How to Recognize Narcissistic Relationship Patterns


In our darkest moments, we’ve all probably taken our confidence or need for reassurance a little too far. You may have caught yourself thinking, “at least I’m prettier than so-and-so,” or “I’m the perfect employee. How dare my boss deny my promotion!”

Confidence is good. However, it’s hurtful at best when you take it a step too far and tear down others to get what you feel you deserve. At worst, it’s a sign of narcissism, which can ruin relationships permanently. 

What is Narcissism?

You’ll often see people who are self-centered described as “narcissistic.” This label isn’t necessarily wrong, but it does go deeper than that. Narcissism is a diagnosed personality disorder that, at its core, causes people to believe that they deserve more in life than others.

Narcissistic Personality Disorder

To be diagnosed with Narcissistic Personality Disorder, or NPD, a person must exhibit five or more of the following symptoms:

  • Lack of empathy
  • An exaggerated sense of self-worth and self-importance
  • The belief that they are “special”
  • Fantasies of success, power, and riches
  • A driving need to be admired by others
  • A sense of superiority over others
  • Uncontrollable envy

Because someone diagnosed with NPD thinks so highly of themselves, and so lowly of others, any perceived slight against them can cause rage or depression. Their mood swings might seem intense and sudden.

NPD causes people to seek “perfection,” and the results can be disastrous if they feel like they can’t get there. Many with NPD will develop an eating disorder or cope with substance abuse. It can be diagnosed alongside anxiety and depression, as someone with NPD might feel they’re “spiraling” if their self-worth takes a hit.  

A dart just outside of the bullseye on a dart board.

Narcissism and the Abuse Cycle

Sometimes, it’s hard to remember that NPD is a disease since it affects other people. A person with NPD compares themselves to others, tearing them down to build themselves up.

Because of this, narcissism can lead to abuse in relationships. However, it’s important to note that not all abuse is instigated by a narcissistic person. 

The Abuse Cycle

Abuse is often cyclical, where the abusive party will try to win their victim back to get what they need from them. In a relationship with a narcissistic person, this is usually validation. Most forms of abuse follow this pattern and can happen in any relationship, from parental to romantic.


Idealization is where it begins. The narcissistic person identifies someone who could benefit them somehow. Then, they begin to build the victim up. Many refer to this stage as “love bombing” since the abuser creates an environment full of affection and affirmation. The other person might not realize that they are being used.


Before the devaluation stage, the abused person feels comfortable and committed. Then, the narcissist begins to attack their self-worth. Perhaps that person has become less “valuable,” so the narcissist uses emotional and verbal abuse to make themselves feel more important or special.


If the abuser notices their victim has checked out of the relationship, the love bombing begins again to draw them back in. This pattern will happen as long as the relationship lasts.


This stage is the “break up.” Once the narcissist determines that their partner (child, friend, etc.) is useless, they cut ties. They often give a reason that doesn’t make sense and is hurtful.

These stages can happen more than once, especially if either party reconciles the relationship. However, the victim of narcissistic abuse can also choose to end things in the discard stage.

A sad-looking woman sitting with hands over her face while a man walks away.

Other Narcissistic Relationship Patterns

One trait of NPD is a grandiose feeling of self-importance. A narcissist truly believes that they are better than others—this idea of superiority leads to a lack of concern for the emotional well-being of others. 

In a relationship, the person with NPD will say or do hurtful things to their partner without considering the effects. These things could be insults, infidelity, or any boundary crossing.

Those with NPD use others for their own selfish gains. This use could be admiration, sexual satisfaction, money, or other tangible and intangible things. To do this, they’ll manipulate their partner in order to create a codependent relationship. The NPD person’s goal is to make their partner feel like they aren’t “worth anything” unless they provide something. 

Any lopsidedness in a relationship isn’t healthy. You may not contribute to each other similarly, but both people should feel equally empowered and loved. Covert narcissist tactics destroy this balance.

How to Respond to a Narcissist

Ideally, you can learn what narcissistic behavior patterns look like and remove yourself from that relationship. Unfortunately, for many of us, it’s not so simple as “it’s not you; it’s me. I’ll see you around.” We often still have to engage with this person.

Learning how to respond to a narcissist can save you a lot of emotional turmoil.

Don’t Take Responsibility for Their Problems

A narcissist will pin their problems on you because they feel they can do no wrong, and it’s a method of control. Don’t take the blame. Let that blame sit in the air between you with phrases like,

“I’m sorry you feel that way.”

“Let’s agree to disagree.”

“That’s nice.”

You did nothing wrong and can placate the narcissist without believing their lies.

“I” Statements

Again, narcissists feel they are better than you. Turning the blame on them, deserved or not, only causes more outrage. If you are communicating your feelings, use “I” statements. 

“I feel…”

“I disagree with…”

“I want…”

You probably can’t change their mind, but you can relieve some tension.

List of "I" statements to use when communicating with a narcissist.

Enforce Personal Boundaries

You can enforce boundaries with these “I” statements. Since you only describe what you will tolerate, it keeps the blame off the narcissistic person.

“I will not engage with a person who insults me.”

“I will not give someone money since I cannot know if they will pay me back.”

Stay Calm

NPD can lead to many mood swings, especially when someone doesn’t feel they have power. Matching these emotions gives the power back and gives them something to use against you. It’s not easy, but remaining calm helps you avoid manipulation. 

Walk Away

At some point, if they’re not seeking therapy for their narcissism, it’s best to leave. Getting out of an abusive relationship might be terrifying and daunting, but it’s possible with the right resources

Break the Cycle

Recognizing narcissistic relationship patterns is the first step to breaking the cycle. It’s possible to overcome NPD with counseling, but it’s also necessary for someone in a relationship with a narcissist. 

If these patterns seem familiar, reach out to Inner Balance Counseling. We understand the care needed to recover from a narcissistic relationship. We’ll be with you every step of the way and provide the resources to have challenging conversations and make tough decisions. Schedule a consultation today.

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