I recently asked some friends to list the attributes they look for in an S.O. Many of their responses were all over the map, but in the center of the perfect-partner Venn diagram lay the following traits: attractive, charming, confident, and successful. It’s interesting, because these characteristics make up the type of persona, many times male, that society values: the alpha. And while my friends (or you) may think that’s what they want, there’s one small problem. These qualities don’t only lend themselves to the smooth-talking Christian Greys of the world, they also make up the type of personality that can be silent and hard to spot: a narcissist.
Narcissistic personality disorder (NPD), which is diagnosed through talk therapy, requires a person to exhibit five of the following nine symptoms, according to clinical psychologist and author Ramani Durvasula, Ph.D.
1. Lack of empathy (having no interest in the emotions, feelings, and experiences of others)
2. Chronic entitlement (the belief that you should be accorded special treatment)
3. Grandiosity (a tendency to view the world through chronic fantasy)
4. Arrogance (the very dismissive, rude stance that you’re somehow better than other people)
5 & 6. Admiration- and validation-seeking (the constant need to be told how wonderful you are; viewing the world as your “narcissistic supply”)
7. Superficiality (caring much more about how someone looks than what they’re about)
8. Being controlling (the belief that if you’re not in control of everything, things will get away from you)
9. Being prone to bouts of rage when frustrated or otherwise disappointed (when things don’t go your way, you get angry — just like many of us do — but it comes out as absolute volcanic rage)
Many people whose partners display these tendencies lose all ability to trust others and give up on love. “It can take a long time — years, maybe decades — before a person gets to the place where they think someone is not going to cheat on, lie to, insult, gaslight, or otherwise emotionally abuse or manipulate them,” says Durvasula. After being manipulated for so long, people start believing that if they change (become a better listener, keep the house cleaner, etc.), they can improve their situation and have a transformative love story. This sense of hope is why they get stuck — they’re so full of self-doubt that they start thinking there’s something wrong with them. Narcissists will twist reality to make their partners believe they are the problem.
But if you don’t have the schooling or professional practice to deep-dive into someone’s psyche, how can you call bullshit? “You have to be on your game and not let yourself get tricked by the ordinary stuff that people always go for in an early part of a [romantic] relationship,” says Durvasula. A good way to do that is to look for the three Cs: charm, charisma, and confidence. This trifecta can throw us off — narcissists are often masters of the fine art of love bombing, an excessive display of affection and flattery. This makes us feel special, in part because our culture romanticizes this type of behavior. But really, it’s creating a blind spot.
“The problem with love bombing is it’s exciting, so you don’t slow down or stop and pay attention,” says Durvasula. You have to make it a point to step back and observe patterns. What is this person like with their family? With other people around them? Do they bring you around? Does it seem like they’re proud or ashamed of you? If they’re dismissive, rude, or fail to show empathy, you can check that off the list of NPD symptoms. And ask yourself, do this person’s stories add up? Are they a good listener? Are they dismissive? If you notice they go on and on but zone out as soon as someone else starts speaking, you can take that as a sign, too. Finally, are they controlling? If your partner wants to be with you 24/7 or demands you call them five times a day, it isn’t because they love you so much. It’s a red flag of narcissistic abuse.
That’s not to say that if you do spot these behaviors, it’s easy to press pause. “What’s so tough about [dating] a narcissist is there are enough good days,” Durvasula says. “It’s like a slot machine. It pays out just enough — in frequency and amount — that it keeps you in that game.” After a couple of bad rounds followed by a great weekend, you may feel like you can figure it out. But narcissists will not change — they suffer from a chronic disorder — and you should be careful not to underestimate the sometimes long-lasting effects of being with one. “The more time you spend with a narcissist, the more vulnerable you are to self-doubt, anxiety, and feelings of worthlessness, helplessness, and hopelessness. You start losing your grip of reality because narcissists gaslight you,” Durvasula warns. You may even give up on your own dreams out of exhaustion or because your partner undermines and belittles you, making you feel selfish for wanting to pursue your goals.
Durvasula has interviewed thousands of people who have been in these types of relationships. She says that the one thing they all say post-mortem is that the patterns were apparent in the first three to six weeks of the relationship — and this sometimes comes from people who were married for 40-plus years. So, if you ever find yourself with someone who fits smack-dab in the middle of that Venn diagram, leave and do not look back.
If you are experiencing or witnessing mental illness and are in need of support, please call the Crisis Call Center’s 24-hour hotline at 1-800-273-8255.