The chances are good that if you’re involved with someone high in narcissistic traits—seriously involved, that is—it’s probably taken you a while to figure it out. The truth is that daughters who had unloving mothers and whose emotional needs weren’t met in childhood are much more likely to get seriously involved with someone high in narcissistic traits than someone who learned in childhood that love isn’t a transaction, that she is worthy of respect, that she can trust her own perceptions, and that closeness and intimacy in relationships are what she wants.
Here’s an expanded version of example I use in my new book, Daughter Detox: Recovering from an Unloving Mother and Reclaiming Your Life, which shows why one woman is more vulnerable to the blandishments of a narcissist than another. Feel free to switch up the masculine and feminine nouns and pronouns.
Let’s say you’re the woman with the attuned childhood experiences (and a secure style of attachment) meeting a man for the first time for drinks. He sets the time and place which is fine by you and you spend a few hours with him. He’s a professional with a good job, not preening or pushy, and well-spoken. But, somehow, when you think about the meet-up later, you hesitate. You can’t quite put your finger on it but, somehow, he seemed to smile too easily, and you weren’t completely comfortable with how his making eye contact was so consistent and he kept touching your hand and arm. Then, too, he kept redirecting the conversation every time you started to talk.
The unloved daughter (with an insecure style of attachment) finds herself at the same bar but has a totally different take on things. She’s flattered by how he smiles at her and the things he says, as well as his habit of touching her hands to connect. She’s impressed by his job, his education, and his suit, and wonders what he sees in her. Gee, a guy like that could date anyone. She doesn’t even register that he’s redirecting the conversation; she’s just happy to be there and even happier when he picks up the tab. She’s hoping that he’ll take her out on a real date.
Now, on to a dinner date for both of our gals. He picks the restaurant and sets the time and it turns out that he’s a regular there and the maître d’ is fawning and walks the two of you to a special, secluded table. The waiter comes and you start to order a glass of wine when your date interrupts you and says, “No, don’t do that. This place is famous for its cocktails. Let me surprise you.” The same thing happens when you tell the waiter you’d like baked salmon and your date stops you, telling you that you’re going to miss out by playing it safe because there’s this fabulous dish that they only serve to favored customers that’s not even on the menu, and he proceeds to order it. He chooses the wine you’re having without asking what you want. Chatter and conversation ensue. During dinner, he’s intent on finding out as much about you as he can; he asks question after question but he interrupts you quickly to share stories of his own. And just like on the drinks date, he’s looking deep in your eyes—totally focused—and touching your hands and arms from time to time. He asks whether you’d like more wine or anything else.
Here’s where it gets interesting. The securely attached woman has made up her mind by the time he orders something she really doesn’t feel like eating and her sense of him as controlling is confirmed by the tenor of the conversation he initiates. She knows he is working hard at snowing her, trying to impress her with his sensitivity and availability but she’s confident enough in herself that his pitch isn’t working. But it’s the eye contact and touch thing that really confirms her gut feelings: This guy is putting on a show. And guess what? She’s out of there and that’s that.
But the insecurely attached woman who starts off being flattered by the fact he even has asked her out—she doubts how appealing she is—thinks he is being so solicitous and just terrific. She’s blown away by his thoughtfulness—making sure she has the perfect drink and meal—and loves the way he is lavishing affection on her, which is how she interprets the eye contact and touch. (Research shows that people who really are avoidant and don’t want connection actually do more touchy-feely stuff to attract people.) She doesn’t notice the covert control—a trait Dr. Craig Malkin labels a warning sign in his book Rethinking Narcissism—because she reads him as confident and sure of himself, and she thinks his ordering for her is a sign of strength and caring. She is wowed enough by his questions about her that she totally doesn’t follow the thread or realize that all roads lead back to him. Without knowing it, she’s bought herself a ticket to a carnival fun house.
So, which woman are you? The chances are good that if you are seriously involved with a narcissist in a relationship, you are insecurely attached and your childhood experiences are still affecting your present. That isn’t a reason to blame yourself; it’s why you need you to see what you bring to table when you sit down with your narcissist. That’s really quite different.
Now that you see, now what?
I’m assuming you’re reading this because you haven’t left and are still in it. You’ve begun to realize things about him and relationship that give you genuine pause but you’re not ready to decamp and you’re uncertain how to act. Since I’m neither a psychologist nor a therapist, think of what follows as things to consider; every relationship and each person in it are different and there’s really no one-size-fits-all answer to the problem at hand.
- See what you bring to the party
Do you look to a relationship to validate your own sense of self-worth? Do you tend to be anxious in relationships, always worrying about whether your lover is going to leave you or whether he “really” cares about you? Do you tend to be emotionally volatile, especially when you feel rejected or criticized? These are all hallmarks of an anxious-preoccupied style of attachment and are behaviors that feed a narcissist’s ego and control. If you are avoidantly-attached—preferring casual connections to close ones and consider yourself not in need of a relationship but an independent spirit—the likelihood is that you’re not going to be attractive to a narcissist to begin with. He needs a reflective surface.
- Recognize his game-playing
Studies show that the narcissist thrives on the rush of power that accompanies playing games. As Dr. Malkin points out, women often mistake the volatility in these relationships—the big fights followed by grandiose gestures and hot make-up sex—for passion. Alas, they’re also likely to compare it unfavorably with the relatively stable relationship with someone who’s securely attached. Recognize the game playing—putting you on a pedestal and then knocking you off, making you feel like a queen one moment and then savagely tearing you down—for the manipulation it is.
- Don’t get drawn in
Narcissists have impaired empathy and are capable of manipulating people to their own ends without a thought. Stop making excuses for how your partner behaves or trying to see it “from his point of view” which is what your own empathic impulses tell you to do. If he’s stonewalling you, don’t step in the pleading or demanding role; it will get you nowhere. Don’t allow a series of grandiose gestures that have to do with his maintaining control—doing nice things for you like buying your flowers or something special you’ve lusted after forever—give you instant amnesia about what’s really going in the relationship. If you are prone to self-doubt, the chances are good that he knows that about you and will use against you.
- Establish boundaries
One way of robbing the narcissist of his power is for you to decide what you will and won’t tolerate. Becoming assertive about what you want will probably displease him but it will also allow you to see with more clarity whether this relationship has any future at all. Or whether he can possibly ever understand or care about your needs.
- Call out manipulation
As you become more aware of the patterns in the relationship and become more confident that what you’re seeing is real, you need to stop certain patterns in their tracks, especially what Dr. Malkin calls “playing emotional hot potato.” Narcissists don’t own their feelings; instead, they project them onto their partners and, often, succeed in convincing them that they’re to blame for the tension in the relationship. Let’s say that you begin to discuss an issue calmly and your lover responds by withdrawing and stonewalling. You can see that he is getting angrier by the minute—hands clenched, jaw muscles working, brow furrowed—and then he counter-attacks, accusing you of “always being so angry” and “ruining things.” He then tells you that he’s sick of your anger and maybe you should call it quits. What do you do? Do you fall into the old pattern of folding your tents or do you call him out? The latter is the healthier route.
- Recognize that he will not change
Research studies have attempted to “prime” people high in narcissistic traits to be more empathic and to show greater commitment to a relationship and to a partner. It doesn’t seem likely because it’s all about them.
- Plan your exit
Recognize what’s keeping you stuck and unhappy. Talk to a therapist if you can and, if you can’t, a close confidante who’s got your back. There’s life after a narcissist. Really.
Photograph by Free-Photo. Copyright free. Pixabay.com.
Malkin, Craig. Rethinking Narcissism: The Secret to Recognizing and Coping with Narcissists. New York: Harper Perennial, 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.
Jordan, Christian H., Miranda Giacomin, and Leia Kopp, “Let Go of Your (Inflated) Ego: Caring More About Others Reduces Narcissistic Tendencies,” Personality and Psychology Compass 8/9 (2014), 511-523. 11011/spr.3,12128
Hepper, Erica G., Claire M. Hart, and Constantine Sedikides, “Moving Narcissus: Can Narcissists Be Empathic?” Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin (September 2013), vol.4, no.9. 1079-1091.