state that a narcissist will no longer have unrestricted access to you, that’s a boundary he doesn’t expect. He’s most likely going to try to get past it.
You’re ending this toxic relationship for a reason. You know the reasons because you wrote them down.
Once you’ve stated that the relationship is over, it’s over.
Narcissistic abuse can continue after the relationship is over. He may continue to try to manipulate you into questioning yourself. Make sure that you keep firm boundaries. There should be zero contact between the two of you that hasn’t been agreed upon by both parties.
Many dysfunctional relationships rely on one party ignoring the other’s rules. Your narcissistic ex may try to get back into your life by crossing lines under the guise of “being nice.” Think of Ross from Friends showing up at Rachel’s job and stressing her out.
He might try to turn mutual friends against you. Remember, they’re probably not fully aware of how they’re being used. Try to be gentle but firm with them when you set and remind them of your boundaries.
That list that you made at the first step? Whip it out when his late-night texts make you feel guilty for hurting his feelings. Peruse when he tries to convince you that you owe him another chance. Revisit a hurt memory if you have a moment of self-doubt.
When a relationship ends, we’re in a very emotionally vulnerable spot.
The recovery process for breaking up with narcissistic people can be a long and tender process.
When healthy relationships end, there are negative emotions and hurt on both sides. Ending a toxic relationship can leave you feeling anxious and unlovable.
But with time to focus on yourself, you can learn to find emotional fulfillment on your own.
As you take these steps to reconnect with yourself, you are granting yourself more and more independence. Now, instead of relying on other people to tell you who you are, you can do that for yourself.
Criticism is one of the Four Horsemen of doomed relationships. This is because criticism is an attack on you as a person instead of a critique of something you’ve done. Constantly being criticized by someone you love can make you question yourself and walk on eggshells.
Now that you’ve chosen to break free of that relationship, don’t talk to yourself the way he talked to you.
Instead of telling yourself that you’ll never get something right, encourage yourself through that learning experience. Instead of making negative comments about your body, thank it for carrying you through the day.
Consider saying daily mantras or affirmations to remind yourself that you deserve self-love.
When you got into a relationship with a narcissist, you weren’t expecting him to treat you poorly. You were more likely hoping for a romantic partner who would prioritize growing and learning together.
To learn how to move on from a narcissist, you have to let yourself mourn the what-ifs. You had a lot of expectations that were probably reinforced during the seduction phase of his initial love bombing. You had hopes that he would change and treat you with respect.
Forgive yourself for trying to stick it out to get back to the good part of the relationship.
It is my personal and professional opinion that you cannot say yes to anything if you don’t have the option to say no. A lot of people who get out of a relationship with a narcissist feel hesitant or deeply uncomfortable to say no to unwanted requests.
The more you practice, the less your sympathetic nervous system (the part that activates when you feel threatened) will respond when you’re asked to do things you want to say no to. The less that lights up, the easier it becomes to trust your own judgment when you answer someone else’s request.
A narcissist's strategies to control a relationship often leave the other person feeling dependent on the narcissist for validation. This is called a trauma bond and breaking that bond can be almost impossible without support.
Peer support, or support you get from people who have been in the same situation as you, can be invaluable. You might dismiss your friends’ advice if they’ve never been in an abusive relationship. You would probably feel more comfortable speaking with someone who can relate to your experience.
Codependency can be a persistent effect of trauma bonding. Codependent habits and ways of thinking can make it hard to feel confident in making your own decisions. I would recommend trying a support group for people recovering from emotional abuse. Codependents Anonymous hosts meetings in person and virtually.
You might need more individualized, professional support. Working with a mental health professional or certified life coach can help you set goals and create a plan to meet them.
Any friends you share with your ex will probably be on his side after the relationship ends. Either he kept you away from people who wouldn’t agree with him, or he manipulated the story to make himself the victim. Either way, you need to build up your own friend group.
Friends are not just people who we get coffee with. They’re people you can trust. Usually, we pick friends who mirror our values. These are people who can validate your feelings and support you in the low times. They can also remind you of your new commitment to be kind to yourself and help you in getting over a narcissist.
Reach out to some of your old friends. Set a time to meet up with your current bestie for a girl’s night. Get dressed up and attend a meetup for women in your area to make friends. There are quite a few ways to get your social battery filled.
A narcissist’s inflated sense of entitlement often means demanding perfection from their partner.
Now that you’re no longer concerned with what he demands, only you can set the standards in your life. Let yourself be a little messy. Wear something comfortable, even if it’s not “cute.” Sing songs badly on purpose.
In her research, Dr. Brene Brown identifies perfectionism as coming from a place of deep shame. She states that in trying to protect ourselves from judgment, we often try to do the impossible and make zero mistakes. That leads to cycles of thinking “I’m not enough.”
You are enough. You’re imperfect and worthy of love and respect, no matter what.
Trying something new and building mastery is a great form of self-care4. By learning a new skill and seeing your improvement, you can boost your self-esteem.
When you focus on activities and experiences that bring you joy, it becomes easier to engage with them again. In this way, you can actively make yourself happier more often.
When was the last time you let yourself be creative? Writing, drawing, painting, and crafts can all serve as an outlet for you to express yourself. You may prefer to try new art by yourself or you might enjoy a group setting.
Physical activity can also help you push your emotions and sense of self in a positive direction. Moving your body regularly has many health benefits, including an improvement in mood. Leave behind any exercises that make you uncomfortable. Instead, find ways to move that make you feel good.
Narcissists manipulate their partners into being reliant on them. If you are having difficulty getting over a narcissistic ex, it’s probably because he broke you down emotionally. Getting over someone emotionally abusive may require the assistance of a professional.
Unfortunately, there’s no guaranteed fast way. For some people, it’s a relatively quick process, and for others, it takes a long time. Working on yourself can help you move forward faster. Try to find ways to meet all of your social, physical, and spiritual needs.
Keep your focus and speak clearly and concisely. You are not going to convince him of your side, so don’t try. State your intentions clearly, and don’t linger. A narcissist will probably try to manipulate you into backing down. Stand your ground.
Leaving a relationship with a narcissist can be confusing and hurtful. Staying focused and on target will help you follow through. Focusing on yourself will help you stick to your decision and build yourself up again.
Sharing our stories can help us feel less alone. If you feel comfortable commenting, leave a note for other women to show them they’re not alone.