Narcissism gets thrown around casually on TikTok, but when it’s your in-person reality, there’s nothing chill about it. Being in a relationship with someone who has narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) can be downright terrifying. Narcissistic abuse can crater your self-esteem, have you questioning your sanity, and make you scared of just existing—much less figuring out how to leave.
That’s because true narcissists often abuse their partners, be it physically, psychologically, or emotionally. And while this can look like other kinds of domestic abuse, the motivation is different. Namely, someone with NPD wants to control their partner’s reality, explains psychologist Jaime Zuckerman, Psy.D., who treats victims of narcissistic abuse.
One 2019 study found that narcissists often committed abusive acts when their authority was challenged—it was the most common trigger. Another big reason for abuse? A fear of abandonment that stemmed from worrying about “losing their narcissistic supply.”
Sound familiar? We wish it didn’t. But we’re glad you landed on this page if you’re looking to get out of a bad situation.
Diagnosis: It’s Them, Not You
You don’t need to know a partner’s NPD diagnosis to feel justified in leaving them. Remember: You can leave a relationship you’re not happy in for any reason. But realizing that you are experiencing narcissistic abuse might help with your recovery.
“With my clients, I’ve seen the point in treatment where the person starts to see the pattern, and when that happens, then they’re able to predict their partner’s behavior, and they realize that it has nothing to do with them,” Dr. Zuckerman says. “And that gives them this sense of empowerment and control. That’s when that healing process begins.”
Recognizing narcissistic abuse can also help you play their confusing game. “Unless [a survivor] understands narcissism, they will be thrown off-kilter by the illogical antics and attacks of the narcissistic individual,” says Tina Swithin, a family court advocate and author of Divorcing a Narcissist: One Mom’s Battle.
“When someone has been subjected to narcissistic abuse, they are often in a fog and guided by emotions. A survivor of narcissistic abuse has been forced into a façade that is built around image and ego,” Swithin continues. “As that crumbles and the narcissist is triggered by the loss of power and control, it can be a very unpredictable and frightening path to navigate. If there is ever a time for strategy, this would be it.”
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Having a logical (and safe) exit plan—and help from others—is going to make the difference. Both in leaving and eventually healing. Let’s get started.
1. Find a mental health professional who knows narcissism.
This means a pro who fully understands narcissistic abuse. “The damage created by this type of abuse is life-altering and often weakens or impairs the targeted individual by design,” says Swithin, who divorced a narcissist herself. “For this reason, the survivor does not always present well, and when faced with legal experts or mental health professionals who do not understand these dynamics, they risk being viewed as the problem.”
To wit, the researchers of one recent study argued that mental health professionals’ knowledge of narcissistic abuse would allow them to more directly support victims and “enable timely interventions.”
You don’t have to wait until you’ve left your partner to seek this aid. A therapist who has helped people leave before can guide you out the door. (Check their professional profile to see if they list narcissism abuse as a specialty area.)
2. Access survivor support systems.
Support groups may help even if they’re not narcissism-centric. Narcissists are experts at making you think everything’s your fault, or that you “made them do it”—so people abused by them can end up blaming themselves. This is where support groups can be truly clutch.
In one study on intimate partner violence intervention (IPV), survivors who went through an eight-week group program were able to shed some of this blame. The survivors stopped legitimizing the abuse as much, and their depression levels decreased. What increased was also important: survivors’ self-esteem and social support.
To find domestic violence support groups, check local hospitals or the National Domestic Violence Hotline’s Local Resources search tool. (You can find shelter and child-care assistance information there, too.) While more research is needed, a 2023 study suggests that telehealth care for intimate partner violence is as effective as in-person intervention, which can be an option if you can’t access local support.
3. Reach out to separation experts.
If you are married to this person, start figuring out the legal process. “There are divorce consultants who help people leave abusive relationships with narcissists,” says Dr. Zuckerman. (Swithin trains such coaches, and Dr. Zuckerman endorses her as “a phenomenal resource.”)
LifeWire, a domestic violence survivor advocacy group, can also link you up with legal advocates who can help you obtain protection orders, file for divorce, and even navigate immigration issues. The National Domestic Violence Hotline’s Local Resources search tool can also help you find a legal advocate.
4. Stay safe.
Leaving an abuser can cause abuse to escalate, says Dr. Zuckerman. The National Domestic Violence Hotline has an interactive guide that will help you create an individualized safety plan.
Among other things, this will direct you to resources in your area and suggest that you use a code word on the phone and via text to let someone know you need help. You will likely also be prompted about how to collect important items like your ID, health insurance card, and a restraining order, if applicable.
If you feel it is safe enough, you will want to keep your plan on you at all times, so that if you have to abandon your stuff, you’ll still have the plan. And definitely give a copy to a friend or family member. “You know your situation better than anyone else; trust your judgment and weigh your options before taking any steps,” advises The National Domestic Violence Hotline.
A few more suggestions to consider:
- Learn at least one friend or family member’s phone number by memory.
- If you’re not moving, change the house or apartment locks.
- Mix up your daily routine if you can, such as how you drive to work or school and where you park.
- Remove your abuser as your and your children’s emergency contact.
5. Shut down communication with your abuser.
Once you leave, hit those BLOCK buttons like you’re buzzing in on Jeopardy, or better yet, go dark on social and change your phone number. You might then opt for a generic auto voicemail (or one recorded by a friend) that does not include your name. If your ex does find a way to contact you, do not respond to any wild screed they send your way.
There are certain cases where you can’t completely cut off an abusive ex—say, because you share custody of children. In this case, you can try using a communication app, such as OurFamilyWizard (which costs around $12-$17 a month). In the app, each parent can record must-share info (like a child’s medications), update a calendar, communicate via a tamper-proof message board, and reimburse each other for child-related expenses.
Ex refuses to use an app? Dr. Zuckerman suggests communicating only in writing and never speaking on the phone or in person. Or, get the family court system involved. As Dr. Zuckerman explains, the court can order the use of a communication app.
A third party, such as a judge, can monitor every interaction on the app. The narcissist is “held accountable in a different way because the courts have access to these exchanges,” says Dr. Zuckerman.
If you do go the legal route, a family lawyer can help you navigate this process. For financial help, there are pro bono professionals and legal aid programs on the American Bar Association and non-profit Legal Services Corporation websites.
6. Decide which wins matter.
Sometimes walking away from a particular fight is the best way to win it. “I started my new chapter post-separation with $178 to my name,” says Swithin. “I was a victim of severe financial abuse during my marriage, and that intensified when the divorce proceedings started. [After some time], I had radically accepted the fact that my energy was better spent rebuilding my life than trying to prove that he was hiding money and evading his responsibility.”
Representing herself in court, Swithin was able to win her most important battle—gaining sole custody of her children. (Today, she is a successful author and coach who helps others navigate the court system, utilizing what she learned in her custody battle and what she wishes she knew at the time.)
7. Be kind to yourself.
You have to forgive yourself for not leaving sooner. Dr. Zuckerman tells her clients (and you!) not to judge themselves too harshly if they go back to a narcissistic partner. “It may take a couple of times—it may take seven or eight,” she says.
“It’s scary, and sometimes dangerous—you have to be careful. But it’s absolutely possible to leave,” Dr. Zuckerman continues. “It’s absolutely possible to heal, to disconnect from them. And it’s possible to find healthy relationships afterward. You didn’t deliberately get into a toxic relationship.”
We’ll say it, too: This is not your fault. And things can get better.