The experiment was simple: send men on to the streets of a German city with the goal of getting as much personal contact information from female strangers—phone number, name, email—and then send a researcher to talk to those women and find out if they found the men appealing and why. Before the guys hit the streets, though, the experimenters first administered an inventory identifying narcissistic traits. Guess what? The more narcissistic the man was, the more women were attracted to him. Hmmm.
Are women just gluttons for punishment or is there something to the narcissist’s initial appeal? The answer is, in fact, the latter.
- He appears charming and super-confident
Self-presentation matters a great deal to the narcissist—he needs an admiring audience to thrive, after all—so this isn’t going to be a guy who throws a tee shirt and wrinkled pants on and considers himself good to go. No, he’s going to look good, sound good, and talk a good game. He’s going to have big dreams and ambitions, and probably a nice car. Since they’re highly invested in winning people over, their delivery is highly polished and, often, quite seductive. It’s really not hard to conclude, as one woman did, that this guy might make a really good mate: “You have no idea how hard he courted me. It was though he had a handbook called ‘The Art of the Snow Job.’ Flowers, little gifts, surprises—you name it. I fell hard and I have to say, I was flattered. Of course, I didn’t know that the attention he lavished on me was just his way of guaranteeing that I would follow him around like an adoring puppy dog. It took me a few years after we got married to actually see that part.”
- He puts you on a pedestal
This is Dr. Craig Malkin’s observation from his book, Rethinking Narcissism, and the logic of it is, once again, self-referential; as Malkin explains it,” If someone this special wants me, then I must be pretty special too.” It goes without saying that, in the moment, this can feel enormously flattering and comforting, especially if you happen to be insecure in relationships. Being told that you’re amazing or beautiful or perfect can be enormously seductive until you realize that what he’s referring to isn’t you at all but a projected version of you which has nothing to do with you and everything to do with him and his needs.
Then, too, there’s the possibility of falling from grace, as one woman discovered: “He was really proud of my looks at the beginning and encouraged me to wear clothes that were revealing and frankly sexy. It’s embarrassing to admit but I liked all the attention and how he showered compliments on me. Then I was in a car accident, and broke my leg in four places and couldn’t work out for months and I gained weight. He became abusive and hostile, and made me feel guilty about how lousy I looked. I ended up crying and confessing all of this to my orthopedist who sent me straight to a therapist. I filed for divorce three months later. That broken leg was the best stroke of luck I’ve ever had.”
- You mistake the drama for passion
The narcissist likes to be in control and unless you are willing to park your own needs by the door in perpetuity, there are bound to be conflicts—lots of them. Additionally, the narcissist is an expert at playing games and manipulating others; he plays what Dr. Malkin calls “emotional hot potato,” meaning that he denies his own feelings and projects them onto you. This pretty much guarantees that you’re going end up in a cycle of never-ending conflict—you demand and he withdraws, which is another toxic pattern of connection—unless you walk or show him the door. If you don’t, there will be something that looks vaguely conciliatory—that’s how the narcissist maintains his control over you—that could include promises, hot sex, and even gifts or special nights out.
The problem? You mistake what is really a completely unresolvable cycle of conflict for passion or excitement. Until you see that the narcissist is really only interested in keeping you in thrall, you are stuck.
- He games your own self-doubt
While it’s true that anyone—whether securely or insecurely attached—can be initially attracted to a narcissist, it’s also true that a woman who is secure in herself, knows what intimacy looks and feels like, and is confident in her own needs and wants is likely to spot the narcissist early on and head for the hills. There’s evidence too that narcissists consciously target women with lower self-esteem and those who exhibit anxious attachment. The problem here is that these patterns of insecure attachment play out outside of our consciousness, unless we have become adept at untangling the triggers and our responses. Put another way, you don’t see yourself as being gamed, particularly because of all the mixed signals the narcissistic partner is sending you. On a pedestal and not. Lovey-dovey and reeling you in and pushing you off by turns. It’s no wonder it leaves your head spinning. It is, alas, very easy to miss the fact that the narcissist not only lacks the empathy necessary for intimate connection but, in truth, has absolutely no interest in true intimacy.
The narcissist can be difficult to spot and identify although, over time, the toxic nature of the relationship will be harder and harder to deny. Your best defense is self-compassion: Love yourself and it’s unlikely you’ll keep loving a narcissist.
Photograph by Joshua Earle. Copyright free. Unsplash.com
Dufner, Michael, John F, Rauthmann, Anna Z, Czarna, and Jaap J.A. Denissen, “Are Narcissists Sexy? Zeroing in on the Effect of Narcissism on Short-term Male Appeal,” Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin (2013), 39 (7), 870-882.
Malkin, Craig. Rethinking Narcissism: The Bad—and Surprising Good—about Feeling Special. New York: HarperWave, 2015.