Narcissistic relationship pattern: Here are six types to look for

Medically reviewed by April Justice, LICSW
Updated March 15, 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.

Many people may find themselves in relationships with partners who have narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) or display narcissistic behaviors. Studies have found that narcissistic personality disorder is prevalent in the US, affecting an estimated 6.2 percent of the population at the time of this publication.  

While finding yourself in a relationship with someone who displays narcissistic tendencies may be somewhat common, it isn’t necessarily easy or healthy for you. Here are six narcissistic love patterns and other behaviors to look for, and what you can do to keep yourself safe.

Narcissistic relationship pattern: What is it?

Even though people who live with NPD may be not initially appear to have symptomatic manifestation, common traits can highlight the evidence of NPD in that person’s life. 

If you are trying to spot narcissistic behavior in an attempt to proactively defend yourself in a relationship, consider looking for the following possible symptoms: 

A grand sense of self-importance

People who display narcissistic traits might believe they are unique and superior to others, which can lead to a profound lack of empathy and a focus on their own feelings. As a result, narcissists tend to feel too good for ordinary things or may expect others to recognize their importance and superiority. This may manifest in a relationship as one partner being made to feel that they must constantly praise or defer to the other partner due to their excessive need for recognition. People with narcissistic personality disorder may delegate all of their tasks, which can be frustrating if the delegation puts undue stress on others. This can also be a way for them to maintain control in narcissistic relationships.

A sense of entitlement

In addition to being self-important, people who display narcissistic traits may have a sense of entitlement and inflated self-worth. They might expect to be treated better than others or believe that they have a right to get whatever they want. Failure to have this entitlement fulfilled might be met with outrage and aggression, although this can sometimes be expressed through passive-aggressive behavior.

A need for constant admiration

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Are you in a relationship with a narcissist?

People who display narcissistic traits might feel as if they need constant admiration and excessive attention. They might go out of their way to surround themselves with people who will fulfill this need, as they may actually have very little self-confidence internally, despite their seemingly huge ego. This can cause the people around them stress in that they may feel badgered into giving hollow praise and excessive emotional support.

People who display narcissistic traits might feel easily jealous of individuals who have something they lack—such as money or status—or those who challenge them. This disorder can have effects that limit the worldviews of individuals to only what affects them, so anything that is perceived as better or a challenge is seen as a threat to their own well-being.

Their response to threats may be to put the other person down, display extreme anger and employ manipulation tactics—possibly in a dismissive or condescending way. It may even get to the point where they resort to bullying and violence to reduce the threat and restore their sense of superiority. This can damage the mental health of those around them by lowering their self-esteem or confidence dramatically.

Guilt-free exploitation of others

Lack of empathy is scientifically suggested to be one of the defining traits of narcissistic personality disorder. Because people with narcissistic tendencies might not easily identify or empathize with others’ feelings, it can be common for them to treat others as objects rather than human beings. For example: They may be quick to take advantage of someone if it means they can achieve their objectives. They may feign interest in another’s personality to make use of their time, effort, or skills without offering anything in return.

The narcissistic relationship cycle: A narcissistic relationship pattern at play

Most relationships with people who display narcissistic tendencies might follow a specific cycle with stages often referred to as the narcissistic relationship abuse pattern, which can include idealization, devaluation, and discard stages. These stages are generally defined by how people with narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) or adjacent personality dysfunction might treat their partner to get what they want from them—whatever that looks like in context. If you notice these stages in your romantic relationship, it may be a warning sign that your partner may be living with some of the defining characteristics of NPD. The following descriptions of each stage may help you recognize red flags.

Idealization stage

Idealization can be common for those who live with NPD or NPD-related tendencies. For example: If you are in a relationship with someone who experiences NPD, they might often start the relationship with key phrases and kind words—such as:  “You’re my soulmate,” or “I’ve never felt this way about anyone before.” This love bomb stage can last weeks or months. As a result, the object of their affection may feel like they are being put on a pedestal, and this may initially bolster their self-image. The narcissistic partner then has someone who will stand by them and pay attention to them, feeding into their ego.

Devaluation stage

Devaluation is another relationship stage that can be commonly seen in those who have a relationship with someone who experiences narcissistic proclivities. When the initial infatuation stage begins to wane, the person who lives with NPD may begin to slip into patterns that align with devaluation and aggression, which can also come in the form of passive-aggressive tactics.

In this stage, they may subtly or overtly devalue their partner, using tactics like withdrawing affection, gaslighting, giving backhanded compliments, isolating their partner from their support system, or withholding emotional or physical intimacy. They may also still show affection as they attempt to chip away at their partner’s confidence. Generally, this does not happen in healthier relationships. Subtly undermining someone’s confidence can be harmful to their well-being and go against the principles of healthy communication.

Discard stage

Once the person who lives with NPD feels that they no longer get the same emotional high from their partner, the insults may worsen, and they may work to ensure they become the “winner” in the relationship. 

When their partner asks for compromise, empathy, or honesty (or begins to set boundaries), the person experiencing NPD may likely “discard” their partner if they feel as if they no longer give them the emotional “high” they need. Those with NPD can be bored easily, and this can lead them to suddenly decide to throw an entire relationship away.

Narcissistic love patterns: What it can be like to have a narcissistic partner

Ilona Titova/EyeEm

People who display narcissistic traits may also follow common patterns around love and relationships, which can be seen in both the idealization and devaluation stages of narcissistic relationship patterns. These patterns can become narcissistic abuse if enough of the rights reserved to individuals in relationships are violated. If you suspect that your partner is someone who experiences NPD, you may want to watch for a few key patterns established in clinical psychology:

1. Love bombing

Love bombing is described by many as a form of romantic manipulation. The person experiencing NPD might bombard their partner with affection to gain love and trust, which may trigger the other person (or people) to match the intensity of commitment in the relationship. Common signs of love bombing can vary, and might look like: :

  • Occurrences when they always say just the right thing

  • The relationship feeling flawless; or otherworldly/unrealistic

  • Occurrences when they are quick to say, “I love you”

  • When everything might feel grand or over-the-top

  • When they live to be the hero

  • Occurrences when they treat other people poorly

2. Maintaining a laser focus on you

In the initial stages, a person living with NPD may be in constant communication with their partner—often texting and calling frequently. They might want to know everything about the person they’re with, including all the bad things they’ve gone through. 

At first, their partner may think it’s nice that someone wants to get to know them; however, a person living with NPD may not feel empathy, or may ask about hard times for purely selfish reasons. For example: Some may believe that if they can provide solutions, they’ll look like a hero. Or, they may think that gathering this information also gives them things to bring up later in the relationship to help establish dominance over their partner.

3. Subtle warnings

People who display narcissistic traits might already know who they are and what they are doing. They might offer subtle warnings, but because they are intertwined with other compliments and acts of affection, these comments can be easy to miss. They may say things like, “You’re too good for me,” or “You deserve better.” 

Their partner may just think they are being cute. But the reality is that these simple phrases are often subtle warnings that might be employed to offset the damaging effects of this personality disorder.

4. Seeking sympathy through vulnerability

Once a person living with NPD knows their partner is committed to the relationship, they may slowly chip away at their self-esteem and confidence. They might then begin to tell stories of their own life, or stories that may be painful or traumatic in which they are always the victim. 

Showing themselves in a vulnerable position can help them to strengthen their partner’s trust. They may believe that if their partner is empathetic, they might want to help the narcissist fix the hurt they are feeling—possibly pulling them deeper into the relationship and setting them up with a difficult task.

5. Deflecting responsibility

People who display narcissistic traits might have the opinion that nothing is their fault. Whether it is their behavior or something that happened to them, a person who lives with NPD may seem to never admit that they are wrong. They might also deflect responsibility back onto their partner, possibly in an attempt to convince them that their reaction is the problem—not the behavior.

6. They pull away and come back again (repeatedly)

People who display narcissistic traits might put their partners on a pedestal at the beginning of the relationship; then, they may suddenly become distant, disappearing for long stretches at a time. This behavior might prompt their partner to try to figure out what they did “wrong” and try to make things right so the relationship can return to the way it was. Then, things may go back to how they were—until the next time. 

Someone living with NPD may do this repeatedly to keep their partner “addicted” to them, possibly making it difficult to take the necessary steps to move on and leave the relationship.

Are you in a relationship with a narcissist?

What to do if you’re stuck in a narcissistic relationship pattern

Being in a narcissistic relationship can be extremely challenging. This is primarily due to their general lack of empathy that can be associated with NPD, and a possibly inherent reaction to deflect responsibility. Remember that personality disorders, while complex and necessitating treatment, are not an excuse to abuse or otherwise injure others. A narcissistic person knowingly repeating patterns of abuse is not someone you are obligated to remain in contact with but you also do not have to allow these patterns to persist even if you do decide to stay.

You don’t have to live with the complex emotions of being in a narcissistic relationship alone. Talking with someone who won’t judge your decision to be with your partner, such as a licensed therapist with a master’s degree or a clinical psychologist, can help you process your emotions and build mental resilience. 

How can online therapy help survivors of narcissistic abuse and relationships? 

Online therapy can have many benefits for people who may be experiencing symptoms of anxiety disorder or depression from trying to manage a narcissistic relationship. If you are considering treatment but are overwhelmed by the idea of trying to find someone close by who has an open appointment slot, you might try to sign up with BetterHelp or a comparable online agency. You’ll be matched with a licensed therapist that you can talk to from anywhere with an internet connection—and because so many therapists are available online, you won’t generally have to wait weeks for an appointment. 

Is online therapy effective? 

Studies have suggested that online therapy can help people to work through difficult emotions that might arise from an at-risk relationship. 

In a study published in the Australian and New Zealand Journal of Family Therapy, researchers found that online therapy was generally recognized a successful technique for counseling couples in distress and the individuals in those relationships. 

The report laid out several concerns about being in an unhealthy, narcissistic relationship, including personal mental health concerns, and addressed the fact that those in distressed relationships might not seek treatment consistently. 

Researchers state that online therapy can be a useful tool to help many get around the barriers that keep couples from seeking therapy. These can include cost, geographical, and time limitations.


Being in a relationship with someone who lives with NPD can be mentally and emotionally exhausting. You can quickly feel alienated from friends and family, making it that much more difficult. If you believe that you’re in an unhealthy relationship, consider speaking with a licensed counselor to start working through how you are feeling. You may also learn healthy coping techniques and boundaries for your relationships. BetterHelp can connect you with a licensed therapist in your area of need. 

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