Narcissists can be complicated and manipulative people, so being in a relationship with one — whether it's romantic, professional, or just platonic — can be a very loaded situation. The reason why they're so tricky to navigate is because, at times, narcissists can be really helpful, and seem like they actually do care about you, says Wendy Behary, LCSW, author of Disarming The Narcissist. The reality is usually that they're only being kind and helpful to benefit themselves, Behary says. Still, so many people end up in relationships with narcissists, and don't realize it until they're in very deep and feel like they can't leave. And even when you're in the clear, having an ex who's a narcissist can be really hard to deal with. Considering all the harm a narcissist has the potential to cause, is it ever possible for someone to have a "healthy" relationship with a narcissist?
"By and large, narcissists lack the skill set that makes for strong relationships, namely empathy, consistent compassion, consistency in general, compromise, kindness, mutuality, and reciprocity," says Ramani Durvasula, PhD, licensed clinical psychologist and author of Should I Stay Or Should I Go: Surviving A Relationship With A Narcissist. But narcissists are typically seen as good providers, because they're into grandiose gestures, are very charming, and might have a great job or a lot of money, Dr. Durvasula says. Those aren't "skills" per se, but they are reasons why narcissists can manage to have relationships. "Their partners may think, at least for the short term, that the relationship is healthy because material needs are being met," she says. And even though these relationships definitely exist, they rarely grow and are extremely limiting, she says.
"Healthy relationships are based on mutual respect and trust, traits that a narcissistic relationship is highly unlikely to possess."
Ramani Durvasula, PhD
There's another, more subtle reason why narcissists are able to get away with having relationships. A "healthy narcissist" might sound like an oxymoron, but some narcissists claim to be self-centered for the sake of the greater good, Behary says. For example, a narcissist might take advantage of other people because they're trying to do something nice, like achieve a fundraising goal for a charity or have their voice heard in a public service setting, she says. "They have super self confidence and a super strong will to make something happen and get what they want, and that's a form of what we might call 'healthier narcissism,'" Behary says.
Someone in a relationship with a narcissist could feel like they have a sense of "shared" purpose through their work, but calling that "healthy" would be a stretch, Dr. Durvasula says. "Sadly, the way our world is organized, the folks who are very successful at business or other endeavors and have lots of goodies tend to be narcissistic at a higher rate than everyone else," she says.
The tricky thing is that narcissists can be helpful and task-oriented, and can get shit done, which some people consider positive, Dr. Durvasula says. So narcissists can make good partners if you care about "sharing labor and getting tasks accomplished" more than you value connecting on an intimate, emotional level, Berhary says.
Some narcissists live for the chance to come to the rescue and be a hero, which is why narcissists tend to attract people who are "pleasers," Dr. Durvasula says. And, in a way, narcissists are the ultimate challenge for someone who's a people-pleaser. "You can never please [narcissists], because they're focused on nothing but their own needs," Dr. Durvusula says. "People who are wired to be pleasers can easily fall into the trap of the narcissist."
It's also important to keep in mind that these are all examples of some of the patterns that might arise in a relationship with a narcissist, but they're by no means "healthy" examples, Dr. Durvasula says. "Healthy relationships are based on mutual respect and trust, traits that a narcissistic relationship is highly unlikely to possess," she says.
So what's the likely outcome of all of these less-than-healthy patterns? According to Dr. Durvasula, although narcissists can get away with sustaining relationships, eventually their partners can feel very isolated. "This happens through a number of mechanisms, including the narcissist's intention to isolate and shame them," she says. It's possible for the partner of a narcissist to feel self-doubt, blame themselves for the issues, and eventually become depressed, Behary says. A narcissist might turn on their loved ones and "have difficulty looking at your world, asking questions, and listening to your answers," because you don't matter to them, she says.
All of this is to say that, no, none of this is a basis for a healthy relationship — but that doesn't mean that a narcissist won't try to make you think it is.