Melissa and Tina, a life coach and a therapist, joined together to bring you Sweet Relief from the Everyday Narcissist. This site sweetens the relief, by offering ongoing support and encouragement.

This is part of a series of posts exploring the similarities and differences among three personality disorders with some shared characteristics (Narcissism, Borderline Personality Disorder, and Sociopathy). Teasing out which you are dealing with will help inform the decisions you make about how to take care of yourself.

Relationships with Narcissist, Borderline, and Sociopath Have Predictable Patterns

An important thing to remember is that two people can have the same disorder but very different ways of exhibiting the disorder. This creates confusion for those of us on the receiving side. Despite their differences, it is possible to helicopter up to a high level and discern common patterns in behavior, and in the overall pattern of how their relationships flow.

Comparing their typical patterns may help you see more clearly which (if any) personality disorder you are confronting. When I had only a cursory knowledge of these disorders, I thought a problematic person in my past was a narcissist, but as I learned more, I realized that borderline personality disorder explained things much better.

In each sort of these relationships, there are three common elements. The first is that the relationships develop quickly. The second is that you are idealized, put on a pedestal; a sociopath will probably make it appear that this is what is happening as a manipulation ploy, while the narcissist and borderline do it without really knowing you. The third is that after a commitment is made, things change. The transformation maybe subtle and slow so that you don’t quite notice or it may happen so quickly you’re shocked. Either way, once you’re in a relationship with a narcissist, sociopath or borderline you have to work hard to reclaim your emotional health.

Here are some simple comparisons as a guide to help you determine if you have a narcissist, borderline, or sociopath in your life.

The pattern of a relationship with a Narcissist is basically:

  1. Charms you into relationship. Usually quickly. You are idealized, but this happens without getting to know you in all your human complexity.
  2. A shift from idolizing you to seeming to somehow disrespect you occurs at some point (sometimes once commitment is made). Your narcissist begins to attempt to keep you behaving in ways that meet his needs and fit his/her unconscious mental map. Sometimes the shift is subtle and hard to detect, while with other narcissists a marked change happens the day after the wedding. In response, you likely shift around among varying shades and experiences of accommodation, adaptation, frustration, confusion, conflict, seeking the source of trouble, looking to your part in it, feeling a perplexing sense of emotional flatness, isolation, anger and disappointment.
  3. At some point, you attempt to distance (whether you know you are doing it or not), and if the relationship goes on awhile, you are likely to get emotionally and possibly physically exhausted. You may become 'the enemy' dependent on the methods of distancing you use. 
  4. You are replaced. Either because you have changed and no longer provide the sustenance your narcissist needs, or because you’ve become the enemy. Once you’ve been identified by the narcissist as the enemy, the way s/he interacts with you will change – most likely toward high conflict.
  5. The narcissist may attempt to return to you as a source of sustenance in the future if his other sources turn out to be unsatisfactory.

The typical pattern of a relationship with a Sociopath looks basically like this:

  1. Assessment phase (you, on the receiving side, are not aware this happens).
  2. Fiction is established to draw you in, cement relationship. Charm or charisma is put to good use. Again, things progress quickly.
  3. Manipulation until sociopath drains the value from the victim.
  4. Sociopath abandons and moves on (maybe even to a new location with a new identity).

Typical pattern of a relationship with a person with Borderline Personality Disorder:

  1. In the beginning phase, the borderline appears to be nice, sweet, maybe somewhat in need of help or rescue. She taps into the compassion in you. Relationship gets fairly intense quickly. You become the center of attention, probably idealized, the source of all solutions.
  2. The subtle transformation occurs. Your exclusive attention is expected, demanded. Mood swings begin to show, physical complaints to elicit sympathy arise. A drama cycle begins: Something triggers upset, nothing is ever enough, after upsets there is pleading for forgiveness. This pattern repeats frequently and unpredictably, with a wide variety of triggers. If the relationship is romantic, sex can be intense (but motivated from desire to dominate you not please you). I love you means, ‘I love you to need me.’ On the receiving side, you are likely to become confused, be hyper vigilant trying to avoid triggers, put your guard up, feel helpless, withdraw, feel guilt and shame, develop unhealthy habits,.
  3. The Hater Phase – once you’re committed and the borderline is in control, rage appears. It can be very hard to discern the cause of the anger but you get blamed for it. Drama and chaos ensue. Self-esteem of receiver melts away. Physical problems may develop, borderline thinking may be adopted as self defense mechanism, trust is shattered, isolation occurs, intimacy stops.

As the receiver in these relationships, all you are likely to know for awhile is that things were great, and then they weren’t, and that you don’t seem able to make it right. Once you start realizing there may be a real problem on your hands, it wouldn’t be surprising if you concluded that you were in relationship with a narcissist since all these disorders have narcissistic elements.

The next post will be an exploration comparing and contrasting what it’s like to be the receiver on the other side of a relationship with a narcissist, sociopath, or borderline.