Recovering from a relationship with one of these people is always hard because of what I call their “scorched earth policy”—a reference to the military tactic of leaving nothing behind for a potential conqueror.
Narcissists do this with regularity as anyone knows who had the misfortune of going one-on-one in a court of law against one of them; no tactic or strategy is beneath them because their need to triumph is paramount. (Throughout, I’ll be using male pronouns to avoid grammatical pile-ups but be aware that while there are fewer women at the far end of spectrum, women can be narcissists too.)
What’s behind the narcissist’s game-playing?
Unlike the rest of us, narcissists look for something quite specific in their relationships as W. Keith Campbell and others explained in a 2002 article, and it’s not love, intimacy, or a sense of deep connection.
As they write,” narcissists use inter-personal relationships in the service of self-regulation,” especially in “the service of self-enhancing or maintaining esteem.” Game-playing in relationships gets the narcissist what he needs without the hassle of providing the things he’s not interested in, such as meeting his partner’s needs, committing, and being intimate, Additionally, game-playing is a perfect way to both control his love interest and maintain his autonomy at once.
Of course, none of the game-playing is obvious at first; he uses a light touch, after all. And besides, remember that the narcissist curates his appearance, uses his extroversion to his benefit, and turns on the charm whenever necessary.
Some of the game-playing, as you’ll see, may even include appearing vulnerable. Be aware: all of it is an act intended to serve his own need to self-regulate. You are, in one sense, just a bystander.
On the narcissist’s agenda: Let the games begin!
Impressed by his charm and, yes, his persistence at the beginning, the chances are good that you simply won’t notice that you’re being played. Because this is a conscious strategy on his part, some of the gamesmanship will be directed at making sure you don’t notice by either deflecting your attention or making you feel insecure about your judgments. And what if friends of yours notice? Well, he’s got a game plan for that too.
Heads up! There are ten…
This is an informal list, drawn from sources and put into no particular order—just a grocery list of what’s in the narcissist’s bag of tricks.
Woo and Wow (aka love bombing)
Yes, a barrage of compliments and a fixed gaze as he hangs on to your every word—that’s pretty much how it starts. He seems eager to know you and then he follows it up with all manner of romantic gestures that can include sweet texts, bouquets of flowers, a small gift because he was “just thinking” of you. The love bombing can also include plane or theatre tickets, jewelry, and more. Love bombing is meant to keep you enthralled and off-balance at once. Best case outcome from his point of view? You fall hard—and thoughtlessly.
The more special ploy
This Is a pattern Dr. Craig Malkin calls “stealth control’ in his book Rethinking Narcissism. The narcissist doesn’t want to sound needy or to make his needs known so he uses work-arounds to get his way and that strategy allows him to take control without your noticing. The pattern may start small—instead of going to see a local movie as you decided, he whisks you off to the theatre or opera or perhaps switches up the local dive for the fanciest restaurant in town because “it’s special and so are you.” Stealth control of this kind can happen over and over and is always repackaged as “surprising you because you’re worth it and special” and, eventually, the goal is to get you to a place where you totally forget about what you wanted and you’re looking to him to tell you where you want to go and what you want to eat.
So, now you two are an item and a few friends are underwhelmed or perhaps downright critical. Someone may say he’s working too hard at making you fall for him or maybe he’s too full of himself and an obnoxious braggart to boot. The people saying this are probably those who are paying close attention and they love you but your first instinct is to push back because, dammit, he’s too fabulous for words. Remember that the narcissist is very goal-oriented and he gets what could happen here so he moves to divide and conquer. He wants more and more of your time alone so he’s asking why you need to see those friends when the two of you are having so much fun or, again, he uses the so-special ploy when you’re supposed to spend a Saturday with girlfriends, just hanging out, and instead he is whisking you off. Meanwhile, he’s quick to criticize everyone you know, pointing out their flaws. You’ve always known they’re not perfect but he’s putting it all in a different light. He disparages those who don’t meet his standards and while you feel ashamed not defending them, it’s just easier to fold and say nothing. Yup. That’s how divide and conquer works.
The curated past
The chances are good that the narcissist says he had a close to perfect childhood, even though the details don’t quite match up to his assessment. But you’re just listening at this moment and if the relationship progresses and you actually meet his parents and siblings, you may find yourself wavering and unsure. But then you figure, whose childhood is perfect? (A person with secure style of attachment is unlikely to get to this point and will probably have bailed out. It’s those with an insecure style of attachment who are likely to be caught in the web. This is explained in my book Daughter Detox.)
But the really salient part of the curated past is in adult relationships. He was used, misled, heartbroken, tried everything but he crashed and burned because of her cruelty. Blah blah. It’s all so heartrending that it escapes your attention that he hasn’t taken an ounce of responsibility. And if he cheated? He felt unloved. Duh…
Emotional hot potato
Once again, kudos to Dr. Craig Malkin for inventing and explaining the term. The point is that whatever he’s feeling is what he’ll impute to you. Angry? He may be standing there with his jaw working and his fists clenched but it is your problem. Ditto for anything else.
This is a variation on emotional hot potato but you may not initially notice that when you do try to voice your opinion or, even worse, disagree or register a complaint, he’ll turn the tables on you and shift the blame onto you. You’re dissatisfied because you’re too sensitive, he’ll tell you, or you’re just a complainer generally and anyone else would be perfectly happy with how things are. This tactic is meant to make you question yourself and the validity of your perceptions which leads us right to the next.
Leveraging your fears (and weaknesses)
The narcissist has chosen you because you’re attractive and appealing but you’re also malleable and he understands how to play your anxieties and fears. Some of the games he plays are variations on emotional hide-and-seek because he knows how worried you will get if he withdraws from you. Combined with any one of these other game-playing tactics, he’s got you where he wants you.
When you do disagree with him, the chances are good that he’ll simply tell you to leave if you’re so unhappy. He knows that you don’t want to leave and that you want things to work out; that’s the card he’s playing. He throws down the gauntlet and you dissolve into a puddle, alas.
Playing the victim
Just as his curation of his past has always highlighted how other people betrayed him, so too you will join the ranks if you push back and actually break things off. Be prepared for being portrayed as the bad guy and to have your reputation thoroughly trashed to anyone who will listen. Yes, whatever happened is all your fault.
Never saying uncle
The narcissist doesn’t know how to quit and he will defend himself and his truth for as long as it takes. Women unlucky enough to divorce a narcissist or co-parent with someone high in narcissistic traits all report that there’s never an end in sight; the narcissist’s game plan is simply to wear you down and out.
Game-playing is part of what someone high in narcissistic traits does to stay emotionally stable. It’s all by design.
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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.
Malkin, Craig. Rethinking Narcissism: The Secret to Recognizing and Coping with Narcissists. New York: Harper Perennial, 2016.