A narcissist, as defined by Dictionary.com, is “a person who is overly self-involved and often vain and selfish.”
This probably sounds like every ex boyfriend or girlfriend you’ve ever had. After all, one of the biggest complaints in relationships is that the partner “thinks only of him/herself.”
As Psych Central points out, some amount of basic narcissism is necessary, healthy, and required for responsibly taking care of oneself. Without this “normal” narcissism, you risk running into a pit of low confidence. And, as we’ve constantly talked about at PIOP, confidence is everything in life (and especially important in dating)! It is what ultimately attracts a mate and builds a healthy relationship based on mutual respect.
If you occasionally feel like your partner is selfish or only thinks of him/herself, this is normal. But narcissism relationships are a completely different matter. They are destructive, unhealthy, will lead nowhere, and probably shatter your self-esteem in the process.
Here is how to tell you are dating a narcissist, the stages of the relationship, and how to get yourself out with as little damage as possible.
How to Tell You Are Dating a Narcissist
The Mayo Clinic defines Narcissistic Personality Disorder as:
“a mental disorder in which people have an inflated sense of their own importance and a deep need for admiration. Those with narcissistic personality disorder believe that they’re superior to others and have little regard for other people’s feelings. But behind this mask of ultra-confidence lies a fragile self-esteem, vulnerable to the slightest criticism.”
Unfortunately, it is often hard to distinguish between confidence and narcissism, especially during the dating phase of a relationship. If you start suspecting that your partner’s sense of importance is abnormal, look for the signs you are in a narcissism relationship.
Signs You are in a Narcissism Relationship
You may be in a narcissism relationship if the person:
- Is easily offended or angered by any criticism
- Only cares about his/her needs
- Only gives you attention when it suits his/her needs
- Feels he/she is always right
- Constantly seeks attention or reaffirmation
- Exaggerates accomplishments
- Hardly mentions you to his/her friends
- Is willing to get into shouting matches and intense fights, even when you try to calmly withdraw from the argument
- Spends most of the time on entertainment
- Has a fragmented family history and/or is unwilling to talk about it
- Makes you feel like you are an accessory in the relationship
As Examiner points out, narcissists often prefer long-distance relationships or relationships with married men or women. The reason for this is because they perceive any real relationship as an inconvenience. So, if you are in a long-distance relationship or having an affair, be warned!
Why People become Narcissists
There is a lot of speculation about why people become narcissists. The reigning theory is that narcissists had parents who had unrealistic expectations of them. They felt so insecure that they had to compensate for this by creating personas. These personas reflected what the narcissist thinks he/she should be like, not the reality of his/her personality.
The best explanation of why people become narcissists I found at Winning Teams:
Narcissism is egocentric behavior that occurs as a result of low self-esteem, or feeling inferior in certain situations, caused by a gap between the ideal self (standards set by others, for example, parents) and the real self. This results in threatening situations (real or perceived), which lead to anxiety, which in turn lead to the development of defense mechanisms to defend the individual's ego. Defense against a real or perceived threat involves denial and distortion of facts, projection and splitting. The hallmark of a narcissist is the development of a superiority complex as a response to feeling inferior. This involves exaggerating his own achievements and putting down anyone that he perceives as a threat.
Remember, narcissists have such low-self esteem that they feel a huge void inside of them. They must fill this void with the praise, admiration and love of another. No matter how much adoration you give them, the effect will only be temporary. People are only things to be used to fill that void.
Why Are We Attracted to Narcissists?
Unfortunately for their victims, narcissists can be VERY charming and attractive. I’d go as far as saying they can be almost irresistible. This is because it can be so difficult to distinguish between confidence (which is the most attractive trait in a potential partner) and full-fledged narcissism.
Narcissists are the ultimate actors. As Dr. Sam points out in his article about how to identify a narcissist, narcissists form a “protective insulation barrier” called a false persona in order to project an image of who they think they should be. He notes that “some narcissists may have the ability to change into a variety of identifies according to the situation.”
The false identity does not reflect the true person inside. However, the false identity is almost always appealing. In social events, they are the life of the party and often have lots of jokes to tell. They seem greatly accomplished. When you meet the narcissist at a party, you inevitably ask “how can this person still be single?!”
At the start of the narcissism relationship, the narcissist over-values you. You are put on a pedestal (because it strokes the narcissist’s ego to play up your traits and accomplishments). It is still too early for you to realize that the narcissist’s persona is fake. You think you are with “a real catch” and feel that you too must be great to be with such a person. Yes, being with a narcissist can be a real ego boost! This doesn’t last long though..,
Stages of Narcissism Relationships
This is probably the most important part of the article you should read because it will help you understand what happened, and make you realize why it is so easy to fall into the codependency trap of narcissism relationships.
Stage 1: Over-evaluation
Narcissists choose “victims” based on their status and how the person’s status can inflate their sense of self-worth. So, narcissists will often choose attractive, accomplished people. The narcissist is full of compliments for the victim. The victim is put up on a pedestal and idolized. Let’s be honest here – it feels good to get all that attention! The victim gets caught up in the attention. But the over-evaluation stage doesn’t last for long…
Stage 2: Devaluation
The over-evaluation phase usually only lasts for a couple of weeks before devaluation occurs. This is because narcissists get bored quickly and have to find other ways of boosting their sense of self-worth. The narcissist stops calling. They get moody when you call. They are critical where they used to be flattering. They start blaming you for everything.
At this point, the victim feels hurt and confused. However, the victim will rarely leave the relationship right away because he/she wants to get back to how it felt during the over-evaluation phase. If you mention your hurt feelings, the narcissist doesn’t care because narcissists only think of themselves.
Stage 3: Discard:
All narcissism relationships will eventually come to an end. It is only a matter of how long it gets dragged out for. Some victims get caught in the codependency trap because they feel that relationships require self-sacrifice and attention to other people’s needs. Of course, relationships do require these things – but they require it from both ends!
If the codependent continues to stroke the narcissist’s ego and give, give, give (and, believe me, the narcissist will continue taking!), then the narcissist relationship can last for a really long time. It could even elevate to the point where it becomes a physically abusive relationship. If it leads to marriage, the narcissist often turns the kids and family into a prop for his/her narcissistic ego.
If the victim is unwilling to give without receiving his/her due in return, then either the narcissist or the victim will end the relationship. In either case, the victim is left confused and wondering what happened. If you are lucky enough to realize it was a narcissism relationship and that it was all just fake, then you can stop yearning for what was never real and move on.
Codependency: Your Role in the Narcissism Relationship
No matter how bad a relationship is, remember: it takes two. You can’t completely blame the other person for the narcissism relationship. You have to accept your role in it. Otherwise, you will never change your ways and probably end up in many other unhealthy narcissism relationships. As far as narcissism relationships go, your role as the victim is called “codependency.”
All relationships require giving and sacrifices. We all sometimes feel like we are giving and sacrificing more than we receive. In the case of co-dependency, you really are giving more and getting nothing in return.
Yet, the codependent continues to give and sacrifice more. As Psych Central says, codependents are often proud of their “unwavering dedication to the person they love” but end up feeling unappreciated and used.”
The codependent feels incredibly bitter about this inequity in the relationship, but continues the codependency dance, naively hoping that the narcissist will one day change and recognize all that he/she has done. Some codependents even thrive off of their bitterness because it makes them feel like they are the “better” person in the relationship. They may also enjoy the sympathy they get from family and friends who express concern about the relationship.
Breaking the Cycle of Codependency
If you want to break the cycle of meaningless narcissism relationships, you’ve got to boost your self-confidence so you won’t be reliant on idolization from another person for your sense of self-worth! Then you won’t be willing to continually give and sacrifice just to get back that feeling you had during the over-evaluation stage of the relationship. You also won’t “enjoy” the pity party you get because it reaffirms your sense of low self-worth.
How to Heal from a Narcissism Relationship
At the end of a narcissist relationship, you will undoubtedly feel shattered. Your sense of self-worth will have been destroyed. You will also probably feel really confused because you had no clue how thing went from being so great to so unbelievably terrible.
Blaming everything on the narcissist is NOT going to help you get over the relationship. As mentioned earlier, relationships take two. Break the cycle of codependency by getting your self-esteem in check. Work on meeting more people, and not just for picking them up or dating.
Most importantly, DO NOT ENGAGE WITH THE NARCISSIST! Narcissist will often try to “keep in touch” or revive the relationship. Their only reason for doing this is to stroke their own ego.
Is it possible for narcissists to change? Of course! But, unless you’ve got a lot of money to spend on professional therapy and a LOT of patience, it probably isn’t worth your bother to keep a narcissist in your life.