Are You Dating a Narcissist?

July 7, 2009
Caravaggio's Narcissus

Caravaggio's Narcissus

Narcissus in Greek mythology is a hero, renowned for his beauty. He is exceptionally cruel, in that he disdains those who love him. As divine punishment he falls in love with a reflection in a pool, not realizing it is his own, and perishes there, not being able to leave the beauty of his own reflection.

In The Narcissism Epidemic: Living in the Age of Entitlement by Jean Twenge and Keith Campbell, narcissism is defined as a very positive and inflated view of the self. Twenge and Campbell make the argument that narcissism is rampant, causing depression and loneliness as it spreads throughout our culture. I’ll reserve judgment on the question of the pervasiveness of narcissism – I know many young people, and very few meet the definition, in my view.

What I found most interesting about the book was the discussion around narcissism and dating. Most of the people you get involved with will fall far short of this full-blown personality disorder, but there are definitely people out there who have  unjustifiably high self-esteem, and they are terrible relationship risks.

What is a narcissist?

  • Approximately 1% of the population is narcissistic.
  • 75% of narcissists are men.
  • Narcissism is a psychological condition characterized by self-preoccupation, lack of empathy, and unconscious deficits in self-esteem.
  • A narcissist sees his life as a movie or dramatic story in which he has the starring role. He creates a character, and assimilates the emotions of that character.
  • Narcissists appear to have emotions, feelings, empathy; they cry, laugh, feel your pain, etc, but none of this is real.  They don’t feel it.  It’s not linked to anything internal.  They’re crying at the funeral, for sure, but on the inside they’re wondering why it doesn’t hurt as much as they think it should.
  • They are extremely vain.
  • They are often very outgoing, with a “larger than life” personality. They are great fun in social situations, which makes them popular.
  • Hurting a narcissist does not cause him to feel sadness. You can only make a narcissist feel rage.

Hooking up is perfect for narcissists:

  • Since hooking up is about what you want, rather than what the other person wants, it’s the perfect sexual experience for a narcissist.
  • Hookups move the focus of sexual relationships away from the whole person by emphasizing physical attractiveness.
  • Because physical intimacy precedes emotional involvement, it’s difficult to scope out the emotional character of a guy before hooking up.
  • Narcissists worry about “settling,” and are always on the lookout for something better. Hooking up is the perfect framework for that because no one finds it particularly unusual or troubling if a guy doesn’t want a relationship, but prefers to always be hooking up with someone new.

What are narcissists like in relationships?

  • They are exciting, excelling at the fun and novel stage of a new relationship.
  • They enjoy the passion of new love, but do not develop feelings of caring as the relationship progresses.
  • They are all about feeding the ego; always their own, but sometimes yours too.
  • They seek partners who make them look and feel powerful, special, admired, attractive, and important.
  • They are indifferent to the core qualities of healthy relationships: real love, caring, commitment and loyalty.
  • Narcissists exhibit the same qualities at work and among friends, but their true character is more obvious in romantic relationships, because there are fewer rules for how to behave, and because someone who has fallen for a narcissist will often put up with a great deal that others would not tolerate.
  • Narcissists don’t feel guilt, based on an objective right and wrong. They feel shame, based on exposure.  When they get caught, their answer is always the same: “Wait, that’s not really who I am…”
  • Narcissists regard relationships as interchangeable. If you do not fuel the needed status and self-esteem, he will quickly find another relationship that is more rewarding.
  • Narcissists play games:
  1. They are dishonest.
  2. They give mixed signals, running hot and cold.
  3. They play people against one another.
  4. They avoid real commitment.

Recently I wrote about the Principle of Least Interest. This is one of the narcissist’s favorite games. They continuously seek to demonstrate that they care less than the other party, thereby claiming the upper hand.

  • Narcissists are unable to receive criticism of any kind, often reacting with denial and abuse, sometimes even rage. Narcissists become hostile and defensive very quickly when they feel cornered by criticism.
  • Narcissists get angry and aggressive when they feel that their freedom is restricted, so pressuring them for a commitment often causes them to “flip out.”
  • Narcissists can’t cope with rejection, and will avoid allowing someone else to end the relationship at all costs. Often those dating a narcissist will feel better when he refuses to let go, interpreting his desperation to stay in the relationship as a sign of real “deep down” caring. In fact, it’s about pride and ownership. Narcissists can’t tolerate someone else calling the shots, robbing them of their power.

Why do women date narcissists?

Women date narcissists for the same reasons they date jerks, frequently forcing nice guys into last place. We want it all. We want the challenge and the magic passion with a guy who has confidence, charisma and a great sense of fun. But we also want deep caring, with intimacy and commitment. Narcissists deliver big on the magic, and come up empty on the caring. They save the bad stuff for later.By the time you realize that, you’re often in pretty deep, addicted to that bad, bad boy.

Dating a narcissist is dangerous, potentially destroying your ability to have a normal relationship in future:

  • People who have been burned by narcissists are understandably wary and find it difficult to trust others.
  • They also lose trust in themselves, feeling stupid for not having realized his true character.
  • Victims of narcissists spend a lot of time wondering how they got they way, and rehashing nearly all of their interactions to identify the warning signs they missed the first time around.

What is the best way to avoid a narcissist?

  • Make an effort to identify them based on their history. Narcissists leave a trail of heartbreak, deception and unmet expectations.
  • Don’t let a suspected narcissist talk his way in. They will often try to cover their insensitive and deceitful behavior by claiming that there was a miscommunication or misunderstanding. It is always the other person’s fault.
  • Watch for clues. If a guy tells you, “I am a selfish person,” believe him. He’s not being self-deprecating, he’s understating what a narcissist he really is.
  • Put up boundaries. Be friendly, but not friends. Do not put yourself in any situation where you need to trust them.
  • Reject the temptation to become “the cure.” You cannot identify and treat the unconscious deficits in self-esteem. Narcissists rarely change, especially in relationships.
  • Don’t initiate conflict. Any claims, no matter how true, will be met with defensiveness, hostility, perhaps even violence. In fact, you are actually feeding the narcissist’s needs by focusing on him. He is still the star of the show.

How can you get rid of a narcissist?

Don’t reward a narcissist by making drama. The only way to make a narcissist understand personal rejection is to convince him that he doesn’t exist in your life. Ignoring him or humiliating him by failing to give him the starring role, or any role, is the only way to cause real injury to a narcissist. It also happens to be the best way for you to move on.

The bottom line is this: It’s all about them.

A narcissist values a relationship only if he believes it makes him look and feel superior. Have you been involved with someone who has narcissistic tendencies? How did you get out?


Twenge, Jean M., PhD and Campbell, W. Keith, PhD, The Narcissism Epidemic: Living in the Age of Entitlement, New York, Free Press, 2009.