7 Ways to Tell If Your Partner Is Narcissistic or Just Self-Absorbed

Updated on March 4, 2020
letstalkabouteduc profile image

The author's brother-in-law is a diagnosed narcissist. She explains how narcissism is more severe and destructive than mere self-absorption.

Narcissists can be destructive to not only the relationship but to their  partner's emotional well-being.
Narcissists can be destructive to not only the relationship but to their partner's emotional well-being. | Source

Narcissistic or Just Self-Absorbed?

Slapping the label of narcissist on your partner, boss, friend, or mother-in-law is the hottest thing going in pop psychology today. Everybody on the face of the planet has become utterly convinced that they're being mistreated by one. In reality, though, most of us are not dealing with narcissists at all but simply self-absorbed people who are annoying, yes, but abusive, no.

In fact, all of us are narcissistic to some extent and can be placed somewhere along the continuum. So ...if you're dating someone who has you wondering, ask yourself the following 7 questions to determine if your concerns are well-founded and if you should stay or hightail it out of there.

7 Questions to Determine If Your Partner Is Narcissistic or Just Self-Absorbed

1. Is impressing strangers important to them?

2. Do they speak often of their specialness?

3. Is the silent treatment a favorite weapon?

4. Are they exceptionally thin-skinned?

5. Do they react angrily when you disagree?

6. Are they stingy with compliments?

7. Do they lack empathy?

1. Is impressing strangers important to them?

When you start dating a narcissist, they may captivate you with their charismatic way with strangers: joking with servers at restaurants, chatting it up with salespeople at stores, and telling engaging stories at parties. You may think: Wow! What a catch! This person can charm the pants off anyone! You may be especially impressed if you're an introvert—pleased, proud, and relieved to be on the arm of someone who's more outgoing than you are. Oddly, though, as things continue, you realize their easy rapport with strangers doesn't carry over to their relationship with you.

That's because narcissists feed off the attention they get from strangers and casual acquaintances: the mail carrier who laughs at their joke, the co-worker who praises their sense of style, the barber who admires their full head of hair. While the rest of us take these everyday compliments with a grain of salt, they find them unusually gratifying. This superficial give-and-take that most of us call chit-chat” is more meaningful to them than a deeper relationship with you. They're the life of the party with a group but shallow as a puddle one-on-one. Since you see them as they truly are, warts and all, they must look elsewhere for their next fix of narcisstic supply and strangers provide an endless source.

What is narcissistic supply?

Narcissistic supply refers to the attention, admiration, and adulation that narcissists crave. They need a fix on a regular basis to boost their egos. Narcissistic supply re-enforces the belief that they're special and superior.

Seeking admiration is like a drug for narcissists. In the long run it becomes difficult because others won't applaud them, so they always have to search for new acquaintances for whom they get the next fix.

— Mitja D. Back, professor of personality psychology, University of Munster

2. Do they speak often of their specialness?

Just like Superman with his x-ray vision, narcissists believe they, too, have unique powers that set them apart from everyone else. They often bring up how special they are because it's central to their identity. They may see themselves as unusually perceptive, superior communicators, exceptionally attractive, or uncommonly moral.They may exaggerate their importance, making comments such as: “Everyone is always coming to me for advice...My entire family would be in shambles if it weren't for me...People are always telling me I should write a book about my life.”

They may see themselves as deserving of preferential treatment, luxurious surroundings, and lots of admiration. Dr. Sandy Hotchkiss, a licensed clinical social worker, writes about their sense of entitlement in Why is it Always About You?: The Seven Sins of Narcissism. This book got me to understand my narcissistic brother-in-law after years of trying. It helped me realize that he sees himself as uniquely intelligent and, thus, deserving of people's undivided attention. As such, he expects to be listened to endlessly and without interruption.

Some narcissists even see religion as their super power. They believe they have a unique one-on-one relationship with God in which He speaks to them directly and guides their everyday lives. We've all heard NFL players thanking God for their Super Bowl wins and actors praising the Lord for their Academy Awards. They think God sees them as exceptional and deserving of special recognition. As narcissists, this fortifies what they think of themselves. As half of a romantic couple, they will always be the ones who set the course because they, after all, are being steered by a Higher Power.

Like everything else in the narcissist’s life, he mutates God into a kind of inverted narcissist. God becomes his dominant Source of Supply. He forms a personal relationship with this overwhelming and overpowering entity – in order to overwhelm and overpower others. He becomes God vicariously, by the proxy of his relationship with Him. He idealizes God, then devalues Him, then abuses Him. This is the classic narcissistic pattern and even God himself cannot escape it.

— Sam Vaknin, author of "Malignant Self Love"
A relationship has little chance of survival when a narcissist clams up and refuses to communicate.
A relationship has little chance of survival when a narcissist clams up and refuses to communicate. | Source

3. Is the silent treatment a favorite weapon?

If you're like many people, you clam up when you get mad, frustrated, confused, or overwhelmed. You don't want to say something you'll regret so you wisely refrain from speaking until you've sorted out your thoughts and can articulate them clearly. This may take a matter of minutes or a few hours. Your intent is to avoid hurting your loved one and damaging the relationship.

Narcissists, however, give the silent treatment for an entirely different reason—to punish, manipulate, control, and demoralize their partners. Make no mistake about it, they're using it to make you suffer and squirm. In fact, some narcissists like to give the silent treatment without explanation, making their victims feel off-balance, scared, and vulnerable.

Their vengeful self-imposed muteness can go on for days, weeks, and even months. They take the silent treatment to the extreme and use it often. If you try to become more assertive, the narcissist will use it as a weapon to squelch your independence. Your relationship is doomed because your partner doesn't see communication as a way to solve problems and clams up like a petulant child.

The silent treatment is a form of emotional abuse typically employed by people with narcissistic tendencies. It is designed to (1) place the abuser in a position of control; (2) silence the target’s attempts at assertion; (3) avoid conflict resolution/personal responsibility/compromise; or (4) punish the target for a perceived ego slight. Often, the result of the silent treatment is exactly what the person with narcissism wishes to create: a reaction from the target and a sense of control.

— Andrea Schneider, licensed clinical social worker

4. Are they exceptionally thin-skinned?

Narcissists notice the slightest of slights and take everything personally. Their egos get injured easily. They're highly sensitive to any perceived insult. They can't take a joke, can't laugh at their foibles, and can't let anything go. They're never self-deprecating.

As a way to cope, you may start censoring your speech so as not to hurt their fragile feelings. It may seem like you're constantly walking on eggshells. It's nearly impossible to talk to them about anything you find troubling in the relationship. They will take what you said, twist it, and make you the bad guy. Narcissists are not self-reflective so you're in for a losing battle. They can play the martyr like nobody else.

If they hurt you, don't hold your breath waiting for an apology. Narcissists rarely if ever say “I'm sorry.” If they were to even notice your distress, they would only offer a lame, insincere acknowledgment. They would never say, “I'm sorry I called you dumb. I was mean.” Instead, they would say, “I'm sorry you reacted that way to what I said.” They put it all on you.

5. Do they react angrily when you disagree?

When others disagree with us, we might find it frustrating but not cause for hostility and rage. After all, we reason, everyone is entitled to their own opinion. Narcissists, however, get unduly angry when someone has a differing viewpoint. They become hell-bent on changing their opinion or berating them for clinging to it. They cannot tolerate losing an argument. They cannot be wrong.

A live and let live attitude is not part of their makeup. Narcissists will argue with you until they've beaten you down and you've lost the will to live. Debating back and forth is futile because they don't want to listen. Narcissist (deep-down) are insecure people who need to believe they're always right. They're drawn to partners who avoid confrontation and are willing to smooth over rough patches to make their life run smoothly.

In "Rage—Coming Soon From a Narcissist Near You," Dr. Mark Goulston warns about getting on the bad side of these folks who are threatened by anyone who disagrees with them. They perceive it as a personal attack, requiring them to strike back and protect themselves. He writes, "There is a saying that when you’re a hammer the world looks like a nail. When you’re a narcissist, the world looks like it should approve, adore, agree and obey you. Anything less than that feels like an assault and because of that a narcissist feels justified in raging back at it."

6. Are they stingy with compliments?

Narcissists believe their role is to receive compliments, not give them. You may start to feel like you're walking through a desert, searching for a drop of water, when seeking praise or validation from them. You'll start to lose self-esteem and feel unsure. This gives them what they desire: more power and control over you.

You are collateral damage as they bolster themselves, minimizing your experiences and achievements in the process. If you get a promotion at work, they'll say, “I've gotten so many promotion over the years. I've lost count.” If you're excited about becoming an uncle or aunt for the first time, they'll say, “I have six nieces and nephews. It's not a big deal.” They'll burst your bubble and you'll start getting depressed.

In this video, a therapist explains how narcissists charm people into falling for them. Then, due to their manipulative behaviors, they can cause their partners intense emotional trauma.

7. Do they lack empathy?

Narcissists have little or no ability to experience empathy. They can fake it, though, saying sympathetic words and giving comforting gestures when it serves their needs. They may act compassionately when you're dating but give up the pretense when you're married.

Some wives and husbands say their narcissistic spouse began acting cold and unsympathetic soon after the nuptials. They first noticed the behavior when they needed their partners to care for them when they were suffering from the flu, recovering from surgery, getting over the death of a relative, or recuperating after giving birth. The narcissists, unable to cope with the nurturing role, got extremely frustrated, angry, and resentful.

Dr. Leon F. Seltzer, a psychologist who's worked extensively with narcissistic clients and their spouses, warns that an extreme narcissist is a bad bet for a relationship. Because of their self-absorption and wounds from childhood, they're unlikely to change even with therapeutic intervention. They lack what's needed to have a deep and meaningful coupling.

He writes: "The problematic self-absorption, or self-centeredness, of narcissists is mostly a defense against deep fears of intimacy. And sadly, most narcissists have good reason to be wary of such closeness, for typically their experiences in growing up were characterized by parental abuse or neglect. Having suffered so much emotional hurt from those they most depended on, they vowed (however unconsciously) to never subject themselves to such psychological pain again."

What do you think?

Why do you think people date and even marry narcissists?

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This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

Questions & Answers

  • I'm in a long distance relationship. We hardly see each other but communication was strong. Now he goes days without calling and when I call or text, he doesn't reply or return my calls untill days after. I've talked to him several times about it, but he blames it on his new job. It's not the first time he's gone silent on me with no explanation, leaving me guessing and wondering what I did wrong. He neither replies to texts nor returns my calls. Do I have a narcissistic partner?

    I can't say whether your partner is narcissistic, passive-aggressive, emotionally abusive, or none of these. What's quite apparent from your question, though, is that you're unhappy with the way things are. You don't need a diagnosis of him to know that this isn't what you want.

    Dating is the time to determine whether two people are a match and, when you discover you're not, it's time to leave. Sadly, many women become attached too quickly, lose all objectively, and become hell-bent on making the relationship work...even to the point of it being unhealthy for them. If you step back from your situation, though, you will see that this man's behavior isn't kind and loving and not indicative of someone who wants to make this relationship a priority in his life.

    I recommend you look at why you're in a long-distance relationship in the first place. What does it say about you? How does it contribute to the problems you're now facing? Why are you not ready for a relationship with someone who's close in proximity but also emotionally close? Why are you keeping a distance? What is making you scared?

    It's much easier (and more enjoyable) to diagnose other people than ourselves. However, this seems like a wonderful opportunity for self-reflection so you can then move forward into a more loving, respectful, and reciprocal relationship. Albert Einstein said, “No problem can be solved from the same level of consciousness that created it.” Therefore, you need to look deep in order to avoid making this a pattern in your life.

  • My fiancee seems overly concerned about his "alone time." I think of alone time like several hours, occasionally a couple of days to reflect. I asked him to define alone time, he said: "whatever I need." When I asked to define alone time (how far, how long) he said he won't be controlled and if I had a problem this would be a game-stopper. Am I in danger of having a narcissistic partner? What is reasonable for "alone-time" and are random unexplained overnight alone-times cause for concern?

    I don't know if your fiancée is a narcissist, an introvert, a cheater, all of them, or none of them. Needing time alone is not a sign of narcissism, but his disregard for your feelings regarding this issue certainly is. His need for so much unchecked alone time, especially “random unexplained overnights,” is a major red flag (it's a common MO for men who are having affairs to call their partners “controlling” and “insecure'). Moreover, it's a sign that the two of you are not a match when it comes to how much time you want to spend together as a couple.

    You wouldn't be writing to ask this question if you thought this was normal, healthy behavior and indicative of a loving, compassionate man. Trust yourself and know this marriage shouldn't happen. Count your blessings that you've learned this now and not after you tied the knot.

    While humans love to analyze others and apply labels such as “narcissist,” “sociopath,” and “obsessive-compulsive,” we all need to spend less time doing that and more time examining ourselves. This is the time for you to do just that. Your question shouldn't be how much alone-time is reasonable (that varies from person to person, relationship to relationship), but why you are with someone who treats you like this and behaves so secretively. If you don't figure that out now, you're in danger of choosing the same kind of person, again and again, causing you tremendous heartache.

    I suggest you start therapy now to look at these issues. I have a feeling this current situation is not an isolated one and is just a piece of a much larger puzzle. You can't be in a healthy relationship until you're strong, self-confident, and right with yourself. Therapy is the best investment you can ever make. I wish you the best.

  • I'm almost convinced my "boyfriend" is a narcissist. He hasn't wanted intimacy in over a year. When we would go out, he was the quiet non-talkative one, not the center of attention. He likes his solitude and quiet time alone, and he doesn't dress snazzy, and he hasn't had a stable job or income in months. He is not cool with it but also not freaking out at the failure he's having at getting employment. Does any of that disqualify him from being a narcissist?

    None of that disqualifies him as a narcissist, but a lot of it should disqualify him as a boyfriend. Some narcissists withhold intimacy/sex/affection to punish or control their partners. If you want to have intercourse, but he consistently refuses, that's a big problem. It indicates selfishness on his part and a lack of interest in meeting your basic needs and desires. While most of us view sex as a way to develop a deeper connection (both physically and emotionally) with our partners, many narcissists just see sex as a way to satisfy themselves.

    A narcissist might stay unemployed because he thinks a lot of positions are beneath him. He may also be hesitant to find work because he's struggled in the past to get along with co-workers and move ahead in his career. While some narcissists do extremely well in the corporate world, rising to the top because of their hunger to succeed coupled with a complete lack of empathy, more stay on the bottom rung. They're not well-liked by co-workers and aren't considered team players.

    Instead of trying to figure out whether or not your boyfriend is a narcissist, it sounds like you should focus on yourself and decide if this is the way you want to keep living. Neither you nor I can diagnose your boyfriend (based on your description, he could also be suffering from depression). Focusing on someone else is often a way to avoid looking at ourselves. Life is short, though, and you don't want to waste too much time on a situation like this. You may want to read my article entitled “Why Some Women Fall in Love With Narcissists and How It Impact Their Lives.”

    https://pairedlife.com/problems/Married-to-a-Narci...

  • Is it normal to ask alot of "whys" in a relationship, like on a daily basis several times a day? What's the best way to answer if you feel like you're being ask "why" too many times so you feel anything you do is weird and strange?

    Your question shouldn't be whether or not the “whys” are normal but whether or not you want them in a relationship. You should move the spotlight from your partner and shine it on yourself. You read this article about narcissists for a reason, but the only one you can change is yourself.

    When children ask a lot of “whys,” they're showing tremendous curiosity about the world. However, I suspect you're not asking about someone who's displaying a curious nature but someone who's acting in a way you find darker and more disturbing. I suspect you're asking about someone who, in a passive-aggressive way, is challenging the way you do things (Why do you cook spaghetti that way? Why do you take so long in the shower? Why does it take you so long to get ready?)

    The partner who uses “whys” in this way is implying: The way you do things is wrong. You should do them like I do. My way is better, smarter, more efficient, etc. This individual is operating from ego. It's a way for him or her to feel superior. In the process, though, it can make the person on the receiving end feel criticized, controlled, less confident and “less than.”

    The best thing to do is have an open and honest conversation. Tell your partner that the “whys” are making you feel weird and causing you to doubt yourself. Then listen very carefully to the response. See if your partner is being receptive to what you shared, is offering insight into the behavior, and is expressing a willingness to change.

    You want to be in a healthy, happy relationship where you communicate honestly and openly, can be vulnerable, and are your authentic self. When a partner questions our every move (over things both little and small), we can start to feel shaky. Sometimes that's their intention and sometimes it's not. If this is happening to you, I'm glad you've recognized it and can make a conscious choice of what to do next. Take care!

  • I was dating a married man for three months and everything was super. Then his wife caught him, and they separated. He also has a kid. We went on dating after that, but he would have mood swings, alternating between tenderness and silence and rage. He would rage at me, manipulate facts, belittle, and blame me. We "split" several times only to start dating again after periods of silence. Is he a narcissist?

    Your boyfriend would need to see a psychiatrist or psychologist to be diagnosed with narcissistic personality disorder. Based on the little bit of information that you shared here, he may be dealing with guilt, anger, sadness, and regret over his immoral behavior. He may be raging at you because he's mad at himself for breaking up his marriage, disrespecting his sacred vows, and hurting his wife and child. He hasn't behaved in an honorable way and is now living with the consequences.

    Those who believe in karma would say that being on the receiving end of his anger is you reaping what you sowed. By having an affair with a married man, you set yourself up for misery. Instead of focusing on whether or not this guy is a narcissist, you'd be much wiser to concentrate on yourself. If you're a good person, you should be dealing with a lot of guilt now. If you're not dealing with guilt, you must ask yourself why you've grown so selfish and callous.

    This is a wonderful opportunity for you to end this relationship and get your life back on track. Talking to a counselor or religious leader at church would be extremely beneficial. You need to start doing things that make you proud of yourself and, thus, build your self-esteem. Surround yourself with better people who hold you to higher standards of behavior.

© 2016 McKenna Meyers

Comments

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    • letstalkabouteduc profile imageAUTHOR

      McKenna Meyers 

      5 weeks ago

      I'm so sorry that you've been in this situation for so long. Living with a narcissist for 10 years, your self-esteem surely must have been pummeled. I hope you have a network of good friends to support you and lift you up. Talking with them and getting a fresh take on your circumstances may give you the impetus to make a new plan for your life. I imagine you don't want to be living this way until the day you die. Take care!

    • profile image

      .... 

      5 weeks ago

      I have been with narcissists for almost 10 years. He blames me for everything and threatened me all the time and has NO care for anything except himself.

    • letstalkabouteduc profile imageAUTHOR

      McKenna Meyers 

      19 months ago

      Mercedes, you don't sound like a narcissist. You're feeling guilty about your behavior, have compassion for your boyfriend, put the blame squarely on your shoulders, and want to change. These are not the traits of a narcissist.

      It sounds like you're feeling out of control and are trying to manipulate your boyfriend by gas-lighting him. Please see a counselor and explain exactly what you're doing. You deserve to understand your actions and motivations and find peace. You can't be happy with yourself when you're feeling so guilty and confused. Good luck!

    • profile image

      Mercedes 

      19 months ago

      OMG I think i'm a Narcissistic, I don't have all 7 but some of them, I'm had make my boyfriend suffer and blame him for stuff that I done. I'm an horrobel person. Can I change I don't what to continue hurting him, I want to change but I know don't know where to start. What advice can you give me. I guess lighting all the time, I know I'm wrong and I still continue.

    • profile image

      Kimber 

      2 years ago

      OMG... I'm 100% sure now that my husband is Narcissistic...and he has displayed all 7 signs plus I'm sure there's more, I'm so relieved he's up and left me now...I'm starting to feel better about me again...Thanks for all the information on the Websites about this issue

    • letstalkabouteduc profile imageAUTHOR

      McKenna Meyers 

      3 years ago

      I think you should design your own, Smith. Sounds like a money-maker to me!

    • profile image

      Smith 

      3 years ago

      For an example of how a narcissist views women, communicates, and would respond to the above article, see dashingscorpio's comment. I'm sorry, I had to. Yes, technically that is an armchair diagnosis that we've all been warned against making. But to those who've experienced a true narcissist, tell me reading his comment wasn't uncanny. You aren't reading about narcissists because you've been told you are one, by any chance, are you? I can't be the only person that noticed this but I guess I'm the only one "contentious" enough to point it out. Now I want a contentious woman t shirt to go with my nasty woman t shirt.

    • profile image

      Letstalkabouteduc 

      3 years ago

      Terrific comments, dashingscorpio. You're so right about "narcissist" and "stalker" getting overused. I also nominate "controlling." I have several nieces in their 20's and "controlling" is usually what they cite when breaking up with a guy.

    • dashingscorpio profile image

      dashingscorpio 

      3 years ago from Chicago

      Very interesting!

      "He's drawn to a woman who avoids confrontation and is willing to smooth over rough patches to make his life run smoothly."

      I would tend to believe most men don't look forward to coming home after "slaying dragons" all day to deal with confrontation at home. :)

      Proverbs 21:19

      "Better to dwell in the wilderness, Than with a contentious and angry woman." LOL!

      Natural compatibility trumps compromise!

      The goal is to find someone who (already is) what you want in a mate.

      Like attracts like and opposites attract divorce attorneys!

      Most fights and arguments are due to the fact that someone feels disrespected, unappreciated, or ignored/neglected.

      Anger is the Mask that Hurt wears!

      Having said that it's not uncommon for men to be accused of being "passive aggressive" or poor communicators. I imagine some of it has to do with (some) men's need to solve or resolve an issue once and for all each time there is a discussion about a topic. A "one and done" mentality.

      Once they see something is "coming up again" they just decide to shut down because they don't believe there is any upside to jumping through hoops all over again. In his mind he's not going to "play that game" again.

      Another possibility is he may have {extreme anger issues} and shutting down or avoiding is his way of not engaging in explosive or possible violent behavior. Naturally dealing with such a person it would be unwise to "corner him" or follow him from room to room to force anything.

      I believe the word "narcissist" is starting to become over used in our society much like "stalker". For some people the threshold is very low for getting a label placed on someone.

      If a guy pursues a woman for romance by calling her more than once he's a "stalker" and if he acts like she doesn't exist he's "narcissistic".

      Everyone who has a measure of "self-esteem" and confidence has had it ingrained in them that they are "special" or "unique" on some level and deserve to have "boundaries" and "deal breakers" when dealing with others. They believe they shouldn't have to "settle" for just anything.

      The "Narcissist" takes it the extreme! And yet each of us also (defines) what is "extreme". Our definition isn't universal. Perception is reality.

      The best way to deal with the silent treatment is to not deal with it.

      In other words keep on being busy with your life or simply move on.

      People tend to use whatever "works" (for them) to get what they want.

      People don't "change' unless (they) are unhappy.

      There are only two ways to experience joy and peace of mind in relationships: We either get what we want or we learn to be happy with what we have. Accept them (as is) or move on. The choice is up to us!

    • letstalkabouteduc profile imageAUTHOR

      McKenna Meyers 

      3 years ago

      I can't see you having much patience for a narcissist, Bill. Once was enough, huh? I've never dated one, but my sister is married to one. He's given her the silent treatment for up to 2 weeks. They've been married over 30 years, and she now kind of enjoys it. She doesn't take it personally and it gives her a break from him. Couples can make it work, but it's hard.

    • letstalkabouteduc profile imageAUTHOR

      McKenna Meyers 

      3 years ago

      Thanks, pstraubie. Psychologists are coming to a more sophisticated understanding of narcissists -- that we're all narcissistic to some degree on the spectrum. They're also acknowledging some of the positive aspects of being narcissistic. It's a fascinating topic since we can all relate!

    • billybuc profile image

      Bill Holland 

      3 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Nope, I'm not dating one, but I sure don't have much patience for them. I did date one in the past but not for long. :)

    • pstraubie48 profile image

      Patricia Scott 

      3 years ago from North Central Florida

      In hindsight I fear I may have been involved with at least one who exemplifies these characteristics but fortunately that was not of a long duration. Sadly I have a niece who personifies narcissim....

      Angels are on the way to you this morning ps

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