Even now, three years later, I can’t believe how clueless I was. It was like I was blindfolded because I misunderstood every single gesture, every word, every act. He had a script in his hands and I had another and I didn’t know it. – “Marcy,” 42
In retrospect, almost everyone says that the beginning was too good to be true; that’s the thing about recovering from a run-in with a narcissist. There’s 20/20 hindsight that reveals every red flag, every behavior consistent with how someone high in narcissistic traits behaves, and a lot of teeth gnashing, head shaking, and moaning. Then there’s the self-questioning, the post-mortem as it were, as you review the ruins left behind, and you simply cannot believe that a) it happened and b) you somehow managed to let it happen.
I’ve gone through the exercise myself. Should I have known that the romantic gestures—the flowers, the plane tickets, the cards and the notes—were just part of a fishing expedition and I was the dolphin caught in his nets? Should I have assumed from the get-go that he was lying through his teeth? Even now, I reject that last alternative because I prefer to think that most people are worthy of my trust; not everyone is like this. Granted, it still smarts that I fell for it—no question about it—but while I’m more alert to certain behaviors than I was before, I do realize that that not everyone is high in narcissistic traits. You should too. The key thing is to develop a good spotting system.
Red flags and a translation for the uninitiated
What really gets most people is the absolute disparity between what you thought was going on and what actually was; that’s in part because the person high in narcissistic traits is highly motivated and wants what he or she wants. (I’m going to use male pronouns to avoid a pronoun pile-up and because there are more men at the end of the spectrum than women, but keep in mind that women behave this way as well and, yes, leave crushed souls in their wake.)
Because narcissists have highly specific needs—they need to feel good about themselves, superior to others, and also need to look away from the underlying and hidden emotional wound they suffered—they have a plan and, yes, a script. Part of the problem is that you, the unwitting partner, believe that you’re part of a dyad or a twosome, in which each person has the other’s interests in mind. Yup, you can call it love or caring but you could not be more wrong. In the moment, it may look like a dyad but what the narcissist has in mind is a moon circling a planet on a pre-ordained orbit and, yes, that moon would be you. The chances are good that it’s only in hindsight that you’ll be able to see that there was deliberateness in his seduction—the praise and compliments, the gifts and kindnesses, and everything else that goes along with love-bombing—and that he had the relationship on speed dial so that you’d fall hard and fast. (Dr. Joseph Burgo refers to the “Seductive Narcissist.”) Unfortunately, the cultural scripts about romance—being swept off your feet or subsumed by love—make those who are vulnerable to a narcissist’s blandishments even more vulnerable.
A match made in Heaven? Hardly…
Someone high in narcissistic traits actually has an agenda—a list of traits that are preferred in a partner and a future plan—that’s pretty specific. That in and of itself isn’t particularly noteworthy because, if you’re honest about it, you have a list and a plan too; it’s the differences between the narcissist’s agenda and yours that matters. Let’s start with yours first; keep in mind that these are generalizations and maybe not your wish list specifically but bear with me. You want a partner who expands your life, shares at least some of your interests, who will get along with your friends; you may rank “funny” above “sweet” or “sweet” above funny, or prize “loyalty” above all. But you also know that you want this partner to care about you, respond to you, treat you with respect, acknowledge your needs, and you will do the same in return. That is not what the narcissist wants.
First of all, the narcissist prides himself on not really needing people—not in some essential way. Of course, he likes company (and sex) but he’s just fine on his own, thank you very much. He does need you to be attractive or to burnish his image because he does care about being admired and preferably envied; the chances are also good that he’s spotted your insecurities and knows you’ll be grateful for his attention. He does love admiration and, don’t forget, he’s looking for a moon to orbit his earth. And, while he might not acknowledge it, he really does need that moon—isolated, tending to him, making him feel good about himself on the daily. Hidden inside these people is a great need, and a drive to keep that need, that woundedness, hidden. Threats to his definition of self are not tolerated, as anyone who’s ever faced off against a narcissist in divorce court knows. As Dr. Joseph Burgo points out in his book, The Narcissist You Know, it’s not so much that he lies deliberately but that he defends his version of the truth.
What the narcissist means by “I love you”
This is hard part—really understanding what motivates and drives those who are high in narcissistic traits and what underlies their words and actions. Keep in mind that it’s the underlying drivers of behavior that set the person high in narcissistic traits apart, and not always the behaviors themselves. They are more than capable of nice gestures, for example, but they don’t do for others but for the value of how they’re perceived. (Dr. Craig Malkin in his book Rethinking Narcissism describes the communal narcissist whose grandiosity is expressed by doing more for others than anyone else, for example.) For more on how daughters whose emotional needs weren’t met in childhood are vulnerable, please see my book, Daughter Detox: Recovering from an Unloving Mother and Reclaiming Your Life.
I love you loving me.
People high in narcissistic traits need to feel special and they crave validation of how very special they are. That’s where your adoring glances, your deferral to his wishes and wants, the welcome glow of your attention come in; you’re like a steady diet of applause and gold stars.
I love your needing me.
You may have noticed that there was a pattern whenever the two of you disagreed or argued—that your partner would engage in brinksmanship and stonewalling you or refusing to answer your demands, taunting you by saying “Well, if it’s so bad, why don’t you just leave?” (Note to self: Next time you hear that, take him up on it!)
The brinksmanship is about making sure you do need him; yes, another source of glow.
I love controlling you.
One of the hallmarks of a narcissist according to Dr. Craig Malkin is his use of “stealth” control; this happens gradually over the course of a relationship and is done subtly enough that you actually may not notice it. It may involve switching up plans that the two of you have already agreed on—where you’re going to eat, what you’re doing over the weekend, the choice of a vacation destination. The change is usually presented as something better or more glamorous—why not go to that chic little French restaurant instead of the local Chinese place, why not take a long romantic drive alone instead of seeing your friends, why not go to Paris instead of Boston—and the long-term goal is to put him in the driver’s seat and for you to forget your own wants and needs separate from his. His goal is to have you lose sight of yourself.
I love feeling indispensable.
This is a across-the-boards thing for those high in narcissistic traits and you may miss it because all of his stories follow the same narrative: He’s Superman in disguise, the one who made it all happen at work, the only one who could come up with a solution that worked, the guy who saved the day. You may grow so used to these stories that you simply don’t notice that no one ever gets credit or gets anything done; if you listen long enough, the chances are good that you’re always relegated to the role of a cog and never a wheel too. That helps to keep him in control of your relationship; eventually, you look to him as the problem-solver and your rock.
Your dependence makes me feel strong.
Indeed: the needier you are, the better he feels about himself. One of the reasons he chose you is how easily you confuse the need to control with strength. That’s key for him.
Your insecurity makes me feel invincible.
This is especially true if your attachment style is predominantly anxious-preoccupied; women with this style of attachment are more likely to get seduced by a narcissist than either someone with a secure attachment style (she’s likely to focus on the braggadocio and grandiosity and be turned off by both) or someone with a fearful-avoidant style (the narcissist’s initial love-bombing is going to make her cautious, rather than wowed and wooed). People with an anxious-preoccupied style tend always to be on high alert for rejection and need constant reassurance; nothing stokes the narcissist’s ego in quite the same way than your begging him to tell him he loves you.
Your anxiety makes me feel commanding.
This is especially true if your attachment style is anxious-preoccupied and you’re emotionally volatile; the narcissist is detached enough that your freak-out is his cue to become stone and feel all the more powerful for it. Narcissists are inveterate game-players—they like winning most of all—and playing your anxiety doesn’t take much effort and, in the end, it brings you closer into his orbit.
I love the way love makes me look.
Yes, feeling in command suits him and so does an appealing, attractive partner who hangs on to his every word. The operative word is arm-candy.
I love knowing I can leave you.
This is the kicker: While it may look as though the person high in narcissistic traits has an investment in the relationship—and he might in some ways—it has nothing to do with you. The narcissist’s connections to others are all self-referential and he prides himself on his ability to move on when necessary. That’s basically his view of what constitutes emotional strength—no need to depend on anyone, ever.
I love knowing I can replace you.
This part is perhaps the most soul-searing of all the observations—the uncanny ability of the narcissist to start all over again… Just like that! Just like you and the relationship never happened. Not a nanosecond of regret because, guess what? You’ve been replaceable since the moment he met you.
Yes, these are three little words that don’t always mean what you think. Recovery from a relationship with someone high in narcissistic traits is hard but do-able. Yes, there are loving people in the world.
Photograph by Marcelo Mattarazzo. 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.