Have you ever thought about the depth of narcissistic abuse? You probably already know the basics: it causes you to develop many different maladaptive coping techniques like rumination, emotional numbing, procrastination, and maybe even more dangerous ones like substance abuse, self-harm, and binge eating.

But there’s more…

Once you’ve been able to overcome all of the obstacles I listed above, there is yet another traumatizing mountain you have to climb, you’re healing journey. The healing journey is a long and difficult road. It requires a lot of knowledge about narcissism and narcissistic behavior patterns.

An important step you could take to ensure the success of your healing journey would be to know the difference between a healthy relationship and an unhealthy relationship.

One of the reasons that the healing journey is so difficult is because narcissistic abuse corrupts your perception of healthy relationships. It traps you in the unhealthy state of paranoia and distrust for those around you.

This is dangerous because without a comprehensive grasp of the dynamics in a healthy relationship, there’s a high probability that you won’t be able to fully understand why the manipulation, invalidation, and devaluation that you experienced was unhealthy and abusive. 

It can leave your mind plagued with the sound of their condescending voice and consume your mental capacity with rumination, self-doubt, self-blame, and neglected trauma. 

Under these circumstances, the chances of you finding yourself back in yet another abusive relationship and/or accidentally ruining a healthy relationship is very high.

After everything you’ve been through, you owe it to yourself to find a healthy relationship, rebuild your identity and core values, and truly be happy. 

This has been one of our favorite articles we’ve written because we relied heavily on the stories of our 431 Unfilteredd Participants to identify the biggest differences between healthy relationships and narcissistic relationships.

It’s our sincere hope that you find this article helpful, and for those of you who’ve experienced both healthy relationships and narcissistic relationships, please feel free to leave a comment about the biggest differences you’ve noticed between the two. 

In Unhealthy Relationships There’s Cognitive Dissonance and in Healthy Relationships There’s Cognitive Coherence 

In the 1950s a social psychologist, Leon Festinger, molded the theory of cognitive dissonance which he defined as an inconsistency among beliefs, knowledge, and behavior which causes a lot of psychological tension.

The theory suggests that in an attempt to reduce the tension, we often try to make everything consistent by changing the element(s) that are inconsistent. 

“For me the biggest difference was cognitive dissonance. I remember spending hours making excuses for my excuses. I knew my husband’s behavior was wrong and I knew I was wrong for enabling it, but I wanted to be happy so badly that I just kept making excuses for everything. 

I left him in 2009, remarried in 2017, and it has been wonderful. There are rarely any inconsistencies, I feel heard and loved, I feel free to express my emotions, and I feel equal in the relationship. I’ve traded cognitive dissonance for cognitive coherence and it is the best feeling in the world.”

Jasmine

The behavior patterns of a narcissist are designed to enable cognitive dissonance. The best depiction of this dynamic can be found within the love bombing phase

The traditional concept of the love bombing phase has originated from a grandiose narcissist’s behavior patterns and can be characterized as an overwhelming amount of intimacy, spontaneous moments, gifts, and communication.

During this phase a narcissist will use a very manipulative tactic called mirroring, which is when they pay an incredible amount of attention to every little detail about you and reflect them back to you. 

This behavior essentially morphs them into the embodiment of you Mr. or Mrs. Perfect,” hence it being called the love bombing phase. 

So, here you are sharing a life with someone who you believe to be your soulmate or at the very least someone who you can build a future with, but then all of a sudden these red flags start popping up.

They’re prone to rage, entitled, hypersensitive to criticism, they frequently put others down, minimize the success of you and others, they’re very critical of you, and they constantly need to know where you are, what you’re doing, and who you’re with.  

What do you do now? 

You’ve been envisioning a wonderful life with this person for weeks, maybe even months, but their behavior is contradicting your fantasy of falling in love with the right person. 

What too many people do is they find a way to rationalize, justify, and normalize the narcissistic behavior they’re experiencing. By no means is this their fault, narcissists have so many manipulative techniques designed to keep people hooked into the relationship but the reality is that it takes two people to work. 

The correlation this has with cognitive dissonance is when someone ignores the red flags they are seeing to reduce the amount of psychological tension they’re experiencing from having their fantasy contradicted. 

Cognitive dissonance is a very, very common dynamic in narcissistic relationship and it doesn’t just happen in the love bombing phase, it exists in every single aspect of the narcissistic realm. 

In a healthy relationship you can be in love with someone without having to deal with someone projecting all of their insecurities, vulnerabilities and shame onto you. You will feel comfortable expressing your thoughts, feelings, emotions, and needs. You won’t have to deal with intimacy avoidance, and you won’t have to have to question your reality and/or sanity. 

Healthy relationships don’t enable cognitive dissonance because there is a consistent level of availability, respect, and empathy. 

In Unhealthy Relationships Your Vulnerabilities and Insecurities Are Used Against You and in Healthy Relationships They Aren’t

One of the most common ways narcissists keep you oppressed is by using your vulnerabilities and insecurities against you. They are very good at learning every little detail about you astonishingly fast but instead of using the information they gather to strengthen the relationship, they use it to manipulate you in the future. 

“The biggest difference for me was the ability to be vulnerable with someone else. I felt comfortable crying and sharing things that were embarrassing or hurt me. I didn’t have to have that feeling in my gut when I knew I accidently gave my abuser information that she could use against me in the future. Being able to be vulnerable with someone is a huge part of intimacy.”

Mitchell

This behavior pattern usually manifests in the form of baiting. Narcissists are very emotionally immature, meaning they aren’t able to regulate their own emotions. As some of the most self-loathing people on the planet, this is quite problematic for them and results in an uncontrollable amount of suppressed negative emotions.

Instead of addressing this emotional inadequacy of theirs, they fabricate a superficial reality based on societal norms and expectations to portray themselves as admirable, respectable, successful, wanted, attractive and so on. 

For those of you dealing with covert narcissists, this reality manifests in their depressed aura. Meaning that their grandiosity oozes out of them in a much more underrated tone. It makes you feel like you’re the only one who sees their greatness when in reality they are just narcissistic.

“I could’ve been a millionaire if my parents weren’t so absent… I should’ve gone to an Ivy League school but my parents didn’t work hard enough… I would’ve gone pro if my coach wasn’t so biased…”

A Covert Narcissist

Why is this important?

To maintain this reality narcissists depend on the narcissistic supply, the validation and admiration they receive from others, to maintain this reality. 

Unfortunately…

You can only be in a narcissistic relationship so long before the narcissistic supply they extract from you becomes stale. 

This could happen because of how emotionally draining narcissistic relationships are or it could happen because you’ve started to use techniques designed to dismantle the narcissistic supply like setting boundaries, use the gray rock method, or the no contact method.

When the narcissistic supply goes stale, it is incredibly destabilizing for the narcissist in your life. To drag you back into the relationship they’ll either use intermittent reinforcement or use manipulative tactics like baiting. 

To bait you into engaging with them, and subsequently back into the relationship, a narcissist will simply use your vulnerabilities and insecurities against you while directing your response to suit their needs.

But there’s a catch…

If you fall for the bait, they’ll use your reaction to project all of the blame onto you. If you don’t have a solid foundation of knowledge about narcissism that you can stand on in the face of narcissistic abuse, you’ll likely find yourself rationalizing, normalizing, and justifying the narcissistic behavior.

In a healthy relationship you don’t have to worry about your vulnerabilities and insecurities being used against you. Being in a healthy relationship means that your partner has accepted you and everything that comes with it

Healthy relationships feel like a safe space where you can express your emotions without being invalidated, devalued and/or abused. 

In a Healthy Relationship Your Existence Won’t Be Minimized

One of the most common ways narcissistic abuse is justified, normalized, and rationalized is through minimization from both the narcissist and those who’ve suffered narcissistic abuse

“In an unhealthy relationship you constantly have to defend/explain/validate your existence. I wasn’t allowed to stand up for myself because his behavior was never abusive enough to validate my emotions and feelings. Healthy relationships are completely different. I’ll never forget the day my fiance told me that I didn’t have to explain to him why I was feeling the way I was. He told me that when I am ready he’ll be there to listen. That is what a healthy relationship is. It’s a person you can lean on no matter how small your problems may be.”

Andrea

When it comes to the narcissist the most common way it manifests is through gaslighting, specifically gaslighting through minimization. Gaslighting is when someone doubts and/or denies your reality so frequently that you begin to question your sanity. 

Gaslighting through minimization is when a narcissist will simply minimize your thoughts, feelings, concerns, emotions and well-being on a daily basis. 

Examples of Gaslighting Through Minimization:

  1. Are you seriously upset that I still talk to (blank)? You’re so sensitive. 
  2. I didn’t even hit you that hard, relax. 
  3. So I have a couple drinks during the week, BIG DEAL! I need to relieve some stress… get off my back.
  4. I can’t believe that you are complaining about the way I speak to you when there are people out there who are REALLY abused. You are so selfish.
  5. You’re acting insane, it is not that big of a deal. 

Gaslighting is a the most dominant manipulative behavior in the narcissistic realm so be sure to check out How to Deal With Gaslighting for a complete guide. 

The other way minimization manifests in the narcissistic realm is through the minimization of others’ success. There are three things that you need to know about narcissists if you are to manage narcissistic behavior patterns. 

  • Narcissists are emotionally immature due to an unhealthy/abusive childhood. So, they build their self-esteem off of societal norms and expectations. 
    • Narcissists are drawn to money, power, appearances, social media, and control because we currently live in a society that values that over what they desperately need, which is emotional stability and security. 
  • A narcissist’s ego is incredibly fragile because they’ve built their self-esteem off of insignificant things. Their emotional immaturity makes them incapable of regulating their own emotions so what they end up doing is suppressing all of the negative emotions they experience in their psyche. 
    • When it comes to narcissists and their suppressed emotions, the best way to understand it would be to compare them to the reaction soda has with Mentos. If you drop a package of Mentos into a soda bottle and tighten the cap it is going to explode.
    • The only way that the soda bottle won’t get destroyed is if someone removed the cap. Narcissist’s and their emotions are the same way. Their inability to regulate their own emotions would cause them to explode if they weren’t able to find someone to project them onto. 
  • It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to understand how unstable a narcissist’s inner world is after learning about their inability to regulate their negative emotions. But what you might not know is that their inability to regulate their own emotions combined with their fragile egos, makes them vulnerable to narcissistic injuries on a daily basis. 
    • We’ve all experienced an ego injury before. It could be a pro athlete having his/her contract cut. It could be someone spending all day cooking a meal for their significant other only for them to get food poisoning from it. Or even a teacher being outwitted by a student. It is a normal experience every human-being has at some point or another.
    • Narcissistic injuries are essentially ego injuries, but they are in the narcissistic realm which means they play under a whole different set of rules. Due to a narcissist’s emotional immaturity and fragile egos, they experience narcissistic injuries over the most trivial things you could imagine on a daily basis
    • Something as insignificant as not asking for a second plate of food, not getting enough likes on social media, being criticized or even held accountable for their behavior is detrimental to their well-being.
    • The reason being that since they’ve built their self-esteem off of their ability to accumulate materialistic things to be accepted by society, something as small as not getting enough likes on a social media post contradicts their identity. It is the equivalent of someone working their entire life to be a teacher only to be told that they’re too dumb to achieve their dreams.

The reason it is important to know those three things is because they fuel a narcissist’s paranoia, rage, insecure need to win and insecure need to be dominant and in control.

Meaning that they become very resentful, agitated, and visibly distressed when they’re in the presence of people who are successful, especially when it comes to covert narcissism. 

When they are in the presence of someone who is truly an outstanding individual, it triggers all of their suppressed negative emotions because it contradicts their reality that portrays them as the center of attention, the best, and the most desirable.

In healthy relationships minimization does not happen. Your partner will not view your successes as a challenge to their identity. They will not badmouth the success of others from a place of jealousy, insecurity, and convoluted anger. 

Healthy relationships exist because of the ability to be vulnerable with one another. Your emotions will not be minimized, invalidated, or discarded. A healthy relationship will make you feel heard, even if the two of you disagree. 

In a Healthy Relationship You Can Have an Argument That Brings Clarity Instead of Self-Doubt

Narcissists are the spartans of arguing, they were bred for it. The reason being is because “winning” an argument fulfils their insecure need to be dominant. 

When it comes to an argument, a narcissist’s brain morphs into the world’s most manipulative encyclopedia and they are able to weaponize every little detail about you only to use it against you to “win” the argument.

It’s ironic because they can’t remember a single thing about you when it comes to other aspects of your relationship but when it comes time to manipulate you they can pull just about anything out of left field and punish you with it. 

Over time a narcissist’s approach to arguments will silence you. Arguments with a narcissist are terrifying, they are hurtful, and they are derogatory. You’ll end up avoiding confrontation out of fear of their reaction and subsequently normalize their behavior for the entirety of your relationship. 

It is an exhausting experience and when it is combined with all of the other manipulative tactics commonly seen in the narcissistic realm, it makes you doubt yourself. 

It’s important to note that there isn’t a long term relationship in the history of the planet that didn’t have a good amount of arguing woven into its fabric. Arguing is a normal dynamic in all relationships. 

In an Argument In a Healthy Relationship:

  • There isn’t any gaslighting.
  • You don’t feel dominated.
  • Your voice is respected.
  • There isn’t any rage.
  • You’re not contemptuous for one another. 
  • You aren’t afraid of them.

In a healthy relationship arguments aren’t something you look forward to, but they definitely aren’t a huge source of anxiety and fear. 

In a healthy relationship an argument is a strong indicator that you both believe that the relationship is worthy of a fight. You’re not just brushing things off or being silenced,  you’re fighting for what you think is right.

When the dust settles, the argument is resolved and both parties feel respected and valued

In a Healthy Relationship You’ll Have Specific Reasons For Being In a Relationship With Your Partner

If you were in a healthy relationship and someone were to question your reasoning for staying in the relationship you would be able to give the specific answers to defend your decision. 

  • He/she is really kind to me. 
  • He/she makes an effort to understand me.
  • I love how we motivate each other, I can see myself building a future with him/her.
  • He/she respects my boundaries.
  • We’ve been together for so long and still find ways to grow as a couple.

The reason being that both parties are honest, vulnerable, open minded, considerate, and working together instead of against each other. 

If someone were to question your reasoning for being in a narcissistic relationship, you’d most likely only have vague and predictive justifications. In fact, vague and predictive justifications for a relationship is one of the biggest signs someone is in a trauma bonded relationship. 

What do I mean by vague and predictive justifications? 

In our article, What Are Narcissists’ Weaknesses, we spoke about how you can tell that narcissists know that their behavior is wrong.

They spend their entire lives trying to conceal their true identity to society because they know they’d be rejected, which is one of their biggest fears. I could go on about this forever but the moral of the story is that a narcissist’s life is one big act and they love it.

Everything is one big seduction to them. They are very intelligent so more often than not, they get what they want. Unfortunately because they are so superficial, the relationships they form through their seductive tactics, usually seen in the beginning stages of a narcissistic relationship, are superficial as well. 

They might be able to learn every little detail about you very quickly but they don’t actually use that information to strengthen the relationship. Their heart doesn’t skip a beat when they kiss you for the first time. When they say they miss you, they don’t actually miss you, they miss the narcissistic supply you give them.

The truth is that a narcissist would never let you close enough for you to develop a genuine connection and be able to have specific reasons to justify the relationship. Meaning that victims of narcissistic abuse rarely have a clear reason to why they were with their abuser. 

What Should You Take Away From This Article?

Being able to see the difference between a healthy and unhealthy relationship is so important for your healing journey. 

The reason being that it is very common for those who’ve suffered narcissistic abuse and haven’t been able to get a comprehensive grasp on what they endured, to gravitate towards abusive relationships in the future simply because it is familiar.

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Get a Free Healing Bundle Every Week!

  • 1 Educational Video From a Mental Health Professional
  • 1 Informative PDF About Narcissistic Abuse
  • 1 Journaling Exercise With Multiple Prompts
  • 7 Affirmations for the Upcoming Week
  • 4 Helpful Tips for a Successful Healing Journey

All of the content that Unfilteredd creates is for educational purposes only and is not intended to be a substitute for clinical care — please visit here for qualified organizations and here for qualified professionals that you can reach out to for help. This article has been reviewed by our editorial board and has been approved for publication in accordance with our editorial policies.

Suggested Readings:

How to Heal From Narcissistic Abuse
How to Protect Yourself From a Narcissist