Once you recognize your partner’s narcissistic traits, coming to grips with emotional confusion, reckoning, and the clarity of hindsight is often very difficult and hard. For one thing, there’s figuring out that the person you love will never love you back in the way you want. But then again, there’s the process of understanding how you managed to misread his actions and reactions and, more painfully, how you fell into the snare to begin with. Women (and men) whose emotional needs weren’t met in childhood and who display an anxious-preoccupied style of attachment are more likely to end up in these relationships than those who are securely attached; some of that has to do with their own emotional neediness and vulnerability. For more on how that works, please see my book, Daughter Detox, which explains how we unwittingly replicate old patterns in adult relationships.
I will be using the male pronoun throughout because there are more men on the far end of the narcissism spectrum than women but women too can be high in narcissistic traits. Please feel free to switch up the genders.
Do you love someone high in narcissistic traits?
The person I was involved with had none of the traits that have launched millions of Google searches: No grandiosity. No preening. Not self-involved. Not concerned with outward appearances. Mellow when it came to disagreements. No power grabs. In fact, if there was anything that worried me it was his singular lack of ambition. Was he really okay with small slices of the pie? He painted himself as a warm and helpful person and, indeed, he made the point. And I, and others in my immediate circle, bought into it.
But… I thought what I noticed—and others noticed—was much more important than what we saw and we discounted. That’s the thing with people high in narcissistic traits; it’s not as though they never act in the predictable ways that a Google search will reveal. Nope, they do. It’s the context that they create that is so important, and you buy into.
The master curator
The people high in narcissistic traits carefully craft their stories and facts, and they rely on gaming your empathy from the start. While, on the one hand, they are trying to wow and woo you with gifts and attention to make you feel special, they are also weaving a backstory to engage you. Sometimes, you will listen to the story and be immediately struck by both his vulnerability and how unfairly life had treated him thus far. What you are missing, of course, is that each and every story stars him as the victim, and that no matter what the situation is, the responsibility is never his. The villain of the piece might be the vindictive wife or ex-girlfriend or his former boss but the theme is always the same, and it’s meant to have you won over to his side of things. It’s only much later that you learn that all the details have been curated, as “Julie “discovered.
“I actually felt sorry for him when we met—he’d had such a horrible run of bad luck with women—and I honestly wanted to make him happy. The first six months were pretty great, in fact, and I thought we had something going on that might become permanent. But, slowly, things began to shift. The more affectionate I was, the more controlling he became. He didn’t want me hanging out with my friends and when I balked, he turned on me. He’d deny he was angry and stonewall me. It took me two years to finally accept this is who he was.”
The narcissist never owns it, not even his feelings
When it comes to not taking responsibility, the brushstrokes are very broad and include, as Dr. Craig Malkin observed in his book Rethinking Narcissism, what he calls “emotional hot potato.” Basically, the narcissist projects whatever he’s feeling onto you. So, let’s say you’re arguing and you can see that he’s exhibiting physical signs of anger—his jaw is working, his eyes narrowed, his arms are crossed tight against his chest—but when you ask him why he’s angry, he turns around and starts in on you for how angry you always are. This is just another effort at control but since the likelihood is that you will begin to get angry, it’s easy to get emotionally confused and defensive. Before you know it, you find yourself apologizing to him! That’s another gaming strategy.
The consummate game player
And speaking of games, the narcissist is always in it to win it and, yes, the definition of “it” may shift over time. Hindsight often permits you to see these games in fullness but, in the moment, they may be very hard to see because the narcissist’s motivation isn’t what you think it is. Narcissists like thinking of themselves as good guys so it’s actually not out of character for them to perform good deeds; the hitch is why they are doing it and it’s not for the beneficiary of the good deed. They know that turning hot and cold can be easily be mistaken for passion, and they play that too. (It’s a variation on the love bombing that launched your relationship.) And then, of course, there’s the lying.
The narcissist and his lies
Research shows that most humans lie, if for different reasons; we may lie to avoid hurting someone’s feelings or to smooth over a situation, for example. But the person high in narcissistic traits has a complicated relationship to his own self and therefore the truth. Current thinking is that the narcissist is deeply invested in defending his vision of himself, one devoted to hiding both the degree to which he is damaged and ashamed. As Dr. Joseph Burgo explains in his book, The Narcissist You Know, he lies to support a “defensive identity,” or a “nonstop effort to bolster lies erected against shame, insisting that they reflect reality.” Does the narcissist know he’s lying when he is? Burgo explains that he might not be consciously aware of lying, because he is really defending what he sees as an essential truth about himself. Anyone who has ever faced off against a narcissist in legal proceedings will be astounded how fast and furious the pace of the lies is, especially since the narcissist could care less if the lie is exposed. It’s absolutely mind-bending, in truth.
The real misunderstanding about relationship
The narcissist uses relationship as a means to an end which is ultimately all about him; it’s not dyadic which is why it’s so easy for the narcissist to get out of one relationship and into another. You, on the other hand, were foolish enough to think that he was in it for real connection; seen in the rear view mirror, all you can do is murmur “Silly girl!” and vow not to make the same mistake twice.
Photograph by Andrew Martin. Copyright free. Pixabay.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.