Is the Person You’re Dating a Narcissist?

Breaking free from a narcissist is so difficult . . . and in some cases, almost impossible.

But there is a way out, and in this week’s video, I provide you with a preliminary blueprint to freedom. I’ve carefully designed these 7 steps to address the stages you’ll go through—in the exact order they’re likely to arrive.

Even if you’re not in this situation, learning these principles in advance may save you a lot of time and grief down the road. And if you are going through this right now? Please know you’re not alone. I’m right here with you.

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What happens when the most painful relationship you’ve ever had is the one you’re still in? And yet you cannot seem to leave. If you are that person, you know how it feels to be with someone who consistently doesn’t meet your needs. And doesn’t just fall short of them, disregards them, gaslights you, and makes you feel insane for wanting or needing those things.

Someone who lies to you consistently, and yet something inside you continues to hold on, continues to hold on to the hope that one day this person may change. Holds onto the idea that you can weather the storm, or that enough therapy will help you get strong enough to deal with it, or help them to change these patterns that have always been there. Holds onto the idea that if you could just fix this one thing about this person, you would finally have the life you want with them.

I want to give you seven things that are not only designed to help you in a situation like this. But if you listen to all seven in order, do not skip ahead in this video, watch it in order, and do not cut this video off halfway. Because I have thought about this a great deal in my life. And the seven steps that I’m about to give you model the different stages and the thoughts that you go through in the order that they arise.

Number one is assume this person will never change. Now, why do that? I come from a line of work where I have to believe that people change. Otherwise, why would I do what I do? My whole speaking career, writing career, YouTube career is all predicated on the idea that people can change. And yet, being in a situation with someone who has shown us the same patterns over and over again over a long timeline, and thinking that they are so suddenly going to behave out of character, is one of the most dangerous things we can do.

My dear friend, Dr. Ramani would say that when it comes to narcissists, they will never change. And you have to accept that about them. Now, this video isn’t designed to be a video about narcissists. But no doubt, so many of you will relate to what I’m saying here through the lens of having dealt with a narcissist. What I want us to do is act more empirically.

Empiricism is acting on experience. What is my experience of this person? When I look at all of their behaviors over time, have they really ever deviated from these behaviors? Maybe after certain arguments, or after certain threats, they deviated for a moment. But if that was just a momentary spike on the graph and then they returned to their baseline and that baseline is what they’ve been over time, then whether or not you ever see them as a narcissist, you can empirically say, what makes me think that they are going to be any different just because a new year comes around? Or just because I argue with them a slightly different way.

You’ve probably done all the things that you could do to try to motivate this person to change. You’ve probably shown them tears, anger, depression, sadness, fear, every different range of emotion that could show them what their behavior does to you. And they haven’t changed. What new emotion do you have up your sleeve that is going to make them change this time?

Narcissist or not, with enough empirical evidence, you have to assume they will not change.

Number two, in a romantic relationship, empathy can become extraordinarily dangerous and it can be weaponized against you. Dr. Ramani told me personally, she said, “Matthew, people who are narcissists are attracted to people with extraordinary empathy.”

And I know that in my own life, empathy has been something that if I’m not careful means that in a relationship, there’s no limit to how far I can fall. Because if every time someone comes back to you and they do something wrong, you are able to process that by saying, well, yes, that was awful. But I understand why they did that, I understand where that’s coming from. I know all about their terrible childhood and what they’ve been through. I know about that awful, cataclysmic event in their life that precipitated this behavior.

We can do that with every possible thing a person does. Even if you decide someone is a narcissist, they are absolutely a diagnosable, narcissist, empathy doesn’t stop there. You can still look at a narcissist and go, they can’t help it. This is something that they were either born with, or that they developed at an age where they were still developing. And it’s made them into this person who does these awful things, who acts so selfishly, who’s always about themselves, who disregards my needs, who cannot see me and my pain. But they can’t help it. They are doing their best. Quite literally, this is the best they can do. And I still care about them, and I don’t want to abandon them.

So your empathy can produce that mutated kindness and that guilt with absolutely anybody at the most extreme possible levels of bad behavior. And by the way, people with the most insidious behavior know how to mobilize your empathy. If they know this is someone who lets me get away with murder, so they know that you’re going to congratulate yourself on the fact that I know him or her better than anybody else. I know why they are this way, I know why they’re doing this. I know it sounds terrible to all of you out there judging my relationship and judging me for staying in it. But you don’t understand. It’s more complicated than you realize.

You, in a sense, score points by being the expert historian on this person. I uniquely understand them and you don’t, and that’s why I’m enduring all of this. But that person also knows how to weaponize it in the other direction. So if you, all of a sudden are calling them out on their shit, if you are calling them out on their bad behavior, they know how to say, see, I knew you wouldn’t understand.

They know how to weaponize it to make you guilty for not having enough empathy. At a certain point, the empathy has to hit a floor. That floor isn’t you becoming a less kind or less compassionate person, it’s recognizing that, oh, I can’t be empathetic with you in close proximity. I’m going to have to trade my empathy for a distant compassion.

You can leave someone and say enough is enough, I can never let you into my life. You can have a distant compassion that says, I understand this person. Or even at the very least, I can pity the fact that their brain is wired for this kind of behavior, which means that they’re always self-sabotaging for themselves, not just hurting me or somebody else. But I can’t have them in my life.

That’s the difference. Having empathy for someone doesn’t mean keeping them in the kind of proximity where they can do so much damage. And it has to be said, life is complex. There are different kinds of people in our life. You might have a son or a daughter, you might have a best friend, a brother, a sister, a parent who shows these kinds of narcissistic tendencies. In those cases, it might be easier to have them at arms length in your life, where you can still have a kind of relationship with them, but not one that relies on them for anything meaningful. And not one that lets them close enough that they can do all of that damage.

Romantic relationships are much more binary. You can’t have an arms length romantic relationship, not a truly happy and connected one. When it comes to a romantic partner, you are in or you’re out. And if you can’t trust that person with your time, your energy, your future, your heart, then it has to be out. Regardless of your level of empathy. Trade your empathy for a distant compassion.

Number three, and here’s where it gets really interesting. Do not allow your empathy to become the cover for your fear. You have empathy. And that’s part of the reason that you stay. However, we also do a very subtle slight of hand where we use our empathy, one of our best qualities, to justify our existence in the relationship. When really so much of our staying is about our own fears. I’m terrified of losing this person. I’m terrified of being alone. I’m terrified I’ll never have this connection again. I’m terrified to admit that I’ve wasted all of these years with this person. In a sense, our empathy becomes the righteous excuse for avoiding our fears.

It’s more noble to say, “I uniquely understand this person, and must stay out of loyalty and care for them.” Than it is to say, “I’m terrified of being on my own. And that’s why I’m staying.”

Number four, we have to be willing to light the fuse that blows up our own life. Now in order to do this, it requires a genuine acceptance of where you actually are. I am alone. I am alone, and I’m going to have to meet someone again because I don’t have the relationship that I’ve been telling myself I have for all of these years. Even though I’ve been in this situation for 10 years, and I’ve been pretending I’m in a working marriage, or I’ve been pretending that I’m in a functional relationship, I’ve been pretending I have a future with this person, I am now accepting that I’m 50 and that I’m starting again in this area of my life.

I am accepting that I have to let go of the image that all of my friends have of me, as someone who’s got it together in this area. As someone who’s in a happy relationship, I’m going to have to give that up, and reset my image with the people that know me and where they think I am in my life. I am going to have to accept that the years I invested in this relationship were not in service of the relationship, and it’s continuing into my future. It was in service of my own confidence, of getting to a point of realization where I now understand it was never going to work. I was never going to be happy here.

This is acceptance. And I believe that one of the most important gifts of acceptance is that when we accept where we really are, progress actually feels like progress.

How do I put this? If you tell everyone that you have a hundred grand in the bank, but really you have 20 grand of debt, no matter what you do right now to earn more money, you are not going to feel any progress. Because as far as you are concerned, the image of you is that you have a hundred grand in the bank. So even if you wiped that debt out, which would be an amazing thing, you don’t feel like you’ve made any progress compared to that image. If you accept and own where you are, I’m 20 grand in debt, but I’m working on it. Then if you halve that debt, you suddenly feel good. You feel excited because you’re like progress.

And as Tony Robins says, “Happiness comes from progress,” right? It doesn’t come from getting everything we want. It comes from feeling like we moved forward. In order to actually feel the gift of progress, we have to start accepting where we really are instead of pretending we’re somewhere we are not.

Number five. When you begin to freak out about making this tough choice in your life, your mind will trick you into thinking the status quo isn’t so bad. You’ll start thinking about everything that’s coming. All of the pain that’s coming, the grieving, the sleepless nights, the dark nights of the soul, the looking for somebody else, the disappointing dates, the feeling alone, the feeling like you’ve been set back in your life. All of it will become so overwhelming, and scary, and dark to you that you will start to convince yourself that where you are isn’t so bad, and that maybe all of this is just really dramatic.

Maybe you just need to have a conversation with the person. Maybe you just need to reiterate your needs. Maybe you just need to go to therapy to learn how to deal with it, how to cope with it. Because you don’t need to lose this person over this. That would be crazy. You’ve spent so much of your life with them. They’re one of your closest friends, maybe your best friend, your closest companions, your confidant, someone you’ve been through so much with. Are you really going to give up all of that history, all of that life, all of that investment for the complete unknown? And that is what returns you to the status quo.

Which brings us onto number six. You have to connect with the idea that if you remain where you are, you will never be happy and you will never be at peace. I’ve had private clients my whole life where, anytime we reach this point in the process, thinking about they’ve got to blow up their own life, they will start coming back to me and saying, it’s just, we are really great together. And I hear them start to resell themselves on the status quo to avoid doing that thing.

And then I remind them, I didn’t bring this to you. You brought it to me. You didn’t come to a session with me, and I started poking my nose into your relationship and telling you, you were unhappy, and telling you that this is what we’re going to talk about today. You brought it to me. Fighting back the tears, fighting back the unhappiness, fighting back the disappointment, the depression, the anxiety that you feel on a daily basis. But no matter what you do it is spilling out of every part of you because you just cannot contain what this is doing to you, emotionally. Remind yourself you will never be free, you will never be happy, you will never be at peace so long as you stay in this situation.

Which brings us onto number seven, realize that both paths will be terribly difficult. But only one of them leaves a possibility of your future happiness.

If you stay, it’s going to be incredibly difficult. If you leave, it’s going to be incredibly difficult. But one of those two paths has guaranteed misery. And one of them opens up a world of possibility in terms of your happiness. Either way, it’s going to be brutally difficult. Which difficult do you want to choose?

Until you face yourself, you will never be out of a situation like this. As we have come to realize in this video, the initial empathy, and the martyrdom, and the endless capacity for generosity and suffering is all a righteous mask for our own demons. The things that, if we do not fix those, will always prevent us from leaving. Will keep us a prisoner in this relationship. The healing has to be done in ourselves.

If you want to do that with me, in November, I’m going to be spending three days with people on my Virtual Retreat where we are going to do this kind of work together. The kind of work that makes you so strong that you would never allow this to happen to yourself again. That you will finally get the courage and the confidence to move into a new chapter of your life without being paralyzed where you stand by fear.

Go to MHVirtualRetreat.com to learn more. And look, whether you do this with me or with somebody else, know that it has to be done. I know of what I speak in this area. I have seen the wasted lives and the regret that comes with that, at knowing you could have had so much more happiness and so much more peace in your life. But you kept yourself a prisoner all of that time. If you are in this situation, there is nothing more important than coming to the realizations that we’re talking about in this video. I hope to see you on the Retreat. But if nothing else, I look forward to seeing you in the next video.

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18 Replies to “Is the Person You’re Dating a Narcissist?”

  1. Thank you Mathew, this is a very concise and actionable message. I spent decades on and off with a narcissist. As I learned about it (I had no idea in the early years), it helped me to see the pattern. But still, that sympathetic nerve made me soften. I’m on the other side now and have been for at least a year.
    It is so worth getting out of. I feel good and generally happy. At first, I was embarrassed that I had wasted so much time. It still stings a little, but as you said, there is no possibility of a good life in a situation that will never change. I’m proud of myself for seeing it clearly, finally. I gave up a fancy life of first-class travel, designer clothes, someone who frequently said they “loved” me, and what I thought was security. Now, I appreciate everything I have and the possibility that if I want to, I could meet someone I feel good with.

    1. Hi MH,
      Your clips and advice is always great. Thanks for this. You are dead right on all of this. I was married to a covert narcissist for 21 years. He also had an addiction to sneaking and hiding and over time alcohol too. I didn’t figure the sneaking thing out until close to year four ( he was very good at it) and then we started a family and I was very preoccupied with kids and work.
      At some point I realized he was no longer my best friend and was very stuck and did not grow except calling him out on bad behavior just made him a better sneak! I resolved that this was how it was, though a great disappointment. I believe strongly that no other person can make or keep you happy. So I took care of myself and found many outlets and endeavors and friends and was happy in spite of the grief of a non attentive husband who gave me gifts he wanted etc. My biggest problem in that stage was a tremendous ability to over function. I have far more energy than the average person, so that came naturally and my empathy cornered me to be overly gracious even when my good graces were abused by him.
      One day I discovered he had been abusing our adopted daughter. That was a Rubicon. I had suspected something was amiss but never dreamed THAT. I made him tell the counselor we were seeing and the ball rolled forward into a living nightmare of sorts, but it was just that the nightmare was now exposed. He went to prison – pretty bizarre cause I’ve never known anyone in prison or who committed a serious crime. Our families are all upper middle class and well educated. It was a shock. It was hard for all but a huge relief and a huge relief to be without him. I’m pretty independent and enjoy being alone most of the time. It’s been 17 years, I raised my three children as their only parent. Do I wish for a good man in my life? Well yes. But my life is very happy and I have my dates but haven’t found a good match. No rush.
      When you take responsibility for your own happiness and assert boundaries of what is acceptable and unacceptable, the right guy won’t gaslight you. A good partner is a growing one. A person who doesn’t grow can only be …uh dead, right? I had to work on my overfunctioning and learned to be aware of some boundaries with that. Now I use empathy better – it’s a great tool to communicate your wants and needs when your message it might be hard for the other to take.
      Thanks for a well done piece and best to all who get stuck with a narcissist. And beware of the covert narcissist. They are a different breed and don’t present the way a regular one does.
      Best,
      Anna

  2. Thank you this is a great peice and will help a lot of people. However I have already left my abusive relationship and put a lot of work into healing. But now I am dating again it has highlighted the trust issues I am left with and I tend to self sabotage. Is there a peice you can do on dating after abuse or learning to trust again. :)

  3. After leaving my relationship with a narcissist a year ago, this video was on point and really hit home. Matthew does an excellent job explaining this in the video. Well done!

  4. Matt, Do you have any seminars to help someone survive being court ordered to co-parent with an NPD who is making their life miserable? Thanks Ann

  5. Thank you for this Mathew! Every single one of your points is like you were talking about my 20 year relationship (17 year marriage) to my now ex-husband. He drew on my empathy as I am a mental health nurse and I felt manipulated and controlled and I thought that if I worked harder, I could get him to change. So wrong. It took me nearly all of our marriage to gather my acceptance and end it. And it was hard. F*#% hard and he became very viscious and full of malice towards me for the two years it took to finalize divorce. But it was the only way I could find happiness. You’re so right about that. So thank you; I so appreciate you!

  6. One of the best videos you’ve ever put up. Thank you Matt! So many people need this, I was this person trapped 2.5 years in a relationship with a socio/psycopath (as you may know they also have many of the narcissistic traits). Everything you said is right on point. These people are emotional terrorists. Iwas gaslighted endelessly, cheated on, manipulated… Breaking free from it was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. Took me almost two years of a lot of personal work to come out the other side and even want to begin dating again. But I’ve learned a lot, a lot. Anyone still in one of those, yeah hurts like MF, and it’s gonna be crap for a while, not gonna lie. But rediscovering who you are and loving yourself again is priceless. Get that fucking vampire off of you and get your life back! You will look back and be like, what was I thinking? I swear!

  7. This is SPOT ON! I left a 20 year marriage when it finally dawned on me that something was very very wrong, and he could not partner with me or support me, and the constant gaslighting, more and more infrequent lovebombs (unless of course he wanted something), the lack of physical or emotional attention for 15 years, and ongoing discards were never going to change. I think I probably may have stayed and done it forever thinking I wasn’t trying hard enough until I started seeing the impact on my kids. Then I took a good look at myself and asked myself some hard questions. Is this all there is? This is love? No. There has to be something better out there. I asked for a divorce in 2018 and then he really unleashed hell on me and the next few years was harder than anything I have ever done. But I got myself and my kids into therapy, and have been working on myself to stop patterns of attachment, need and find joy and self love. My divorce took 2 years and I have just started dating again and I have hope I can be find a person to enjoy life with in the future. Your words – “you have to be willing to blow your life up” -and admit to yourself the happy image you projected was a fantasy IS THE TRUTH! I had to get real with myself, learn how to set boundaries and teach my children what real love looks like so this is not perpetuated into the next generation. Thank you for being so brutally truthful about what is at stake. It’s hard but SO WORTH IT to tell yourself you deserve more! I am happy, fulfilled and it only took 4 years. That’s not a lot when you consider what the alternative is!

  8. I left my narcissistic ex a month ago and i‘m doing better already. But the pain he caused in me is still there, every time something reminds me of him. i felt so devalued, he sometimes treated me like i was not worth his time or made me feel bad for stupid little things. it still hurts so bad… i was so good to him and when i told him it cant go on like this or tried to make him understand how he makes me feel, he made me feel guilty cuz i wouldnt accept him the way he was. I feel so angry and depressed with every thought of him. he wasted so much of my time and my happiness

  9. Thanks Matthew for this video. It came perfectly on time since I am currently struggling so much with myself as I met a guy who my gut feeling told me immediately was a narcissist but then he told me he’s been being on therapy for a while because he is a “bear” and can’t show his feelings. Being myself highly empat and a victim of narcissistic abuse (my dad) make my way out difficult even if nothing has happened between us and we have seen only once. I am on therapy and will discuss soon about this situation but I just want to congratulate with you because you really got the point! Did it ever happen to you to be stuck – even for a short time – with a narcissist woman?

  10. I was in a marriage for 17 years, then divorced finally 6 months ago. I got married for the wrong reason—I was 30 years old, all my friends were married, I wanted children. I do have my twin boys, whom I love and hope they will not be like their father. I feel I left the marriage early enough so that they still respect me and love me.
    My dad and sister are narcissistic and my mother and I are the empathic ones. My father was also an alcoholic. Growing up in the dysfunction seemed to make it very hard for me to see the “red flags” in people—work relationships, friends, or romantic partners. Being 52 years old now, I am a bit insecure still with this and how to deal with it.
    I find your videos very helpful in teaching me about relationships and what a healthy relationship should be. I’ve had to put distance between myself and those that I thought were “helping” me, but instead were putting me down. I do have some very healthy friendships, but I still seem to have my guard up as it’s very difficult to trust others. I still have to “check” myself to make sure that I’m not the problem. I know it will get better now that I’m on my own, but the journey ahead at times seems lonely. I just keep pushing forward to find myself and love myself. I’ve got a lot to offer, but the damn wall I put up keeps others away.
    Thank you, Matthew, for your insight, tools, gentleness, and compassion. I see this all in what you present. If only you were around doing this 30 years ago, maybe I’d be in a different position, but as you’ve said, I did what I could with what I had at that time. Perhaps the 20 and 30 somethings now will be so much better off.

  11. Wow Matthew, this is an amazing video!! Thank you for laying it out so clearly!!… narcisists have a full tool belt and they keep on using every possible tool on you. it ends up being a game of exhaustion, the narcissist is happy as they get their supply and are energised. A family therapist said the need to control is because of deep rooted insecurity. You explained very well what our role is in us enabling this behaviour by being overly flexible/understanding. It took myself having cancer, being on the brink of loosing my mind and my children being very unwell, for me to understand it will never change. Do you think also being kind is some sort of addiction too? and that’s why it is also hard to escape? It was utter disbelief that someone you love would do this to his whole family, l was paralysed for years, I’ve looked at the narcissist’s behaviour to understand my own, but seem to have a very hard time setting the full boundaries. Please, if you can, share what is possible on this topic, as like with many others, the narcissistic ex has all the power on the funds and nothing is easy. Despite separated it still keeps going on, it’s like being in a no escape room and like for others, it’s been happening for years. There’s a lot of shame and embarrassment involved in me, which I suppose is part of the full picture of feeling powerless at times to act. Many thanks Matthew!

    1. Cindy,

      I believe for some of us our endless caring nature and empathy is an addiction. It’s a good feeling(confidence rush) to help, love, and forgive those people we are close to. The flip side is there are people who will selfishly use that to there advantage.

      The fact is they put their own wants and needs before anyone else.
      If they can’t do it because it causes friction in their life then they’ll do it secretively. Thus the being ghosted and rollercoaster ride begins.

      I was raised with a narc mother which created the need for unconditional love and acceptance. It is easy for others to take advantage of a empathetic character. Therefore easy to fall back into the same type of relationships and we allow the patterns that fail. Hell we enable them 110% until we are depleted of life or they find a better energy source. I had a 13 year marriage and a 10yr boyfriend that kept me as a neighbor because he had 1000 reasons he didn’t want to commit but seen potential in the relationship. To salt it up a-little he never even once told me he loved me. Where was my confidence? I lived alone but was I afraid to be alone. I did not value myself or needs for years.

      My point is it looks like MH is right it starts with us loving and respecting ourselves. I am 50 and starting life over again. This time I am starting with building healthy boundaries, base line standards, and confidence. No more unhealthy people pleasing or trying to win over there love by humbly proving my worth. MH says it best “Empathy can and will be used as a weapon against us by some people.”

  12. Thank you for this video. Soon to leave my wife. We were dating for 3 years and there were many red lights, but I was kind to her and thought maybe she will change. Once I put the ring on, she become even more narcissist and blame me for her poor education/financial decision while we were dating. Soon to be divorce! The worst thing ever happen to me was getting married to her. The best thing ever happen to me would be to get divorce from her!

  13. Hi Mattew, I just wanted to say that I have had a lot of help over the years. I am from the UK but moved to North America where my healing journey began. I am quite emotionally healthy now but, if I am honest don’t think the hour ever ends. Finding your website and listening to you is inspiring. You have such knowledge and put it across so solidly. Unlike a lot of psychologists you are so clever , well rounded, perceptive, knowledgeable, inspiring and put things in such a way that captures my (peoples attention). Thank you. Vanda x

  14. Leaving a narcissist literally saved my life…

    How come a man can say he loves you, but he constantly hurt you?

    I’m so ashamed to admit,but I was at the verge of a mental breakdown, because my Ex was exhausting me with notorious fights, then promises he changed, and the fairy tales would last for a few days,…but then he would hurt me again, etc.. After each fight, he had periods of ghosting me for several days, and during those days I just wanted to die..

    I’m glad I found the strength to leave him for good.

    But I still wonder…

    Why do we love narcissistic people?

    Is there something wrong with those who fall for narcissists?

  15. I’ve watched this video four times now, having been made aware by the ex-wife of the man I had been dating for two years that he was a ‘manipulative narcissist’. It was only then that the penny dropped after almost two years of torment.
    I had for some reason overlooked this personality disorder after months and months of seriously bad behaviour. Also, the word narcissist is everywhere nowadays, however, when I read up on the traits they fit the man I was with to a tee.

    I fell in love with this man and fought for the love I thought we had as if my life depended on it. I gradually hated myself for it. I was constantly taken aback by the gas lighting which left me feeling worthless, unattractive and practically suicidal. I also found out he had an interest in prostitutes and a very serious addiction to pornography.

    I left him and the tirade of abuse via text towards me was breathtaking, to say the least.
    It’s only been 9 weeks but the constant torment has left me considering I change my number as these types have a habit of just turning up out of the blue. He also used mobile phones as either a weapon or items to control. As it’s such early days, every time my phone receives a message I think it’s him as he still texts me out of the blue. I’ve not been strong enough to ignore. I have no idea why I’ve blocked and unblocked him which makes things worse.

    Hooking up with this man has been one of the most traumatic experiences of my life. I wish had realised all this about him earlier but at least it was only two years. I am now speaking to someone about it.

    Thank you for this video, the part, ‘both ways, stay or leave, are going to be very difficult but only one has some hope’ particularly helped me.

    You cannot quite believe what is happening if you have the unfortunate experience of falling for a person who has this disorder. If I am to see the same signs again with another man I will run and I don’t say this lightly.

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