You swore it was going to be the last time you picked a guy like that.
Self-absorbed. Conceited. A seeming inability to truly care about anyone or anything but himself.
It. Was. Supposed. To. Be. The. Last. Time.
But here you are again, in the same boat, swearing that this will be the last time.
What gives? Is he truly a narcissist? Is there any hope for the relationship? Why do you always end up with partners like this, anyway? Learn if your partner is a narcissist and what you can — and can’t — do about it.
What Is a Narcissist?
In Greek mythology, Narcissus is an attractive young hunter, renowned for his good looks. While out in the woods one day, he stops to take a drink from a still, silver pond, only to catch a glimpse of his reflection. He falls in love with his own image, telling it, “I love you.” So taken is he with himself that he cannot pull himself away, not even to eat or drink, and he dies.
Today, a narcissist is someone with an excessive and destructive love of self. A narcissist:
- Is exorbitantly interested in themselves; they’re “in love” with themselves.
- Hogs the conversation — there’s very little of the normal, healthy give-and-take of a two-way conversation.
- Doesn’t seem to care about social convention or rules (in fact, they delight in breaking them).
- Breaks promises often and cancels plans frequently, and then blames you for getting upset about it.
- Is overly concerned with status, material goods and the perception that they are “better than.”
- Uses people for their own gratification
- Is confident, charming, grandiose, entitled and manipulative
Being in a relationship with a narcissist is not easy. You don’t really feel heard, and when you try to bring up any problems, a narcissist turns it back on you and blames you for feeling the way you do. They also tend to use guilt as a weapon, noting “how much they do for you” and claiming you’re ungrateful. Things that are important to you don’t even register with them, even when you make a point of saying something. It’s always all about them.
What Causes Narcissism?
Before we get into what causes narcissism, we need to make an important distinction. There are people who are narcissistic, as described above, and then there’s narcissistic personality disorder, a mental illness.
Narcissists are certainly obnoxious and ill-behaved, but they don’t have a mental disorder. Whereas, someone with narcissistic personality disorder has an inflated sense of self-importance and a deep need to be admired, but the symptoms mask truly fragile self-esteem. Adolf Hitler, Joseph Stalin and Pol Pot are three notorious and evil examples of people with narcissistic personality disorder. For our purposes here, we’re speaking of narcissists in general, not those who have been diagnosed with narcissistic personality disorder.
Now, what causes someone to be narcissistic? No one can pin it to any one thing. It’s likely a mix of several environmental, genetic and neurobiological influences. However, in general, the following scenarios can set people up to become narcissists later in life:
- Parents who put their children on a pedestal, constantly glorify them and build their own lives around them.
- Growing up in a home where love is conditional; only being the best is rewarded, and anything else is a disappointment and ignored.
- Being spoiled and over-protected as a child.
- Having a narcissistic parent.
What Do Narcissists Look for in a Partner?
It’s a common misconception that narcissistic men look for meek women. This isn’t true (so, there’s some consolation in that). Years of research and anecdotal evidence have revealed a definite profile of what narcissists look for a partner. A narcissist looks for someone who is:
- Smart and pretty. He wants the “total package,” someone who will make him look good.
- Self-sufficient. He doesn’t want to have to take care of you, so you’d better be able to do it.
- Just a bit insecure. You can’t be too insecure, mind you, because then you’re not a challenge.
- Codependent. At first, you’ll perceive all that control as him being caring, which appeals to your codependent nature.
- Has low self-esteem. This is what enables you to overlook the early warning signs and let him run the show.
- A people pleaser. Are you willing to stroke his ego? Do you avoid conflict? Are you willing to give him tons of attention and validation? Good, because these are the things he craves.
- Empathetic and a caretaker. This works out perfectly for all those times he feels victimized. Plus, empathetic caretakers tend to be extraordinarily giving, which is great, because he is a “TAKER” in all caps.
What to Look for When You Suspect He’s a Narcissist
Ready to do some digging? If you think your partner is a narcissist, look for these signs:
In an effort to hook you early in a relationship, a narcissist may shower you with gifts, affection and declarations of love. There are big promises of “forever,” and he is amazingly caring and loving. Everything is perfect. There may be trips and love letters and talk of being soul mates. They’re already in love with you in the first few weeks.
You’re being lovebombed. It’s a manipulative tactic narcissists use to reel you in. They create an unnatural and intense period of affection in an effort to disarm you from your natural defenses. They don’t want you to question the speed of the relationship — how can anything so perfect be wrong?
But it doesn’t last forever. The first time you make plans with a girlfriend or question one of his decisions, he blows up, calling you selfish or ungrateful. After all he’s done for you. You’re left confused and hurt. The pattern repeats itself.
Remember: This isn’t how real relationships progress.
Hurting you and others while actively campaigning for your sympathy
Extracting sympathy from you is one of the narcissist’s greatest ploys. It may begin by them telling you how poorly they were treated in the past, about abuse they suffered or all the times they were let down. This is part of a strategic effort to present themselves as a humble, even charitable person who deserves your sympathy. Especially early on in a relationship, narcissists will present an image of modesty to hide their real feelings of superiority. Because if you knew how truly arrogant and self-indulgent they really were, well you probably wouldn’t stay, would you?
The thing is, they can’t keep the charade up indefinitely. When they inevitably reveal their true nature, they scramble to repair the damage — and that requires re-soliciting your sympathy. The cycle continues.
Remember: People who hurt you and truly aim to do better take responsibility for their actions.
Gaslighting is a form of mental abuse. Narcissists use this tactic to make their victim question their sanity and to throw them off-kilter and mistrust their perception. Gaslighting is best explained with the following examples of the behavior:
- They tell you a blatant, outright lie, right to your face, and they insist it’s true. For example: He insists he was at the restaurant having lunch when he said he was, even though you were there and you know he wasn’t. But he doesn’t budge from his story, and eventually, you just move on from the lie — which is what he’s counting on.
- They deny they said something. Let’s say, for example, he claims to have paid the electric bill — and then the power gets shut off. He then insists he never said he paid it, even though you know he did.
- They scoff, “That’s nuts” or “You’re crazy” a lot, after you present them with the truth.
- They constantly tell you that you’re overreacting or being too sensitive.
Gaslighting is harmful because it causes you to second-guess your ability to remember things correctly. It leaves you confused, disoriented and threatened. You begin to question if there’s something fundamentally wrong with you.
Remember: Your partner shouldn’t make you feel crazy.
Extremely charming one moment/short-tempered the next
This is classic narcissist behavior. These people are extraordinarily charming and social, but once they feel threatened or don’t get their way, they can turn on a moment’s notice and blow up. When they realize their cover is blown, they may be able to turn the charm back on, and they will often try to win you and others back with large, magnanimous gestures. It’s all part of their manipulation game.
This type of emotional volatility goes hand-in-hand with poor impulse control, and it’s often the result of the type of overindulgent parenting that breeds narcissists. If they can’t seem to regulate their moods like a grownup, they may be a narcissist.
Remember: Part of their game is to get you to comply with their desires. They’re counting on you giving in, so you don’t have to deal with their irrational behavior.
Think Hoover, the brand of vacuum. Narcissists employ this behavior to “suck” you back into a relationship after you’ve attempted to break free. It’s another manipulation tactic employed to get you to do what they want. A few examples of hoovering behavior include:
- A social media message that states, “I miss you. I wanted to marry you. You’re the only one I’ll ever love.”
- A text message that reads, “I know you hate me but I really need you right now. It’s urgent.”
- Coming home to a bouquet of flowers and a card that reads, “Can’t we work it out? Please give me another chance.”
Remember: These are attempts to regain the control they lost when you left.
He’s a Narcissist. Now What?
If you decide to stay in the relationship:
Understand that if you decide to stay, you have many challenges ahead. Narcissists don’t really recover from their self-centeredness; they just get better at masking it, in an effort to get along with others and have relationships. But staying is one of your options.
If you decide to try to put up with the behavior, you should:
- Get a therapist and a circle of friends who can help you and give you love and support.
- Identify coping strategies, so you don’t engage in destructive behavior right along with him.
- Practice self-care, so he doesn’t erode your self-esteem.
When to call it quits: Physical abuse is never OK. There’s never an excuse for it. Emotional and verbal abuse is equally inexcusable. If he is abusive, you should leave. Get a competent therapist who can help you deal with the fallout and identify why you stayed with him in the first place.
Other signs you should leave: You are simply and truly unhappy. There’s no joy in life anymore. You know, deep down, that you deserve better. The stress is causing sleep problems, depression, anxiety, and fatigue. If you reach this point, get a good therapist and get out.
When you decide to leave the relationship
This is a tough decision as well. Be prepared for his increasingly desperate attempts to keep you (see: hoovering). A narcissist will try everything, so be firm and resolute in your decision — they will prey on any weakness or ambivalence you show. You will definitely need the support of friends and family during this time.
Coping strategies as you leave include:
- Be kind to yourself. Leaving him is honoring yourself.
- Keep a journal of your feelings. Focus on the future.
- Surround yourself with loved ones, people who will lift you up, not tear you down.
As you move through the breakup and begin to heal, it’s important you look at the underlying issues that led you to the narcissist in the first place. If you don’t get at the heart of it, you may just find yourself in a relationship with another such person down the line. A therapist can help you get to the bottom of it. Often, low self-esteem causes you to search for a partner with narcissistic traits, even if you don’t realize you’re doing it.
Online therapy is a wonderful solution for busy people who can’t make it to a physical office space. With teletherapy like ThriveTalk, you connect with a certified therapist who is trained to help you achieve a loving, secure future. If you’re searching for a partner who’s loving, kind and stable, teletherapy can help you get there.