Narcissistic behavior in relationships can result in a person focusing on their own wants and needs at the expense of others. They may expect a lot from others but give little in return or believe they are superior to their partner.
Anyone can behave in a narcissistic way occasionally. This behavior is also developmentally typical for young children, who tend to focus on themselves.
However, a pattern of narcissistic behavior in adolescence or adulthood can be very damaging to relationships. Extreme and pervasive narcissistic behavior
Read on to learn more about narcissistic behaviors in relationships, including what it looks like, examples of how they may present, and their effects.
Narcissism refers to a sense of superiority or entitlement. People with narcissistic tendencies tend to think they are inherently better than others in some way. This could be as an individual or as part of a group.
Narcissistic behavior reinforces these beliefs. For example, a person may use their relationships to bolster self-esteem and gain admiration from their peers, reinforcing that they are desirable. This is different from self-love, as true self-love does not require external validation from other people.
Narcissistic behavior exists on a spectrum. Milder behaviors may not affect relationships much, while more severe behaviors can involve abuse and control. When narcissistic behavior becomes a pattern, it can cause significant harm.
Some people with extreme narcissism have NPD. This is a mental health condition where narcissistic beliefs and behavior persist long term and are pervasive across all areas of life. This includes relationships.
People with NPD often pursue relationships that are self-serving, using others to get what they want, which
People with NPD typically:
- have a grandiose sense of self-importance
- feel they are special and expect special treatment
- deliberately manipulate or exploit others for personal gain
- develop tactics to conceal or justify their behavior
- lack empathy
Narcissistic behavior in romantic relationships can include any behavior that centers one person’s needs at the expense of someone else or that treats others as objects for personal gratification.
When these behaviors are rare, they may cause irritation or a one-off conflict, but they do not necessarily damage the relationship permanently. For example, a person may occasionally:
- inflate their own accomplishments to gain praise, such as by exaggerating the effort they put into a romantic gesture
- use their relationship to make others jealous via public displays of affection or by sharing photos on social media
- try to get more than what is fair, such as by taking advantage of their partner’s willingness to do chores
However, when these behaviors are part of a pattern, they are more damaging. Narcissistic behavior becomes a more serious concern if a person:
- uses their partner to gain status, wealth, or admiration from others
- treats their partner like a servant or object, only existing to serve their needs
- crosses boundaries with little remorse, such as by having extramarital affairs or spending savings without asking
- lies to cover up their behavior, allowing them to continue doing what they want without consequence
- tells their partner they are lucky to be with them so that they are easier to manipulate
- gaslights their partner so that any criticisms of the behavior seem less believable
- threatens to leave the relationship, harm themselves, or harm others to get their way
People with narcissistic tendencies or NPD can also behave in similar ways toward family members. For example, they may:
- demand their relatives are obedient and cater to their needs at all times
- ignore their children’s feelings and push them to achieve the parent’s own goals, such as by forcing them into a particular career
- make gaining their love a competition by pitting family members against one another or by choosing a “favorite” child to make the others jealous
- feel threatened when children gain independence, which may cause them to undermine their confidence to keep them close
- use guilt, shame, threats, or violence to get family members to do what they want
Some examples of narcissistic behavior at work include:
- routinely lying on resumes or in job interviews
- seeking admiration by bragging or exaggerating achievements
- deliberately taking credit for someone else’s work
- spreading rumors about someone a person perceives as a rival to get ahead
- befriending coworkers to get something, such as unpaid help with a project or skill
As an employer or manager, a person with narcissistic tendencies may:
- exaggerate the business’s profits or success
- see themselves as a visionary or destined for greatness
- unethically cut corners, exploit people, or break the law to achieve their goals
Narcissism can seriously affect the well-being of others. It has links to:
- Mental health conditions: A 2020 study of people with close relationships to someone with narcissism found high rates of anxiety and depression. The rates were higher than for caregivers of people with other mood or personality disorders.
- Abuse: Although people with narcissistic traits appear to have high self-esteem, it is
often fragile. This means they can react angrily or violently to perceived criticism or a loss of superiority over others. This can lead to controlling behavior and abuse.
- Dependence: Narcissistic behavior can undermine a person’s confidence or their practical ability to live independently. This can result in people staying in abusive relationships. A
2021 studyfound that, even when people disliked a relative with narcissistic traits, they often also felt dependent on them.
On a broader scale, narcissistic behavior also affects society. For example, research links this trait to:
lower supportfor democracy increased violenceagainst social groups a person perceives as inferior increased supportfor social hierarchies, such as nationalism and white supremacy
People coping with the effects of narcissistic behavior can speak with a mental health professional for guidance and a safe place to talk. A therapist may be able to identify if the behavior is narcissistic or abusive and help a person stay safe.
People can also contact a therapist if they have concerns about their own behavior. There are many reasons why someone might want to control their environment or the behavior of others, and they do not always stem from NPD. Speak with a professional for advice and diagnosis.
If you or someone you know is in immediate danger of domestic violence, call 911 or otherwise seek emergency help. Anyone who needs advice or support can contact the National Domestic Violence Hotline 24/7 via:
- phone, at 800-799-7233
- live chat, at thehotline.org
- text, by texting LOVEIS to 22522
Many other resources are available, including helplines, in-person support, and temporary housing. People can find local resources and others classified by demographics, such as support specifically for People of Color, here:
Some examples of narcissistic behavior include exaggerating a person’s own achievements or importance, ignoring the wants and needs of others, and exploiting relationships for personal gain.
Sometimes, these behaviors are occasional or mild. But narcissistic behavior can also become a pattern that damages relationships. It can also become abusive.
People in relationships that involve narcissistic behavior should seek professional help and support.