One of the questions I asked myself again and again, especially during my protracted divorce, was how I managed to choose such a person as a partner, and how I did not see who he was. It’s not exactly an original question, since the 20/20 hindsight you acquire after a relationship is over — the field of red flags that look like poppies in late spring, the click of the puzzle pieces as they fall in to place, the recall of the oh-so-obvious behaviors — is enough to make any thinking person descend into self-blame.
But the fact is that there are reasons a narcissist is good at fooling most, if not all, of us. Some will wise up sooner than others and get out when the going is good, and others won’t. Here’s the skinny on what science knows about these individuals.
[Note: For ease and to avoid the he/she awkwardness, I refer to the narcissist below as a male, but women are narcissists too, so just switch up the pronouns.]
1. He appears to be confident and strong.
Yes, these people are great at self-presentation, which is why, initially at least, they are so attractive. Many are actually good-looking and in good shape (don't forget, they care about themselves first and foremost), and they can ooze charm. Success matters to the narcissist — or at least the appearance of success — and he’ll show evidence of one or the other, so that’s part of the turn-on, too. A study conducted in Germany had guys go out into the street and talk to 25 women who were total strangers; the goal was to get as many women as possible to hand over contact information like their name, email address, and phone number. And who far outperformed all the other men? Those who tested highest on narcissistic characteristics. Additionally, when researchers canvassed the women and asked about the contact, it was the narcissist who was considered the most charming and attractive.
2. He appears to be accommodating.
While many descriptions of narcissistic behavior would have you imagine someone who begins every sentence with “I” and demands that everything be done his way, it’s actually more complicated than that. You don't fall for it because you're stupid, but because you misread his motivation. In his book Rethinking Narcissism, Craig Malkin underscores the way the narcissist exercises stealth control, explaining that since he thinks of himself as not depending on or needing anyone, he doesn’t want to ask for things, so he doesn’t. In truth, you’re actually doing what he wants most of the time at first, and then all of the time, but you don’t really notice. He has ways of making this happen — coming up with something “better” when you’ve made plans, deciding to treat you to a French dinner instead of the Chinese you wanted because it’s more “special,” suddenly changing plans because “spontaneity is the key to life” — and you think, “Oh, how lovely.” It takes many of us considerable time to notice that our wants and needs have gotten lost in the shuffle. Oh, and add in the fact that narcissists like thinking of themselves as nice guys, so they may actually do nice things for you and be generous in various ways. The problem? It’s for them, not you, and it can — and will — stop on a dime at the first sign of conflict. And be thrown in your face if you dare to try to discuss your problems as proof that what’s wrong is you, not him. But it takes time to see the patterns clearly.
3. He puts you on a pedestal.
According to Malkin, the narcissist needs to believe he is special, and, in the logical scheme of things, so then must you be, or he wouldn’t be with you. And if your narcissist falls short of putting you on a pedestal, you may notice that at the beginning at least, he is full of praise, which is, of course, flattering. (Oh, if I only had a dollar for every time my ex told me, “I am the luckiest man in the world.”) Once again, this isn’t really about you — no matter how great you are, you’ve got flaws like the rest of us — but about the narcissist’s need for a reflective surface.
4. He seduces you with the roller-coaster relationship.
The seduction of the highs and lows in a relationship that looks like a grand passion is the narcissist’s specialty. Alas, this fits into some of the most mistaken ideas many people have about romantic love, and you may find yourself saying things like, “Isn’t quarreling part of love, after all?” Or, “Isn’t disagreement part of what happens when two independent spirits get together?” To add to these rationalizations, you’ll then just focus on the hot make-up sex. (It’s unclear when dependence became a dirty word and the idea of a perfect relationship became two self-sufficient planets circling each other. As the work of Brooke Feeney makes clear, when people are securely attached, dependence on another person actually increases their independence and ability to expand and grow. Dependence can be healthy, instead of enabling.)
Once again, Malkin explains the confusion of a narcissist’s drama with a lover’s passion simply and clearly from a psychological point of view, which is to say, as he does, “Romantic uncertainty often turns us on.” (If you doubt it, just watch a re-run of Sex and The City, and observe the chemistry between Mr. Big and Carrie.) His point is that we get aroused by feelings of jealousy, anger, and anxiety — and it may not, from a physical point of view, feel all that different from the arousal of passion. (Mind you, this is emotional arousal, not the sexual kind.)
So the trap is set ... and you’re probably willing to walk into it, at least for a time.
5. He’s sexually accomplished.
Yes, on a technical level at least, because the narcissist prides himself at being better than anyone at everything, and he’s willing to try pretty much anything that gives him pleasure. Of course, the emotional connection that is part of really great sex eludes him since he’s fundamentally shut off; alas, it may take you a while to appreciate the difference.
6. He knows how to game your investment in the relationship — and your empathy, too.
Above all, the narcissist is a game player, and he doesn’t shy away from brinksmanship either, and until you see that clearly, you’re pretty much toast. When an honest and caring person is up against someone who’s more than willing to lie, happy to manipulate, and, at the end of the day, doesn’t care about you, you don’t stand a chance. Keep in mind that the narcissist likes being in a relationship and actually needs to be in one, because he uses it to self-regulate — to enhance himself or maintain his self-esteem.
And as W. Keith Campbell and his colleagues note in their study of game-playing, the narcissist isn’t necessarily heavy-handed, but is capable of using a soft touch. He wants you in the relationship, because he likes the control and keeping you off-balance, but at the same time, he wants his autonomy too. It’s not that he doesn’t have any positive feelings for you — he well may — but they are relatively shallow, since he’s not interested in intimacy, and in the scheme of things, his own needs absolutely come first.
If you’ve had a run-in with a narcissist, it’s important to recognize that seeing him (or her) clearly isn’t as easy as it sounds. If only every narcissist were the caricature the culture paints — the one who proclaims “Me, Me, Me” in a loud voice, the person so full of himself that there’s no air in the room, and whose living room is full of self-portraits and trophies — no one would need to read about the subject. Nope, the problem is that a narcissist can hide in plain sight, and, somehow, remain hard to spot.
Copyright 2016 Peg Streep
Dufner, Michael, John F, Rauthmann, Anna Z, Czarna, and Jaap J.A. Denissen, “Are Narcissists Sexy? Zeroing in on the Effect of Narcissism on Short-term Male Appeal,” Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin (2013), 39 (7), 870-882.
Malkin, Craig. Rethinking Narcissism: The Bad—and the Surprising Good—About Feeling Special. New York: Harper Wave, 2015.
Fenney, Brooke C. “The Dependency Paradox in Close Relationships: Accepting Dependence Promotes Independence,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (2007), vol. 92, no. 2, 268-285.
Campbell, W. Keith, Craig A. Fogler, and Eli J. Finkel. “Does Self-Love Lead to Love for Others? A Story of Narcissistic Game Playing,“ Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (2002), vol. 83, no. 2, 340-354.