Written by Shahida Arabi, M.A.
It’s not always easy to spot narcissists. They can be very charming and alluring at the onset, presenting a false mask to the outside world. Research indicates that narcissism is rising in the population, especially among the younger generation (Twenge and Campbell, 2009). With the rise of dating applications such as Bumble, Tinder, and OKCupid connecting us to people we wouldn’t normally have access to, it’s even more likely that at some point you will encounter someone on the narcissistic spectrum.
Yet how can you tell in the early stages of dating that you’ve met someone toxic? Although there is no foolproof way to immediately confirm whether someone is a narcissist, there are red flags of toxic people that we often mistake for intimacy.
These myths can cause us to believe that our dating partner is the soulmate we’ve been looking for, when in reality, they can indicate signs of a narcissistic person who lacks empathy, exploits others, and feels superior to those around him or her (American Psychiatric Association, 2013).
MYTH #1: Fast-forwarding intimacy is a sign that he or she is really, really interested in me.
Authentic, empathic dating partners aren’t interested in rushing the process of falling in love – they want everything to unfold organically. They have a genuine interest in finding a partner who is compatible with them and have no interest in misleading or exploiting anyone.
Narcissists, on the other hand, want to fast-forward both emotional and physical intimacy as a way to win your trust and investment in them quickly. This is someone who, without even knowing you, professes their adoration with you early on. They contact you excessively, give you laser-focused attention, and may even take you on extravagant romantic outings that seem too good to be true. This is known as love-bombing and it’s a quick way to win you over without investing long-term (Strutzenberg et al., 2017). Once you’re hooked, they’ll start to withdraw and reveal more of their true character, leaving you to pick up the pieces and do all the work.
Narcissistic dating partners are less interested in building a solid, authentic connection and far more interested in getting into your head (and possibly your bed). In modern romance where hookup culture is becoming more and more normalized, it’s easy to mistake a narcissist for someone who’s simply following the cultural norms (Garcia, 2012).
Experts note that narcissists have a very high degree of entitlement – that’s why they feel entitled to your time, energy, affection and investment even before you’ve gotten to know them (Champion, 2003; Reidy, et al., 2008; Goulston, 2012). So if you find yourself dealing with someone who persistently coerces you into sexual or romantic behavior that you’re not comfortable with despite the assertion of your standards, you’re not dealing with someone who’s obsessed with you. You’re dealing with someone who’s obsessed with controlling you – and not at all interested in honoring your boundaries.
MYTH #2: Bad behavior is the exception, not the rule – thus we must give the benefit of the doubt.
Many of us approach dating with an excessive sense of generosity. We believe that certain red flags can be dismissed, when in fact, it is incredibly telling that these flags are appearing at all so early. Since people usually tend to be on their best behavior in the first few months of a relationship, you should especially be keeping track of outrageous behavior that seems out of place with the rest of someone’s projected persona.
Narcissists tend to test the boundaries of their victims by pulling stunts that are so shocking that victims have a difficult time processing their actions. Victims start to develop a sense of cognitive dissonance about what they’re experiencing because it challenges all the preconceived notions they had about this person. Narcissistic dating partners are constantly assessing their victims for what their vulnerabilities are to use these against them; according to research, the most sadistic and malignant of narcissists are rewarded by these manipulations (Wai & Tiliopoulos, 2012).
Rest assured: if you are dealing with a true narcissist, these are deliberately engineered to assess whether you’d be willing to put up with their even more abrasive behavior later on. This could manifest in a number of different ways. Perhaps a usually polite and gentlemanly dating partner suddenly sends you explicit or obscene messages out of nowhere; maybe a female dating partner suddenly gives you the silent treatment, disappears, only to reappear again with no explanation as if nothing happened. Your partner could exhibit a sudden outburst of rage that seems absolutely shocking when considering their normally demure demeanor.
If you “pass” the test, your boundaries are slowly eroded and they move onto even more depraved behavior. These “tiny tells” can be fractures in a narcissist’s false mask that give away who they truly are. If spotted early on, these can save you a lifetime’s worth of trauma.
MYTH # 3: It’s just a “joke” when they put me down.
Past research suggests that when female partners have their self-esteem temporarily lowered, they subconsciously tend to find the affection of potential mates more attractive and appealing; other studies similarly support the fact that those with lowered self-esteem tend to be more compliant and agreeable to the requests of others (Walster, 1965; Gudjonsson & Sigurdsson, 2003).
Pick-up artists know this and use techniques like “negging” (backhanded comments) to underhandedly undermine a woman’s sense of self so that she is driven to seek the culprit’s approval (Green et al., 2017).
Narcissists enjoy covertly insulting their partners, even early on, to “train” their victims into taking more of the abuse they dole out over time. They’ll disguise these startling comments as a form of playful teasing or witty banter. However, thinly veiled insults, abrupt harsh jabs, excessive sarcasm, and a condescending tone are tell-tale signs that you might be dealing with someone narcissistic or at the very least toxic. Someone who constantly subjects you to backhanded compliments under the guise of a joke is rarely just being flirtatious – they have an active interest in making you feel small so that you’re motivated to win their affections.
Strangely, this could be appealing initially because as human beings we are subconsciously taught that whoever makes us pine for approval must hold some form of power or superiority over us. In reality, that person is attempting to drag you down from your present position because they are threatened by your confidence. Authentic dating partners should be laughing with you, not making you the butt of every joke. Toxic partners feel the only way to build attraction is by undermining your sense of self. Remember, anyone who has to build attraction in such a covert and demeaning manner is someone who is lacking and deficient in other areas.
MYTH #4: Chemistry is a sign of a “soulmate connection.”
Many of us mistake instantaneous chemistry as a sign of long-lasting love. While chemistry can certainly be an indicator of a connection, more often than not, when we use chemistry as the sole evidence of intimacy, we lose focus of true compatibility.
Narcissists are masters of creating chemistry through their hot-and-cold, push-and-pull behavior. They leave you guessing, walking on eggshells, and wondering what will happen next. A relationship with a narcissist is one big biochemical rollercoaster and an adrenaline rush like no other. Being with a narcissist, in the beginning, is exciting. That’s why too much chemistry can be a red flag in itself.
If you find yourself “addicted” to a dating partner in a way that is unhealthy and all-consuming, chances are, this form of chemistry is a result of toxicity rather than connection.
MYTH # 5: Any jealousy or insecurity we experience is an indication of our problems with our self-esteem.
It’s true that every one of us has insecurities and flaws that we need to re-evaluate and work on. That’s perfectly normal and human. With a narcissist, however, you’ll find that your insecurities become magnified and a nagging sense of self-doubt, confusion, and uncertainty become your primary mode of living. Therefore, if you’re feeling especially insecure around a certain dating partner, it’s important to pinpoint why.
Narcissists are prone to creating love triangles and harems to manufacture these insecurities in you. They engage in needless comparisons and infidelity to make you compete for their attention. They gaslight you into believing that what you’re experiencing and feeling is a figment of your imagination. They plant seeds of self-doubt to burgeon into an overwhelming sense of worthlessness. They build a new reality for you to live in – their reality.
A dating partner who makes you feel consistently insecure – especially by flattering you then withdrawing and insulting you or by making you compete – is not someone who is healthy. At the very least, they are on the spectrum of narcissism because they are unable to relate to you with empathy, respect, and decency.
Remember: healthy dating partners do not go out of their way to make you feel small. They celebrate your strengths and honor your boundaries. Once you’ve learned to reconnect to your intuition and inner voice, it becomes clearer that the way a person makes you feel is far more important than the image they project or how good they look on paper.
American Psychiatric Association (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (5th Ed). Washington DC: American Psychiatric Association.
Champion, D. (2003). Narcissism and entitlement: Sexual aggression and the college male. Criminal justice LFB Scholarly Publishing LLC. New York: LFB Scholarly Publishing LLC.
Garcia, J. R., Reiber, C., Massey, S. G., & Merriwether, A. M. (2012). Sexual hookup culture: A review. Review of General Psychology, 16(2), 161-176. doi:10.1037/a0027911
Goulston, M. (2012, February 9). Rage-Coming Soon From a Narcissist Near You. Retrieved July 24, 2018, from https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/just-listen/201202/rage-coming-soon-narcissist-near-you
Green, K., Kukan, Z., & Tully, R. (2017). Public perceptions of “negging”: Lowering women’s self-esteem to increase the male’s attractiveness and achieve sexual conquest. Journal of Aggression, Conflict and Peace Research, 9(2), 95-105.
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Strutzenberg, C., & Wiersma-Mosley, J., Jozkowski, K., & Becnel, J. (2017). Love-bombing: A narcissistic approach to relationship formation. Discovery Journal.
Twenge, J. M., & Campbell, W. K. (2009). The narcissism epidemic: Living in the age of entitlement. New York: Atria Paperback.
Walster, E. (1965). The effect of self-esteem on romantic liking. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 1(2), 184-197.
Wai, M., & Tiliopoulos, N. (2012). The affective and cognitive empathic nature of the dark triad of personality. Personality and Individual Differences, 52(7), 794-799. doi:10.1016/j.paid.2012.01.008
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About the Author
Shahida Arabi, MA is a graduate of Columbia University graduate school and the author of the #1 Bestseller, Becoming the Narcissist’s Nightmare: How to Devalue and Discard the Narcissist While Supplying Yourself, which has been a #1 Bestseller for 12 consecutive months since its release. She is also the author of The Highly Sensitive Person’s Guide to Dealing with Toxic People: Reclaiming Your Power from Narcissists and Other Manipulators, published by New Harbinger Publications and available in all major bookstores. Currently, she is a graduate student at Harvard University.