Recovering From a Relationship With a Narcissist

It can take a long time to regain your equilibrium.

Sometimes a lifetime.

Having a relationship with someone who is narcissistic is like falling into a vortex.

In his book on traumatic narcissism, Daniel Shaw discusses the trauma of lack of recognition in childhood that lies at the heart of pathological narcissism.

In order to understand and appreciate others as subjects in their own right, we ourselves need to have experienced this understanding and appreciation in early childhood.

“To feel seen, understood, cared about, paid attention to, affirmed, supported and lovingly cherished is crucial to development.”

Daniel Shaw

Without these things, we can never develop a strong and healthy sense of self. And without a strong sense of self, relationships are difficult and painful - in some cases impossible.

For people suffering from severe narcissism or Narcissistic Personality Disorder, relationships are battlegrounds.

For them, difference and challenge are painful reminders that they are separate - and mortal - just like the rest of us. This can bring them back into contact with the lack of self that lies at the heart of the disorder of narcissism.

People with this problem are reliant on social feedback to manage their sense of self and their self-esteem.

When others disagree, criticise or challenge them, they can become angry, their intense anger sometimes boiling over into narcissistic rage, leaving those around them quaking with fear. Sometimes, though, the threat is more covert, the anger cold and controlled, but nevertheless still there.

People suffering from narcissism are much more comfortable in a relationship where there are few, if any boundaries.

This unhealthy merging or enmeshment often leads them to try to manipulate or control others as that is the only way they know how to relate.

Narcissists are not good at negotiation or compromise.

Their overall aim is to reinforce their world view - often at the expense of the subjectivity of those closest to them. The behaviours that accompany this stance are usually described as gaslighting.


Coming into the orbit of a narcissist can cause you to lose your sense of self.

Gaslighting is really a form of coercive control and manipulation where the victim’s subjectivity is continuously undermined. The victim can lose trust in their own sense of what is going on and how they feel.

Often those who get into a relationship with someone who is narcissistic were themselves the victims of parental narcissism. They are very vulnerable to the seductive thrall of someone who unconsciously reminds them of an abusive parent.

In the vain hope that they can rewrite their dysfunctional past, they will begin a relationship with a narcissist full of idealism and hope, only to slowly come to the realisation that the relationship comes at the cost of their sense of self.

When they try to assert themselves or make changes, their partner may become angry and abusive, trying to restore the status quo and get the relationship back onto their own terms. The narcissistic person may use bribery, threats or manipulation to succeed in their fight for dominance and control of the relationship.

For children who have grown up with a narcissistic parent, disentangling the complex legacy of a childhood where their sense of self was undermined is a lifelong project. Adult children of narcissists may have more choices, but they will often find themselves struggling with the dilemma of maintaining their sense of self in relationship.

If you are struggling with the impact of being in a relationship with someone who is narcissistic its important to reflect on the choices you have.

Realisation and self-awareness are the keys to living a more fulfilling life.

Leaving a one-way relationship can be just as fraught as staying, and you should seek support from your networks and social contacts. This may include practical support such as finding accomodation and keeping your children safe.

Deciding to stay will mean adjusting your expectations and learning to manage your relationship in a way that is healthy (or as healthy as possible) for you.

Psychotherapy may not be the best answer when you are worried about where to live, but in the long-term it may help you understand, and come to terms with your past. Counselling may also provide you with the tools to manage your relationship, should you decide to stay.

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