Living with pathological narcissism: core conflictual relational themes within intimate relationships

Publication Name

BMC Psychiatry


Background: Pathological narcissism is a severe mental health condition that includes disturbances in interpersonal functioning. Interpersonal difficulties by those affected include aggressive, domineering, cold and coercive behaviours which often result in strong negative reactions from others. We sought to examine the moment-to-moment patterns that emerge within close relationships between intimate partners and family members. Methods: Participants (N = 15) were romantic partners (73.3%) and family members (26.6%) in a close and long-term relationship (+ 10 years) with an individual with pathological narcissism. Participants told verbatim relationship narratives involving five narrative interactions with their relative with pathological narcissism and five narrative interactions with others. Transcripts were coded using the using Core Conflictual Relationship Theme method. Participants also completed three versions of the Relationship Questionnaire, reporting on 1. their relationship style ‘in general’, 2. their relationship style ‘with their relative’ and 3. the relationship style of their relative. Results: A total of 133 relationship episodes were analysed, comprising 783 components (wishes, responses of others and responses of self). While the identified wishes (e.g., for love, for support) were consistent between relative and non-relative narratives, there was significantly higher disharmony and lower harmony in narratives involving relatives with pathological narcissism. Described disharmony in these relationships involved the relative’s rejecting, subjugating and attacking behaviours, and participants rejecting and withdrawing behaviours. There was a prominent deactivation of participants attachment system when interacting with their relative with pathological narcissism, endorsing predominately dismissing relationship styles. Individuals with pathological narcissism were similarly rated as predominately dismissing. Conclusions: Together, these results reflect the cycles of interpersonal dysfunction for individuals with pathological narcissism and their partners and family members. Treatment implications point to the risk of therapists withdrawing and dismissing a patient with high pathological narcissism in the countertransference. Strategies to monitor and manage these core relational themes in treatment remain a challenge.

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Article Number


Funding Sponsor

NSW Ministry of Health



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