It took Sue, now 40, years to get up the courage to end her ten year marriage. “To everyone on the outside looking in, it looked as though it should have been easy to get out. We had no children. We both worked and I didn’t have to depend on him financially. I knew I was unhappy by year four but it took me another six years to untangle my feelings. He was a master of manipulation and he worked on confusing me every time I got vocal about what I was going to do. Looking back, I can see it clearly but I couldn’t then. I honestly couldn’t.”
The narcissist has, in pop culture and psychology, has become the Big Bad Wolf to every man or woman’s Little Red Riding Hood or the guy in the Black Hat on the set of a Hollywood Western. (I’ll be using the masculine pronoun because more men are at the higher end of the Narcissistic spectrum, but feel free to switch the gender.) But, unlike fairy tales or movies, real life is harder to process, and it’s not always easy for someone to tell the difference between the good guys and the bad ones.
Tangled web (and some excuses)
If you’re in love with someone high in narcissistic traits, it’s not as straightforward as the advice columns make it which basically can be summarized in one word: RUN! That advice overlooks the real life problems everyone faces when considering ending a relationship that has been important. The truth is that relationships can remain important in your mind—because you made a commitment, because you’ve put in all this energy and time, because you’re scared of being alone, because you want to believe that marriage is forever or you think kids need two parents, because you don’t want to publicly admit a mistake, or lots of other reasons—long after they ceased to be emotionally important in the thriving and nourishing sense.
There’s another thread that I see whenever I write about narcissism which is steeped in denial of the dynamic and so self-referential that it might be narcissistic: “I’m magnet for narcissists. It’s not my fault.”
It’s actually more complicated than that. This is what Dan, 43, told me:
If you met Diane at a party or a business meet-up, you’d be blown away. Attractive, smart, funny. But to stay married to her, I had to give up any thought, need, preference that was mine. We’d built a life, had a child, but there was no oxygen in the room for me. I knew the story wouldn’t end well for me and I left. And boy, she continues to come after me. She has to win. I am an affront to her, the trophy she lost.
That story is typical of people who divorce narcissists and relatively rare because it came from a male reader. There are Facebook pages devoted to women who have been in court for years, long after the divorce.
Dealing with the master puppeteer
On the surface at least, narcissists bring a lot to the party; they tend to be accomplished and successful, present themselves well, and appear to be strong and in command. My favorite research study sent men into the streets of Germany with the task of getting personal information (cell number, email, name) from 25 random female strangers for a potential meet-up. Guess what? The men who scored highest on narcissistic traits were the most successful.
In his book, The Narcissist You Know, Dr. Joseph Burgo singles out the Seductive Narcissist and points out that these relationships often begin with our feeling special because he has chosen us. Alas, this dovetails nicely with all the “Someday My Prince Will Come” messages the culture sends out. Keep in mind too, even as your own awareness of what’s not going right in the relationship begins to grow, the narcissist can turn on the charm at will and, suddenly, you’re back to humming the tune. You don’t know it but you’ve been reeled back into his orbit.
Five things it could cost you psychologically
If you’re still on the fence about what to do about this relationship, at the very least pay attention to what is happening to you, your thought processes, and psychological health because the chances are good that all of your energies are devoted to trying to figure him out and somehow make this connection work. Don’t forget that keeping you in his thrall is part of his game plan, and the narcissist plays plenty of games.
- Losing sight of yourself
The narcissist is controlling but as Dr. Craig Malkin makes clear in his book Rethinking Narcissism, he may exert stealth control, rather than the more obvious kind. This may include constantly switching up plans you’ve already agreed to or coming up with supposed surprises that effectively derail major decisions already discussed. This may not sound like a big deal—making a reservation at a bistro when you’d decided on Asian cuisine, whisking you away to a beach get-away when you’d promised to go to your girlfriend’s housewarming, putting the money you’d earmarked for a kitchen redo into something he says is better—but, over time, you may actually forget what your likes and preferences are. Dr. Malkin notes that this is more “like a war of attrition on your will than an outright assault on your freedom.”
- Ending up feeling isolated
Over time, the narcissist often becomes the couple’s social director, although his partner may not immediately notice the trend. This is especially true if you have friends who aren’t too keen on him and the relationship, but it really has more to do with control and need to keep you dependent. Again, his ways of accomplishing this are usually subtle—switching plans, making a fuss when you’ve suggested the two of you do something that involves your friends, not his, and the like. You may also unwittingly collude in your isolation, especially if your friends are urging you to take steps to end the relationship and you’re just not ready, particularly if you’re in one of the intermittent upswings of the relationship and feeling that you’re oh-so-lucky.
- Being tricked into self-blaming
One of the hallmarks of someone high in narcissistic traits is never owning his emotions and, additionally, playing what Dr. Malkin calls playing emotional hot potato—projecting his feelings onto you. For those who are used to either blaming themselves or who hate confrontations and would rather kiss and make up, this can further cast the imbalance of power in the relationship in cement. Alas, if you’re focused on trying to fix things any way you can, you’re likely to overlook the fact that the narcissist never tries to do anything but win and maintain his power. The idea of resolving conflict with him in some talk-it-through-way is nothing but a pipe dream.
- Worn down by stonewalling or gaslighting
Your own emotional confusion—the larger Should-I-leave-or-should I stay question? —is aided and abetted by the wear and tear inflicted by your partner’s constant stonewalling when you try to discuss something that’s bothering you or, even worse, his gaslighting. This can leave you depressed and defeated in ways that you might not even recognize as one woman recounted:
It was only after the divorce that I could do a full accounting of the effects the relationship had on me. The endless legal wrangling, his refusal to negotiate, took its toll but in retrospect, that started long before the divorce. It was all an either/or thing from the beginning because he had no emotional investment in me or the marriage. I didn’t see that because he made sure that he continued to act loving, do nice things, even as he effectively made it impossible to resolve our differences. He got out of the mess unscathed; I didn’t.
The narcissist only needs people in very limited ways which have nothing to do with love and connection, though that may be impossible to see when you’re still in the thick of it. And they don’t care about emotional consequences because they have severely impaired or no empathy.
- Hungry for love and approval—and stuck
Do you remember the Greek myth of Tantalus, from which our word tantalizing comes? He angered the gods so they punished him for eternity by having him stand under a fruit tree by a rippling stream but every time he got hungry or thirsty, the branches with the fruit would bend away and the waters would recede just out of his reach. Research shows that humans act pretty much that way, persisting in situations which offer a tantalizing view of what they want and need even if they’re always beyond reach and that’s especially true if you’re involved with a seductive narcissist who hands it to you on a platter from time to time.
These hidden costs are often hard to see when you’re still very much in a relationship emotionally and can keep you there longer. Pay attention, listen to your gut, and take a hard look at what staying is really costing you.
Photograph by Karen Warfel. Copyright free. Pixabay.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.
Burgo, Joseph. The Narcissist You Know: Defending Yourself Against Extreme Narcissists in an All-About-Me Age. New York: Touchstone, 2016.
Malkin, Craig. Rethinking Narcissism: The Secret to Recognizing and Coping with Narcissists. New York: Harper Perennial, 2016.