The Need to Label Ex-Partners as Narcissists

How does narcissism mediate in the breakup of a relationship? In this article, we'll talk about narcissism and its use in contexts in which the bond that unites two people is broken.
The Need to Label Ex-Partners as Narcissists
Loreto Martín Moya

Written and verified by the psychologist Loreto Martín Moya.

Last update: 02 November, 2022

An important process of grief and the breakup of a relationship is hindsight. The opportunity to analyze from a distance what worked and what didn’t, and to reflect on the characteristics of our ex-partner often makes us realize that the decision to break up was the right one. In fact, this is all part of the acceptance process.

However, the term narcissistic is increasingly used these days to describe ex-partners, thus reinforcing the decision to break up. But, who would want to label their partner in such a way? Does this action, in fact, hide a process of their own avoidance and denial?

The hackneyed diagnosis: what’s a narcissist?

Narcissism – which originated from the myth of Narcissus – first appeared as a concept when Freud exemplified the myth in his theories. He defined it as the love relationship between a subject and their own image. Following along similar lines, authors such as Stolorow (1975) moved away from the perverse definition offered by psychoanalysis and presented a new dimension: self-regulation.

According to this author, the function of narcissism is to maintain the cohesion and stability of an individual’s own self-representations. On the other hand, Kohut (1984) understands narcissism as a necessary quality for the development of ‘self’ psychology, in which the individual develops based on their relationship with other objects -and people- taking into account, as is logical, the support of themselves.

These three definitions seem somewhat contradictory. That’s because, behind the term narcissist, hides a heterogeneity that’s often ignored. In fact, it should be noted, contrary to the majority opinion, that narcissism isn’t necessarily negative but can be quite the opposite.

As a matter of fact, many professionals argue that narcissism is related to a person’s self-esteem, self-concept, affirmation, constructive competence, and ability to engage in compassionate and empathic behaviors.

When a person questions whether or not their ex-partner was narcissistic, they often ignore that they’re referring to the pathological kind of narcissism. It’s highly likely that their ex was narcissistic to some degree, as we can all be. However, whether it was to the extent of being a clinical disorder is another matter. 

Woman crying
Narcissism isn’t one of the most frequent reasons for breaking up, although it’s one of the most attributed.

Narcissistic people

In reality, narcissistic ex-partners

  • Overvalue their personal importance, to the detriment of their partner.
  • Expect recognition for being a unique and special being.
  • Expect admiration.
  • Manipulate their partners.
  • Are selfish and consider their own needs (due to them being ‘unique’) over others who they consider to be ‘mundane’.
  • Instrumentalize the relationship.

In short, we’re referring to an asymmetric relationship when, in fact, as a rule, partners prefer symmetric relationships. The narcissism of an ex-partner spoils the relationship, turning into one without balance or with a balance that only favors the ‘unique’ one.

In this case, we’re talking about a partner suffering from pathological narcissism on which a diagnosis could be made. For example, the various types of pathological narcissism or narcissistic personality disorder. Indeed, there are ex-partners who, once the necessary therapeutic work has been done, turn out to be narcissists.

These are toxic relationships, in many cases abusive -though not necessarily physical-, where gaslighting, control, condescension, and loss of self-esteem play an essential role. In these cases, the individual needs to reconstruct themselves due to experiencing such a painful relationship.

Do we really want our partners to be narcissistic?

What happens with ex-partners in which this level of narcissism doesn’t appear? We’re talking about friends who’ve told you about their narcissistic partners, people you know personally but you haven’t noticed these traits in them.

There’s no doubt that mistreatment and abuse can be disguised. However, after a process of several months, do so many psychologists miss the fact that the ex-partner their patient talks about occasionally in therapy had a narcissistic personality disorder?

The answer is no. Indeed, in many cases, the former partner simply isn’t a narcissist. They may have been selfish, unfaithful, or prioritized their interests at certain times. They may have simply fallen out of love and didn’t know how to communicate it. Or, they might have simply been unhappy. The reasons for a breakup are innumerable. Narcissism isn’t the most frequent, but it’s one of the most frequently attributed causes.

We don’t really want our ex-partners to be bad. We don’t want them to have been with us just because they got something out of it or because we were simply their vehicle to reaffirm their superiority. However, this is a really difficult truth to integrate.

Yet, so many people try to classify their recent exes as narcissists, they must be gaining something from the process. What truth can be so painful to accept that they’d rather have been used by their partners than confront it?

The avoidance of acceptance in the term of narcissism

One of the main functions of the use of the word narcissist is to avoid a more painful reality than the one exposed above: that a good person doesn’t love us. They may have been selfish and wrong at times but their emotions were real. There was reciprocal love and respect and admiration on both sides.

How do we integrate the idea that all those emotions were real, but have now disappeared? How do we accept that a person with whom we had an affectionate and beautiful relationship now no longer wants to continue nurturing it? What can we do with the painful reality that emotions and feelings in a couple can be real yet then change, disappear, or take on another form?

In many cases, we’re tempted to label our ex-partner as narcissistic. That’s because it’s easier to think that they only loved themselves. It’s easier to believe that love didn’t really go away because it was never really there. This is an idea that fits particularly well with another widespread one: that only true love lasts forever.

What we’re doing is defending our own egos. We tell ourselves that future partners won’t leave or abandon us. We say our ex-partner abandoned us because of HIS narcissism, not because of the emotional, vital, and visceral changes in our relationship. By doing this, we eliminate the possibility that we’ll be left again. We tell ourselves we now know how how to look for a person without narcissistic traits. In short: the loss of a bad love is better accepted than that of a good love.

Woman covering her face in front of a mirror
Labeling the ex-partner as a narcissist prevents us from wondering about our responsibility for what happened.

Narcissism is to blame, I’m not wrong

Closely linked to the above, we find in the ‘narcissistic’ label the avoidance of a specific aspect of reality. Making the narcissism of our partner solely responsible for the breakup of the relationship prevents us from asking ourselves about our responsibility for what happened.

A couple is made up of two people. However, if we look back at the past and blame our partner for being narcissistic, we avoid our own mistakes. When, in fact, what we should be doing is sorting out our maladjusted thoughts and mistakes.

The narcissism of considering our partner to be narcissistic

Finally, we return to the lines at the beginning of the article, in which we exposed the notion of adjusted narcissism. If we analyze what we’ve mentioned, it seems that labeling an ex-partner as narcissistic corresponds with a certain frequency to an attempt to preserve the self.

At a time when we’re extremely vulnerable, it’s not unreasonable to think that our minds seek explanations that protect us. We need to preserve our cognitive cohesion, the concept we have of ourselves.

Therefore, it’s not a matter of criminalizing the need to use this label; but the possibility of revising it when we feel we can. The ‘narcissist’ label is a shield that defends us from complex emotions and truths. It’s our right to keep it until we’re able to wield our sword again. That’s because narcissism sometimes appears to take care of us, and if care is implicit in that label, we should welcome it until such a time as we can dismiss it and continue without it.

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