Sorry, But Not Every Bad Partner Is a Narcissist

Sean Kernan

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Can we press the timeout for a moment? We really need to.

Few topics have enjoyed a rise like that of ‘The Narcissist’. The articles stream across various blogging sites, generating huge buzz and, for some authors, great fortunes.

Many of the articles are great and I’m very sympathetic to the stories. But the emergence of thousands of narcissism articles has a problematic moral and logical underbelly.

The first problem with this label

The term “Narcissist” isn’t actually a medical diagnosis.¹ This isn’t a major point of contention but worth mentioning.

We all exist on the narcissism spectrum. In small doses, narcissism is actually good for you. It allows you to feel joy and elation. It allows you to relish your victories and feel proud.

But in extremes, narcissism becomes pathological. It’s dubbed Narcissistic Personality Disorder, or NPD, which is what ‘the narcissist’ has.

Common symptoms include grandiose feelings of self-importance, an inability to apologize, being extremely defensive, and having unqualified feelings of competency. The final and defining characteristic is the presence of anosognosia, the person’s inability to even see there is a problem.

NPD is rare. Less than 1% of people have it. Yet, as you read articles about bad partners, you might conclude that everyone has dated a narcissist.

Is it possible? I had an unfortunate firsthand run-in with this phenomenon.

My personal experience with NPD

I’m a professional writer in the blogosphere. I also do quite a bit of editing for people. Lots of content comes across my figurative desk.

Last month, I came across an article by a young lady who was writing about a former partner. She was detailing all of the pains of dating a narcissist. She was also outlining the signs your partner is a narcissist and how she dealt with hers.

Here’s the problem. I happened to know this writer quite well. I also know, personally, the former partner she was talking about. Like all of us, he is many things both good and bad. But he wasn’t a narcissist. He was more, vanilla crappy, a generic bad boyfriend. There was more context though.

Their relationship went south, and, like many couples, they didn’t break up when they should have. They let it spiral down to the bitter end and it brought out the worst in them. I was troubled that she was shoveling everything at him with this singular label, while also distorting a few facts I was keen on.

The source of the diagnostic problem

One of the chief frustrations of mental health counselors is armchair diagnosing². The era of googling our symptoms has caused very real heartburn and medical problems.

Why? Because mental health is nuanced. People are not. We tend to slam binary labels on everything around us. After all, there is comfort in thinking in extremes. It gives us mental closure. But it isn’t prescriptive to solving life’s problems.

There’s another problem that isn’t being addressed and it hurts the victim.

Healing and moving forward

My main beef with the rise of narcissism articles is one of accountability.

To move forward from any relationship, one must express contrition and remorse. I worry that armchair diagnosing has given people an out from learning.

In the aforementioned example, with the woman I knew, she wrote dozens of articles, and not once did she acknowledge any wrongdoing on her part. It was a bit ironic.

Additionally, I saw a male writer in the same vein, churning out countless articles about how terrible his narcissist partner was. The comments were a chorus of people in agreement and seemingly jumping from their chairs clapping. But there was never any slight mention of mistakes on his part.

We should be able to distinguish between victim blaming and medical honesty. We aren’t positioned to self-diagnose anyone as a narcissist based on anecdotal evidence. Throwing every bad partner in that bucket trivializes the true danger of NPD. It also stigmatizes those who are actually suffering from it.

I have deep and painful regrets from past relationships. I wouldn’t qualify myself as abusive or anything close to it. But there are so many things I’d have done differently. It’s unfair to disregard every mistake with, “They were the narcissist, not me.”

The takeaway

Narcissism is surely on the rise. Most research supports this fact.

We should monitor our egos. The surge of likes and adoration under the guise of filters and internet fame is not a friend to humility.

Additionally, writing about a bad ex will surely draw crowds and offer comfort. But it won’t complete your healing.

Not everything works out. We choose poorly. We stay too long. I’ve had a girlfriend who displayed a number of narcissistic traits. But she was far from worthy of an acute medical diagnosis.

We are all problematic, buggy humans. If you wanted to, you could find traits that match a narcissist in any person you meet. But that doesn’t mean you should.

So stay healthy, choose wisely, and skip labels you aren’t qualified to apply.


[1] Mcbride, Karyl (2007) What is Narcissism and Maternal Narcissism?

[2] Schulienberg, Bill (2019) The Trouble With Armchair Diagnosing

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