So let’s explore the idea of whether narcissists and their partners are “equally” to blame for the demise of the relationship.
This is an idea that narcissists like to feed to their partners throughout the relationship after things start going downhill– and often to others outside of the relationship as well. They will say things such as that their partners are emotional and argumentative; that they are jealous, suspicious, and accusatory; that they are moody, loving them one moment and hating them the next; that they are untrustworthy; that they say mean things and are abusive.
And so the partner starts to wonder– is it my fault too? Along with the thought comes the onslaught of confusion, guilt, shame, and a nagging sense that if they had only tried harder or done something in a different way, the entire relationship might have taken a different path or the narcissist would have finally started to treat them differently, to go back to treating them the way things were in the beginning.
These feelings the partner has about being at fault, however, are harmful to the recovery from the relationship so it’s important to dispel this notion and put responsibility where it lies.
How can we know that the partner is not to blame for what went wrong in the relationship?
There is a timeline and there are two parties. The actions of both people lie along a continuum of time where what they were like before, during and after the relationship should be considered in order to understand what happened. All of the blaming and shaming narcissists do to make the partner feel as if they destroyed the relationship themselves with their actions generally fails to take any of this context into account.
So let’s take a closer look and follow the logic.
We’ll start first with the narcissist:
- Typically has a pattern of overlapping relationships and/or cheating in his or her past.
- Makes claims that something is “wrong” with all or most of his or her exes (for example, that they cheated on him or her or they are somehow bad people in another way).
- Lies frequently to everyone about a variety of things from small to large. When caught lying about major things, they claim it is other people who are lying.
- Will provoke their partner intentionally or when the partner does something he or she doesn’t like, saying or doing something abusive or hurtful.
- Accuses their partner of cheating; stalks and investigates them without cause.
- Words and actions frequently do not match up, e.g., as per #2, will claim exes have victimized them but may still interact frequently with several of them.
- Will run smear campaigns behind the partner’s back.
- Proceeds directly into a new relationship as soon as this one ends or even before it ends.
- Does not think anything is wrong with them or make real attempts at change.
Now let’s examine the partner’s behavior, and compare and contrast it with that of the narcissist:
- Generally has no relationship pattern (e.g., some have fallen into a pattern of dating narcissists, some have had healthy relationships in the past, some have had problematic but non-narcissistic relationships, some have not had a relationship).
- Generally do not define their exes in patterned ways. Again, this is not to say that they never had problematic relationships in the past, but there is a lack of a “pattern” among partners, or more importantly, how partners describe them.
- May start to lie to the narcissist only if the narcissist gets upset easily later in the relationship. This is a form of “walking on eggshells” used because it may become easier to lie about minor things to avoid being verbally attacked.
- When provoked or abused, may say or do something hurtful in response to strike back.
- If the narcissist has purposely tried to make the partner jealous or been caught cheating, the partner may start investigating things the narcissist has said or done, and then confront him or her about what was found.
- Due to not knowing whether the narcissist is trustworthy or not, will become confused and change his or her demeanor around the narcissist depending on recent events (sometimes fearful, sometimes angry, sometimes loving, etc.)
- Will often defend the narcissist when he or she is not around and hide the abusive behavior to try to help justify to others why he or she is staying in the relationship.
- Usually stays single immediately following the relationship to process what happened, heal and ensure that what happened doesn’t occur again in future relationships.
- Speculates on how he or she may need to change or grow because of what happened in the relationship.
During the relationship, there are some similarities in the behaviors of the narcissists and their partners. Narcissists and their partners may both lie. They may both say or do mean or vicious things. They may both act jealous and check up on the other. They both may be ambivalent, acting one way one minute and another the next, or saying one thing and doing another.
These similarities are what narcissists are able to exploit to their advantage. When their partners engage in this behavior, here are a few things narcissists can then do:
- Deflect the blame from themselves for the things they are doing so they don’t have to feel bad, discuss them, or make amends
- Use it as an example of why they are justified for doing something they did or to engage in further abusive behavior
- Use it to manipulate the partner into trying to win back the narcissist’s affections to make amends
- Gaslight the partner into believing he or she deserved what happened
- Gaslight the partner into thinking they’re the one with the problem
- Hook the partner into staying in the relationship longer by confusing who is at fault
- Use it to show others how the partner is to blame for issues in the relationship or a break-up, or to justify why the narcissist has another partner or is jumping into another relationship so soon
- Use it to get a potential new partner to feel sorry for them by explaining how they are being mistreated
There are some important distinctions that must be examined in order to illuminate the true repercussions of the relationship for each party. Partners try not to recreate and repeat a relationship like this one again. It is the person who hasn’t been damaged by it, the narcissist, who keeps repeating the same pattern again and again and who moves on quickly after the relationship in question to continue it. In fact, not only were they not not damaged by it, they benefited from the arrangement, even though they may have claimed to be victimized by it. Claiming to be victimized may be one way they may have increased the benefits!
Despite the similarities, there is a very important difference between how the narcissist and his or her partner behaves in the relationship and it cannot be understated.
The partner behaves in this manner only as a reaction to behavior engaged in by the narcissist. In contrast, the narcissist’s behavior is a certainty, regardless of the actions of the partner– positive, negative or neutral.
In other words, first, the narcissist engages in actions that are inherent in being a narcissist, those actions subsequently cause devastating harm to the partner, and as a result, the partner reacts to it. If it weren’t for the actions of the narcissist, the actions of the partner that the narcissist is complaining about wouldn’t even exist. This is true regardless of whether the complaints are real or whether they exist only to serve some of the functions listed above. Yet no matter what the partner does or doesn’t do in the relationship, there is nothing that he can do to change the trajectory of the relationship as it hurtles toward its inevitable and predictable end.
But let’s stop and think about what else the narcissist is doing for a moment. It is not only that the narcissist perpetrates a harmful act on his victim, it’s also as if he then holds up a mirror afterward to infinitely reflect back his own painful action to try to make the partner and everyone else believe that the partner herself is the one who caused it, hence increasing exponentially the amount of pain the partner feels. It’s an added act of pure cruelty.
In summary, partners of narcissists cannot be equally at fault for the demise of a relationship when their behavior was manufactured by the person claiming they are at fault. That doesn’t even make sense.
As for myself, I decided that there is a difference between blaming myself for the failure of the relationship and taking responsibility for things I did that weren’t right while in it. I did some things that were out of character. I said some things that were not appropriate to say to another person. I did some rash things in the heat of the moment. I felt truly desperate at times, and my actions showed it. I suffered through a variety of emotions for some of the choices I made as a result. I know now though that most people in my position would have done what I did or something else similar, because no one can remain themselves under those conditions. I don’t use this logic to absolve myself of wrongdoing, nor do I take the blame for why this relationship went awry because it is clear that it could not have unfolded any other way. I did finally decide, however, that I had to forgive myself and treat myself with the kindness he didn’t.
There was nothing I did to kill the relationship, just as there was nothing I could have done to save it.