How To Stop Getting Tangled Up In Narcissistic Relationships

10 goals to untangle yourself from the cycle.

Annie Tanasugarn, PhD
Apr 16 · 7 min read
str33tct/shutterstock

“Whoever loves becomes humble. Those who love have, so to speak, pawned a part of their narcissism.” — Sigmund Freud

First, someone who could be formally diagnosable with Narcissistic Personality Disorder proper, (NPD) is not necessarily the same thing as someone who spends their day obsessing on their next gym selfie or Botox injection. I mean, if that’s what we’re basing narcissism on, then we’re all probably a little guilty of it.

Statistically speaking, NPD is one of the rarer diagnoses with an approximated estimate of 0.5% in the general United States population, an average of 2–16% clinically and 6% in forensic populations. Altogether, estimates approximate around 5% — 6%.

The reason for these low statistics is twofold: A) those who could be diagnosable in a clinical setting typically don’t attend therapy and, B) if they do attend, they have statistically high rates of dropout compared to other populations (ie. depression or anxiety).

Secondly — and perhaps most importantly — is that NPD (proper) and the words “narcissist” and “narcissism” are not synonymous. Here’s where over-generalizations and misuse of the words can come into play.

A person can be narcissistic and display forensic or clinical adaptations of narcissistic behavior but still not meet DSM-V diagnostic criteria.

Third, many who find themselves repeatedly getting tangled up in toxic relationships may be attracting push-pull relationships based on Avoidant, Anxious or Disorganized attachments, or a different Cluster B disorder altogether such as Borderline Personality Disorder. While these may display narcissistic behavior, they may not meet formal diagnostic criteria for NPD.

The word “narcissism” has been used in psychological circles dating as far back as Freud in his 1914 paper, “On Narcissism” where he first shed light on the differences between infantile healthy narcissism and when a healthy sense of self becomes toxic, turning to pathological narcissism.

More recent psychoanalysts such as Kernberg and Kohut expanded on Freud’s theories to include three separate types of narcissism — infantile normal, adult normal, and pathological, as well as how an insufficient and unhealthy sense of self-esteem contributes to over and under estimations of Self.

Yet, when we’re in the throes of a toxic relationship, chances are we probably don’t give a damn about the origins of narcissism, or how it’s similar or different from NPD.

We just want the cycle to stop.

We want to be able to trust that our S.O. isn’t covertly hiding an agenda. And, we want to be able to believe if they say they love us, that they understand the depth and seriousness of those words — and that we do, too.

We want answers on why we get tangled up in toxic, why it’s welcomed into our lives and how to break the cycle.

We want insight — and foresight — into recognizing those red flags to jump ship instead of rationalizing reasons to stay.

I wish navigating through our relationship history was as simple as hitting the eject button when we first see the situation going up in smoke so we can file it under “Lesson Learned.”

Relationships are never that easy or we wouldn’t keep repeating the same bad habits and dysfunctional cycles from one relationship to the next. Well, not unless we are happily into self-sabotage and masochism…but that’s a different beast altogether.

To help empower you with foresight and awareness, here’s 4 signs why you may have been targeted in a toxic or narcissistic relationship, and 10 tips for preventing another cycle of it.

4 Reasons You’re Susceptible To Toxic Relationships

Dating History. In Behavior Analysis, we have a couple of sayings:

…”If you want to predict future behavior, look at past behavior.”

And..

…”Once is a behavior, more than once it’s a pattern.”

If you have a history of toxic relationships on whatever level, then your chance of another one increases, often exponentially because it’s seen as familiar. If you grew up believing nonsense that you’re not worthy of love or respect, you’re more inclined to unconsciously seek out toxic as “validation” of what you were conditioned to believe in childhood.

Sometimes toxicity won’t be as easy to see at first, especially if they’re using the good guy/gal angle. But, equally unhealthy as a push-pull relationship, is a cowardice and immature ghosting where you’re immediately replaced with what they had on the side.

Family History: It’s common for those raised in abusive and/or neglectful/invalidating environments to seek out the same in partners, even when they know it’s not functional or healthy for them. Having a history of abuse or neglect in childhood may predispose you to this type of partner, so noticing the red flags is important to get out if you feel you attracted another toxic situation.

If you grew up being ignored or feeling unheard, you may have a habit of dating partners who don’t pay attention to what you say, or who silence you by walking away or yelling at you if you voice your opinion or needs.

Personality/Attachment/Need: If you have a certain ‘type’ that you are naturally drawn to, examine why. Typically, our type can be based on our own unmet needs and upbringing.

For example, we may find ourselves attracted to a partner who reminds us of an abusive or abandoning caregiver where the abuse is relived on repeat in intimate relationships. Or, we may find ourselves in a relationship with everything we swore off — certain personalities, mannerisms, habits, disorders or even how they dress or look.

Examining what patterns may be replaying can help you shed light on things about yourself, such as emotional dependency issues, or self-sabotaging tendencies.

There’s ample research supporting certain attachment styles and personalities as drawn to each other in relationships where habits and patterns repeat from one generation to the next; one relationship to the next, providing more insight into the why’s, how’s and when’s of your relationship patterns.

Dependency: Many who find themselves in the throes of a narcissistic relationship may not recognize their own unmet emotional and/or basic needs that attracted them to that person. Those with emotional dependency issues often look to others for validating a sense of Self, which makes them vulnerable to predatory relationships.

10 Goals To Untangle Yourself

· Heal yourself. Completely. Take all the time necessary. Rushing the process will only hurt you. All too often, we think if we take a month or a few months off from dating, that everything is somehow going to fix itself. Healing doesn’t work that way. Taking all the time off in the world without doing the groundwork, won’t change anything except adding a new partner to an old cycle.

· Learn where your unmet needs may be. When you start learning to recognize where your basic needs are lacking, it becomes easier to notice the patterns in your dating history and in what initially attracted you to a certain partner — or all your past partners.

· Learn about your attachment style and how it can influence your relationships. How you attach to others is important in understanding your attachment style and your needs. Each attachment style has specific needs, and learning yours and your S.O.’s can save you a ton of b.s. in relationships.

· Steer clear of another relationship until you’ve discussed your healing with a therapist or psychologist who can help establish goals, boundaries and skills with you. It’s important not to rush the process of growth, or you’re risking more of the same. The most important thing you can do is be alone (without a relationship) while focusing on yourself and your growth. Unfortunately, this is also one of the most challenging things to do.

· Have standards. If you aren’t sure where your standards are, now’s the time to learn them. Once you’ve completely healed, the quality of your relationships improves. Old habits and toxic patterns won’t get pushed to the wayside just because your ex may have jumped right into another relationship. Think better of yourself and focus on your growth.

· Be prepared to walk away from toxic situations. This may include family where you go grey rock, old acquaintances and old habits. Walking away can cause anxiety, where it’s easy to just lapse back into familiar or complacent, but ultimately it’s going to cause more pain. There’s no secret or trick to walking away and establishing boundaries. It’s difficult, it requires dedication on your part and the motivation to push through.

· Learn about your early life conditioning and how it may have affected your sense of worth or self-love. Early life conditioning should also include learning about generational trauma and how it plays out. A lot of the time, what a caregiver or parent was doing as “normal” is taught either intentionally or vicariously to the child.

· Journal. This can help unlock difficult feelings or experiences and shed light on them.

· Have a solid support system. Healing from trauma is the bravest thing you can do for yourself and the biggest sign of inner strength. It can also trigger pain, anger, depression or anxiety, especially if you don’t know what to expect. Thus, it’s important to ask a lot of questions, to be comfortable with your support system and to have an open and honest line of communication.

· Consider an Emotional Support Animal (ESA) to help protect you and provide you unconditional love. They’re also great for providing you a sense of stability and daily routine.

…. And most importantly, go easy on yourself. Growth is a marathon, not a race.

References

Caligor E., Levy K.N., & Yeomans, F.E. (2015). Narcissistic personality disorder: diagnostic and clinical challenges. The American Journal of Psychiatry, 172(5), 415–422.

Kernberg, O. (1984). Severe personality disorders: Psychotherapeutic strategies. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Kernberg, O. (1975). Borderline conditions and pathological narcissism. New York: J. Aronson.

Kohut, H. (1971). The analysis of the self: A systematic approach to the psychoanalytic treatment of narcissistic personality disorders. University of Chicago Press.

Ronningstam, E. (2013). An update on narcissistic personality disorder. Current Opinion in Psychiatry, 26,(1), 102–106.

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