Maintaining a relationship with a narcissist can be difficult due to their excessive need for admiration, harsh criticism, lack of empathy and deep insecurities. If your partner is not willing to work on their narcissistic traits, then leaving is probably the best thing you can do for your mental health. While breaking up with a narcissist may not be easy, equipping yourself with a solid plan, understanding their typical reactions of rage and blame and seeking professional help makes it possible.
How Narcissists Act in Relationships
Narcissists in relationships are developmentally stunted and cannot fully reciprocate, both emotionally and sexually.1 They have trouble seeing their partner’s point of view, thinking of their needs, making compromises, and controlling strong feelings like jealousy, shame, or narcissistic rage.2
It is not uncommon for narcissists to criticize their partner if they don’t meet their expectations or standards, or accuse them of not loving, supporting or appreciating them enough. Being exposed to narcissist relationship patterns is also often exhausting due to their constant need for attention, also known as narcissistic supply.
When to Leave a Narcissistic Partner
Narcissistic partners tend to engage in narcissistic abuse, using abusive tactics to hide their unfavorable traits and manipulate their partners. Sometimes, this can cause partners to develop narcissistic abuse syndrome. Emotional abuse, physical abuse, sexual abuse or sexual coercion should never be tolerated, and is always grounds for leaving a relationship.
Here’s when to break up with a narcissist:
- You’re being physically abused
- You’re being sexual abused or coerced
- Your partner is constantly monitoring you
- You’re being emotionally manipulated or gaslit
- You’re being humiliated, intimidated, or dismissed
- You’re experiencing persistent anxiety or depression because of your relationship
- Your partner is excessively jealous
- You’ve withdrawn from friends and family
- You’re beginning to use substances to cope
- You have thoughts of self-harm
5 Tips for Breaking Up With a Narcissist
Leaving a narcissist can be easier or harder depending on their state when you announce the break up. If they are in a depleted place, struggling to maintain their facade of perfection, you will likely be met with either overt or passive aggressive rage. On the contrary, they may suddenly become effusive and “love bomb” you in an effort to win you back. It’s best to be prepared for all possibilities.
Here are five tips for breaking up with a narcissist:
1. Make A List of Reasons You’re Leaving the Relationship
Provide yourself with examples from the past. People with personality disorders use very dysfunctional means of coping with the world, and as such, they can easily distort reality.3 This can cause you to question your reality. One minute you may feel ready to leave and the next minute, after their guilting or pleading, you may think you should stay. Writing down the reasons ahead of time and giving yourself examples can re-ground you in your reality during the separation process. Showing this list of reasons to the severely narcissistic person is not likely to be helpful so keep it as a resource for yourself, not “evidence” to convince them of their wrongdoing.
2. Have A Plan
Think through what you will do after announcing the break up and how the narcissist will respond. If you live with a person with excessive narcissism, are you going to stay put or ask them to leave? Have you lined up anywhere to go? Having a plan will help during the potential counter-attack phase when you may be acting quickly and unable to think as clearly.
3. Surround Yourself With Supportive People
Often, narcissists have a way of alienating you from your support network over time. They demand intense loyalty or commitment so that you may have divested from friends or family over the course of the relationship. Reconnect to the people who you feel truly have your back and let them know that you will need support to exit this difficult relationship. You may want to ask them to check in on you on a daily basis for the first few weeks as you make the initial transition.
4. Purge Any Reminders of the Relationship
A narcissist needs to feel special, or create the impression that you are special, so they may have taken you on elaborate trips, given you amazing gifts or generally created an impression of a magnificent life with you. This can make it hard to remember the pain of the dark times as you move through the break up. Remove photos from your home and your phone, and stash or get rid of gifts that remind you of your partner. You can put these in a box if you want to save them, but be mindful not to slip into thinking that things “weren’t as bad” as you feel prior to the break up.
5. Get Support From A Therapist
A therapist can help you identify issues, even when unpleasant, in a way that feels supportive and helps to avoid denial. When living with someone with NPD, you may have “doubled down” on denial in order to avoid the pain of being criticized, ignored, exploited or otherwise mistreated. Speaking with a trusted mental health professional who can guide you as you rebuild reality can be immensely helpful. Your therapist can also help you explore what in your past may have made you vulnerable to falling for an excessively narcissistic person so you can better avoid it in future relationships.
Finding a mental health professional can take time, but it is worth the effort. Most sessions can be covered by insurance. Out of pocket expenses can range from $50 – $200. You can also get emergency support 24 hours a day, 7 days a week from the National Domestic Violence Hotline or by checking out the Narcissistic Abuse Support website.
What to Expect When You Break Up With a Narcissist
Depending on what type of narcissist you’re dating and what state they’re in when you break up with them, a narcissist’s reaction to a break up can vary. It’s important to remember, however, that in either situation you are not having a relationship with a fully developed person who has a true and authentic self, and they will react using defense mechanisms designed to keep the narcissist from feeling intense emotional pain and shame.4
An Easier Break Up
An easier breakup may happen if you are dating a grandiose narcissist who was never very invested in you anyway. They will happily let go of you and move on to the next shiny object, although they will want to make sure that the “break up story” makes it look like they were the one to do the leaving. If they offer you this easy out it may be a good idea to take it.
A Harder Break Up
Because a central part of narcissism is rooted in tremendous insecurity, narcissists will typically go on the attack if they cannot find a way to save face after receiving an injury.5,6 Narcissists are part of a group of personality disorders that tend towards dramatic emotions.7 As such, if they feel offended they may end up discharging all of their rage onto you—this can be even more upsetting if you’re an empath dating a narcissist. If that happens, the best thing you can do is not engage them and keep very strong boundaries.
If you’re breaking up with a covert narcissist who tends to live in the shadows but prop up their partner in order to feel important themselves, they’ll likely be furious at feeling undervalued, act helpless and say that they “gave you everything.” They will likely paint you as a mean, abandoning, cruel and selfish person who has not appreciated everything that they’ve done for you, and may self-harm, threaten suicide, quit a job or do other things to undermine themselves when feeling abandoned.7
Narcissistic partners tend to be incapable of taking responsibility for doing anything wrong. While ending a relationship that you have given precious months or years to can be painful and hard, take stock of what you can learn from the situation. Unfortunately, many mental health professionals believe that narcissistic disorders are on the rise, but learning how to identify a narcissist from this experience can help you avoid future relationships with this type of person.8 Once you have healed from this break up, you will be well situated to find a much healthier partner and enjoy a more mutual and supportive relationship.
For Further Reading
- If you feel you are suffering from or have suffered relationship abuse consider reaching out to the National Domestic Violence Hotline. You can call, text or live chat with them for information about abusive relationships and immediate support for leaving. Contacting them is completely confidential.
- The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI). This organization has free support groups for people in a relationship with someone who has a personality disorder. The group is run like a 12-week course and helps loved ones to better understand mental illness and learn how to set appropriate expectations and boundaries. The group may be listed as being designed for friends and family of people with Borderline Personality Disorder, but Narcissistic Personality Disorder is very closely related and the tools for dealing with one will apply to the other. To find a support group in your area consult their website.
- Take a look at books like Stop Walking on Eggshells by Paul Mason or The Wizard of Oz and Other Narcissists by Eleanor D. Payson. These books have practical suggestions on how to manage being in a relationship with someone with a Narcissistic Personality Disorder or it’s closely related cousin, Borderline Personality Disorder.
- Learn more about personality disorders through the Therapist Uncensored podcast. They have a series of episodes on dealing with people with severe narcissism, including:
- Do a deep dive into personality disorders like Narcissism with a leading expert, Dr. James Masterson in his book Search for the Real Self: Unmasking The Personality Disorders of Our Age.