When my disastrous marriage ended about 20 years ago, I went to a therapist to begin healing and put back together my emotionally battered self.
Although my experience with this therapist was not good overall, she did help me understand that my marriage would never have worked.
She suggested that my ex-husband had Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD).
After doing just a little research on the disorder, I knew she was right.
I don’t mean he was overly self-absorbed or full of himself, in the way we complain about some people, labeling them “narcissists”.
Yes, he was that . . . but much, much more.
There are 9 clinical indicators for NPD (see the list below). He perfectly fit 8 of them.
A major red flag presented itself early in my marriage. My husband spent an hour every morning preening in front of first one mirror in the house, then another, and then another. If I tried to have a conversation with him when he was gazing at himself, it fell on deaf ears. He seemed not to hear me, or be able to see me, so enrapt was he with his mirror image.
What Does Narcissist Mean?
The word “narcissist” comes from Narcissus in Greek mythology. I didn’t find one definitive story about him online, but this abbreviated version from Wikipedia gives you the general idea:
“Narcissus was a hunter from Thespiae in Boeotia who was known for his beauty. He was the son of the river god Cephissus and nymph Liriope. He was proud, in that he disdained those who loved him. Nemesis noticed this behavior and attracted Narcissus to a pool, where he saw his own reflection in the water and fell in love with it, not realizing it was merely an image. Unable to leave the beauty of his reflection, Narcissus lost his will to live. He stared at his reflection until he died.”
Subsequently, a flower appeared on the spot where Narcissus died that came to be called “narcissus”.
Clearly, my ex-husband had a textbook case of NPD.
Why didn’t I spot this and get out early, instead of spending 30 years with him?
In my defense, my relationship started with my ex-husband when I was a naive 20-year-old. Although I had heard the term “narcissist” before I went to the therapist, I never applied it to my husband while I was married. And I didn’t understand the full extent and impact of being with a narcissist.
Looking back now, I can see that symptoms presented early in our relationship.
What Is It About Narcissists that Attracts Us?
An overriding character trait is their ability to be utterly charming, and make it seem sincere. Since this disorder kicks in during early childhood, they’ve had a lot of practice being charming by the time they reach adulthood and have perfected it, because it serves them so well.
They win us over by making us feel like we’re special. They can be very good at making us feel very good . . . at least for a time.
Studies have found that a relationship with someone with NPD is blissful for around the first 3-4 months, then abruptly goes downhill. They can’t keep up the unwavering charming facade much longer than that.
If we’re paying attention, we see the change and do something about it . . . like running away fast.
If we’re women with strong maternal or nurturing instincts, many of us stay thinking we can fix him.
It’s important to note that an estimated 50-75% of people with NPD are men.
Conversely, a relationship with someone who doesn’t have NPD just STARTS getting good at around 3-4 months, if you’re a good match.
If you have any suspicion that the person you’re dating may be clinically narcissistic, I hope my story and the information here help you.
I especially hope this helps you spot a narcissist before getting too involved with them.
9 Signs That You May Be Dating a Narcissist
According to the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 4th (DSM-IV), someone with NPD displays a pervasive pattern of grandiosity (in fantasy or behavior), need for admiration, and lack of empathy, beginning by early adulthood and present in a variety of contexts, as indicated by five (or more) of the following:
- Has a grandiose sense of self-importance (e.g., exaggerates achievements and talents, expects to be recognized as superior without commensurate achievements).
- Is preoccupied with fantasies of unlimited success, power, brilliance, beauty, or ideal love.
- Believes that he or she is “special” and unique and can only be understood by, or should associate with, other special or highstatus people (or institutions).
- Requires excessive admiration.
- Has a sense of entitlement, i.e., unreasonable expectations of especially favorable treatment or automatic compliance with his or her expectations.
- Is interpersonally exploitative, i.e., takes advantage of others to achieve his or her own ends.
- Lacks empathy: is unwilling to recognize or identify with the feelings and needs of others.
- Is often envious of others or believes that others are envious of him or her.
- Shows arrogant, haughty behaviors or attitudes.
Narcissism Is Also Known as “Love Bombing”
Looking at the way a narcissist operates more closely, a NY Times article describes some of their classic tricks of the trade:
Excessive Attention and Flattery
“It can be hard to recognize the mismatch of familiarity (remember, this is someone you’ve only just met) and affection in the moment, especially when a person is uttering words you’ve longed to hear: “you are my soul mate,” “I never met anyone I feel so close to” or “everything about you is what I wanted.'”
Isolation From Friends and Family
“While there isn’t a ton of research on intimate partner abuse and narcissism, there is a connection. Controlling a person’s social life from the get-go may leave the person with nowhere to turn when a relationship sours.”
Narcissists tend to be materialistic themselves, so they may also give gifts to boost their value and self-esteem.
What It Feels Like to Be Dating a Narcissist
According to UpJourney, some of the things you may experience in a relationship with a narcissist include:
- Gaslighting-like dynamics (e.g. always questioning your memory/experience of things)
- Not taking ownership (e.g. changing the subject, shifting blame, “you’re always…”)
- Stonewalling (e.g. acting confused, minimizing their responses)
- Minimizing matters you bring up (e.g. “you’re too sensitive,” “let it go already”).
Such behavior can be extremely confusing, making you question yourself all the time.
I remember thinking with my ex-husband,
“If I could only find the right way to explain it to him, he would understand.”
But I WAS able to express myself very clearly with him. It didn’t matter.
According to the same UpJourney article:
“The partner can be so convincing that you are at fault/to blame. Maybe you’re being told you’re too sensitive, “made” them do something, aren’t attentive enough to their needs, etc. This can really affect one’s self-esteem. Although none of us are perfect, we shouldn’t be made to feel like we’re terrible people either.”
How Do I Know If I’m Dating a Narcissist?
According to psychologist Anita Vangelisti of the University of Texas at Austin, in a Psychology Today article:
“Tactics in the narcissists’ toolbox include bragging, refocusing the topic of conversation, making exaggerated hand movements, talking loudly, and showing disinterest by ‘glazing over’ when others speak.”
The same article goes on to list 5 more, sometimes contradictory, signs to see if you’re dating a narcissist:
- Flashy clothing and sky-high confidence are the “public” face of narcissism. Here are a few additional cues, some contradictory, in keeping with the narcissist’s paradoxical nature.
- Bragging about one’s perfect family (no one’s family is perfect).
- Hyper-generosity in public to demonstrate that one has power, but coldness once the camera is off.
- Hypersensitive and insecure. This includes imagining criticism where it doesn’t exist and getting depressed by perceived criticism. “Vulnerable” narcissists are self-centered and overly defensive.
- Prone to a vast array of negative emotions including depression, anxiety, self-consciousness, and shame owing to not being given their “due.” Such feelings can be an indication of egocentricity and self-absorption.
- Repeatedly puts down other people, especially inferiors and strangers. Loves to talk about him or herself and mentions others mainly to name-drop.
Narcissistic Men Are Often Attracted to Strong Women
According to another Psychology Today article, narcissists go for strong, confident, self-assured women:
“The narcissistic traits of grandiosity and confidence are really a mask for deep insecurity. What appears to be an overabundance of self-assurance is actually a protective wall designed to block the narcissist from acknowledging his own insecurity and lack of self-confidence.
Confident women can be swept off their feet by an abundance of attention. Most narcissists can assume any interest or focus in the initial stages of dating. They become the partner the woman has always looked for. They do it with enough authenticity to carry on the charade for a short period of time until the relationship has solidified. They can start to reveal their true personality.
Narcissists often feel safe with strong partners as they have always struggled with a consistent parent figure. When you take charge, manage life effectively, and create your own success, this becomes a draw for the narcissist.”
The Negative Impact to You, When You’re Dating a Narcissist
According to another Psychology Today article:
“Abundant research testifies to the fact that narcissists are less committed to partners than those who aren’t narcissists; tend to play more games in a relationship; and are more likely to be unfaithful.”
A romantic relationship with someone with NPD is doomed from the start.
And those with NPD rarely recover.
They can appear to have recovered, but one aspect of the disorder is their keen ability to be whatever they think people want them to be. They can fool even experienced and knowledgeable therapists and other mental health professionals.
Promiscuity is almost always part of the picture, because they’re always seeking someone better and/or they seek gratification at any cost.
Often an early clue that they’re a narcissist is how they can go from charming to angry, in an instant, if threatened.
When something happens that upsets the apple cart – a chink in the relationship or divorce or when someone is on to them – they can lash out in frightening bursts of anger.
When their self-esteem is shaken, they’re willing to sacrifice a marriage or relationship by degrading their partner, to make themselves feel superior.
How to Recover After Dating a Narcissist
The NY Times article quoted above goes on to describe the long term impact and how to heal, before moving into a new relationship:
“People who have been love bombed often feel as though they’ve lost their sense of self, which can take a long time to rebuild.
You lose the sense of who you are because little things are being managed for you and these little things can be anything from how you dress to how you present yourself. But it can also be the kind of jokes you’re allowed to tell in public or the kind of woman that he wants you to be.
Victims should give themselves patience and forgiveness, and could also benefit from therapy. They should try to reconnect with the activities and people who mattered to them before the love bomber entered their life.”
Use the clues to avoid dating a narcissist
Recent studies and experiments have focused on a “cure” for NPD with various therapeutic interventions.
Until that happens – and it could be a long time, if ever – avoid dating a narcissist, as best you can.
When you feel yourself being sucked in by someone exceptionally charming, try to step back and pay attention to other clues about who they really are.
If they exhibit too many of the indicators listed above, think twice before getting too involved.
Don’t think you’ll be able to change them. They’re extremely gifted at manipulation. If they’re in their 60’s, they’ve had years of practice and have honed it to a science.
And they get great satisfaction from drawing people in and using them. It works for them, why should they change?
Perhaps most importantly, if you’ve fallen prey to a narcissist, take some time for reflection and introspection. Arm yourself against falling for a narcissist again.
What was it about that person that attracted you?
Did they fulfill some unhealthy need in you that you should explore further, and maybe get help with?