How Do I Know If My Partner Is A Narcissist?

By Terry Gaspard, MSW, LICSW

Recently, I received the following e-mail from Haley, a 32 year old woman who is in a great deal of emotional pain and turmoil in her marriage with Eric, who she fears is a narcissist (fictitious names).

Dear Terry,

I don’t know how come I always fall for the wrongs guys. Eric and I have been married for seven years and our relationship has always been like a roller coaster ride. He can be very charming and swept me off my feet when I was in my last year of college. Sometimes Eric can be affectionate and loving – but other times he can be as cold as ice, critical, and rejecting. I just can’t figure out if he really loves me.  I feel like I have to walk on eggshells and watch everything I say or he’ll go into one of his rages – which can last for hours.

Eric can be so arrogant and selfish at times. When we were at a restaurant with our daughter Elli recently, he called the waitress rude and clumsy just because she accidently dropped a spoon. The other weird thing about him is that when he is upset about something, he doesn’t express sadness. He didn’t even shed a tear when his grandmother died last year and he was supposed to be her favorite grandson. When my mother died of cancer two years ago, he couldn’t comfort me and just said, “Get over it, you have to focus on the living.” This really hurt – it cut to the core because my mom was always my rock and Eric knows how close we were.

My parents were divorced when I was six and my childhood was chaotic – dealing with a stepdad and two stepmothers – not to mention four stepsiblings and two half-siblings. But when Eric and I get into an argument, he usually blames me and says that I don’t know how to be a good wife because of my background.  His parents stayed together even though their house is like a war zone – even today! Unlike Eric, I had a good relationship with both of my parents and stepdad growing up, but I’m starting to believe he is right. My self-esteem hit rock bottom a long time ago. Eric wants my love and admiration but he is so insulting and I’m sorry to say that I don’t love him anymore.

I went to see a therapist last month because I’m starting to feel depressed and it’s affecting my job and my relationship with our five year old daughter, Elli. The therapist told me not to blame myself because Eric seems to have traits of narcissism. She told me to go on-line and do some research before our next session, but that made me even more confused and upset.

How do I know if Eric is a true narcissist and whether or not I should leave or stay?

I appreciate any help you can give me and Elli.


Dear Haley,

Over the past several years, many articles have been written about ways to recognize and break off from a narcissist. The term “narcissist” has been spreading on-line like wildfire. In reality, there are degrees of narcissism and it’s a tough condition to diagnose – even for an expert.  In fact, many narcissists appear to be “great guys or gals” but can behave very differently behind closed doors. Often their partners report feeling a genuine connection to them at times, but say that they can turn on a dime and become cold and rejecting – especially when they don’t get their way. It’s not uncommon for a person in an intimate relationship with someone who is narcissistic to begin to doubt themselves and to lose self-confidence. In fact, most narcissists are perfectionists and their partners report that they feel that nothing they do is right or appreciated.

First, I will define narcissistic personality disorder according to the DSM-5 (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders). This manual has recently been revised and is used by mental health professionals to diagnose and treat individuals who suffer from mental illness.

Keep in mind that Narcissistic traits can exist in anyone but that not everyone meets the criteria for narcissistic personality disorder – an pervasive (ongoing) pattern of grandiosity (in fantasy or behavior), need for admiration, and lack of empathy, beginning by early childhood and present in a variety of contexts, as indicated by five (or more) of the following traits:

  1. Has a grandiose sense of self-importance (e.g., exaggerates achievements and talents, expects to be recognized as superior without commensurate achievement).
  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 advantage 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. Show arrogant, haughty behaviors or attitudes.

According to the DSM-V, narcissism exists on a continuum from mild to severe.  Author Darlene Lancer, posits that narcissism ranges from self-centeredness and other narcissistic traits to Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD). Lancer writes, “NPD wasn’t categorized as a disorder by the American Psychological Psychiatric Association until 1987, because it was felt that too many people shared some of the traits and it was difficult to diagnose.”

Attorney Stephen Futeral of the Charleston Lawyers Blog, notes that anyone who is married to someone suffering from a personality disorder will report that their marriage is marked by periods of high conflict. He writes, “When you add the additional struggles that come from a divorce, then you have a recipe for EXPLOSIVE conflict between spouses and significant damage for children caught in the middle.

Perhaps the most important question to ask yourself is: Do Eric’s behaviors make it impossible for you to live a happy, fulfilled life? More importantly, do you feel safe and capable of raising Elli in healthy way given your current family situation? I would recommend that you discuss these and other questions with your therapist.

Identifying and breaking up with a narcissist can be a difficult process – which in some cases may take years. The problem is that many narcissists are hard to spot because of their charm and charisma. Author and dating coach Sandy Weiner writes: “The problem is that many narcissists are cleverly cloaked in a different costume, that of the “nice guy” the one who says loving things to you. You feel a connection like never before. Sex is off the charts. It’s intoxicating to be around him. He’s fun, charming, and exciting. This feels like your true soul mate!” Keep in mind that although Ms. Weiner’s article is written with a female audience in mind, she could just as easily be describing a female.

One last word of caution, a true narcissist probably won’t take it well if you break up with him or her. You also have a tough row to hoe if you are considering trying to get full custody of Elli. In many cases, I’ve seen narcissists lash out in rage when they feel their children are being taken away from them because they view them as possessions. So be sure to get legal advice and protect yourself and Elli by being discreet and seeking help. You aren’t alone and there are many resources – which I cover in my next blog.

In my next post, I will address whether or not individuals in intimate relationships or married to narcissists should stay or leave. Stayed tuned in two weeks for this informative blog. I’d love to read your stories, questions and comments.  Please send them to me at or simply select the Question Tab on our navigation bar on this website.

Thanks, Terry

I’d love to read your comments on this page. Be sure to order my new book “Daughters of Divorce: Overcome the Legacy of Your Parents’ Breakup and Enjoy a Happy, Long-Lasting Relationship.”



16 Responses to “How Do I Know If My Partner Is A Narcissist?”

  1. Many codependents are unhappily married to narcissists. They often admire narcissists’ confidence and sense of power, which they themselves lack, and they’re all too willing to support and mirror their partner and accommodate the narcissist’s needs . . . in the beginning, hoping love will be returned. It may be returned, but only on the narcissist’s terms, because a true narcissist can only love a reflection of him or herself. Some codependents have given up so much of themselves – or never developed themselves to begin with – that they’re unable to leave. Building their self-esteem is the important first step in order to change.
    Darlene Lancer, LMFT
    Author of “Codependency for Dummies”

    • Terry says:

      Hello Darlene, I appreciate your comments and would be delighted to quote you in my next article.Your’e so right on about people who are codependent admiring the narcissist’s confidence and sense of power and their hope for reciprocal love – which can never be actualized. Your points are insightful and can help individuals understand the dynamic – hopefully allowing them to change the pattern. I look forward to our ongoing collaboration. Best Regards, Terry

  2. Dan Perdue says:

    I survived a separation and divorce from a narcissistic partner and I can strongly identify with the struggle of the writer of the letter in your post. To call the relationship a roller coaster ride would be an understatement. As a recovering codependent I would agree with Darlene’s comment that I was very much drawn to her confidence and power. She had a presence about her that I strongly admired. In the end I twisted myself into knots trying to be good enough for love and acceptance. I drove myself crazy drying to meet illogical expectations. Learning to find my own sense of self worth and self acceptance was the first key in understanding the dynamic was never going to improve. Walking away from that marriage was maybe one of the hardest things I have ever had to do. But it was by far the most freeing and healthy thing I have ever done.

    • Terry says:

      Hi Dan, Thanks for your comments!I’m glad you appreciated the blog and Darlene’s comments. I’m sure many of my readers can relate to your struggle and feel inspired about your resurgence – it’s a hopeful message! Walking away from a marriage with a narcissist is one of the hardest things a person can do – especially because many people don’t see the real person. Narcissists often project a very different image to the public than they do behind closed doors. I hope you check my part 2 of this blog on 1/29/14. Thanks, Terry

  3. Ken Baks says:

    Codependence is like playing a very dangerous game that have no substitution. This is why codependent people are easily manipulated. People who use power and control will never come out of it, it is like it is their strength and they strive on that, and for sure they are narcissists. People watch out for these characters.

  4. Mark Curran says:

    Depending on how you want to describe people, and events, many of us would more or less fit into that term narcissist as described above.

    We are all folk heroes in our own folk tale, and after 62 years of “people watching” — including watching myself — I’ve met very few people who did not tend to claim altruistic motives, even where none exist. Few readily accept blame or fault, no matter how absurdly obvious it should be, some screw up was their fault. And there are good reasons to be that way, at times, say where your job is in jeopardy if you accept blame.

    Still Descarte could have said “I blame others, therefore I am human”.

    Why not blame others, if that blame is warranted, other than it’s typically counter productive.

    You could take a train ride from New York to Chicago, and sit with a person who told you all about their divorce. Then, by chance, sit by the person they divorced, on the way back, and hear their story. It’s possible you would not know it was the same marriage they were talking about. Both will present themselves as the hero, the self sacrificing, the long suffering one. It’s possible both will claim the other is a narcissist, if they happen to be in a culture that uses that term.

    I find that fascinating. Now, one of those persons MIGHT have been long suffering, the other MIGHT be a narcissist. There are people who do bad, deceptive and destructive things. Or the “truth” might be someplace in the middle. My point is, it depends on your perspective.

    Furthermore, people I know who would fit all nine points above, yet might well, at times, show empathy and concern for others.

    There may be narcissist, that’s not my point anyway. The point is, finding refuge in labels might not be the best approach. Whoever is the best story teller usually wins that folk tale contest. Facts matter, more than labels.

    • Terry says:

      Mark, While I’m not a big fan of labels they can provide us with information and a starting place for treatment. As a mental health professional who has treated narcissists and their families, I believe that having a diagnosis of NPD is very different than having some narcissistic traits. That is why I highlight this point in my blog. On the other hand, if you’ve had a relationship with a person diagnosed with NPD – especially a severe or perilous type – your life would be forever altered. I have experienced this firsthand and it’s not something to dismiss – the pain is real and without treatment families suffer. We live in a very individualistic culture and often people develop narcissistic traits such being self-centered because they swept up in our media messages of consumerism and selfishness.Thanks for your comments! Regards, Terry

  5. Terry, thank you for sharing this interesting piece regarding narcissists and for mentioning me in the article. I empathize with anyone who is dealing with a spouse or partner who suffers from NPD or other personality disorders. As I tell my clients, when you think you are talking to them ABOUT the problem, the reality is that you are talking TO the problem. Again, thank you much.

    • Terry says:

      Hi Stephen, You are welcome!I appreciate the work that you do and so I’m happy to reference you in my article. I hope you visit again. You can easily subscribe to our enewsletter by going to the end of any of our blogs. Regards, Terry

  6. Stuart says:

    Every judge, divorce attorney, custody mediator, etc in the civil system should be required to take courses (actually enough learning to earn a degree) to be able to identify the narcissist in any divorce situation.
    It is an unfortunate fact that the civil system is “won” not only by those with he means (the $) but by the Narcissists who can stand in court and lie about nearly everything and they get away with it.
    The Narcissist is so smooth, persuasive and convincing…. and no match for the spouse who’s been emotionally abused for years….the spouse who cannot stand up for themselves, but tells the absolute truth, only to have it used against him/her as the Narcissist is a master at putting the ‘spin’ on the truth.

  7. Suzie says:

    Hi, I have read the posts with great interest. I left a 14 year relationship in August14. It was the hardest thing, and still now I am struggling to decide if I love him, and want to try again. Our daughter(11) says he is too nasty. I am not quite sure where he is on the spectrum, I had just got him down as an emotional abuser, but he does show narcissistic traits. However, I have read a lot and realise that whilst it would be easy for me to blame him, there are events in his childhood that shaped who he is now, and he needs help and support, not blame. Sadly, he will not hear or accept my reasons for leaving him, has failed to acknowledge the hurt that he has caused me, and blames me entirely for the split. He insisted he have 50% custody which is hard as the children are back & forth constantly and is very possessive over their belongings, and often puts me down to them. I also realise though that I have played my part, again shaped by events in my childhood, and am now seeking counselling to try and break the code pendant tendencies . One of my main concerns now is that having witnessed our relationship, the children will follow the patterns set by their parents.

    • Terry says:


      I hear your concerns and children are always at risk for repeating their parents’ relationship patterns. However, we have the ability to start fresh every day and model appropriate, mature behavior to our kids. Children can be resilient and it sounds like you are developing self-awareness and good skills to help guide them!



  8. Diane Forrest says:

    Hi, I totally agree with Stuart . I lost custody of 3 children when I divorced a narcissist 17 years ago. Of course he lied,was very manipulative and charming. All of my children ages 25,30,and 33 are alienated from me to this day. The greatest sadness is that my children were harmed and taken from me as a punishment for exposing their father of his abusive and uncontrollable behaviors.
    The advice given to Haley regarding divorcing a narcissist about the dangers is very important. I greatly underestimated the power of my husband to discredit me as a wife, mother and decent human being. He was on a mission to ruin my life even more. He literally said,” I’m going to win, you’re going to lose!” It was the ugliest, longest drawn out divorce that I have yet to hear about another being worse.
    As you said, narcissists are charming, fun and exciting. That is what I was attracted to. He swept me off my feet at age 19,then 20 years later with barely a piece of my soul and spirit left, I started to pursue a more fulfilling life. Unbeknownst to me it also became a much more challenging life as well. I’m continuing my journey of healing and moving on.
    Please let others know that it is possible even when they hit rock bottom.

    • Terry says:

      Hi Diane,
      Thanks for your supportive comments and response.I’m sorry to hear about your struggle and appreciate you sharing for others to gain support!


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