When you first meet your toxic partner, they will appear the very model of perfection – the perfect soulmate… kind, thoughtful, caring, loving and totally supportive. But this will soon change, giving way to testing boundaries to see how much you will take. There will be warning signs, but of course you’ll be so in love with them, you will ignore their faults, hoping that things will return to the way they were at the start. But over time, they will slowly break down your self-respect.
Toxic partners don’t love in the same way normal people love… they see you as something they own. They are supremely jealous of potential rivals, envious of your success, and resent you for it. In effect, they’re imposing their own insecurities on you. They need constant reassurance and over time your behaviour will adapt to accommodate their demands… They will control the way you dress, who you speak to, the kind of food you eat, which movies you will watch… In time, you’ll find yourself living in fear of doing anything wrong.
If all this sounds familiar, the chances are your partner is suffering from Narcissistic Personality Disorder – NPD – a psychological condition where people have an inflated idea of their own importance, a deep need for constant attention and admiration, and a complete disregard of what others may want or need. In short, they are selfish, self-centred, self-absorbed, and tragically low on empathy.
Narcissists often appear special or outstanding in some way – better looking, more talented, intelligent, moneyed, charismatic… but it’s all an act. Beneath the surface they’re not quite as extraordinary as they pretend to be. Their charm will draw you in, but they will keep you there by constantly chipping away at your own self-esteem.
Why would anyone be attracted to someone with such appalling characteristics in the first place? The answer is, like other abusers, they’re good at disguising their true selves. It takes time to recognise the warning signs and patterns of behaviour and even longer to accept that they will never change.
It’s not entirely clear what causes NPD. Parents who were excessively adoring or critical, genes and neurobiology are possible theories. The most likely explanation is that at least in part, it is a learned behaviour, a specialised survival strategy based on selfishness and domination. However, while the causes are sometimes unclear, there are characteristics that are easy to recognise.
The first, and most obvious clue your relationship is toxic, is that it is generally speaking, deeply unsatisfying. Narcissists only talk about themselves and their own achievements and have very little interest in your life! Try to talk to your partner about your own interests or needs, and within a sentence or two, they will hijack the conversation back to themselves. And make no mistake, narcissism exists in both men and women!
The first thing to understand about narcissists is that they are insecure themselves, which is why they feel they have to control and manipulate others. In reality, they have very low self-worth, which is why they need constant validation and need to be in control of people and situations.
There are nine official criteria for narcissism, but you only need five to qualify clinically as a narcissist:
- They possess an exaggerated sense of self-importance, often wildly exaggerating their achievements and talents.
- They also have an unrealistic sense of entitlement, insisting on having the best of everything. They expect favours from others and rarely say thank you. They are prone to become indignant if anyone dares to question them.
- They have a need for constant and excessive admiration. Narcissists expect to be recognised as superior or extremely knowledgeable, often without any achievements or qualifications to justify those demands. They react badly to criticism and become frustrated and irritable when they don’t get the attention they think they deserve.
- They are preoccupied with fantasies about success, power, brilliance and the perfect mate. This is one of their weaknesses because they often become depressed or moody if they’re falling short of their own ideals of perfection. It’s not unusual for them to develop alcohol or drug problems.
- They believe they really are superior, special and unique and should only associate with equally special people. They belittle people they consider inferior. Narcissists will put others down to make themselves feel superior – even your close friends or family.
- They engage in interpersonal exploitative behaviour, taking advantage of others to get what they want.
- They have an almost complete lack of lack of empathy for others and are incapable and unwilling to recognise the needs and feelings of others.
- Envy of others is problematic for narcissists – instead, they wish others to be envious of them, for instance, they often indulge in displays of wealth – they often crave public recognition. They’re constantly engaged in competition with others and will do anything to come out on top. Many narcissists crave to be seen as some kind of Messiah in their own field.
- Their behaviour is often arrogant and they can come across as conceited, boastful and pretentious.
But… narcissists are also vulnerable to criticism and easily humiliated, in fact the thing they fear the most is to be found out and exposed as the frauds they really are. If this happens, they will stop at nothing to get even and punish anyone who dares to question their brilliance. This is the tell-tale trademark of the narcissist. Most people caught showing off will be mildly embarrassed and stop immediately, but a narcissist will be incensed. If you question their accomplishments – which you might want to, since they are usually exaggerated and embellished – this will be taken as a massive affront to their dignity and they are likely to seek a swift and terrible revenge.
Narcissists are not rules-based people – rules are for other people. This behaviour goes beyond merely sailing close to the wind, they have a flagrant disregard for rules they don’t agree with and will ignore rules they think are stupid, dragging you down with them when they get caught.
Relationships that seem too good to be true at first usually are. Your new partner will sweep you off your feet… at the start. They will complement, praise, admire, and flatter. They will have never met anyone like you. They will compliment you on your beauty, or on your virility. They will claim they’ve never felt like this before. They will tell you they love you almost right from the start as they lavish you with attention, compliments and gifts.
It’s never a good sign if someone comes on too strong, too soon… its a clear warning it won’t last. Before long, the compliments will give way to criticism. Although they pretend to have respect for others, that’s also been part of the act. In time, they will even start to turn you against your closest friends. Suddenly nothing will be satisfactory, no amount of effort will be good enough. Remember, this applies to men as well as women. In fact it’s worse with narcissistic women because they will use sex as a reward, or punishment as an instrument of control, or as weapon.
By the time you realise the person you fell in love with has a dark side, it can be too late. First come the sulks, the unreasonable demands, the mood swings. They never apologise, there’s no negotiation and they’re never wrong. Having invested so much time and energy you are now trapped in their world, with their rules, a world of broken promises where only one person matters – and that person isn’t you! All the time they will be trying to mould you into being the person they want you to be.
Nothing you say or do will ever be good enough. Soon, you’ll start doubting yourself, and then you’ll start to believe everything is your fault. People with NPD lie about everything, often telling silly, pointless lies. When they’re not telling lies, they content themselves with massaging the truth. If you confront them over it, they will twist your words and distort your reality to confuse you.
They won’t care about your feelings. People with high scoring NPD simply don’t have the skills to experience and show love. Often, this is because they have not experienced love themselves, especially as children, but they only care about you in relation to how it affects them – the only happiness that matters is their own.
When they say ‘I love you’, what they really mean is ‘I love how you make me feel… I love seeing how much you love me… or I need something from you and saying “I love you” is how I will get it’.
As time goes on, they will inevitably become more and more demanding. A common trick is to accuse you of things they themselves are doing, thereby projecting their guilt onto you. If allowed to continue over a long period of time, this behaviour can cause extreme mental health problems such as anxiety, depression and PTSD.
Your attractiveness to them is based on whether or not you contribute to their dream of being universally admired. If you’re good-looking, it makes them look and feel good to be seen with you. If you’re wealthy and generous, they stand to gain by living off you. Often, they start relationships only because they’re lonely or bored or want sex.
Narcissists often appear idealistic about love because they believe there’s a perfect mate out there that they could love, someone who would mirror their own magnificence. The reason they’re so appealing at the start, is because they think you could be this perfect mate. They’ll smother you with attention and promises, but be warned… they’ll throw you over the moment they see a flaw.
Most relationships will inevitably involve listening to, and sympathising with, your partner’s problems. But narcissists don’t have time for any of that, after all, their own problems are the ones the really matter. They don’t do feelings, unless those feelings are their own, and they can’t sympathise, even if you try to explain why you’re upset because it’s beyond them.
Before you know what’s happened, you narcissistic partner will be controlling where you go, who you talk to, what you buy and even what friends you are allowed to see. Which brings us to our next clue… narcissists have very few, if any, long term friends of their own. They have short term crushes on people they perceive to be useful or special but will drop them the moment they find someone better or they outlive their usefulness. They will immediately drop anyone who sees through them.
The main reason narcissists don’t like commitment is because they’re constantly on the lookout for something better, hence they are often unfaithful. Perhaps unsurprisingly, they often see two people at the same time. If they need to test out a prospective better bet, they will, and they will feel no remorse, unless of course they get caught, in which case, it will be your fault for not giving them the love and support they needed.
There’s another and unexpected trait with Narcissistic Personality Disorder. If you leave them, they will fight tooth and nail to get you back. Walking out on them is such an affront to their precious ego, they will beg and plead for you to come back. The truth is, they simply cannot handle rejection! So, they’ll do whatever it takes to get the relationship back on track. And everything will be just fine and dandy for a few days, even a few weeks – the old charm will return and they’ll make all the right noises, but rest assured, things will slowly and inevitably return to normal and you’ll be back to square one.
If they think you’re serious, and the relationship really is over, be aware that it isn’t. Even if you’re no longer ‘together’, it has simply moved to the next phase. They will badmouth you to friends, they’ll troll you on social media and maybe even spread rumours. They’ll even try to date your best friend. This won’t last long because in their minds, your replacement will always be second best and even if they succeed, it won’t last very long. Their main concern will be if you are comparing notes!
Even though you are no longer together, they will continue to try to manipulate you and even ‘gaslight’ you to make you feel like you are the one with the problem.
Whatever happens, don’t fall into the trap of thinking you can change them, or that they will change themselves if you give them more love an attention. (This is called being a doormat, by the way.)
Incredibly, recent research carried out by the University of Warsaw, Poland, discovered that narcissists actually prefer to date other narcissists because they are slightly narcissistic themselves. They believe that if they love someone enough, they can change anyone. Sorry… there is no cure for narcissism. It’s a personality trait which is set in stone by the late teens.
In any event, a narcissist will never admit they have a problem, after all, they’re perfect! Counselling won’t work because any advice will be interpreted as criticism. If they do end up seeking help, it’s usually only because they want you back.
If by any chance there are children involved, minimal contact, without emotion, is vital, but there’s really only one solution and that is to get a big long stick and keep them firmly at the other end of it! It’s pointless trying to discuss why you’re leaving them because they still won’t get it. Any attempt at reasoning or argument is utterly pointless. Even more pointless is giving them another chance. The most important thing to recognise and remember is that they will never change!
The best – and only solution is to ignore them, but don’t think that if they come back on their hands and knees begging to get back together, it might work this time, because it won’t – because it never does! Delete them from your social media and phone book and block their calls.
Instead, surround yourself with people who really do care about you and who are capable of love and empathy and affection. People who have been trapped in toxic relationships do go on to have happy and healthy relationships, because they had learned what is acceptable, and what isn’t.
Therapy can give you the opportunity to understand what has happened and to process the trauma you’ve been though. You will need to examine the reasons you fell into the trap and why you ignored the warning signs. Now you have to learn how to impose healthy boundaries to avoid falling into a similar trap in the future. It’s ok to have self-worth and self-love, your own identity, to understand who you are.
It’s up to you to break the cycle of abuse, and once you’ve made up your mind, it’s going to be easier than you think. Your real friends will be supportive and after a short time, you’ll be surprised how easy it is!
Switching your attention from your toxic ex and putting your energy into recovery will mean focusing on the future and setting goals. Severing all contact with your ex is the first step to ensure you can move on without them. Cutting them off is an essential part of recovery – no phone calls, texts, emails or social media!
Toxic people will do whatever it takes to get their victim back under their control so beware of empty promises – like everything they’ve said before, it’s all a lie designed to put you back under their spell.
Socialising with friends and family are also healthy ways to replace the feelings you were craving from a relationship, although you should be wary of rushing into another relationship until you’re ready – a toxic relationship can be damaging and you need to feel secure in yourself before allowing someone else in. Being in the right place mentally and having healthy boundaries in place is the best way to avoid falling into the same trap.
Knowing your self-worth and being able to recognise warning signs in any future relationship is important. Don’t get caught on the rebound… rather, take things slowly because there will always be plenty of time. A normal person will respect you – they will respect boundaries and want to take things at a steady pace. What happened to you is not a life sentence, and nor should you let it be. Rather, it should be a lesson for the future. There will be plenty of time to get to know a person fully before committing yourself.
Most important… learn to love yourself before you love someone else… and remind yourself from time to time of all the good things in life!
Copyright Andrew Newton 2021. All rights reserved.