Being in a relationship with someone high in narcissistic traits can be maddening, painful, and, counterintuitively enough, exciting. As Dr. Craig Malkin notes in his book, Rethinking Narcissism, it’s easy to confuse or conflate the roller-coast ride of this kind of relationship—with its dramatic ups and downs, its quick turn from love-bombing to disparagement and control—with passion. But make no mistake: The narcissist isn’t interested in dyadic exchange and has a script, tailored to his needs, hidden in his back pocket. (Throughout, I’ll be using the male pronoun because there are more men on the end of the narcissistic spectrum than women but women are narcissists too so feel free to switch up genders.)
The problem is that until you see the patterns and how it is that the narcissist can so quickly turn the tables on you, it’s going to be hard to figure out whether you want to stick this out. Add in the fact that leaving may be very difficult because he has ways of keeping you hooked.
So how exactly do you fall into the trap? One step at a time.
Understanding the narcissist’s goals
You are part of his need for self-validation and that means that his attention isn’t really focused on you and what you want; you’re just a piece of a larger grand scheme that’s about him. Now mind you, it will take you some time to figure this out because the narcissist is highly focused and intent. He’s also fabulous at self-presentation so you’ll be slow to stop counting your lucky stars that this man appeared in your life. Women who believe that romance includes being “swept off your feet” or really are starved for love and attention are going to be especially vulnerable to the love-bombing that often accompanies the courtship. With those impromptu gifts, the way he tells you how fabulous you are, the wonderful dinners and outings, and, yes, the giddiness of his quick declarations that he adores you, it’s hard to see the net that’s been dropped over you.
How the tables get turned
A short list of what the narcissist does and why.
- Exerts stealth control
When we think of controlling types, we bring to mind those with that “my way or the highway” mindset who require us to fall into line with their thinking and who assert that they alone have the right answer to every question. That could be anything from fashion sense to the best restaurants to more important matters. While at the end of a relationship, this overt control may become the narcissist’s way of keeping you under his thumb, Dr. Malkin points out that it’s likely to start in much more subtle ways, and the aim is have you forget your own wants and needs so that you’re more firmly in his orbit. Stealth control can be take lots of forms like “surprising you” with a change of plans to something you’ve already agreed on like where you’re going for dinner or how you’re spending the weekend. These are always presented as better and more suitable alternatives so, at the beginning at least, you’re flattered by his thoughtfulness and desire to make you happy. In time, though, you’ll get so used to the pattern that you might not even remember you and your own needs and wants.
- Keeps you off-balance
This happens on a number of levels, and it’s a tactic that sows both confusion and franticness which is what he wants. After weeks of constant attention—seeing you, calling and texting—he may temporarily disappear which is bound to push all your buttons. You panic, wondering what you’ve done, and when he reappears, you’re a groveling mess. The narcissist likes thinking of himself as a nice guy so, after a huge argument during which he’s called you names and mocked you, he suddenly shows up with a bouquet of your favorite flowers or some other gesture that melts your heart. And then there’s the hot make-up sex. Eventually, when he pulls gaslighting out of his tool kit, you’ll be so used to the ups and downs that you don’t even notice.
- Manipulates your best qualities
Yes, your desire to be fair, kind, and caring becomes putty in the narcissist’s hands, another way of keeping you stuck. That’s why stonewalling you when you try to talk things through is so damn effective. Experts call the pattern Demand/Withdraw—it even has an acronym DM/W—and it’s considered the most toxic relational pattern. So you try to talk through an issue with your lover, partner, or spouse and the minute you start, he starts disparaging you— “Not this again,” “The same old tattoo,” “Don’t you ever stop complaining?”—and then he shuts down and gives you the silent treatment or physically leaves the room. You’re angry but stung and then you start second-guessing yourself. Maybe this was the wrong time to bring this up because he said he was tired? You did sound a little shrill so maybe he’s right about the constant complaining? Suddenly, you feel guilty and all you want to do is apologize. Yes, you have just walked into quicksand of your own making.
- Preys on your weaknesses and fears
He was attracted to you for lots of reasons, and some of them have to do with what he knows to be your soft spots, like your fear of rejection or your propensity to doubt your perceptions. He’s a consummate game player as studies show, and he absolutely knows how much you want to be in this relationship and that you want to make it work. What’s even more confusing is that he seems to care for you but you fail to see that it’s mainly on surface because his own needs are paramount and he only sees you as a means to an end. There’s no depth to his feelings at all.
- Uses blame-shifting
The manipulative tactic of stonewalling also has its overt form: Shifting the blame for arguments and disagreements from his shoulders to yours and women who didn’t have their emotional needs met in childhood and still think, deep down, that they are unlovable are much are likely to accept the conclusion. (For more on how that works, take a look at my book, Daughter Detox: Recovering from an Unloving Mother and Reclaiming Your Life.) Additionally, according to Dr. Malkin, the narcissist also plays “emotional hot potato,” projecting what he’s feeling onto you. Again, if you’re insecure and unsure about your perceptions, it may take you a long time to recognize how you’re being played.
- Isolates you from your friends and his potential critics
This may begin early in the relationship, as part of love-bombing (“I don’t want to be around other people; you are my world”) or may be part of stealth control, as he changes up plans you had with friends and substitutes a romantic get-away. Often, he’ll disparage and criticize your friends as a way of swaying you, or you yourself may cut off friends who actually recognize who he is out of some weird brand of loyalty. The truth is that he wants the only influence on you to be his.
Yes, the narcissist lays a trap but the way of reclaiming our power is to see how it happened. Only then can we extricate and educate ourselves so this is the last foray with a guy like him.
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Malkin, Craig. Rethinking Narcissism: The Secret to Recognizing and Coping with Narcissists. New York: Harper Perennial, 2016.
Schrodt, Paul, Paul L. Witt, and Jenna R. Shimkowski, “A Meta-Analytical Review of the Demand/Withdraw Pattern of Interaction and its Association with Individual, Relational, and Communicative Outcomes, Communication Monographs, 81,1 (April 2014), 27-58.
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.