Sometimes, alas, things are just too good to be true. That’s what I hear from readers who recall how their relationship started with a man who turned out to be a narcissist. My own started charmingly with a Valentine’s card sent when he knew I was out of the country; he and I had been friends for some years so, it’s only in retrospect, that the gesture takes on meaning: “Be my Valentine, would you? It’d be so fine,” written in his sloping handwriting on a card with a single heart. I was surprised and touched which is exactly what he wanted me to be. Others recall thoughtful little gifts, a bouquet of flowers, a sweet text or email in the middle of a trying day.
“I was so flattered and overwhelmed by his attentions. It was though a prince on a white horse had galloped into town, wanting me to be the happiest woman on the planet. He was handsome, successful—and I felt lucky. I thought he wanted me all to himself when he started discouraging me from going out to see friends. I didn’t notice how I was getting more and more isolated. I thought this was what love and passion looked like.”
You can feel free to switch up the genders if you like; I have written this using the male pronoun because men dominate the narcissistic spectrum at the high end.
Who’s more likely to fall for a narcissist?
One German study suggested that at first sight at least, just about everyone will be attracted to the narcissist’s easy charm, his way of seeming to focus on you, his apparent self-confidence. Researchers sent men into the streets with the task of getting personal information—cell numbers, names, etc.—from random women with the promise of meeting up for coffee. It was the men who tested higher in narcissistic traits who were the most successful. But what about more sustained contact?
The truth is, as I’ve written before, that women whose needs weren’t met in childhood and feel unloved and unlovable at some deep level—whose style of attachment is insecure—are much more likely to be taken in by the narcissist’s charms in the long term. They’re more apt to misread the narcissist’s motives, more likely to respond positively to his control, and more likely to overlook his way of putting them down when there’s a disagreement because they lack fundamental self-esteem. Alas, because of their own childhood experiences, unloved daughters are likely not to have a good foundation for what healthy love looks like.
And, sometimes, it’s just a matter of looking away, willfully ignoring, or rationalizing what you’re seeing or hearing because you really want things to work out. The narcissist in my life doled out truthfulness in small servings—a very bad sign—but when I called him out on it, he’d laugh and say, “You didn’t ask me the right question. If you had, I would have told you.” I thought it quirky and defensive, maybe a function of his being an attorney, but I didn’t label it for it was: blame-shifting. He had no close friends or intimates and I accepted his explanation that it was fallout from his divorce. Yes, people take sides, friendships are lost, and so, wrongly, I accepted that as fact. After all, no one’s perfect and he did so many nice things for me, right? To be filed under “Not smart.”
5 classic warning signs that he’s a narcissist
I’m relying here on the work of Dr. Craig Malkin and his book Rethinking Narcissism so if you want more, please go straight to the source. I’ve added in some observations of mine, of course, drawn from both experience and research.
- He’s controlling
The real problem here is that you may very well confuse being taken care of with control and, frankly, it may be easy to do. The way a narcissist takes over your life is done with a soft touch, and his gestures may seem solicitous, caring, or even gallant. He may explain that “he doesn’t want to share you” or that “he wants you all to himself” when he discourages you from accepting that invite to a gathering or party with friends. He may buy you new clothes, explaining that your wardrobe “just doesn’t do you justice” while turning you into a DIY project that reflects on him. Dr. Malkin points out that stealth control is the narcissist’s modus operandi, changing up plans you’ve already agreed to. The end goal is to have you forget your own wants and needs and get used to living in accordance with his.
- He doesn’t want to talk about or acknowledge feelings
Malkin calls this “emotion phobia,” and points out that this includes both his and yours. The narcissist will steer clear of painful subjects, and most likely accuse you of being overly sensitive, dwelling on the negative, and proceed to shift blame onto you for any problems or difficulties in the relationship. He may accuse you of trying to psychoanalyze him when you point things out and then simply start stonewalling or gaslighting you. The narcissist is most easily spotted in conflict.
- He plays “emotional hot potato”
This terrific term was coined by Dr. Malkin and it’s right on the money. The narcissist not only denies his feelings but projects them onto you. So, you’re arguing about something—it could be something major or something totally inconsequential—and you see that he is angry by his clenched fists, the working of his jaw muscles, and you call him out on it and, guess what? He tells you that you’re the one who’s angry and then he’ll go on and on about how your anger is wrecking everything. He’ll keep on going until he’s got you where he wants you—apologizing or backing off— and then he’ll do something nice either right after or the next day. Yes, the narcissist knows how to play the game.
- He emphasizes how much you are alike
Dr. Malkin calls this “fantasizing you’re twins” and I’ll admit I haven’t personally experienced it. Thinking that your partner’s needs are precisely the same as yours validates the narcissist’s taking control; after all, why should he ask about your needs and wants if the two of you want the same things? From the perspective of the insecure daughter, focusing on how closely you are connected and identified and how you’re in it together may assuage, temporarily at least, her deep-seated feeling of not belonging. It’s only in the long run—when she realizes that she’s been robbed of her own voice—that the cost of this close identification becomes crystal clear.
“Over the course of 15 years, I became nothing more than a hamster running on a wheel he created. It’s weird how easy it can be to lose sight of what you want when you’re working at accommodating the needs of someone you love. But I did it. I did. No question.”
- He puts you on a pedestal
At first blush, this actually feels quite wonderful, being built up in this way, and treated as if you are very very special. It’s no wonder that many women are disinclined to see this as a warning sign; who doesn’t like being adored? But the problem is, as Dr. Malkin points out, is that not seeing someone wholly—acknowledging their strengths as well as their imperfections—is a barrier to real intimacy. People who put people on pedestals do it for themselves, not you. Your supposed perfection assures their perfection, you see?
It’s at the beginning of a relationship with a narcissist that you’re most likely not to see the red flags that are painfully obvious in hindsight.
Photograph by Bergadder. 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.
Malkin, Craig. Rethinking Narcissism: The Secret to Recognizing and Coping with Narcissists. New York: Harper Perennial, 2016.