Narcissism In A Relationship: Red Flags To Look For

Medically reviewed by April Justice, LICSW
Updated March 13, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team
Content warning: Please be advised, the below article might mention trauma-related topics that include abuse which could be triggering to the reader. If you or someone you love is experiencing abuse, contact the Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-SAFE (7233). Support is available 24/7. Please also see our Get Help Now page for more immediate resources.

Maintaining a relationship, romantic or otherwise, with someone who displays narcissistic personality traits can be challenging. Often, narcissistic personality traits tend to go unnoticed until you have spent a fair amount of time with a person. Examples of narcissistic personality traits can include a fragile sense of self-worth paired with inflated self-importance, little to no empathy, and a dislike for reliance on others. If you are in a relationship with someone who has narcissistic traits, you may find yourself wanting to show your partner documentation, preferring to communicate through written communication, and experiencing insults and belittling behavior from your partner. Online therapy, whether you attend individually or as a couple, can be helpful in teaching you effective strategies for navigating relationships with people who have narcissistic traits.

Having trouble navigating a complex relationship?

What are narcissistic personality traits?

One commonly overlooked aspect of narcissism as a whole may be the existence of “healthy narcissism”. In a video published by licensed psychologist Dr. Daniel Fox, he describes healthy narcissism as having the ability to feel confident in oneself, without attempting to or feeling the need to take away from others. 

Unhealthy (or pathological) narcissism is typically defined by a highly inflated sense of importance and entitlement, while simultaneously having a very fragile sense of self-worth. Additionally, traits of unhealthy narcissism often include attention-seeking behavior, belittling or putting others down, and negative responses to any sort of criticism.

What is narcissistic personality disorder? 

It can be important to note that narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) is a diagnosable personality disorder. While someone living with NPD will usually display narcissistic personality traits, these same traits can be exhibited by people who do not have NPD. 

According to the Mayo Clinic, symptoms of narcissistic personality disorder may include: 

  • An unreasonably high sense of self-importance or a desire for excessive admiration
  • Feeling that certain privileges and special treatment are deserved
  • The expectation to be recognized as superior even without achievements
  • A tendency to make personal achievements or talents seem bigger than they are
  • A preoccupation with success, power, brilliance, beauty, or the perfect mate
  • Feelings of superiority
  • Unrealistic demands or expectations of others
  • A tendency to take advantage of others without guilt or remorse
  • An inability or unwillingness to recognize the needs and feelings of others
  • Excessive feelings of envy toward others, or an unfounded belief that others envy them

Again, many of these traits and symptoms may be present in a person without narcissistic personality disorder. Regardless of diagnosis, these traits and behaviors tend to be quite damaging when it comes to interpersonal relationships. 

Red flags to look for

Noticing the red flags of narcissism can be dependent on the nature of the relationship. While there tends to be an abundance of information on spotting red flags in romantic relationships, the display of narcissistic personality traits can negatively affect your relationships with parents, family, friends, and even coworkers.

Typically, there will be different types of red flags to look out for in someone you are just getting to know versus someone you have known or have been dating for a significant amount of time. 

Spotting early warning signs

Spotting narcissistic personality traits in a person early on can be difficult, as narcissistic behaviors tend to present over time. Still, there are a handful of early warning signs you may be able to spot in someone you are just getting to know, or have just begun dating. 

They have little to no empathy

A common narcissistic personality trait can be a general lack of empathy. Someone who does not listen to other people’s feelings, perspectives, or opinions, or tends to have a lack of patience for people in general, may be displaying signs of narcissism.

They dislike relying on others in any way

Someone with narcissistic traits might avoid asking for help in any way from anyone around them, whereas someone without narcissistic traits will typically feel comfortable asking people they trust for help with challenging personal, emotional, or work situations.

They display covert signs of low self-esteem

According to Harvard Medical School Instructor and Lecturer, Dr. Craig Malkin, it can be important to note that the self-important behavior commonly associated with narcissism is most often used as a way to mask incredibly low self-esteem.

Covert signs of low self-esteem may present in the form of making you feel uncertain or unsure of yourself, or an incessant use of self-deprecating talk with the goal of receiving compliments or validation.


Red flags to look for in a romantic relationship

If you are currently dating someone you believe may be displaying signs of narcissistic personality traits, a video published by clinical psychologist, Dr. Ramani Durvasula, describes several possible warning signs to look out for. 

You feel the need to show your partner documentation

One of the most common narcissistic traits can be the tendency to “gaslight” and make others feel uncertain of themselves and their reality. For this reason, you may feel the need to keep records, such as text messages, journals, and recordings of conversations or arguments, in hopes of “proving” what occurred or what was said to your partner.

While Dr. Ramani does recommend keeping records if you believe you are in a relationship with someone displaying signs of narcissism, it is not generally for the purpose of showing your partner, but to serve as a reminder of your own lived experience, rather than the one your partner attempts to project onto you.

You find yourself writing long text messages, letters, or emails

Another common narcissistic trait may be the inability or total unwillingness to listen to a partner. This trait may present in the form of not paying attention when you speak, interrupting or speaking over you, or responding with anger or frustration when you attempt to address concerns.

Because of this, you may feel like you can only communicate your thoughts and feelings to your partner in written form. If you have previously tried this, you may find that your partner responds poorly to this as well.

They insult or belittle you

While a bit of good-natured humor is often considered normal in most healthy relationships, someone displaying signs of narcissism may outright insult you or target your insecurities. Additionally, you may find that if you respond negatively to their insulting comments, the person will claim they were merely joking and accuse you of overreacting. 

What to do when you spot narcissism 

If you are struggling to navigate a relationship with someone displaying narcissistic personality traits, it may be helpful to consider the nature of the relationship before deciding on next steps. 

If you are in a situation where you are forced to work or interact with a person displaying narcissistic traits, it may be helpful to limit contact and only communicate on an “as-needed basis”. 

If you are in a romantic relationship with a narcissistic person, or have a parent or family that is exhibiting traits of narcissism, it may be helpful to seek guidance from a therapist or mental health professional. 

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Having trouble navigating a complex relationship?

Benefits of online therapy

If you believe a loved one is exhibiting narcissistic personality traits, it is typically best to consult a therapist or mental health professional. Due to the often-damaging nature of narcissistic behavior, it can be crucial to receive professional guidance when navigating these relationships. 

Because of its increased availability, online therapy may be a good place to begin the process of seeking guidance. It can be convenient to get the help you deserve from home or anywhere you have an internet connection. Plus, you can switch therapists as needed until you find the right match.

Effectiveness of online therapy

According to research, online therapy can be equally effective as in-person therapy for reducing symptoms of certain mental illnesses, including depression and anxiety. 

Additionally, online couples therapy may serve as a helpful resource for people struggling to navigate a relationship with someone exhibiting narcissistic behavior. Studies show that couples who participate in online therapy usually report positive changes in their relationships. 


It can be important to note that anyone may display narcissistic traits, and these traits may not always necessitate a diagnosis of narcissistic personality disorder. A person who shows little to no empathy, has an inflated sense of self-importance, dislikes relying on others, and secretly has very low self-esteem may be displaying narcissistic personality traits. If you believed a loved one, friend, partner, or coworker has narcissistic traits, speaking to a therapist online or in person may help you navigate the relationship in a healthy way.
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