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When Lisa* met Adam* in graduate school, she thought she’d hit the dating jackpot. “He was very wealthy, very charismatic, and at first he was very charming,” she says. “He was constantly showering me with gifts, fancy dinners, and romanic nights out. He was playing by this 1950s courtship rulebook.” But over time, Lisa says, Adam became condescending, controlling, and cruel. He criticized her working-class background and tried to mold her in his image. He learned her insecurities and trigger points and used them against her. He made her write him an apology letter every time they had an argument. Ultimately, he became physically and sexually abusive. It took Lisa years to escape him.
“I was in my mid-20s, a hopeless romantic, painfully insecure,” she says. “Here was a guy who was charming and handsome and going to help me fit in. I was so eager to please.”
Though Adam has not been clinically diagnosed, to Lisa’s knowledge, he exhibits classic characteristics of Narcissistic Personality Disorder, which the Mayo Clinic defines as “a mental condition in which people have an inflated sense of their own importance, a deep need for excessive attention and admiration, troubled relationships, and a lack of empathy for others.” What we tend to think of as “narcissism”—vanity and extra-heavy doses of self-confidence—is a spectrum, and people can tip more heavily toward one end or the other. But someone with NPD is more than just self-interested and self-obsessed.
“It’s a lifelong pattern that a child started in childhood to cope with a certain family environment,” Elinor Greenberg, PhD., the author of Borderline, Narcissistic, and Schizoid Adaptations: The Pursuit of Love, Admiration and Safety, says. “In adulthood, they overvalue achievement, they do not understand love, they have low emotional empathy.”
Julie L. Hall, a journalist and the author of The Narcissist in Your Life: Recognizing the Patterns and Learning to Break Free, characterizes narcissists as individuals who, to repress feelings of shame and inadequacy in childhood, take on an exterior persona designed to insulate themselves from criticism. “They miss out on numerous developmental milestones,” she says. “They do not form a secure sense of identity and self-esteem. They do not learn good emotional regulation, they do not learn to self-reflect, they do not learn emotional empathy. They do not develop a complex, mature sense of their own universe or the emotional lives of others.”
People with NPD are not able to see other people, which means they do not make for good romantic partners. Many can become abusive, emotionally or otherwise. If you’ve inadvertently entered into a relationship with a narcissist, it can be hard to figure out what’s going on at first. Here are some signs to help you out.
Narcissists see everything in black and white, including people. People are either “good,” which means they’re idealized, or they’re “bad,” which to a narcissist essentially means they’re garbage. If a narcissist is pursuing you as a romantic partner, that means you’re in the “good” category, and you’ll likely find that they shower you with compliments and charm to win you over. They’ll make you feel wonderful, special, and, ironically, seen right off the bat.
“Narcissists become infatuated. They tend to idealize a potential partner or love interest,” Hall says. “It can seem like you’ve met your soulmate, like, ‘Wow, I connect so much with this person.”
Narcissists may also try to alter themselves in an effort to mirror your personality. “They may suddenly share the same interests as you, and agree with you and your core values,” Hall says. “These are not necessarily things the narcissist is or believes, but they’re trying on your identity, and showing you what they think you want to see.”
But once you get deeper into the relationship, a switch gets flipped. “In the beginning, you’re getting all the wonderful things from them and they don’t even notice your flaws,” Greenberg says. “As you come closer, and they’re not just in chase mode, suddenly they’re going to see all these things about you they didn’t see before, that bleed through their image of you as perfect and special.”
Many of us idealize our partners in the beginning but recognize that everyone has flaws, and eventually the idealization gets swapped out for love and trust. But with a narcissist, there’s no substitute. “You flip into ‘all bad,’” Greenberg says. “That’s when they start their construction project.”
Greenberg describes narcissists in search of a romantic partner as “looking for piece of cheese with no holes.” And since everybody has holes, that mission is doomed from the start. Once the narcissist sees those holes—which can be as minor as, say, you unloading the dishwasher in a way they don’t like, or mispronouncing “bagel,”—they can either “fix” you or dump you.
“You’re like a building under construction to them,” Greenberg says. “They feel like the Prince in Cinderella.”
Lisa experienced this with Adam. “He knew my background and upbringing and gave me tips on how to hide it,” she says. “One time, I mentioned I learned piano as a kid and that I wished I could go back and learn it. He said he would get me piano lessons for my birthday, because, ‘I think it would look better for you if you were a classically trained musician.’”
She adds, “It was like The Princess Diaries, where I was going to be this middle-class, out-of-place kid, and he was going to build me into this perfect little partner. I was this blank slate that he was just going to make his masterpiece.”
One of the defining characteristics of any personality disorder is a lack of boundaries, emotional or otherwise. People with NPD are no exception.
“They often feel entitled to violate boundaries most of us accept and abide by,” Hall says. “Sharing intimate details about other people you don’t know about, wanting to get more committed really quickly, promising things or wanting promises from you like commitment, marriage, having kids together right away. Things that are really premature before you’ve had a chance to get there.”
Hall says narcissists just feel entitled in general. They can’t abide by the golden rule of do unto others as you would have them do unto you. “A narcissist walks around with very unreasonable expectations,” Hall says. “They feel entitled to get things other people shouldn’t get.”
Narcissists can have big “May I speak to the manager?” energy. They might mock or criticize other people behind their backs. They may be rude to or yell at servers. And they walk around believing and/or telling people they’re better than everyone else.
Lisa says that Adam, for instance, would wear a necklace with a formula engraved on a tag. He claimed he invented it, and that it was the “formula for the universe.”
“He said, ‘I solved the universe. This solves everything. And when someone questions my power, I just remember I’m more powerful than them,’” Lisa says.
It’s healthy for couples to argue sometimes. But when narcissists get into spats with their partners, their lack of empathy can lead to a nasty fight.
Greenberg says narcissists often do not have “object constancy,” which is the ability to maintain positive feelings for someone even in times of conflict. “Object constancy is what keeps people from abusing their mates,” she says. “People with object constancy can remember that they love you even when they’re mad at you.”
But narcissists can’t always do that. “If you’re in a fight with someone with no emotional empathy, who can’t remember they love you, they will hit below the belt,” Greenberg says, “All bets are off. They can say vile things to you.”
Narcissists love to argue—winning an argument is another way for them to prove that they’re better than other people—and they know how to push your buttons. They also tend have extreme emotional reactions. So if your partner is frequently hurtful, even over minor infractions, that’s a red big flag. And what comes after a fight can be a red flag, too:
Narcissists are incapable of self-reflection, which means that they rarely recognize when they’re in the wrong. So if your partner tends to sling throat-cutting insults at you during a fight and doesn’t ever meaningfully apologize for it, well, you might want to reassess the relationship.
“Being able to see that people have good and bad qualities, able to see that in themselves and other people, that’s something an NPD person can’t do,” Hall says. “They’re unable to look at things from an emotional perspective beyond themselves.”
If they do apologize, it can be more of an insult in of itself. “Sometimes narcissists throw out faux apologies with the narrative that you’re really too sensitive,” Hall says. “They’re unable to see things from your point of view, or validate your feelings as being legitimate.”
Here is a big one: If your partner or prospective partner has a narrative in which everyone they ever dated was “terrible,” “horrible,” and solely responsible for the destruction of the relationship, that’s a massive red flag. Sometimes someone does date a couple of assholes, but generally most people are able to reflect upon the ways in which both parties contributed to a relationship’s demise. Narcissists can’t accept criticism, can’t see the middle ground, and can’t self-reflect, which means they’re unable to recognize their part in a breakup. To protect their fragile egos, they are “good,” which means the ex must be “bad.”
“They often have a really negative assessment of previous relationships,” Hall says. “They pathologize and villainize their exes. The other person is a ‘jerk,’ an ‘asshole,’ a ‘disappointment.’” Basically, they don’t learn from relationships, and they’re constantly externalizing anything negative.
With no boundaries, empathy, or checked egos, narcissists delight in manipulating people. It’s one of the ways they can feel superior than others, and it’s another method of proving to themselves that the rules don’t apply. It’s hard to tell if someone is gaslighting you—the very nature of gaslighting, i.e. psychological manipulation to make someone doubt their own feelings and lived experience, is set up to slowly chip away at your conviction so you think you’re the problem. But if you start to sense that your partner is manipulating you, get the hell out.
Lisa says Adam would frequently gaslight her. “We would be out at a bar or restaurant or something, and I would see him put his hand on the small of a woman’s back, and touch her ass or something,” she says. “In the car ride home, I would say something and he would freak the fuck out.”
He would deny it, they would argue, and in the end, Adam would manage to convince her that she was in the wrong. “The rule was that every time we got into an argument, I would have to write him a letter giving him an outline of how the argument began, who said what, and that I was sorry,” Lisa says. “At the end [of the letter], I’d be like, ‘You’re right, I didn’t see that, I must have been drunk.”
Narcissists do not truly understand or care about your emotional experience, your pain, and your personhood; moreover, they always have to be Right, and if you oppose them or call them out on their shit, that means you’re Wrong. That means they can pretty much do whatever they want without remorse, and they may do what it takes to convince you that their misdeeds are your fault.
If you’re dating someone who exhibits a number of these signs, consider confiding in someone you trust—friends, family, a therapist—and cutting ties. Narcissists can sometimes mitigate their worst impulses through therapy, but people who lack empathy have to do a lot of work to gain it, and they inflict psychological and emotional damage upon others in the meantime. You deserve better.
*Names have been changed to protect privacy.