Alas, it’s usually only with the benefit of 20/20 hindsight that you really see that how he wooed you was actually a campaign, planned and thought-out, and not the spontaneous romance you thought it was. It’s only in looking back that the red flags, invisible for a long time and then only dimly recognized, look like poppies in a green field and you’re beating yourself up, wondering how you managed to miss them. The truth is that there were lots of reasons you didn’t see what was going on—some of them having to do with you and others not. No, this isn’t blaming the victim; it’s about analyzing how what happened took place.
This piece is aimed at female readers but that doesn’t mean women can’t be narcissists too. The observations made are drawn from interviews and questionnaires collected for my book, Daughter Detox: Recovering from an Unloving Mother and Reclaiming Your Life.
Forces of attraction
There’s no discounting the initial appeal of the narcissist; there’s a German study I always cite that sent men into the streets with the task of getting as much personal information—name, cell phone, email— as possible from random women and securing a future date for coffee. Who snagged the most info and dates? The men who scored highest in narcissistic traits. But the reality is that some women will catch on early in the game; those who are more secure are likely to turned off by the narcissist’s way of aggrandizing himself and needing to be the center of attention. They will also chafe at the narcissist’s efforts to steer and control the connection. That isn’t going to be true of every woman, though.
The women who are more likely to swept in by the narcissist’s charms past the initial meeting are those whose emotional needs weren’t met in childhood, and whose mother or father or both were unloving, narcissistic, combative, withholding, or hypercritical. These women typically have low self-esteem, especially if their mothers were high in narcissistic traits; the chances are good that rather than be criticized or scapegoated by their mothers, they learned to duck under the radar and draw as little attention to themselves as possible. In his book, Rethinking Narcissism, Dr. Craig Malkin calls these daughters “echoists,” pointing out that they actually lack healthy narcissism. Alas, that also makes them likely to be attracted to narcissists because 1) how the narcissists act is familiar and represents a comfort zone that doesn’t require the women to stretch or change ; 2) these women are happiest ceding the spotlight to someone else; and 3) they don’t like voicing their own needs and are fearful of making a mistake or gaffe. They are much more comfortable tending to the needs of others.
Of course, those characteristics make the echoist highly appealing to the narcissist as well; she is a willing audience of one, highly malleable, and easy to control. Bingo! A match that from the narcissist’s point of view is made in Heaven.
Understanding the strategy of control
As Dr. Malkin points out, the narcissist’s method of control is subtle—he calls it “stealth”—which is why it may be so easy to miss. Because the narcissist nurses wounds of his own, he doesn’t like to voice his needs either so he tends to change up plans and re-arrange things to his liking all under of guise of doing something better or nicer. And it works, of course. Who is going to complain if, instead of grabbing a bite at the pub around the corner, your lover whisks you off to an expensive French restaurant “because you deserve the best.” It’s very easy to get used to this and not notice that you’re ceding control, inch by inch, day by day. You may not even notice that you’re seeing less and less of your friends because of “special” plans or surprises that force you to cancel again and again.
- He makes you feel special
Like love bombing—lavish gifts, declarations of love, dramatic gestures—stealth control may initially make you feel as though you’ve been elevated to the status of a princess. What you can’t see, of course, is that none of this is about you but all about him.
- You think he’s trying to help you improve yourself
It’s not unusual for the narcissist to try to remake his partner, either by buying her clothes or suggesting that she get her hair or makeup done differently; sometimes, he’ll start a campaign of making her self-conscious about her appearance by comparing her to someone they know and making it clear that she’d be so more more attractive if she did x or y. Again, the narcissist proceeds with a light touch so that you’ve not even aware that he’s turning you into a marionette and that he’s holding the strings.
- He has the relationship on speed-dial
You’re flattered and thrilled at the start that he’s so focused and attentive, so lavish in his praise, so generous of his time and money. In the moment, it doesn’t occur to you that those three little words—yes, “I love you”—are being uttered by someone who’s only known you for a short period of time. You think it’s great how he’s sweeping you off your feet and that makes you forget that healthy relationships are built and developed over time. You are so swept away that you don’t even notice the net he’s dropped over your shoulders.
- He paints the world in black and white
He’s highly opinionated and certain of himself and you’re likely to mistake that for a reflection of how strong he is and sure of himself; those characteristics may also make you feel as though you’re protected and that he’s a knight in shining armor. Slowly, though, it becomes clear that he sees the world as full of people who are either on his side or against him, but you buy into it, figuring that people are just jealous of how gifted and successful he is. When some of your friends make it clear that they’re not so keen on him, he works to convince you that they’re just jealous of your happiness. That worries you a bit, but you push the thought out of your head.
- He makes you feel as though you belong just to him
The narcissist wants you all to himself, in his orbit, without interruption and he often accomplishes that by changing up plans—that’s stealth control—so that you see your friends less often. The isolation happens slowly because he makes his demands on your time seem reasonable and, besides, you love feeling needed. When your girlfriend tells you it’s not normal that he’s always bombarding you with texts and calls when you’re out with her, you chalk it up to her jealousy. Without realizing it, you’ve joined his black-and-white world.
- He uses gaslighting to keep you in line
The phrases “I never said that,” “You’re too sensitive, ““That’s not what happened” become the norm when you counter something he’s said or done; the narcissist doesn’t relinquish control once he has it and gaslighting is one way he can use your own self-doubt against you. It often takes time to realize how he is playing you, alas, especially if he has managed to isolate you from your friends who have your best interests at heart.
As I said, with 20/20 hindsight, these tactics are clear. Once we’ve seen them, we can’t unsee them; they become part of the tool kit we take into the future so we don’t make the same mistake twice.
Photograph by Milan Popovic. 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.