Dr. Burford is a Christian minister practicing science-based couples therapy through Couples Therapy Inc. He works with all couples with a specialization on couples wanting a biblical perspective. This post originally appeared on his blog.

Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD) profoundly shapes an individual’s way of relating, creating patterns of grandiosity, entitlement, lack of empathy and preoccupation with self that can be highly destructive to relationships. By learning to recognize the signs of narcissism and establish firm relational boundaries, partners of individuals with NPD can better navigate this challenging terrain. In this section, we’ll explore narcissistic subtypes, the idealization-devaluation cycle common to NPD relationships, and some strategies for healthier relating.

The narcissistic relationship cycle


Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD) is also a Cluster B personality disorder in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5). While narcissism has two manifestations—grandiose cf. vulnerable (a.k.a. overt cf. covert)—it is best known for its grandiose form, which underlies the following definition in the DSM-5:

“a pervasive pattern of grandiosity (in fantasy or behavior), need for admiration, and lack of empathy, beginning by early adulthood, and present, in a variety of contexts, as indicated by five or more of the following symptoms:

  1. Has a grandiose sense of self importance (e.g., exaggerates achievements and talents, expects to be recognized as superior without commensurate achievements).
  2. Is preoccupied with fantasies of unlimited success, power, brilliance, beauty, or ideal love.
  3. Believes that he or she is “special” and unique, and can only be understood by, or should associate with, other special or high status people (or institutions).
  4. Requires excessive admiration.
  5. Has a sense of entitlement (i.e., unreasonable expectations of especially favorable treatment or automatic compliance with his or her expectations).
  6. Is interpersonally exploitative (i.e., takes a vantage of others to achieve his or her own ends).
  7. Lacks empathy: is unwilling to recognize or identify with the feelings and needs of others.
  8. Is often envious of others or believes that others are envious of him or her.
  9. Shows arrogant, haughty behaviors or attitudes.

As with all personality disorders, narcissism is not intentional, despite the tone of much of the literature out there, which describes narcissistic “tactics,” narcissists are not intentionally plotting their behavior as if they were perfectly capable of being empathic, caring, altruistic and other-centered, but choose otherwise. Narcissists have impaired insight; they are not self-aware.

It is also important to note that, as with all personality disorders, narcissism exists along a spectrum from showing a few traits to fully qualifying for Narcissistic Personality Disorder.

As to pathology, the narcissist may have developed narcissistic tendencies through childhood neglect. Perhaps they had a narcissistic parent, or an unavailable parent, or an abusive parent, or endured other forms of childhood abuse or neglect. Or the child may have experienced an imbalance of relationship-building attention and achievement-oriented reward; of nurture versus discipline. They may have been rewarded for putting self-interest above others; somehow the lesson was learned that the world is there for your exploitation; relationships are utilitarian; people are valued for the benefit they provide you.

Subtypes of Narcissistic Personality Disorder

Dr. Ramani Durvasula operates a clinical practice specializing in personality disorders, including narcissism. She articulates the following sub-types of narcissism.

Grandiose (Overt) Narcissism

Grandiose (or Overt) Narcissists share some things in common with psychopaths. Both exploit people; they take advantage of people; they lie, cheat, and manipulate systems to their advantage. A key difference is that sociopaths are not bothered by what they do; they have no conscience. The narcissist at least at times feels badly about what he’s “had to do” to reach desired ends. This self-centered, even mean edge to a narcissist is unsettling, yet somehow alluring in its confidence; they are hard to ignore. They can be charming, charismatic, and intoxicatingly successful. They are often the top dog in an organization. They might be celebrities; people who seem to have it all, from stylish clothes to expensive cars to “trophy” wives, husbands, girlfriends or boyfriends (maybe more than one of the above).

Vulnerable (Covert) Narcissism

The Vulnerable (or Covert) Narcissist is less obvious than the braggadocious grandiose narcissist. These attention-seekers take the “Woe is me” approach reminiscent of Winnie the Pooh’s friend, “Eye-ore.” Feeling that the world owes them, but has overlooked them; they seem sad, their resentment is palpable, and they are prone to depression. While critical of others, they are hyper-sensitive to criticism. They might be the “failure to launch” critic who sends out scathing online-reviews on just about anything. They appear to be at home with being on the outside, about which they will complain, but then not accept or act on help that will advance them. They appear stuck in an identity of not being understood nor appreciated by the world, even though they could have and should have been somebody.

Social Narcissism

The Social Narcissist can confuse us because they’re known for helping. They may be knee-deep in humanitarian causes, disaster assistance, animal rescue, disease eradication, etc., perhaps even flying all over the world on relief missions. The thing is, you’ll know it! No good deed will go unpublicized. There will be plenty of selfies and postings online. You’ll see pictures of them at ground-breakings—golden shovel in-hand—in front of a project that may one day bear their name. Despite this wonderful philanthropic image, however, they are mean to their families, jerks toward underlings in the organization, and exploitative or abusive toward people who lack power. The outside observer thinks they’re wonderful, but family and coworkers experience the non-empathic, entitled, self-centered attention-seeking narcissist under the public image.

Benign Narcissism

In keeping with the analogy often made of a narcissistic to a child, the benign narcissist is like a teenager. They are not necessarily mean, just immature and superficial. They enjoy the spotlight, like to strut their stuff, and want a fancy car to ride around in. Life is about pursuing the signs of success and getting what they want, unaware and unconcerned for others.

Common narcissistic themes

Common to all these subtypes, there is an internal insecurity; a lack of core identity that looks to the world’s feedback to tell them who they are. Thus the constant search for “narcissistic supply” and validation-seeking. Narcissistic supply includes praise, applause, gratitude, ingratiation, promotion, profit, indebtedness, or some other form of exaltation or self-benefit. Narcissistic supply is sought to salve insecurity (an insecurity that masquerades as confidence in the case of Grandiose Narcissism and self-depreciation in the case of Vulnerable Narcissism).

But narcissism is like an empty bucket riddled with holes. There will never be enough “supply.” Being in relationship with a narcissist is to forever be the supplier, but never supplied (unless tending to someone else’s needs serves the narcissist’s purpose or improves their image). Lacking empathy, they are missing the component of altruistic care (love) that creates a mutual bond, with partners unconditionally “there for each other” through thick and thin. Relationships for the narcissist are instead conditional, superficial, for the sake of appearances, or to ward off boredom. People are therefore not so much people, as they are utilitarian props for manipulation, control, and exploitation to meet the narcissist’s ends.

Self is at the center of a narcissist’s world. Of course, to be fair, self is never far from anyone’s consciousness; it’s a matter of survival. And who doesn’t like a little attention along the way? So, it is helpful to understand that narcissism exists on that spectrum. At the extreme, there is Narcissistic Personality Disorder, the DSM-described condition detailed above, and there are lesser degrees of manifestation, all the way down to what would be considered “normal” in a culture context. That is, there is a difference between “normal narcissism” in Hollywood compared to narcissism in an Amish community.

The further along the spectrum, the more difficult are relationships, as focus upon self lessens focus upon others. This is problematic because love in its pure form is about the other… considering the other, caring about the other without self-benefit, protecting the other, serving the other, looking out for the other, building up the other, being faithful and even sacrificing for the other. Love attends to another; narcissism attends to self.

The narcissistic relationship cycle

From the beginning of a relationship, a narcissist will be attention-seeking. The grandiose narcissist will dress to call attention to himself or herself, will drive something that makes an impression, will display trophies, mount plaques in visible places, and list their titles. They will have the outward appearance of success (or if young, the potential for success), appearing to be the “dream guy” or “dream girl.” They will probably have some sort of following. But those followers are not people so much as they are an audience, a cheering section, a fan club, groupies, loyalists, foot soldiers who advance their leader.

Attraction/idealization stage

Within the attraction stage of a relationship, the narcissist will likely engage in “love bombing.” This is the showering of attention and the display of romantic gestures. It may include expensive gifts, destination experiences, poems, flowers, and relished attention. Not that these are bad or wrong; many dating relationships begin this way. The difference is that these acts of “love” are (consciously or unconsciously) façades, entrapments designed only to win the object of attention, at which time such acts will abruptly cease or even get thrown into reverse: abusive behavior.


During this attraction stage, the narcissist may show up as the “hero” for the one they are wooing. This act of heroism appears to be altruism, maybe even love. It is brave. It is sacrificial. It costs them. it is heroic. They may sell something of value to support a cause important to the one being courted; they may get hurt or literally donate a kidney. From the outside, it looks loving, and for many people it would be. But for the narcissist, it is a means to narcissistic supply. It is an avenue by which to receive accolades, applause, admiration, gratitude, and maybe even indebtedness. In a romantic relationship, it may seal the deal, convincing a girlfriend or boyfriend to tie the knot.

Once married, the one-sidedness of the relationship continues, and becomes increasingly apparent. The spouse—and eventually the family—become aware that narcissistic mom or dad always needs to look good; must always make an impression upon others; must at some point take center stage. Social interactions are stages. The wardrobe and the props had better be right for the occasion or there will be hell to pay. Don’t embarrass them! At some point, if not at every point, the narcissist will draw attention to themselves. It may be by dropping a name, or unveiling a skill needed by the group, or providing information that no one else seems to know; they’ll pick up the tab or sacrifice something of value for the good of the group. It is all designed to secure narcissistic supply.

The narcissist’s family learns that it isn’t worth it to call them out on their self-serving behavior. Not that anyone likes to be challenged, but  secure people can listen to an observation without defensiveness. Mature people can take an offense non-defensively; they can hear a complaint and admit their mistakes. But the narcissist is neither secure nor mature. Like a child, they’ll get angry, deny, project, blame-shift, sulk, or explode (outside of public view, of course).

If these responses disrupt a romantic relationship, cutting off the narcissist’s supply of love, admiration, stroking, and support, then “love bombing” (gifts, gestures, long heart-felt apology letters, song dedications…) may again ensue in order to win back the offended partner. Everyone loves attention, gifts and affection; these can be a wonderful part of healthy romantic relationships. But, again, what makes love bombing unhealthy by comparison is that it is not actual love, but a manipulative lure back into utilitarian servitude, control and emotional (or other) abuse. The loving affection and kindnesses will then abruptly cease until the partner again erects a boundary or separates. Then the love-bombing will resume. In-between, there will be no true remorse, attunement, atonement. And without lasting repentance, the cycle wil repeat.

Excessive admiration seeking

Overall, a relationship with a narcissist runs hot and cold, cycling through idealization and devaluation, often ending in dismissal. This hot and cold vacillation is confusing because the “hot” feels so good; seeming to hold promise for a loving, close relationship. But the cold feels so rejecting, causing one to walk on eggshells lest an innocent word or occurrence trigger the narcissist’s insecurities. The relationship seems an unending attempt to make the narcissist whole, awaiting the narcissist’s reciprocation… which is a day that never comes. It is a one-way relationship in which the partner’s unconditional love, support, acceptance, admiration and adoration are expected, while the narcissist gives conditional love, invalidation, manipulation, control, disregard, unfaithfulness, use, abuse, and perhaps threats to discard. This final threat may be realized if the narcissist decides they could “do better”—perhaps winning a “trophy spouse.” Or, if the current partner has begun to erect boundaries and stopped cooperating with abuse, the narcissist may simply find someone more compliant.

There are more specific manifestations of narcissism that deserve being named one by one:

Along with the overall pattern above, a partner of a narcissist will also experience dishonesty. Narcissists will lie to get what they want. They will lie to cover up entitled behavior they recognize was wrong. They will lie to protect their image. They will deny wrongdoing, even allowing someone else to take the fall for their actions. These and other forms of lying stem from a narcissist’s inability to accept responsibility or to look bad.


Gaslighting is also something partners of narcissists are sure to experience, as well as its near-relative “crazy-making.” Named after the 1938 play, Gas Light (and the later 1944 Ingrid Bergman film, Gaslight), gaslighting takes such forms as denying having said something that the narcissist definitely said, or meaning by it something other than it clearly meant, or denying that he or she did something that they actually did (and which the partner may have witnessed or be able to prove). It may also manifest as blaming the partner for feeling negative emotions in response to words or behavior that would make anyone feel such negative emotions. In the play and in the film, these mind-games were designed to cause the self-serving narcissist’s partner to question her judgment and even her sanity. This can surely result. (Note: Gaslighting is sometimes referred to as someone else “questioning your reality.” While it is gaslighting to invalidate another’s feelings or experience, it is not gaslighting for two people to have different experiences of the same event, and have different feelings about it. That is guaranteed in a disagreement over a past event. The opportunity is for each to feel heard, to be understood, and to experience empathy over how they experienced the event, validation of their differing feelings, and support of the different things important to them.)

Importance of boundaries

If a partner catches onto the above forms of invalidation, manipulation, control or abuse—whether conscious tactics or not—he or she must erect boundaries of self-protection. Erecting boundaries does not mean withholding healthy levels of spousal support and affirmation. It means, for example, not accepting gaslighting, but having validating discussions of one another’s experience, feelings, and values inherent to an incident. It means the partner making clear what they will will or will not do in concert with the narcissist’s plans—and then standing firm. It means following through with logical, proportionate consequences to lies and entitled misbehavior. It means walking away when being belittled, cursed, or otherwise verbally, physically, or emotionally abused. A boundary is not control of another person, it is self-control; it is self-determination when another is trying to manipulate, control or determine your behavior or the course of your life. Boundaries need to be clear, resolute, and maintained despite the displeasure and childlike tantrums of the narcissist.

The narcissist’s’ response to boundaries may include angry denials, criticism, victim-shaming, dismissal, deflection, blame-shifting, rejection, or even putting an end to the relationship. In the workplace, such an “upstart employee” might be fired for refusing to go along with an unethical plan.

Discard stage

In a partnership, the narcissist may move to dissolve it; in a business arrangement, a contract might be voided. Narcissists do not accept responsibility and they do not apologize. The story they will tell of any relationship’s dissolution will lack humility and self-confession; it will be distorted at least, if not outright fabricated, painting themselves as the victim. They may project motives onto others that were their own, and shift blame concerning things they caused. Once the relationship is dissolved, the grandiose narcissist will demonstrate no concern for the well-being of those left behind, unless it serves his or her purpose or if to do so makes them look good.

Relationships and Vulnerable Narcissism

The above relationship pattern is most characteristic of Grandiose Narcissism. Vulnerable/Covert Narcissism has many of the same above characteristics, but the tactics are covert, undercover, unseen. The means of manipulation, control, and of seeking narcissistic supply are in some cases different, but the self-focus is the same.

Like the Grandiose, the Vulnerable narcissist sees himself or herself as special and entitled to recognition, elevation and exceptions. The problem  is that the vulnerable narcissist does not experience the world mirroring back to him or her their specialness in the way the grandiose often does. It may be that they lack outward beauty or stature or degrees, achievements, position or profits consistent with their internal self-image. They therefore learn to seek validation not by showing off, but by receding.

Feeling overlooked or under-appreciated, the covert narcissist may withdraw and self-depreciate, hoping to invoke invitations to come forward and take their rightful place. He or she might enlist sympathy by voicing woundedness (emotional or physical), or call out from a position of need in order to solicit help or rescue. Or they may by other means  invoke sympathy, encouragement, accolades, or assistance from others.

While grandiose narcissists may present as bullies, vulnerable narcissists present as victims. They don’t brag; they sulk. Underneath their quiet humility they silently (or privately) judge the stupidity or ineptitude of those who have a position or notoriety that they envy; they’re sure they could do better, though they will probably have some reason for turning down the opportunity to do so.

For partners, however, this one-sided neediness for upbuilding gets old. It is never time for them to be built up, never the partner’s time to shine or their turn to be fueled, as the vulnerable narcissist’s hole-riddled bucket doesn’t retain its supply. And because of the vulnerable narcissist’s low internal self-esteem, the partner isn’t allowed to have too high an esteem. If a partner has too much confidence, the narcissist will step in to “bring them down a notch.”

Confusingly, once depreciated, the Vulnerable Narcissist will then step back in as their biggest fan—gaslighting, claiming that an earlier depreciating remark they made was misunderstood; that they were only trying to help by pointing out something the partner needs to know for their own good. Again, we’re not talking about the rare invited constructive criticism that is far outweighed by supportive affirmation, but a pervasive pattern of always needing to be seen as superior.

As noted earlier, narcissists have impaired insight. As far as they’re concerned, they’re just “being them.” It feels normal. They think anyone would think, feel and act the same way in their shoes. As noted earlier, based on a combination of temperament, formative and later experiences, and perhaps trauma, this schema served them in the past. It was protective; it may have been a means to getting attention; it might have been a way to receive comfort; it may have resulted in support. Somehow or another it worked, so it became normative for functioning in relationships.

But this pattern is exhausting for a partner. Since narcissists can’t accept fault—or only briefly so, before inserting a “But…” which blames someone else—the partner begins to think that the relationship problems are solely their own. Partners can begin to question their perceptions or even their sanity as the narcissist rewrites past events to exonerate themselves and blame the partner. This is the essence of gaslighting. A relationship with a narcissist is imbalanced; there is little to no reciprocation. There is no listening. It’s about them. A reciprocal caring relationship characterized by each partner caring about, listening to, looking out for, lifting up and serving one another is not present. The partner thus eventually runs out of fuel and withdraws out of sheer exhaustion.

If you recognize narcissistic characteristics in your marriage or relationship, the above can be discouraging. You may be tempted to leave, and that may be the best option. But, if you can’t or don’t want to leave, there are steps that can be taken to create a more healthy relationship.

Realistic expectations

Step one is to change your expectations. Don’t expect a narcissistic partner to just “stop it.” They can learn better listening skills, but they will never be an empath. They can learn to be considerate, but altruistic selflessness will be outside their reach. Accept and validate changes and improvements you see along the way; positive reinforcement is a proven means to behavioral change, including from narcissistic defaults.

Secondly, once you recognize the above unhealthy relationship dynamics, stop being complicit in them. Don’t cooperate with manipulation, control, diminishment, abuse and blame-shifting. Maintain truth in the face of gaslighting; enforce consequences to lies and unethical behavior. Erect appropriate boundaries so that your life is not sullied by their lack of ethics. Resist and reject self-centeredness, modeling and insisting upon a  relationship of reciprocal other-focused love.

Seeking support

Step one is for one or both parties to recognize relational ill-health and to change their part in it—whether as instigator or codependent. Step two is the insistence upon relational health (boundaries) as a mutual commitment. If a narcissist is able to change, it will probably be as a result of spiritual transformation, such as occurs in addiction recovery. When we admit our weaknesses, we find God’s strength to change (2 Corinthians 12:10b). A new relationship can emerge as self-centeredness yields to mutual other-centered consideration and  support of one another, and defense of the marital bond.


Relationships with a narcissistic partner can be intensely challenging, marked by an exhausting cycle of idealization and devaluation. Setting firm boundaries, maintaining independence, and resisting manipulation are key – as is seeking support from therapists, groups and loved ones. While a relationship with a narcissist is inherently imbalanced, partners can work to establish healthier relational patterns with time, insight and care.

Read Part 5 The Borderline with Narcissist Relationship Cycle,