Here’s What a Narcissist Does at the End of a Relationship
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When it comes to ending a relationship, a narcissist will act in multiple ways. Here are the signs to look for and tips for how to cope.
Dating a narcissist
It can be difficult to be in a relationship with a narcissist. At first, most people have no idea that the charismatic charmer they fell in love with also has narcissistic personality traits, like a lack of empathy, a deep need for attention, and extreme sensitivity to any perceived criticism.
Over time, however, you may start to see unmistakeable signs you’re dating a narcissist. Maybe you’re excited about a new outfit you bought for a night out, but your partner only cares about how they look in front of your friends.
Or perhaps they always start fights by blaming you for something you’re sure isn’t your fault. But when narcissism crosses the line to narcissistic personality disorder, these frustrating occurrences can become more serious (and can lead to narcissistic abuse). When it comes time to end the relationship, it can be hard to tell how the narcissist in your life will react—or how to finally extricate yourself from the situation.
What is narcissistic personality disorder?
“[Saying] that narcissism and narcissistic personality disorder are the same…is like saying sadness and depression are the same,” says W. Keith Campbell, psychology professor at the University of Georgia and author of The New Science of Narcissism.
“If you say your lover is a narcissist, you’re likely describing someone who is selfish, callous, self-centered, and attention-seeking. We speak colloquially that way,” says Campbell. “On the other hand, if you say your spouse is a narcissist and you’re going through divorce proceedings due to extreme and detrimental behavior, this could indicate a spouse who has a clinical level of narcissism that is relevant to treatment interventions and legal proceedings, or narcissistic personality disorder.”
What happens in relationships with narcissists
Narcissistic personality disorder can reveal itself in a number of ways, but what a narcissist does at the end of a relationship is very telling and sometimes dangerous. (Also, beware of these signs of narcissistic abuse.)
“If you try to end a relationship with a narcissist, they are going to be incredibly rigid and maladaptive,” says Elinor Greenberg, licensed psychologist, Gestalt therapist, trainer in borderline, narcissistic and schizoid adaptations and author of Borderline, Narcissistic and Schizoid Adaptations: The Pursuit of Love, Admiration and Safety. “If they have reacted poorly to other breakups, they are going to react the same as they have in the past.” (Find out: can a narcissist change?)
But if a narcissist becomes bored with a relationship and decides to end it, there are a number of different ways Greenberg says they might go about it.
What a narcissist does at the end of a relationship
Here are four ways someone with narcissistic personality disorder might act at the end of a relationship. (For more reading, check out the science behind breakups.)
Plays the Casanova
A narcissist is going to act this way if their primary interest in the relationship from the start was the novelty of it and the sex.
“The Casanova doesn’t care very deeply for their partner, nor did they expect to have a long-term relationship. Even though, chances are they never expressed this to you,” says Greenberg. “So they get increasingly bored and then find cruel and heartless ways to break things off.”
For example, they might bring their partner to a party, at which they actively make future plans with someone else at the party in whom their interest is clearly to be more than friends. Or they might start an affair and wait for you to find out about it so that you are the one who wants to leave.
“This type of narcissist is going to be very open about the fact that you are no longer desirable and that they are actively seeking other partners,” Greenberg adds.
This outward display of disrespect and disregard for your feelings can be the impetus required to end a relationship with someone who was likely already quite controlling and manipulative. (Does this sound familiar? Learn the early signs of an abusive relationship.)
Fights it out
Plenty of relationships end with extreme, late-into-the-night fights that reveal irreconcilable differences. But even in the most extreme cases, people who don’t have personality disorders may still sleep under the same roof before one person moves out the following day. A breakup fight with a narcissist is going to look a little different, says Greenberg.
“I’ve heard about people breaking up with narcissists being kicked out of the house in the pouring rain or made to get out of the car on the side of the highway,” she explains. “They will go to these extreme lengths right up until the end.”
Why? In the most basic sense, narcissists value themselves more than others.
“At its core, narcissism is about self-importance, antagonism, and a sense of entitlement,” says Campbell. “Narcissists believe they matter more than other people and deserve to be treated that way.” (Find out more signs of a toxic relationship.)
Makes you the bad guy
Narcissists believe that they are victims of life, that if things go awry it’s because other people are doing them wrong. For this reason, some of them may refuse to be the “bad guy” who ends the relationship, casting their partner in that role instead.
“This person will act ignorant, play dumb, and generally exhibit bad behavior until you make the decision to leave them,” explains Greenberg. “And then when you do, they will continue to play dumb and say they never would have left.”
This strategy is most often undertaken in the subset of people with narcissistic personality disorder called vulnerable narcissists. “The vulnerable narcissist protects the self and fights for the recognition that is owed,” says Campbell. “Most of this fighting is mental and emotional because vulnerable narcissists are often too fearful to confront people directly.”
The best way out: Not letting yourself feel guilty for having to be the one who decides to end the relationship. Even if the narcissistic partner says they wouldn’t have ended it, their actions said otherwise. (Here’s how to tell if you’re in a codependent relationship.)
Moves you down the list
This fourth scenario, which can occur if you are the one breaking up with a narcissist, may seem like the most harmless but can actually be quite manipulative. Say you end it with your partner, and instead of lashing out, they do their best to stay on good terms going forward. Seems great, right? Not so fast.
“This narcissist is a recycler. People are pretty interchangeable to them,” says Greenberg. “They try to keep a few possible partners around, usually three to five people, all of whom are happy to see them. Then when they get mad at one they can move onto the next.”
For example, Greenberg recalls a funeral she attended for a man she’d known years earlier. “Three women showed up, his three girlfriends. They knew of each other and resented each other’s existence but kept accepting him back because he was a very interesting guy, liked to travel, and just wanted a complacent woman to go along with him.”
If this doesn’t sound like a scenario you’d accept, it’s actually relatively easy to extract yourself from it. You can accept the amicable breakup, but then turn down any future invitations for dates, events, or social gatherings. If you have a narcissist in your life, these narcissist quotes will help you deal.
Next, read about relationship arguments and what they mean.
- W. Keith Campbell, PhD, University of Georgia psychology professor and author of The New Science of Narcissism
- Elinor Greenberg, PhD, licensed psychologist, Gestalt therapist, trainer in borderline, narcissistic and schizoid adaptations and author of Borderline, Narcissistic and Schizoid Adaptations: The Pursuit of Love, Admiration and Safety