In hindsight, much about my last relationship falls into predictable patterns. Had I known about narcissism thirteen years ago, I would have been suspicious and on my guard from the get-go. But I didn’t see it. He wasn’t a braggart, wasn’t full of himself, none of those things I associated with narcissism. I just didn’t know enough.
Picking up the pieces from a relationship with a narcissist is difficult because you feel so blindsided. The recovery is often infused with a lot of self-recrimination and blame because, looking back, the patterns are clear and obvious to you. Every time I write about narcissism, I hear from women (and men) who feel stupid and led down the garden path and often angry with themselves.
Someone wrote to say, “I would have done better if I’d been able to see his playbook” and that sparked this post. Please feel free to switch up genders but I have written it using masculine pronouns because men dominate the far end of the narcissistic spectrum.
Inside the Narcissist’s Playbook
Of course, a narcissist doesn’t really have one but there are enough consistent behaviors analyzed by experts that we can well imagine one. Here’s my take on what it might look like.
- The Big Wow
Yes, cue the candles, the romantic dinner, the heartfelt texts or notes because when the narcissist sets his sights, there ain’t no mountain high enough, or so he’ll make you think. At first glance, he seems beyond charming, thoughtful, and someone anyone would be proud to be with. He aims to sweep you off your feet and the chances are good that he does. You may have a few girlfriends who wonder about his sincerity and how it all seemed like a full-court press and say so but you chalk it up to jealousy. After all, who wouldn’t want to be with this guy? What with all the seducing going on, you don’t notice the blinders he’s placed over your eyes.
- Putting You on a Pedestal
According to Dr. Craig Malkin, author of Rethinking Narcissism, this is typical of the narcissist, an extension of his thinking that he’s pretty great and so must you be, if you’re going to be with him. Having compliments strewn about and hearing that he’s “the luckiest guy in the world” to have met you will surely make you feel pretty terrific at first but it’s also a sign that he’s not really seeing you but only a reflection of his own glory. Beware of the idealizer.
- Keeping You Guessing
The narcissist’s capacity for real emotional connection is limited and intimacy isn’t something he’s interested in but he does love the rush of power that comes from having someone in his orbit. In this relationship, you’re likely to mistake drama for passion, and think that the hot make-up sex after he’s drifted away or fought with you is proof positive of his devotion. In this playbook, drama is the spice of life.
- Stealth Control
This observation is Dr. Craig Malkin’s and it’s important because this tactic assures that you won’t actually appreciate how you’ve lost your sense of self until way late in the game. The narcissist doesn’t declare himself by being overtly controlling because he doesn’t like depending on anyone or asking for anything. So, instead, he switches up plans you’ve already decided on—or you thought you jointly agreed to—and substitutes something “better,” “more fun,” and “sexier.” So, instead of buying plane tickets to Seattle to visit your sister at Thanksgiving, he surprises you with tickets to Paris, and what can you say? Isn’t Paris more exciting than Seattle and candied yams? he asks with a smile. Well, the truth is that you were really looking forward to seeing your sister but you say nothing. Done often enough—and the narcissist will—he slowly and methodically makes your wants and needs insignificant in the scheme of things without your ever noticing.
- Emotional Hot Potato
Everyone fights—and that’s what you keep telling yourself—but somehow you manage not to fully register, not at the start at least, that he doesn’t own up to what he’s feeling. Instead, he plays what Dr. Malkin calls “emotional hot potato,” ascribing his feelings to you. So you’re trying to talk through a problem with him, and he’s standing there, his jaw muscles working, his fists clenched, a faint sneer on his face, and just saying “uh huh” or “really?” in a sarcastic tone of voice. It’s clear to you that he’s angry with you, as if you have some nerve bringing this issue up, and you call him out on it. It’s at moment that he turns the tables, challenging you with “Why are you so angry? It’s always the same old tattoo? If you’re unhappy, just leave.” Did I mention brinksmanship? Up next.
- Gaming You
Just as the narcissist enjoys the thrill of seduction and successfully seducing, he also needs the relationship to feel good about himself so he’s expert at playing games, doing what he can to keep you dancing on those marionette’s strings. Keeping you off-balance is part of the playbook—doing something that seems like a lovely gesture after a rough patch, for example, or showing you how much he cares by doing something you know he’s only doing for you. All the warning signs you’ve begun to take note of—how he disparages your friends and discourages you from socializing with them, how cold and uncaring he can be at time, his habit of pushing off from his feelings—fly out of your head and you’re back in his orbit.
- Under His Thumb
Yes, and between game-playing and brinksmanship, that’s where you’ll stay for the moment at least.
- Stonewalling and Gaslighting
As you begin to become more aware of the narcissist’s true nature, he’ll up the ante on playing with your head and making sure you stay put. Stonewalling is part of a classic toxic relational pattern called Demand/Withdraw—it even has an acronym DM/W—and it’s another way he can play on your empathy, your desire to keep things going, and to make peace. You begin by asking to discuss something and he answers with silence which, in turn, makes you frustrated and upset and your voice rises and he retreats more…and then you feel awful. Sound familiar?
Gaslighting is a classic way of making sure you stay off-balance and mistrust your perceptions. Are you in love with a liar? Did he say it or not?
- Woo or Woe
Here’s where the going gets rough and if you haven’t recognized that he’s a narcissist before, the chances are good that you will now. A narcissist doesn’t take kindly to someone else calling the shots, especially if that someone is about to make him look bad by leaving him. That is not part of his vision of how things go so he’ll turn on a dime to make your life as miserable as he possibly can. Especially if you have the temerity to divorce him…Get ready for war because he’s going to wage it.
- Scorched Earth and Vindictiveness
Scorched earth is a military term which describes the tactic of burning everything to the ground as an enemy approaches, and I first used to describe my ex’s behavior to my lawyer during my divorce. Dr. Joseph Burgo describes vindictiveness as the hallmark of one kind of narcissist but I wonder whether all narcissists don’t react to central threats in the same way. The thing that is utterly bewildering is that they honestly don’t care who gets hurt or what gets said or whether lie after lie is stacked up as long as they win. It’s absolutely mind-boggling. They are willing to sacrifice their children and anyone else who stays in their way without ever blinking. Be prepared to be maligned and scapegoated; it’s what a narcissist does to win at any cost.
Know the playbook and be vigilant. There’s no way of winning with these folks.
Photograph by Ayo Ogunseinde. Copyright Free. Unsplash.com
Malkin, Craig. Rethinking Narcissism: The Secret to Recognizing and Coping with Narcissists. New York: Harper Perennial, 2016.
Burgo, Joseph. The Narcissist You Know: Defending Yourself against Extreme Narcissists in an All-About-Me Age. New York: Touchstone, 2016.
Campbell, W. Keith, Craig A. Fogler, and Eli J. Finkel. “Does Self-Love Lead to Love for Others? A Story of Narcissistic Game Playing, “Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (2002), vol. 83, no. 2, 340-354.