“When a commitmentphobic meets a woman he’s attracted to, the intensity of his interest often seduces her into thinking that she has the upper hand in the relationship…Later, when she is already involved, his behavior may be so contradictory that she excuses or rationalizes his commitmentphobic symptoms; his scenarios are often so bizarre that it’s hard to believe that the man who was once so adoring has become so weird.” In Men Who Can’t Love, authors Steven Carter and Julia Sokol expertly illustrate the patterns of commitmentphobia in those who fast-forward and love-bomb their chosen romantic targets, only to suddenly withhold and distance themselves coldly and callously.
While Carter and Sokol’s book focuses generally on commitmentphobia, not necessarily narcissism, it makes sense that narcissism and commitmentphobia would have some significant overlap. After all, narcissists and psychopaths – whether men or women – are the “ultimate” commitmentphobes on the far end of the spectrum. Not only do they feel “suffocated” and bored by the idea of only having one partner and deliberately create distance through withholding behaviors, they also find excitement and even sadistic pleasure in pitting their various harem members against each other through the love triangles they manufacture.
Seduction and Love Bombing
Narcissists can be seductive and charming in the idealization phase of the relationship, which makes their ability to “play” and smooth-talk their various targets quite effective. Research by Dufner and colleagues (2013) indicates that these types can be appealing as short-term mates. They can also be “popular at first sight,” with even the most interpersonally exploitative and entitled narcissists appearing more attractive than the rest of the group studied during first impressions (Back, et al., 2010). However, as time goes on and their hostile, arrogant and defensive behaviors emerge, studies have also shown that narcissists become less appealing as long-term mates as people recognize their true nature (Colvin et al., 1995; Paulhus, 1998).
The short-term seductive appeal and charisma of the narcissist has more to do with the power of their well-crafted manipulation, idealization, and grooming of their chosen targets rather than their actual merit. For example, Campbell, Foster and Finkel (2002) conducted five studies which revealed that narcissism was strongly associated with “game-playing” in relationships according to both self-reports by narcissists as well as confirmation by their partners in past and current relationships. Such game-playing includes using charm and extraversion to “win” over potential mates to get access to narcissistic supply (positive attention and sexual resources), while avoiding the intimacy and commitment that come with romantic relationships by also pursuing multiple romantic partners. As the researchers note:
“Relationships are good for narcissists because they can provide positive attention and sexual satisfaction, but they are bad in that they demand emotional intimacy and restrict attention and sexual satisfaction from other partners. The ideal solution for narcissists is to find a way to receive the benefits of a relationship without having to endure the costs—to have their cake and eat it, too, so to speak… They would be careful to keep this relationship from becoming too intimate or emotionally close lest they lose control. Finally, narcissists would covertly seek out other potential romantic partners…[offering] narcissists an easy transition to another relationship if their current relationship ends” (p. 342).
“Some commitmentphobics use a hidden agenda, which almost always involves another woman, to maintain distance. Exactly as the phrase implies, the hidden agenda is truly hidden…some questions to ask yourself before you get involved: How did he leave past relationships? Does he have a history of pitting women against each other? Is there an admitted history of dishonesty with another woman?” – Men Who Can’t Love by Steven Carter and Julia Sokol
To ensure that they get to have their cake and eat it too, narcissists covertly create love triangles and much like some commitmentphobes, always have a “hidden agenda.” It may not be clear upon first meeting a narcissist that he or she has multiple people they are grooming already when they are love bombing you. After all, the narcissist presents and distinguishes themselves as your knight in shining armor and soulmate — someone who wants to save you from any past disappointments and who also fulfills your fantasies of a loving, long-term partnership.
A sure sign you are dealing with a narcissistic type is that they introduce other people into the dynamic of your relationship – whether by constantly subjecting you to monologues about their various exes or suitors or by outright flirting and cheating with others in plain view. It’s not uncommon for narcissists to “juggle” multiple people (including their exes) at a time while pretending that their primary target is “the only one” they have eyes for. The more psychopathic they are, the more prone to boredom and the greater their need for stimulation. They will also engage in pathological lying and deception to cover up their various affairs in the beginning – at least, until they’ve begun their devaluation of you.
It’s also very common for commitmentphobic narcissists to engage in long-distance relationships, which allows them to indulge in their emotional unavailability while catering to the fantasy of a partner who does not actually exist and to chase after someone who can never be truly caught. These long-distance partners can also be pitted against the narcissist’s partners in real life, which can be especially painful to a victim who is present in the flesh.
Many commitmentphobic narcissists require high levels of sexual stimulation from different partners and also pit their partners against one another as part of their thrill-seeking behavior. For example, it’s not uncommon for a malignant narcissist to be sexually aggressive early on or to first devalue, then re-idealize exes in front of their target to provoke jealousy and insecurity after a period of intense love-bombing of their target.
The narcissist also uses ex-partners and potential suitors as a way to frame the narrative about themselves. Pay close attention to what narcissistic people say their exes did and said to them. In many cases, these are actually the same things narcissists were doing to their exes – they are simply blameshifting and projecting their own behavior onto their past partners. For example, unlike a normal empathic person, when a narcissist claims their ex cheated on them, it’s often because they did the cheating. You’ll realize this as the narcissist begins treating you the exact same way as their exes supposedly did and even parroting the same toxic phrases they claimed their exes said to them.
Setting Up Scenarios of Rejection and Withholding
When a commitmentphobic narcissist encounters a partner who is an ideal mate – someone who might even surpass them in some ways – they suffer a narcissistic injury and a threat to their ego. The possibility of having a desirable target who has other suitors and opportunities outside of the narcissist causes them heighten their love bombing in the early stages as a control tactic to “lock them down” before their victim has a chance to consider other romantic possibilities.
A narcissist will thus overwhelm you with excessive praise about their love, attraction, and emotional attraction to you and boast about future plans in a way that is disproportionate to the length of time they’ve known you to get you to trust them. Even if you’re not as invested in them as they are in you, when you slowly begin to reciprocate, they will abruptly devalue you and the relationship even if they were romantically pursuing you five minutes ago and were love bombing you for weeks, months, or years. This is to condescendingly position themselves as superior and powerful – as the person in the relationship who cares and feels less. This is especially common when a narcissist perceives a victim is “out of their league” in some way.
As therapist Andrea Schneider, LCSW notes, “When an extreme narcissist gets close to someone they are attracted to, they immediately shut down their emotional center and detach. She or he cannot tolerate the vulnerability of mature love. Then she devalues and discards the romantic partner…A seductive withholder will gaslight and deny any pronouncements of a relationship, dating, attraction, or heaven forbid, love. Instead an extreme narcissist projects shame and blame onto the very person they were attracted to and attempted to seduce in the beginning of the cycle with love-bombing and future-faking.”
After the victim is sufficiently invested in the relationship, the narcissist begins to devalue them in horrific ways so the victim doesn’t get a chance to ever reject the narcissist. They do this through nitpicking and criticism of the very things they once idealized, minimization of the depth and nature of the relationship, as well as comparison of their target to former partners or other potential mates – the same partners who they once devalued initially. Since a key component of the narcissist’s disorder is that they are pathologically, even maliciously envious, they tend to set up scenarios to not only sabotage the budding relationship, but also to ensure that they get to reject their chosen target first – including subjecting the victim to harsh words about how they do not feel any connection to the victim even after such a connection has been strongly established.
This is especially true if the target they are currently seducing is a “shiny” object for the narcissist – someone who serves as not only “eye candy” but also happens to be intelligent, accomplished, and respectable. After all, if a narcissist senses that the person they are with has more resources, support, suitors, and more independence than they do, they know their partner could leave at any time. A way to “control” this partner from leaving is through intermittent reinforcement – the hot and cold behavior that “trains” a narcissist’s target to work harder for approval to get back into the honeymoon phase, and plays a vital role in trauma bonding. The further they are on the narcissistic spectrum, the more exceptionally cruel these methods can be, as “the malignant narcissist is distinguished from the others as one of the most severe forms of narcissism, permeated with an undue amount of aggression, sadism, and cruelty” (Lachkar, 2020).
The commitmentphobic narcissist thus withholds attention and affection from the partner they are trying to control and introduces “competition” acts as a sadistic power play to keep the victim coming back for more. In the discard, the narcissist plays into the victim’s worst abandonment fears, childhood traumas, and insecurities in order to traumatize them by minimizing the positive experiences in the relationship and making the once love-bombed and adored target feel like there was never an emotional connection between them in the first place. To the commitmentphobic narcissist, a traumatized victim is easier to control than one who feels secure and safe within the relationship — that way, they will be easier to manipulate when the narcissist comes back looking for more.
The Big Picture
If you have experienced the cruel manipulation games of a commitmentphobic narcissist, the most important thing to remember is that their behavior is all about them and their self-centered pursuit of fulfilling their egotistical needs. It is not nor has it ever been about you. You were chosen because you were empathic, desirable, caring and loving. You were decimated and emotionally eviscerated for the very same reasons. Narcissists don’t want partners who outshine them nor do they want partners who would actually present them with a healthy, long-term, committed intimate relationship. They are not capable of either intimacy or true commitment, even if they do enter into a commitment. They will always be looking for their next shiny object and seeking the thrill of the chase — make sure that if you are hunted as prey, you are never captured by such a toxic type.
Back, Mitja D, Schmukle, Stefan C, & Egloff, Boris. (2010). Why Are Narcissists so Charming at First Sight? Decoding the Narcissism-Popularity Link at Zero Acquaintance. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 98(1), 132-145.
Campbell, W., Keith, F., Craig A., & Finkel, E.J.,. (2002). Does self-love lead to love for others? A story of narcissistic game playing. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 83(2), 340-354.
Carter, S., & Sokol, J. (2000). Men who can’t love: how to recognize a commitmentphobic man before he breaks your heart. Berkley Books.
Colvin, C. Randall, Block, Jack, & Funder, David C. (1995). Overly Positive Self-Evaluations and Personality. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 68(6), 1152-1162.
Dufner, M, Rauthmann, J.F, Czarna, A.Z, & Denissen, J.J.A. (2013). Are narcissists sexy? Zeroing in on the effect of narcissism on short-term mate appeal. Personality & Social Psychology Bulletin, 39(7), 870-882.
Lachkar, J. J. (2020). His/Her Majesty the Narcissist. How to Talk to a Narcissist (2nd ed., pp. 5-17). Routledge.
Paulhus, D. L. (1998). Interpersonal and intrapsychic adaptiveness of trait self-enhancement: A mixed blessing? Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 74, 1197–1208.
Schneider, A. (2017, January 27). Slippery and and Scaly: Beware of the Reptilian Shadiness of the Seductive-Withholding Narcissist. http://www.andreaschneiderlcsw.com/blog/slippery-and-and-scaly-beware-of-the-reptilian-shadiness-of-the-seductive-withholding-narcissist.