Is My Partner a Narcissist or Merely Self-Absorbed?

Updated on September 30, 2019
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Our lives are made infinitely richer by our relationships. I love finding ways to strengthen them at home, at work, and with friends.

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

Narcissist 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 they're being mistreated by one. In reality, though, most of us are not dealing with narcissists 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 see if your concerns are well-founded and if you stay or hightail it out of there.

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. Does he want to impress strangers more than he wants to impress you?

When you start dating a narcissist, he may captivate you with his 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 guy can charm the pants off anyone! You may be especially impressed if you're an introverted type—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 his easy rapport with strangers doesn't carry over to his relationship with you.

That's because a narcissist feeds off the attention he gets from strangers and casual acquaintances—the mail carrier who laughs at his joke, the co-worker who praises his sense of style, the barber who admires his full head of hair. While most of us take these everyday compliments with a grain of salt, he finds them extremely gratifying. This superficial give-and-take that most of us call chit-chat” is more meaningful to him than a deeper relationship with you. He's the life of the party with a group but shallow as a puddle one-on-one. Since you see him as he truly is—warts and all—he needs to search elsewhere for his next fix of narcissistic supply.

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. Does she consider herself special in some way that sets her apart from others?

Just like Superman with his x-ray vision, a narcissist believes she, too, has unique powers that set her apart from everyone else. She often brings up how special she is because it's central to her identity. She may see herself as unusually perceptive, a superior communicator, exceptionally attractive, or uncommonly moral.

She may see herself as a princess, deserving preferential treatment, luxurious surroundings, and lots of admiration. She may exaggerate her 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!”

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 won't communicate.
A relationship has little chance of survival when a narcissist clams up and won't communicate. | Source

3. Does he give you the “silent treatment?”

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 speak rationally about them. This may take a matter of minutes or a few hours. Your intent is to avoid hurting your partner and damaging the relationship.

The narcissist, however, gives the silent treatment for an entirely different reason—to punish, manipulate, control, and demoralize his partner. Make no mistake about it, he's 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 in the relationship, the narcissist will use it as a weapon to squelch your independence. Your relationship is doomed when your partner doesn't see communication as the 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. Is she ridiculously thin-skinned, prickly at every perceived slight?

A narcissist notices the slightest of slights and takes everything personally. Her ego gets injured easily. She's highly sensitive to any perceived insult. She can't take a joke, can't laugh at her foibles, and can't let anything go. She's never self-deprecating.

As a way to cope, you may start censoring your speech around her so as not to hurt her fragile feelings. You may feel like you're constantly walking on eggshells. When you make comments not directed at her in any way, she may interpret them as a personal attack. You gradually realize you'll never win and become resigned to it.

It's nearly impossible to talk to a narcissist about anything you find troubling in the relationship. She will take what you said, twist it, and make you the bad guy. A narcissist is not self-reflective so you're in for a losing battle. She can play the martyr like nobody else.

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

5. Does he react angrily when you disagree with him?

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. A narcissist, however, gets unduly angry when someone has a differing viewpoint. He becomes hell-bent on changing her opinion or berating her for clinging to it. He cannot tolerate losing an argument. He cannot be wrong.

A live and let live attitude is not part of his makeup. A narcissist will argue with you until he's beaten you down and you've lost the will to live. Debating back and forth is futile because he doesn't want to listen. A narcissist (deep-down) is an insecure person who needs to believe he's always right. He's drawn to a woman who avoids confrontation and is willing to smooth over rough patches to make his life run smoothly. He does not look for an equal. He typically wants someone younger, less experienced, and easy to influence.

In his article in Psychology Today called "Rage—Coming Soon From a Narcissist Near You," Dr. Mark Goulston warns about getting on the bad side of these individuals who desire acceptance and acclaim and can't tolerate disagreement. 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. Does she ever give you compliments?

A narcissist believes her role is to receive compliments, not give them. You may start to feel like you're walking through the desert, searching for a drop of water, if you're seeking praise or validation from her. You'll start to lose self-esteem and that's exactly what she wants. When you're unsure of yourself, you're in a weak position. She's in control and more powerful.

You are collateral damage as she bolsters herself, minimizing your experiences and achievements in the process. If you get a promotion at work, she'll say, “I've gotten so many promotion over the years. I've lost count.” If you're excited about becoming an uncle for the first time, she'll say, “I've been an aunt for 10 years. It's not a big deal.” She'll burst your bubble and you'll start getting depressed.

Want to know if you're dating a narcissist? Just ask!

7. Does he empathize when you experience heartache or just fake it?

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

Some wives say their narcissistic husbands began acting cold and unsympathetic soon after the nuptials. They first noticed the behavior when they needed their husbands 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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If You're Fascinated by Narcissists Like I Am, You'll Love This Book

Why Is It Always About You?: The Seven Deadly Sins of Narcissism
Why Is It Always About You?: The Seven Deadly Sins of Narcissism

I was first introduced to a narcissist when I was just a teenager and my sister married one. Now, four decades later, I'm still fascinated by my brother-in-law and other selfish, egotistical individuals like him. I'm always eager to gobble up new insight on them and that's why I loved this book by Dr. Sandy Hotchkiss. Within its pages, she details the seven deadly sins of narcissism: shamelessness, magical thinking, arrogance, envy, entitlement, exploitation, and bad boundaries. As I read about each one, I recognized my brother-in-law as well as several other self-absorbed people in my sphere. Hotchkiss does a superb job of explaining how to cope with the narcissists in our lives - whether they're co-workers, bosses, friends, neighbors, or family members. She also gives invaluable advice on how to break free of one when the relationship is destructive. If you're fascinated by narcissists like I am or looking for ways to deal with them, this book is a must read.


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

  • 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.”

  • 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'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.

© 2016 McKenna Meyers


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    • letstalkabouteduc profile imageAUTHOR

      McKenna Meyers 

      16 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


      16 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


      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


      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


      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


      3 years ago

      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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