11 Signs of a Narcissistic Relationship Pattern

How does a narcissist act in a relationship?
on January 24, 2024
Read time: 10 mins
by Kaytee Gillis

In today's social landscape, the term 'narcissist' often gets bandied about rather casually, but it's crucial to recognize the profound implications of being in a relationship with someone who genuinely exhibits narcissistic relationship patterns. 

With covert manipulation tactics in play, it can be difficult to spot signs of this kind of relationship cycle, especially if they’re love-bombing or gaslighting you in the process. This cycle of a narcissistic relationship often traps individuals in a pattern of emotional highs and lows, making it hard to maintain a stable sense of reality and self-worth.

To fully understand this narcissistic relationship pattern, we spoke to expert Kaytee Gillis, LCSW, to get to the bottom of why narcissists behave in this way, and if this cycle can be broken.

Key Takeaways
  • Relationships with narcissistic individuals can be toxic and emotionally abusive, leading to long-term psychological impacts. The partner of a narcissist often experiences a significant toll on their mental and emotional well-being.
  • These relationships typically follow a cycle of idealization ('love bombing'), devaluation, and discard. The partner is often subjected to a rollercoaster of emotional extremes, leading to confusion and a destabilized sense of self-worth.
  • Narcissistic behaviors can be masked by charm and caring attitudes, making it challenging to identify them early in a relationship. Narcissists can appear sweet and caring initially, hiding their manipulative and self-centered nature.
  • Narcissists may not always be consciously malicious; their harmful behaviors can stem from cognitive distortions. They might believe they are being kind when, in reality, their actions are hurtful.
  • Key indicators include lack of empathy, defensiveness, poor boundary setting, extreme emotional reactions, a heightened sense of self-importance, manipulative behaviors, and attempts to isolate the partner from their support system.
  • Escaping this cycle is challenging, as narcissists often lure their partners back through 'hoovering' or manipulative gestures of love and change. True change requires professional therapy and the narcissist's willingness to engage in self-reflection and modification.

What is a narcissistic relationship?

A narcissistic relationship refers to a dynamic where one partner exhibits narcissistic traits and behaviors, significantly impacting the relationship's health and the well-being of the other partner.

While people are quick to toss around the word narcissistic these days, many individuals can find themselves in toxic relationships with someone who has a narcissistic personality disorder (NPD). 

According to research, Narcissistic Personality Disorder is characterized by grandiosity and self-importance, a sense of entitlement, exaggerated or even false self-representation, the expectation of extreme admiration from others, lack of empathy for others, and general devaluing of others. 

NPD might be more common than you think, according to a study from 2009 6.2% of the US population is affected by this personality disorder, alongside those who display narcissistic tendencies. Research also suggests that this personality disorder is more prevalent in men. 

Therefore, while it may be more common to be involved with a narcissistic partner, it doesn’t make it a healthy dynamic. 

“While “narcissist” and “narcissism” are somewhat of a buzzword lately, I think it waters down the true meaning of what it can be like to have a narcissistic relationship, especially one that is toxic or even abusive,” says Kaytee Gillis, psychotherapist and author. 

Narcissistic abuse can be incredibly traumatic, leading to long-term mental health and emotional effects. While not all narcissistic individuals correspond to these abusive patterns, it can be more difficult to foster a healthy relationship dynamic with these behaviors in play.  

What is a narcissistic relationship pattern? 

Narcissistic relationship patterns refer to the common behaviors or cycles that occur in these types of relationships, usually featuring emotional abuse and a myriad of red flags. 

These patterns are not always easily identifiable, as many people are lured in by the promise of a perfect romantic relationship — which later dissolves into a toxic dynamic. 

Stages of a narcissistic relationship

Idealization stage: The narcissistic partner showers their significant other with excessive attention, affection, and admiration. This phase is commonly referred to as ‘love-bombing’ characterized by grand romantic gestures, intense communication, and a seemingly deep connection. This creates a powerful emotional bond and sets high expectations for the relationship, where one partner is willing to overlook any red flags in favor of the romantic ideal that has been set forth.
Devaluation stage: Gradually these romantic gestures are replaced by devaluation tactics, where the power dynamic is shifted and they start to showcase toxic behaviors. This can manifest as criticism, belittling comments, gaslighting, and emotional withdrawal. This leaves the partner feeling confused, as they try to reconcile these behaviors with the idealization stage.
Repetition stage: This stage involves the constant back and forth between extreme love, and extreme criticism. This serves to establish a codependent dynamic, where you never quite know where you stand. Just as you think you’re on even footing again, they pull the rug right from under you.
Discard stage: In the discard phase, the narcissistic partner might abruptly end the relationship, or emotionally distance themselves entirely. They may even go as far as being unfaithful, or may consistently ignore their partner’s needs. This can occur when the narcissist feels they are no longer receiving the adulation or benefits they desire, or when they have found a new source of narcissistic supply. The partner is left feeling abandoned, betrayed, and questioning their worth and the reality of the relationship.

How does a narcissist behave in a relationship?

Even though it’s helpful to identify the key stages of this kind of relationship cycle, when you’re in this kind of relationship — it’s hard to come away with any concrete conclusions. 

This is why it’s important to learn more about these behaviors, so you can spot the warning signs early on in a new relationship. 

“Narcissistic behavior varies so much that it can be difficult to spot,” says Gillis. 

“Someone with narcissistic traits is often self-centered and self-focused, lacking in empathy and compassion, and often cannot self-reflect especially on their behavior and how their behavior may affect others.”  

When you line up all these traits, you’d think that you’d be able to spot narcissistic behavior easily, but it’s not that simple. 

“However, they can often mask easily — coming across as sweet and caring. Sometimes it can take a while to notice,” says Gillis. 

Therefore, at the beginning, this mask makes it impossible to detect if their emotions are valid or concocted. This makes it easier to be lured into a toxic or abusive relationship without even realizing that’s what is taking place.

“I believe that many people with narcissistic traits are not trying to be malicious — they likely believe that they are being kind and respectful. Unfortunately, sometimes this is due to the cognitive distortions that make them think they are behaving nicely when they are not, and when they react harshly, they often truly believe they were the ones who were wronged.” 

Even though it’s not always possible, it’s important to react with understanding in these situations, while also keeping boundaries to preserve your own feelings. 

“However, this belief does not change the fact that their behavior can be toxic or cruel and misguided to those of us on the ‘outside’, says Gillis. 

What are the signs of a narcissist in a relationship?

  1. Lack of empathy: Narcissists lack empathy, and can’t see past their own needs to try and understand your perspective. This inability to show genuine empathy limits their ability to form healthy connections, as they can’t see beyond their agenda to understand their partner’s feelings. 

  2. Defensiveness: While narcissists can be quick to criticize their loved ones, they often can’t take this critique themselves. If you try and raise any valid criticisms, they react with extreme defensiveness and often resort to personal attacks in retaliation. 

  3. Lack of boundariesNarcissistic individuals often struggle to set boundaries, violating their partner’s privacy, or refusing to give them space. For example, they may want to watch your social media usage or are constantly inserting themselves into your plans. 

  4. Extreme reactions: Narcissists struggle with emotional regulation, and can therefore have extreme reactions to very simple situations. This results in angry outbursts, heightened conflicts, and arguments that escalate very quickly (and can become abusive). 

  5. Self-importance: While being confident isn’t a crime, narcissists are known for a sense of entitlement, as their advancement and agenda are always at the forefront of their minds. Research highlights these narcissistic patterns related to the creation of an elevated sense of self. This pattern involves taking advantage of others to elevate their social status, engaging in both self-promotion and derogatory tactics. 

  6. Shame or guilt tactics: Narcissists are known to employ shame or guilt tactics to further exert their power over their partner. This is a manipulative tactic to damage your self-confidence and self-worth, making you easier to control. However, this all comes from their own insecurities, self-doubt, and low self-esteem — rather than having anything to do with faults in their partner.

  7. Manipulative: Narcissists are famously charming, with their manipulative streak cooly masked beneath their charisma. They might put this mask back on when out in public but can be intensely manipulative and derogatory behind closed doors. 

  8. Isolate you from your support group: To try and retain their control, narcissists often try to isolate their partner from their support system — making them easier to manipulate. 

  9. Lack of vulnerability: Relationships require vulnerability from both partners, as you open up to each other to create a solid foundation of connection. However, narcissists naturally run away from this kind of exposure — refusing to open up to their partner. 

  10. Silent treatment: Open and honest communication does not come naturally to a narcissist, and when cornered, they often adopt the silent treatment. This is a very toxic coping mechanism, as it inspires fear, guilt, and over-compensation from the other partner. 

  11. Walking on eggshells: Being in a relationship with a narcissistic partner is a very uneven relationship terrain. Due to the kind of environment they inspire, and the extreme reactions that they are prone to, it can feel like you’re walking on eggshells around them — trying to avoid confrontation or a break-up. 

What is the cycle of a narcissistic relationship?

Narcissistic relationship patterns involve very cyclical behaviors, where you’re constantly sucked in by their manipulative tactics and routines. 

“In a relationship, they can come across as charming, making you feel like the only person on earth — then they can turn on a dime when you have displeased or wronged them somehow,” says Gillis. 

This back-and-forth means that you never really know where you stand, as they alternate between love-bombing and derogatory behaviors. This means that they are constantly building you up, just to break you back down again. These patterns can have a significant effect on your mental well-being and wellness, as you never quite know what to believe. 

“To someone who is not trained to spot this behavior, it may feel good, which is understandable,” says Gillis. 

“Furthermore, to many people with unhealed relational trauma, this love bombing phase can fill an emotional void that they have left over from their experiences.  It can feel like you have met your soul mate, and that you finally are being loved in the way you want!” 

While these behaviors might seem genuine to the untrained eye, these tactics are usually self-serving and adhere to a wider agenda. Research highlights these narcissistic patterns related to the creation of an elevated sense of self. This pattern involves taking advantage of others to elevate their social status, engaging in both self-promotion and derogatory tactics. 

Therefore, while they might be showering you with love and affection, it’s usually related to a wider purpose and they are prioritizing their feelings over yours. After this love-bombing phase stops suiting their self-interest, there comes the switch. 

“However, there is often a switch from this behavior to other behaviors such as triangulation, which is when they bring other people into the arguments or dynamic by talking behind your back, gaslighting — when they purposefully deny your reality, and even discarding, which is when they drop you and ignore you as if you mean nothing,” says Gillis. 

This relationship cycle can be very damaging, as it feels like the person you thought you loved turns on you and makes you doubt your own reality. Thanks to their manipulation tactics, it can be very hard to break out of this cycle — even when you start to identify these patterns. 

“It is very painful and can be triggering for many, especially my clients with relational trauma wounds.”

Their creation of a codependent dynamic can convince individuals that this is the kind of treatment that they deserve, or that they could never do better than this — when this is fundamentally untrue. 

Do narcissists repeat patterns in relationships?

Narcissists often repeat patterns of behavior and can cycle through the stages quite frequently. Even when they discard someone, they can lure them back in. 

“Sometimes, this cycle can start again, with them “hoovering” or trying to suck you back in again after discarding, trying to win you back,” says Gillis. 

This might involve professions of love, or that they’ve changed when they might be trying to get you back purely from an ego perspective. 

Can you break a narcissistic relationship pattern?  

Due to the environment that narcissists create, it can be difficult to break out of this toxic relationship cycle and distance yourself from the narcissistic partner.

While you might believe that you can ‘change your partner’, this kind of change can only be initiated by the person themselves — with the help of professional therapy. If the relationship is damaging to your overall wellness or has become abusive, it’s important to lean on your support network and safely remove yourself from the situation. 

Even though it’s important to examine how narcissistic behaviors affect a relationship, and how they make their partner feel, it’s unfair to totally disregard the feelings of the person suffering from NPD. Therefore it’s important to examine if narcissists themselves can reform their ways, and break free of this toxic cycle. 

The greatest issue with narcissists in relationships is that they lack empathy, making it difficult to see the negative emotional impact that they are triggering with their partner. However, research indicates that narcissists can feel empathy if they can come to terms with their partner’s perspective — meaning that narcissists’ low empathy does not reflect inability, implying potential for intervention.

This means that it is not impossible to break these patterns of behavior, even if it is a long process. 

Research shows that narcissistic individuals may experience significant psychological distress related to interpersonal conflict and functional impairment. It’s also significantly more difficult to diagnose these issues, even with the help of a mental health professional or therapist — making coping strategies more difficult. 

If you’re struggling with narcissistic tendencies yourself, it’s important to reach out to a health professional to get the kind of tailored advice that you need. 

Frequently Asked Questions

  • What is the difference between a narcissist and a sociopath?

    The terms "narcissist" and "sociopath" both refer to individuals with distinct personality traits, and they often get confused or used interchangeably. However, they represent different psychological profiles and behavioral patterns. Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD) is a recognized mental health condition, while sociopathy is typically considered a subset of Antisocial Personality Disorder (APD). Narcissists might experience guilt or remorse, though often more about the consequences to themselves than the harm caused to others while sociopaths typically have a profound lack of remorse for their actions. It's crucial to note that these terms represent complex mental health conditions that can only be diagnosed by qualified professionals. The manifestations of these disorders can vary widely among individuals, and not everyone with these traits will have a full-blown personality disorder.
+50k reviews
Learn how to spot patterns in your relationship!
Download the #1 app for couples to guide you in the process!
our app
petal decoration

Enjoying this article?

A happier relationship starts here.

Question with locked answer