Whenever I write about falling in love with someone high in narcissistic traits, I always get messages from readers that all boil down to the same thing: “Why did it take me so long to see? Why is it so obvious in hindsight when it wasn’t when I was actually living it?” It’s a good question and if you count yourself among those who were taken in, boondoggled, or taken to the cleaners by one of these ladies or gents, it’s worth looking at so you know better the next time out. (I’ll be using the male pronoun because there are more men at the end of the spectrum but do remember that women can be high in narcissistic traits too.)
Yes, it’s about the charm but still…
They exude confidence, and there’s something so appealing about someone who seems to know exactly what he wants. They curate their outward appearances with great care, and it’s little wonder that, at a glance, they’re so darn appealing. One of my favorite studies of all time—and certainly one of the most revelatory—sent young men into the streets of a German city with the task of obtaining as much personal information as they could (name, phone number, and the like) and the promise of a meet-up from random women. Does it surprise you that those who tested highest in narcissistic traits were most successful?
It takes time to see that what looks like being in charge is all about taking control of the situation and—here’s an important point—choosing partners who are likely to accept being controlled. As Dr. Craig Malkin makes clear in his book, Rethinking Narcissism, the kind of control he exerts isn’t necessarily overt; he operates by using stealth control, which is far more subtle and harder to see. Stealth control can include changing up plans that the two of you have already agreed to—changing a dinner reservation because the place he’s chosen is “more elegant or romantic,” whisking you off for the weekend with plane tickets in hand when he knew you were seeing old friends, and like—and “surprising” you with changes. Like the tactic of love bombing—buying you gifts, burying you in an avalanche of compliments—his gestures are all aimed at having you forget your own wants and needs. The end goal is to have him run your life without your ever noticing, until much later when hindsight kicks in.
4 things you’ll do to stay on the merry-go-round
Research shows that people high in narcissistic traits are consummate game-players and if you begin to balk, they’ll turn up the heat to keep you off-balance and unsure. It’s at these moments that many of us will mistake what’s really a manipulative rollercoaster ride for passion—wild ups and downs, along with great makeup sex and more love bombing. Following are common mistakes we make when we’re trying to decide what’s real and what isn’t.
- Practice denial
By staying focused on the good stuff—and, yes, before you recognize it for what it is, love bombing is hugely flattering—you keep thinking that the relationship will turn a corner and he’ll actually won’t turn on you the next time you disagree. You remember the good times and that makes you unsure of your judgment. That, in turn, feeds into the next on the list.
- Get suckered by intermittent reinforcement
This insight was made famous by B.F. Skinner who discovered that rats (and people) are much motivated to stick around if they get what they want some of the time. The original experiment involved three hungry rats in separate cages, each with a lever. In one cage, every time the rat pushed the lever, food was released; it turns out that when something gets delivered reliably, the rat bored of the lever and went about his business. In the second cage, the lever never released food; it didn’t take the rat long to figure out that this was a losing proposition and he simply gave up. But it was in the third cage that real drama unfolded because the lever released food sometimes; the rat became fixated on the lever. That’s true of humans too; getting what we want some of the time keeps us hanging in, ever hopeful. It’s especially true in relationships when what we want happens once in a while and we manage to convince ourselves that things have turned a corner. Nope, nope, nope.
- Try to game the gamer or fight back
The narcissist is in it to win it and doesn’t play by the usual rules; he exacts revenge too as he protects his brand of truth from your onslaught. (In his book, The Narcissist You Know, Dr. Joseph Burgo identifies what he calls “the Vindictive Narcissist,” a term you’ll agree with if you’ve ever faced off against one in a legal setting.) If you’ve thought that real dialogue was a possibility, here’s the moment of awakening unless you decide to fold your tents when he greets you with stony-faced silence or blame-shifts the problems onto you. Alas, if you’re still on the merry-go-round, the chances are good that you won’t see him clearly or not yet at least.
- Doubt yourself
His braggadocio and self-assurance plus his way of shutting you down may make yourself doubt yourself in the moment—and that, too, is part of the plan. He does this by stonewalling or using contempt and derision, or playing what Dr. Malkin calls “emotional hot potato” which is ascribing his own emotions to you. This is a game of cat-and-mouse because you can see that his face is flushed, his arms tense, and his jaw muscles working but he’s telling you that you’re the angry one and that he’s tired of your anger and the same old tattoo. At this point, he may actually tell you that if you’re this unhappy, maybe you should just leave. (I’m quoting from memory here.) Of course, if you’re not convinced, he’s got you in a tailspin—which is just where he wants you.
Are you stuck? One way of getting unstuck is seeing what you’re doing to keep yourself going around in circles. If this is a pattern in your life, my book Daughter Detox explains why.
Photograph by Brooke Cagle. Copyright Free. Unsplash.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.
Burgo, Joseph. The Narcissist You Know: Defending Yourself Against Extreme Narcissists in an All-About-Me Age. New York: Touchstone, 2016.