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How to Tell If Your Partner Is a Narcissist or Just Self-Absorbed

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.

Is It Narcissism or Self-Absorption?

1. Is impressing strangers important to them?

2. Do they speak often of being special?

3. Is the silent treatment a favorite weapon?

4. Are they exceptionally thin-skinned?

5. Do they react angrily when others disagree?

6. Are they stingy with compliments?

7. Do they lack empathy?

Each of these key questions is described in detail below to help you determine if your partner is narcissistic or merely self-absorbed.

What Label Is Correct?

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 but not necessarily abusive.

In fact, all of us are narcissistic to some extent and can be found somewhere along the continuum. However, if you're dating someone whose narcissism is intense and threatens your emotional well-being, it's time to make a hasty retreat. Ask yourself the following seven questions to determine if you're in a perilous situation with such a person.

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

1. Is Impressing Strangers Important to Them?

When dating someone with narcissism, you may be initially captivated by their charismatic way with strangers. They may joke with servers at restaurants, chat with salespeople at stores, and tell engaging stories to fellow guests 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. You may be pleased, proud, and relieved to be on the arm of someone who's more outgoing than you are. As things continue, though, you realize that 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, and the barber who admires their full head of hair. Unlike the rest of us who take these everyday compliments with a grain of salt, those with narcissism 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. Since their partner sees them as they truly are, warts and all, they must look elsewhere for their next fix of narcissistic supply with strangers being an endless source of it.

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Read More From Pairedlife

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.

2. Do They Speak Often of Being Special?

Just like Superman with his x-ray vision, some narcissists believe they have unique powers that set them apart from everyone else. They frequently mention 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 helped me understand my narcissistic brother-in-law after years of trying. It helped me realize that he sees himself as uncommonly 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. In their estimation, they have a rare 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 this special recognition. Convinced that a higher power is directing them, they typically expect to set the course in their romantic relationships.

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.

3. Is the Silent Treatment a Favorite Weapon?

Some people clam up when they get mad, frustrated, confused, or overwhelmed. Not wanting to utter something that they'll regret later, they wisely refrain from speaking. They need to sort out their thoughts first before articulating them.They're well-meaning as they seek to avoid hurting their loved one and damaging the relationship.

Some narcissists, though, give the silent treatment for a nefarious reason: to punish, manipulate, control, and demoralize their partners. They use it to make them suffer and squirm. In fact, some 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 their partner tries to become more assertive, the narcissist will use it as a weapon to squelch that newfound independence. These relationships are doomed because those with narcissism don't communicate to solve problems but instead clam up like petulant children.

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?

Many folks with narcissism react negatively to the slightest of slights, taking everything personally as their egos are injured. They're highly sensitive to any perceived insult. They can't take a joke, can't laugh at their foibles, can't let anything go, and can't be self-deprecating.

Aware of their thin skin, people around them start to censor their speech. Because they don't want to hurt the narcissist's fragile feelings, they walk around on eggshells. Their partners may find it nearly impossible to discuss any troubling aspects of the relationship. When they do, they fear that the narcissist will take what they said, twist it, and make them the bad guy. They're painfully aware that someone with narcissism plays the martyr role with complete conviction.

5. Do They React Angrily When Others Disagree?

When others disagree with them, most people get frustrated but don't react with hostility and rage. They appreciate that everyone is entitled to their own opinion based on their unique life experiences and tightly-held personal beliefs. They don't feel threatened when someone isn't of the same mind as them, realizing that diversity of thought is actually a positive thing.

Someone with narcissism, on the other hand, can get downright furious at an individual who holds a differing viewpoint. Instead of respecting their perspective, they might become hell-bent on changing it or berating them for having it. They can't tolerate losing an argument, and they can't imagine being wrong.

A live and let live attitude is not part of the narcissist's makeup. Some will argue with their partner until they've beaten them down and made them lose the will to live. Debating back and forth is futile because they don't want to listen. This is due to the simple fact that narcissists are deeply insecure people who desperately need to be right.

In "Rage—Coming Soon From a Narcissist Near You," Dr. Mark Goulston warns about getting on the wrong side of these folks. Because they perceive disagreement as a personal attack, they might strike out in fury to protect themselves. Goulston 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?

Folks with narcissism believe that their role is to get compliments, not give them. Therefore, others may feel like they're walking through a desert, searching for a drop of water, when wanting praise or validation from them. Because there's no positive feedback, they may start to lose confidence and become insecure. This gives the narcissist exactly what they desire: more power and control over them.

People around those with narcissism often become collateral damage. That's because narcissists bolster themselves by minimizing the experiences and achievements of others. If someone gets a promotion at the office, a narcissist might brag: “I've gotten so many promotions over the years that I've lost count.” If their partner is thrilled about becoming an uncle or aunt for the first time, they may burst their bubble by responding with: “I have six nieces and nephews. It's not a big deal.”

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?

Some people with narcissism 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 they're dating but give up the pretense when married.

Some spouses report the narcissist that they wed began acting cold and unsympathetic soon after the nuptials. They say that the lack of compassionate was most obvious during a period when they needed care-giving. They cite specific occasions such as when they were suffering from the flu, recovering from surgery, getting over the death of a relative, and recuperating after giving birth. The narcissists, unable to cope with the nurturing role, got extremely frustrated, angry, and resentful during these trying times.

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

Dr. Seltzer 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?

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

Question: 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?

Answer: 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.

Question: 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?

Answer: 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.”

Question: 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?

Answer: 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!

Question: 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?

Answer: 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.

Question: 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?

Answer: 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

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