Narcissistic abuse syndrome refers to a cluster of symptoms that people experience after being in a relationship with someone with narcissistic personality disorder. While not an official diagnosis, narcissistic abuse syndrome has received attention in recent mental health literature.

What is narcissistic abuse?

As its name might suggest, narcissistic abuse refers to abusive behaviors that people with narcissistic traits engage in within the context of their relationships. Narcissistic abuse occurs in intimate relationships and involves behaviors like pathological lying and gaslighting [1].

Within the context of narcissistic abuse, gaslighting occurs when a person with narcissistic personality disorder distorts their partner’s sense of reality. A narcissistic abuser will try to convince their partner that they are exaggerating or making up the abuse, and they will engage in other behaviors, such as telling their partner that they are crazy or have committed some sort of infidelity when there is no evidence of such [2].

What is narcissistic abuse syndrome?

Narcissistic abuse syndrome occurs as a result of the features of narcissistic personality disorder. Some characteristics that occur with this personality disorder include [3]:

  • Needing constant admiration
  • Feeling entitled to have all their demands met
  • Displaying arrogance and haughtiness
  • Lacking empathy
  • Being willing to take advantage of their partner to get what they want

Narcissistic abuse syndrome involves psychologically abusive behavior that occurs because of the characteristics of narcissistic personality disorder. Because a person with this disorder lacks empathy and is willing to take advantage of others, they will engage in abusive behaviors such as manipulating, exploiting, and blaming their partner for all their poor behavior.

Signs of narcissistic abuse syndrome

If you’re experiencing narcissistic abuse syndrome within your relationship, some of the following behaviors from your partner are signs of this form of abuse.

Love Bombing

In the early stages of a relationship, a person with narcissistic personality disorder is likely to engage in a form of manipulation called “love bombing”, which includes showering their partner with excessive compliments and attention [4]. While this may seem like a positive trait, the truth is that love bombing is an effort to get the unsuspecting partner hooked on the relationship.

With the narcissist showering them with love and attention, the significant other falls in love quickly, and may even feel as if they have met their soulmate. Once they have formed this attachment, the narcissist is free to flip the script and show their true colors, because their partner is already in love. After the love bombing phase ends, a person with narcissistic personality disorder will begin to engage in abusive behaviors, leaving their significant other feeling confused and wondering what they did wrong.

Silent Treatment

Another behavioral trait associated with narcissistic abuse syndrome is the act of stonewalling or the “silent treatment”. Put simply, stonewalling is a refusal to communicate. When confronted with an argument, a person showing signs of narcissistic abuse will shut down the conversation or give their significant other the silent treatment [4].

Gaslighting

Gaslighting is one of the hallmark behaviors of narcissistic abuse. Someone who gaslights manipulates their partner in such a way that the significant other comes to question their view of reality [4]. For instance, a narcissist who uses gaslighting tactics may say or do something hurtful, and later deny having done so. Alternatively, a person who gaslights may accuse their significant other of being “crazy” or “too sensitive” instead of taking accountability for their abusive behavior.

Inducing Jealousy

Individuals with narcissistic personality disorder tend to induce jealousy. A brand-new study, set for publication in February 2023, found that 76.2% of people in relationships with narcissists had experienced jealousy induction [4]. People with narcissistic personality disorder use jealousy induction to increase their self-esteem and to gain control over their partners. When the significant other becomes jealous, the narcissist feels desired. Jealousy induction may look like the narcissist telling the significant other that someone at work has been flirting with them, even if it’s not true.

Physical Abuse

While not present in every relationship with someone who has narcissistic traits, physical abuse is common in relationships in which one partner has narcissistic personality disorder. Research with partners of narcissists has found that 41.9% of partners have experienced physical abuse resulting in mild injury [4].

Devaluation

Another abusive behavior common in narcissistic relationships is that the narcissist engages in devaluation. After the love bombing phase, when the narcissist showers their new partner with affection, the narcissist will flip a switch with little warning and begin devaluing.

Devaluation involves put-downs and degradation, which can be quite cruel. For instance, the narcissist may engage in name-calling and refer to their partner as being “idiotic.” Research with loved ones of narcissists has revealed that the devaluation stage can be quite severe, with some people reporting that a narcissist has told them they are worthless or should end their own lives [5].

Blame-Shifting

Individuals with narcissistic personality disorder have a hard time taking accountability for their mistakes or abusive behavior. Instead of assuming fault, they will blame shift, accusing their partner of being to blame for whatever went wrong. For instance, if the narcissistic partner has an outburst of rage, they will blame their partner. Or, they may say something cruel, and blame their partner for the insult, claiming that they wouldn’t have to be so cruel if their partner wasn’t so inept.

Lack of Empathy

One of the most challenging aspects of narcissistic abuse is the narcissist’s lack of empathy. This means they will not take accountability for the abuse they have inflicted. They may rarely show remorse or attempt a genuine apology [5]. Instead, they will act as if abusive behaviors never happened and expect their partners not to bring it up. 

Controlling Behavior

Narcissistic abuse is often a form of domestic violence; along with this abuse comes controlling behavior. A person with narcissistic personality disorder may control their partner’s likes and dislikes, how they treat people, and what they think and believe [7]. Another form of controlling behavior may include preventing their partner from seeing friends or family.

Symptoms of narcissistic abuse syndrome

The signs above are behaviors that indicate a person is engaging in narcissistic abuse. Over time, these behaviors take a significant toll on the partner of the person with narcissistic personality disorder. Some symptoms a person may experience after being subjected to narcissistic abuse syndrome include: 

  • Low self-esteem: Gaslighting behaviors can lead a person to feel as if they are to blame for all the problems in their relationship. The victim of narcissistic abuse may also come to view themselves as being too sensitiveor deserving of the abuse. Over time, this can erode a person’s self-esteem.
  • Fear: In some cases, narcissistic abuse can involve physical maltreatment within a relationship. The victim experiencing narcissistic abuse syndrome may become fearful of their partner and find themselves walking on eggshells to avoid their partner’s rage.
  • Confusion: Because relationships with a person with narcissistic personality disorder often begin with love bombing, victims of narcissistic abuse can feel quite confused when their partner’s behavior turns cold and cruel. A partner of a narcissist is also likely to be confused by gaslighting behavior, which can lead them to question their
  • Guilt: The partner on the receiving end of narcissistic abuse is likely to feel guilty because they have been made to believe that they are the problem in the relationship. They may even feel as if they are not a suitable partner because the narcissist has gaslighted them into believing that they are crazy or simply too hard to please.
  • Loneliness: A victim of narcissistic abuse may find themselves feeling lonely due to social isolation. The narcissistic partner may prevent the person from seeing friends or family or convince them that friends and family don’t have their best interests at heart. This can lead a victim to cut off contact with everyone else in their life.
  • Mental and physical health problems: Research has found that being in a relationship with someone with narcissistic personality disorder can take a toll on physical and mental health. The control, devaluation, and aggression that come with narcissism can cause significant damage to the people who are closest to the narcissist [8].

When to get help

If you’re in a relationship with a person who has narcissistic personality disorder, you may need to seek help for symptoms related to narcissistic abuse. If you experience mental or physical health symptoms, such as anxiety, tension, stomach aches, or ongoing fear, these symptoms may begin to interfere with daily functioning. You may find that you aren’t performing as well at work, or maybe symptoms are so severe that it’s difficult for you to care for yourself or complete daily tasks.

If you’re having difficulty with ongoing symptoms that interfere with daily life, it’s time to reach out for help. A mental health professional, like a counselor or psychologist, can help you to process your emotions and develop coping mechanisms. A mental health professional can also help you to correct distorted thinking patterns that are leading to problems like anxiety and low self-esteem. 

Finally, if you’re experiencing narcissistic abuse, and you’re in danger from domestic violence, your safety is the most important factor. Reaching out to a local domestic violence shelter or calling the National Domestic Violence Hotline can connect you with resources to help you plan for your safety.

Can narcissistic abuse syndrome lead to other mental disorders?

People who have been subjected to narcissistic abuse are at risk of numerous mental health conditions. For instance, research has found that people who have experienced narcissistic abuse are at risk of depression, anxiety, self-aggression, and somatic complaints like stomachaches [8].

Additional research has found a link between being in a relationship with a narcissist and experiencing symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). In summary, being a victim of abuse in a relationship with a narcissist can lead to the development of mental health disorders.

How to treat narcissistic abuse syndrome

If you are struggling with the aftermath of narcissistic abuse syndrome, some treatments can help to alleviate your symptoms. In general, medication, therapy, or a combination of the two are effective for treating mental health disorders, including depression, anxiety, and PTSD. 

Given the traumatic nature of suffering from narcissistic abuse syndrome, the following treatments specifically intended to treat PTSD can be helpful [9]

Trauma-Focused Therapy: Various therapy modalities are used to treat PTSD. One such therapy is trauma-focused CBT (cognitive-behavioral therapy). CBT helps people to overcome dysfunctional thinking patterns and can help people with narcissistic abuse syndrome to overcome negative thinking patterns, such as the belief that they are responsible for the abuse.

Another form of treatment that may be effective for individuals who have experienced narcissistic abuse is eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR). This modality helps a person to integrate traumatic experiences, such as abuse from a narcissistic partner, into their other memories so that the trauma becomes less intense.

Medications for PTSD: Antidepressant medications are typically the first choice for treating PTSD. Two medications called sertraline and paroxetine are commonly used to treat PTSD. Since trauma is often associated with nightmares, sleep medications like clonidine and trazodone may also be useful.

Beyond seeking treatment in the form of medications and/or therapy, recovering from narcissistic abuse also requires a commitment to self-care. Now is the time to be compassionate toward yourself, as you have been through a relationship that has subjected you to emotional abuse, manipulation, and perhaps isolation from friends and family. Make time to move your body, prepare nutritious meals, and get enough rest. You may find that you need to take additional time for relaxation, and this may mean spending some time alone and declining extra commitments or invites.

Resources:

  1. Howard, V. (2022). (Gas)lighting their way to coercion and violation in narcissistic abuse: An autoethnographic exploration. Journal of Autoethnography, 3(1), 84-102. https://doi.org/10.1525/joae.2022.3.1.84
  2. Sweet, P.L. (2019). The sociology of gaslighting.American Sociological Review, 84(5), 851-875. https://doi.org/10.1177/000312241987484
  3. Mitra, P., & Fluyau, D. (2022). Narcissistic personality disorder.National Library of Medicine. Retrieved November 30, 2022, from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK556001/
  4. Arabi, S. (2023). Narcissistic and psychopathic traits in romantic partners predict post-traumatic stress disorder symptomology: Evidence for unique impact in a large sample.Personality and Individual Differences, 201. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.paid.2022.111942
  5. Day, N.J.S., Townsend, M.L., & Grenyer, B.F.S. (2020). Living with pathological narcissism: A qualitative study. Borderline Personality Disorder and Emotional Dysregulation, 7(19). https://doi.org/10.1186/s40479-022-00177-x
  6. Uji, M., Nagata, T., & Kitamura, T. (2012). Narcissism: Its function in modulating self-conscious emotions. Bulletin of the Menninger Clinic, 76(3), 211-234. Retrieved from https://www.institute-of-mental-health.jp/preview/thesis/pdf/thesis-11/thesis-11-10.pdf
  7. Pandey, A. (2022). Understanding narcissistic abuse in intimate relationships.Authors Tree Publishing.
  8. Day, N.J.S., Townsend, M.L., & Grenyer, B.F.S. (2022). Pathological narcissism: An analysis of interpersonal dysfunction within intimate relationships. Personality and Mental Health, 16(3), 204-216. https://doi.org/10.1002/pmh.1532
  9. Mann, S.K., & Marwaha, R. (2022).Posttraumatic stress disorder. National Library of Medicine. Retrieved December 1, 2022, from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK559129/