BY TEHRENE FIRMAN
In the dating world, it’s not uncommon to come across romantic prospects whose social media accounts are littered with selfies and who just love talking about themselves. It’s 2017, so isn’t that all of us to some extent? Sometimes, it’s tricky to tell when self-absorption crosses the line into narcissism — whether that means narcissistic personality disorder or simply enough self-obsession to make a healthy relationship difficult. (The most recent Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Medical Disorders lists nine criteria for narcissistic personality disorder, but specifies that an individual only needs to meet five of them to qualify as a clinical narcissist.) Ahead, psychotherapists share nine signs you might be dating a narcissist — and how to deal if you are.
1. They’re unapologetic…
…mostly because they never feel like they’re doing anything wrong, says Paulette Kouffman Sherman, a New York City-based psychotherapist and relationship expert. There are many ways this can show up in your relationship, but even something as simple as them showing up late all the time and never apologizing or thinking about how their lateness affects you is a red flag.
2. They make you feel special.
At first, anyway. Narcissists believe themselves to be “special” and unique, and by extension believe they can only be appreciated by other “special” people. If they’re dating you, don’t be surprised by comments such as, “Wow, no one else has ever understood me like you do” or “You are so different from everyone I’ve ever met” — even if you’ve just started dating.
This kind of rhetoric alone isn’t necessarily alarming; we all know how intoxicating the first stage of a relationship can be. But while the beginning stages of a relationship with a narcissist might not raise any huge issues, it won’t take long until you’re left wondering when things took a turn for the worst.
“When you first start dating a narcissist, it’s almost like you’re getting a hit of really good, stimulating coffee in the morning. You feel so special. Then, you’ll feel really exhausted,” says psychotherapist Yoon Kane, founder and executive director of Mindful Psychotherapy in New York City. “Even though you feel special, you realize they don’t even really know you. Real intimacy requires a lot of sharing and listening, and you might walk away feeling really tired and drained and realize they mostly just talk about themselves.”
3. They need their ego stroked constantly.
It may seem as if narcissists are so full of themselves that they don’t need anyone reminding them how great they are, but that’s exactly what they need. All the time.
“We all have a need to feel love and respected deep down, but narcissists don’t have an internal supply of it like other people,” Kane says. Because of that, she says they may actually suck you dry with their constant craving for compliments and attention. “They’re like emotional vampires,” she adds.
4. They’re master manipulators.
Narcissists can be such great manipulators that it takes someone who’s dating them quite a while to even pick up on it.
Kane says the narcissist’s need to control others has roots in one of their biggest fears: abandonment. That’s why they’ll do their best to make you think any problems in the relationship are your fault and that you see them as blameless. “It makes the person who’s dating them caught in a cycle of feeling like there’s something wrong with them. And if there’s something wrong with you, you’re not going to abandon them,” Kane explains. Criticism is unbearable for a narcissist because it triggers their fear that you’ll leave them, while if you doleave them, “they get enraged — they can’t tolerate that you see them in a negative light,” Kane says.
5. They lack empathy.
If you’re dating a narcissist, it might be hard to get them to care about what you’re going through, whether that’s the death of a loved one or just a hard day at work. Lack of empathy is a primary hallmark of narcissistic personality disorder. “If you’re crying or are upset, they get bored very easily and can’t really understand what you’re going through, mostly because it’s not that interesting to them,” Kouffman Sherman says. Thoughts or feelings that aren’t directly related to a narcissist’s own won’t hold their attention.
6. They think they’re right about everything.
No matter how much you reason with them or explain your stance on a certain topic, they’re not going to see your side of things. “When you’re dating a narcissist, they probably won’t compromise on an important issue,” Kouffman Sherman says. “They strongly believe they’re right and that they’re teaching you something. They can’t understand another person’s perspective.” This inability to engage with rational debate comes off as arrogance.
7. They think they’re perfect.
When you think of a narcissist, you might envision someone who’s overly full of themselves. And, well, you’re right.
“Simply put, narcissists are vain. They’re always looking at themselves and how gorgeous they look; they’re shallow and not really connecting with anything deeper than outward appearances,” Kouffman Sherman says. “This also plays into why they don’t think they need to own up to anything: because they think they’re perfect.” This self-importance goes way beyond pride: Narcissists expect to be praised even when their achievements don’t support their sense of superiority. They also believe that others are envious of them — and frequently get envious of others.
8. When you embarrass them, they might discard you.
Since narcissists see their significant others as extensions of themselves, they might have a different reaction than most partners when things don’t go as planned (for example if you lose your job or go through an emotionally difficult time).
“They’re very concerned with their reputation, and you add to their reputation since they’re dating you. But as soon as something bad happens and it’s not even your fault or they feel embarrassed or something, it’s very possible they’ll just discard you,” Kouffman Sherman says. “Not only are they not supporting you emotionally through it, but they won’t want anything to do with it because they think it looks bad for them.” They’re more invested in looking good — whether in their career, social life, or love life — than in a relationship with any individual person.
9. They cheat.
There are many reasons people cheat, and cheating alone doesn’t mean someone is a narcissist — but in combination with some of these other red flags, it could be a sign. A narcissist needs constant ego boosts because they can’t sustain their own self-esteem. And as soon as you fail to comply with all of their expectations, they may look for someone else to fill the gap.
“In a normal relationship, you’ll have low selfishness, the ability to forgive, and you’ll be supportive, generous, and empathetic,” Kane says. “If you don’t have those qualities but you do have a lot of superficial charisma and success, you can attract people. But, they’ll eventually see right through it. Then they’ll go to other people who will be impressed by them.”
So, you’re dating a narcissist (or at least someone with narcissistic tendencies) — now what?
There are some tools for dealing with people who are prone to self-obsession. But doing so takes a whole lot of work.
1. You’re going to have to set boundaries.
If you’re going to be in a relationship with a narcissist, you need to know your self-worth and be able to set boundaries to make sure they’re not stepping all over you.
“When you set boundaries or clear limits, they can respond. I wouldn’t say you can get through to them, but you can keep them from sucking you dry…or, teach them how to respond to you,” Kane says. “For instance, you could say something like, ‘We’ve been having these conversations, and I’ve noticed you haven’t asked about me yet and it makes me feel like you don’t care about me. If you want me to continue paying attention to you, you need to pay attention to me, too.’ It’s like talking to a little kid.”
2. You’re going to have to get used to stroking their ego.
Dating a narcissist involves a lot of ego-stroking, but Kouffman Sherman says to only do so during times when you think they’re actually deserving of it. They’ll want you to compliment them on anything and everything, but don’t give in if you don’t agree with them or don’t think they’re doing the right thing.
3. You’ll have to go somewhere else for empathy.
If you need empathy, know that you’ll probably have to get it from other sources. Kouffman Sherman says you might not get what you need in terms of emotional support from your significant other, so you’ll probably have to look to close friends and family members instead. “It’s kind of like a one-way relationship in some ways,” she says.
Clinical narcissistic personality disorder can be managed, but it isn’t curable. Being in a relationship with a narcissist is almost like a full-time job, not to mention one that’s unlikely to provide you the support and connection you need and deserve. Yes, narcissists can learn to better interact with others, but that requires a long-term commitment to therapy. And while you can try to get a narcissist to go to therapy with you, according to both Kouffman Sherman and Kane, they’re probably not going to think they need to go…because #narcissism.