top of page

From Dream to Nightmare: The Progression of a Toxic Romantic Relationship

Although any relationship can have toxic traits (a parent, sibling, child, friend, lover, or coworker), this topic is specifically focusing on romantic relationships with Narcissists. If someone with "narcissistic" traits makes themselves vulnerable to you, either it will go very good or very bad. Yeah this is true for any relationship but the operative word is ‘very’ and goes from one extreme to the other. Usually it begins as a surreal dream and ends or carries on forever as a living nightmare.


Do you know anyone who has ever made the statement, “I met someone who makes me feel bad, question myself, doubt my abilities, and place them before all my needs. I think I’m in love!”

Unfortunately, these relationships never start that way. In fact, most Narcissistic relationships begin ideally. The initial attraction is genuine. We all put our best face forward in order to impress someone we are in to. And if we feel accepted and receive enough attention, we begin to develop an attachment. But for the narcissist, who normally tries very hard to avoid rejection or discomfort, this acceptance is something they need and crave. So they find every way to impress us, to praise or compliment us, and to find as many commonalities as possible to keep our attention. They often tell us the truth for the first and last time during this period as well.

Narcissists often tell us deeply personal things about themselves early in the relationship. First its an admission of them feeling unworthy, often something like, “You’d never date someone like me” or “you’re just too good to be true.” This little bait is usually met with a compliment in return or a self-diminishing remark to make them feel good (i.e., “I have so many flaws” or “Omg I was so into you from the moment I saw you”). If they do not feel rejection, the narcissist will continue the interaction as much and as often as possible. They may also reveal a past hurt from a close family member or childhood trauma which makes them cautious about love and relationships. This is honest but also a test. The right answer will win you the prize of their admiration and praise because, “you’re the only one who gets me.”


Next, there is a quick period of attachment that grows at warp speed. While you’re experiencing it, the feeling is overwhelming and awesome and wonderful and omg all of those things! You find yourself telling people how you guys instantly hit it off and then spent so many days and hours talking, texting, calling, and being with each other. Because this feels so good, you also make tiny or minor compromises to be with them or talk to them such as blowing off your friends or work, cancelling appointments or not answering incoming calls. All you want is to be with them and them alone. And that is all they want as well. We see it as gestures to show them our level of interest, but they are calculating and keeping track of every wonderful feeling you are providing. Unwittingly, we are providing them with expectations and ammunition for things you can’t imagine are coming.


Insidious is a word that describes a slow, subtle and gradual build up to a sinister or harmful conclusion. A narcissistic relationship is the textbook definition of insidious. The shift happens much sooner than we are aware of and is usually the smallest, slightest interaction. It could be something you said, a reaction to them, or a reminder of someone else that you weren’t even aware of. Usually, the narcissist will display a quick negative change in mood, attitude or energy. When you notice, they will brush it off but make sure you understand exactly why they reacted that way. Because of you! But you will be forgiven immediately if you apologize or try to make them feel better. And that is the beginning of a set of similar interactions in which the narcissist experiences negative emotions and you make them feel better. Without agreeing to it, you have shown them that you are the problem and the solution. When you can pinpoint early interactions such as these, you can track a million others throughout the progression of the relationship. Ultimately, you learn to anticipate their moods, their needs, their reactions, and attempt to manage and control their discomfort for them. Because, again, YOU are the problem and must also be the solution.


As if that wasn’t bad enough, other shifts occur along the road that eventually leads to the full-on toxic relationship so obvious, people use it as an example in blog posts like this one. One of those shifts is isolation. People closest to you are influential but don’t always agree with the narcissist in your life. This is unacceptable. For the narcissist, anyone not agreeing with them is against them, so you must choose a side. I’ll give you a hint, there is only one correct answer. To chose them, means to cut off or at least minimize your interaction with this other person. Another shift involves a diminished self-esteem. Remember those initial concerns you were out of their league? Guess what? They never went away. All the ways they see you as too good for them, remind them of their insecurities, so they must be obliterated. Either overtly or covertly, you will know that the qualities you may be proud of are not very attractive to the narcissist. Eventually, you find yourself being punished for the unacceptable and excusing their bad behavior because you are the only one who gets them. Unfortunately, while you are spending the entire relationship trying to make them happy, you start to forget how to be happy yourself.

**If you are in, ending, or trying to heal from a relationship like the one described here and need help, please contact us. The Hurt and Healing workshop Relationship Recovery and Facebook community are designed to help you build skills and increase supports necessary to heal today for healthy relationships tomorrow.