Relationships With Narcissists Can Cause PTSD Symptoms, A New Research Study Finds

Narcissism has become a loaded word over the years, yet research has also consistently found that it is detrimental to interpersonal relationships. 

The traits of narcissism, which can also overlap with the diagnostic criteria of the full-fledged personality disorder, Narcissistic Personality Disorder, can include a lack of empathy, an excessive sense of entitlement, grandiose fantasies, pathological envy and exploitation of others.

The impact of these traits on interpersonal interactions can include aggression against others. For example, a 2021 meta-analysis of 437 independent studies found that both grandiose and vulnerable narcissism was significantly correlated with multiple forms of bullying and both reactive and proactive aggression including unprovoked aggression. 

Researchers have distinguished between these two subtypes of narcissism. Grandiose narcissism is associated with higher self-esteem, less susceptibility to stress or depression, extroversion and the pursuit of power. Vulnerable narcissism (or informally named “covert” narcissism) is associated with lower self-esteem, fearfulness, higher neuroticism, hypersensitivity, and introversion. 

The Link Between Narcissistic Partner Traits and PTSD

Among the many concerns about narcissism is how narcissistic traits in a partner can affect your mental health.  For a long time, it has been implied that being in a long-term romantic relationship with a narcissist could potentially cause post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms. However, such an association has not been empirically studied until now. 

In my 2022 research study of 1,294 participants conducted at Harvard University and published in the journal Personality and Individual Differences, I found that narcissistic traits, particularly grandiose narcissism, predicted PTSD symptoms in those who had been in romantic relationships with partners high in these traits. 

This is the first large-scale research study to establish an association between narcissistic partner traits and PTSD symptoms. Psychopathic traits also predicted PTSD symptoms in these relationships as well, but only for the subgroup of individuals who were still in the romantic relationship while taking the survey. 

This study highlights the powerful impact of grandiose narcissism, which most strongly predicted a majority of PTSD symptom clusters and was a stronger predictor than vulnerable narcissism or psychopathy for those who had left the relationship. This could be because grandiose narcissism is associated with more self-aggrandizement and could lead to heightened self-blame and intrusive thoughts in individuals who experience abuse from a more confident and ruthless person with these traits.

Post-traumatic stress disorder is a disorder characterized by maladaptive changes in cognition, memories, arousal, reactivity, and interpersonal functioning following the exposure to a traumatic event involving actual or threatened death, serious injury, or sexual violence. 

According to the DSM-V, PTSD includes four main categories of symptom clusters, including intrusion symptoms (e.g. intrusive thoughts or memories of the trauma), avoidance symptoms (e.g. avoiding places or activities that remind you of the trauma), negative alterations in cognition and mood (e.g. an inability to enjoy things you loved), and alterations in arousal and reactivity (e.g. hyperarousal, irritability, recklessness). 

In this study, grandiose narcissism traits predicted intrusion and avoidance symptoms of PTSD most strongly. Partner traits in general also explained the most variance in intrusion and avoidance PTSD symptom clusters. 

Given the aggression associated with narcissistic traits and the impact of manipulative behaviors associated with narcissism, it makes sense that individuals in relationships with narcissistic people would commonly experience post-traumatic symptoms such as intrusive thoughts, flashbacks, nightmares, and avoidance of triggers and thoughts about the traumatic situations related to the relationship specifically. 

The Role of Manipulation Tactics in PTSD

The study also explored the correlations among these traits, PTSD and manipulation tactics such as stonewalling, jealousy induction and love bombing. Significant positive correlations were found between narcissistic and psychopathic traits and manipulation tactics such as love bombing, stonewalling, and jealousy induction. 

Notably, manipulation tactics such as jealousy induction and love bombing also significantly predicted PTSD for the group who had already left the romantic relationship, although these were weaker predictors of PTSD than narcissistic traits themselves. 

The insidious nature of the manipulation tactics associated with narcissistic traits further aligns with this finding, as such tactics are deliberately weaponized to instill fear and anxiety while disorienting the target. For example, jealousy induction or the more informally termed romantic “triangulation,” is the use of bringing another party into the dynamic of the romantic relationship to deliberately provoke jealousy. 

Previous research from Tortoriello and colleagues (2017), as well as Massar and colleagues (2017) indicates that individuals with narcissistic traits or psychopathic traits can both engage in jealousy induction for the purposes of gaining power and control, exacting revenge, testing the relationship or compensating for low self-esteem. 

According to these studies, grandiose narcissists and primary psychopaths (psychopaths who are said to be “born” rather than made from their environment) use jealousy induction primarily for power and control (and for psychopaths, exacting revenge too). Vulnerable narcissists and secondary psychopaths (psychopaths shaped by their environment) can also use it to compensate for low self-esteem.  

For the participants in my study, individuals in romantic relationships with narcissistic partners described how jealousy induction was used to instill insecurities in them, make them “compete” for the narcissist’s attention, provoke a reaction and depict them as “controlling” or “crazy” when they did react. This included behaviors such as infidelity, constant mentions of other past partners or current prospects, flirting in front of their partners as well as demeaning comparisons. 

Love bombing is another manipulation tactic that can affect posttraumatic symptomology. It is the use of excessive flattery, attention and contact early on to “groom” a person into a romantic relationship. According to previous research, it is positively correlated with narcissistic tendencies and tends to involve more media and text usage in romantic relationships. 

In my study, participants noted that love bombing often included gifts, vacations, and romantic dates as well as constant phone calls and text messages. Their partners tended to mirror their hobbies, interests, and personalities, and call them their “soulmates.” 

Love bombing also consisted of rushing into cohabitation or marriage, promises for the future (also known as “future faking”) which did not come into fruition, as well as an abrupt “devaluation” phase where abuse and mistreatment became increasingly more frequent. 

According to many of the participants, this devaluation usually occurred during another milestone such as after a wedding or during a pregnancy – at a time where individuals were already significantly invested in the relationship so they felt the rug being pulled out from underneath them. 

Past studies have shown that individuals in relationships with partner traits such as narcissism or psychopathy tend to experience a burden on their mental health, yet survivors are often gaslit in therapeutic settings about their experiences. 

Moving forward, future research should focus on interventions that best help survivors in such relationships heal and recover from the impact of narcissistic traits in partners and their covert aggression. 

References

Arabi, S. (2023). Narcissistic and psychopathic traits in romantic partners predict post-traumatic stress disorder symptomology: Evidence for unique impact in a large sample. Personality and Individual Differences, 201.

Day, N., Bourke, M., Townsend, M., & Grenyer, B. (2020). Pathological Narcissism: A Study of Burden on Partners and Family. Journal of Personality Disorders, 34(6), 799-813.

Kjærvik, S. L., & Bushman, B. J. (2021). The link between narcissism and aggression: A meta-analytic review. Psychological Bulletin, 147(5), 477–503. https://doi.org/10.1037/bul0000323

Leedom, Andersen, D., Glynn, M. A., & Barone, M. L. (2019). Counseling Intimate Partner Abuse Survivors: Effective and Ineffective Interventions. Journal of Counseling and Development97(4), 364–375. https://doi.org/10.1002/jcad.12285

Massar, K., Winters, C. L., Lenz, S., & Jonason, P. K. (2017). Green-eyed snakes: The associations between psychopathy, jealousy, and jealousy induction. Personality and Individual Differences, 115, 164–168. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.paid.2016.01.055

Strutzenberg, C. C., Wiersma-Mosley, J. D., Jozkowski, K. N., & Becnel, J. N. (2017). Love-bombing: A Narcissistic Approach to Relationship Formation. Discovery, The Student Journal of Dale Bumpers College of Agricultural, Food and Life Sciences, 18(1), 81-89.

Tortoriello, G. K., Hart, W., Richardson, K., & Tullett, A. M. (2017). Do narcissists try to make romantic partners jealous on purpose? An examination of motives for deliberate jealousy-induction among subtypes of narcissism. Personality and Individual Differences, 114, 10–15.

Shahida is a graduate of Harvard University and Columbia University. She is a published researcher and author of Power: Surviving and Thriving After Narcissistic Abuse. Her books have been translated into 16+ languages all over the world. For more inspiration and insight on manipulation and red flags, follow her on Instagram here.

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