Relative Narcissism: Coping With Family Members Who Are Pathological Narcissists

Navigating the emotional landscape of a family is challenging enough, but when a family member exhibits traits of narcissistic personality disorder, the emotional toll can be overwhelming.

The constant need for validation, the manipulative tactics, and the lack of genuine empathy can make even the simplest interactions draining and complex.

If you find yourself in this situation, know that you’re not alone, and it’s completely natural to feel a mix of emotions—frustration, sadness, and even guilt.

While the challenges are undeniably magnified when the narcissistic individual is a family member rather than a friend or colleague, there are ways to cope and strategies to improve the dynamics over time.

This article aims to guide you through understanding the unique difficulties posed by narcissistic relatives and offers actionable advice to help you maintain your emotional well-being.

Difficulties of Narcissistic Relatives vs. Non-Relatives

The emotional investment and familiarity relatives have with each other enables narcissistic manipulation in a way that more detached non-relatives do not. With relatives, the narcissist knows which buttons to push to provoke reactions. A few key differences emerge:

  • Emotional Investment
    The innate emotional bond with relatives, either positive or negative, allows narcissists to get under the skin in a deeper way, and affect your self-esteem. Non-relatives have more emotional distance.
  • No Detachment
    Non-relatives can compartmentalize contact with narcissists. Relatives are unavoidably woven into multiple areas of life.
  • Escalating Conflicts
    Repeated conflicts build on past issues with relatives. Non-relatives conflicts start fresh each time.

The sustained contact and emotional connection with relatives provides fertile ground for narcissistic games. It makes maintaining composure and boundaries substantially more difficult compared to non-relatives.

Core Conflictual Relationship Themes

The core conflictual relationship theme (CCRT) model from psychotherapy provides valuable insights into the relationship patterns between narcissists and those close to them. CCRT examines underlying wishes, responses of others, and responses of self that characterize relationships.

Research on narcissistic relatives using CCRT shows an interesting finding: the underlying wishes in the relationship are often similar between relatives and non-relatives. However, the responses ultimately provoke disharmony and escalation more often with narcissistic relatives.

For example, the wish to be loved and supported is consistent. But the narcissist’s unreliable or attacking responses frustrate this wish more intensely with relatives. Defensive withdrawal arises in response, which fuels narcissistic rage.

The themes highlight relatives’ vulnerability and how the narcissist exploits it. But awareness of CCRT dynamics provides opportunities to reset patterns. More on that next.

Strategies to Improve Family Relationships

While coping with a narcissistic relative will always require significant effort, there are some strategies informed by therapy approaches that can slowly improve dynamics:

Manage Expectations and Set Boundaries

  • Don’t expect typical empathy or accountability.
  • Make needs and boundaries clear. Be prepared to enforce them.
  • Limit contact if required for self-preservation.

Limit Personal Information Sharing

  • Info is ammunition for manipulation. Share minimally.
  • Keep conversations focused externally, not on you.
  • Set information diet boundaries.

Seek Counseling or Support Groups

  • Individual and family counseling can provide strategies.
  • Support groups help you know you’re not alone.
  • Therapy reframes interactions as the narcissist’s issues.

Practice Empathy from Afar

  • You can’t make a narcissist truly empathize.
  • But viewing their actions through a lens of pathology rather than malice helps.
  • Their disorder causes them to act certain ways. Externalize and detach.

Improvement takes time. With concerted effort, it is possible to establish better boundaries and change the narrative from personal attacks to understanding the narcissist’s limitations. But always value your needs first.

When to Cut Contact

In severe cases involving abuse, manipulation, and sustained toxicity, cutting off contact with a narcissistic relative becomes necessary:

  • Physical or Emotional Abuse
    Remaining in contact with an abusive narcissistic relative simply enables further abuse and harm. No relationship merits risking one’s safety and sanity.
  • Sustained Resistance to Change
    If extended efforts to establish boundaries are resisted and undermined, it may be time to step away or minimize contact significantly.
  • Your Needs Aren’t Being Met
    If the relationship brings mostly stress and harm to your life, while giving little in return, leaving the relationship can be an act of self-care.

In many cases, distancing oneself or cutting contact ends up being the only way to stop the cycle of narcissistic abuse. It’s okay to choose your own well-being.


Having a narcissistic personality disordered relative presents unique challenges given the close emotional ties. Leveraging approaches like CCRT analysis and therapy-informed strategies can slowly improve dynamics. But in cases of unrelenting toxicity, recognizing when to cut contact is vital for self-preservation. With concerted effort, it is possible to establish better boundaries in narcissistic relative relationships. Just be prepared that difficult periods may be unavoidable in the process.

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