Dating a narcissist is challenging to say the least. They’re vain, competitive, manipulative, and never at fault (ever!). But ending the relationship is another story altogether, says psychotherapist Joseph Burgo, PhD, author of The Narcissist You Know. Narcissists experience rejection as an attack, he explained in an email to Health. For that reason, “they’ll likely become very hostile and attack you in return, no matter how kind you are.”
That kind of reaction is rooted in a compulsive need to “win” in almost every scenario. “If you no longer want to be in a relationship with them, they may feel that you’re saying they’re a ‘loser’ and will try to turn the tables, turning you into the loser,” says Burgo. But it’s also possible your soon-to-be-ex will have the opposite reaction, expressing remorse and promising change, with the hope of “winning” you back, he added.
While you can’t predict your partner’s reaction, there are ways you can protect yourself as you bring an end to an unhealthy relationship. Here, Burgo shares his advice for navigating a breakup with a narcissist, including the inevitable aftermath.
Before the breakup
Know that pride is what’s at stake for your partner: “No matter how careful you are, if you reject a narcissist, they will feel humiliated,” says Burgo. In an effort to assert their own superiority, they may try to dominate the interaction, and draw out the confrontation. “Find a way to limit your time together [during the breakup], or make sure you’re not entirely alone,” Burgo says. Having an exit strategy may make it a little less agonizing, and safer, for you.
During the conversation
Honesty is the best policy, right? Wrong. “As cowardly and deceptive as it may seem, being direct and honest is never a good option when confronting a narcissist,” Burgo says. Instead, frame your decision to end the relationship as if it’s not a big deal, and don’t let on that you anticipate hurting your partner.
“Approach it as if you’ve been trying to decide what’s best for you both,” says Burgo. “Sentences like, ‘I don’t think this is working out for either one of us’ work better than ‘I can’t take you anymore.’”
You should also try to avoid assigning blame. When narcissists feel at fault, they tend to play defense, hard. Instead of sharing that long list of cons you jotted down in your journal, keep your reason for ending things as general and vague as possible.
After you leave
Don’t suggest that the two of you remain friends after the split: “It’s best to have a clean break,” says Burgo. Say no to catch-up phone calls, and disconnect on social media. But again, be sure to frame these decisions as what’s best for both of you, to avoid pain on both sides.
And no matter how well the discussion goes, expect backlash. A spurned narcissist may try to damage your reputation, for example, or turn mutual friends against you. “Prepare your friends in advance,” says Burgo. “Don’t trash your ex to your friends, but help them to understand your decision to break it off.”
Worried about getting involved with another narcissist in the future? Burgo recommends asking yourself these four questions whenever you start dating someone new: Do they take a genuine interest in the things I say? Can they accept tactful criticism? Do they treat other people well? Have their past breakups been ugly?
“In general, pay attention to the ways they treat other people, especially the ones they’ve known for a long time,” he adds. “Strong empathy and an ability to maintain friendships and other relationships over time are good indications that the person is not a narcissist.”