You’ve heard the word ‘narcissist’ before, but do you really know how to spot one? You might have called it early with the Tinder date who doesn’t ask you a single question about yourself. But what about the guy who seems like a woke feminist and wins you over with thoughtful compliments and impressive dates…until he does a total 180? Next thing, he’s weighing in on what you should wear and gaslighting you into a crazy mind f*ck. Yup, according to Dr Sarah Davies – a London-based psychologist – ‘Criticisms, lies and manipulative behaviours are paralleled with wildly romantic gestures, compliments and gifts, leaving partners confused and doubting themselves.’ Here are eight warning signs you need to move on.
8 signs you’re dating a narcissist
1. They did everything to win you over
In the beginning, they made you feel like you were the only girl in the world. They spoiled you with extravagant gifts, turned up on your doorstep from halfway across the world, texted you nonstop, and told you they wanted you to be the mother of their children on date two. ‘Narcissists are masters of love bombing, where they make a potential partner feel as special as they possibly can,’ says Dr Suzanne Degges-White, professor of counselling at Northern Illinois University.
Narcissists are most probably better at wooing you than someone who actually loves you because they’re motivated by winning you over instead of actually getting to know you. What can seem like the most romantic gestures can simply be them studying you to know exactly how to be the ‘perfect’ partner to you. If you’ve watched Netflix’s You, it’s Joe Goldberg down to a tee. ‘Narcissists are adept at winning affection from their targets early on, but they have trouble maintaining long- term relationships,’ Degges- White says
2. They are critical of others
Does your partner talk down to people in a condescending or belittling way, assuming they know more than them? Are they rude to the car guard or the waiter serving your food on a date? If alarm bells are ringing RN, you might be in a relationship with a narcissist. ‘Narcissists seek to overcompensate their own deep sense of shame and self- loathing through arrogant, self- entitled behaviours and beliefs such as expecting special treatment from people, thinking they are better than others or that rules don’t apply to them,’ says Davies.
Narcissists also tend to be harsh and judgmental of others. Ever been in a relationship where your partner is constantly hating on your friends? Or refuses to socialise with you and your besties? This is a classic trait of a narcissistic personality disorder, and it can leave you feeling isolated and resentful.
3. They refer to previous partners as ‘psycho exes’
Firstly, if a guy calls his ex a ‘psycho’, he’s the one with the issue. Be very suspicious if he refers to a former lover as a ‘crazy woman’ or a ‘drama queen’ – it points to them never being able to admit wrong or being able to see two sides to a disagreement. ‘Narcissists who are especially good at winning the affection and praise of others are likely to also have a lot of broken relationships,’ Degges-White says.
She adds that a narcissist wants to be perceived as the victim in all their relationships, embellishing their great qualities while vilifying their exes to achieve that image. Any time a narcissist’s first comment on past relationships is what the ex did wrong in their relationship is a sign they haven’t learned anything.
4. They put their own needs before yours
‘One key characteristic of narcissistic personality disorder is a pathological lack of empathy. Narcissists do not experience emotions in the same way most of us do. They tend to have experienced significant early childhood neglect or abuse that affects their emotional development,’ says Davies.
When you’re around others, a narcissist will be the most courteous, attentive partner. But when no-one is looking, they’re wildly selfish. ‘Narcissists see people as objects and often leave their romantic partners feeling more like an accessory than a living, breathing, feeling partner,’ Degges-White says. She notes that a good sign to look out for is their motivation for buying you gifts – do they do it selflessly, just to make you smile? Or do they buy you flowers only after a big blow-out where they verbally abused you?
5. They love ultimatums
According to Davies, narcissists will lie and manipulate to get their own way, and if you challenge them, you’ll usually be met with aggression or further abuse, including punishing you with the silent treatment. Narcissistic partners are controlling and believe they are never wrong. ‘Arguments are often highly unbalanced – their partners plead with them to see things from another perspective, but narcissists are unable to accomplish a feat of this level of emotional maturity,’ says Degges-White.
A narcissist may threaten to break up with you or give you a harsh ultimatum if you refuse to concede and apologise – even if you don’t believe you’re wrong. It’s the ultimate form of gaslighting.
6. You feel like you are on an emotional roller-coaster
Davies says that being in a relationship with a narcissist tends to be drama-filled and chaotic. There are constant ups and downs, and they disappear and reappear whenever it suits them. ‘One of the reasons toxic relationships of this kind are so dangerous is that partners can become addicted to the highs and lows,’ she says. ‘You end up feeling stressed, anxious and even traumatised. In extreme cases, this can lead to burnout or a complete nervous breakdown.’
Healthy relationships, in contrast, are balanced and feel safe. Many people who experience narcissistic abuse have issues with anxiety, self- esteem and confidence. In severe cases, you may feel like you’re losing your mind.
7. If you try to speak up, they tell you you’re being ‘over the top’
Whenever you attempt to stand up for yourself or point out something they’ve said, they respond by saying that you’re ‘sensitive’ or ‘demanding’. A narcissist is a master at making you feel like you’re imagining things and going mad.
‘Making these kinds of comments is known as gaslighting and it’s psychologically abusive. Gaslighting leaves you doubting yourself and, at times, feeling crazy,’ says Davies. In a healthy relationship, your opinions are heard and respected, as are your personal boundaries. If this is not the case, it is an indicator of a toxic situation.
‘You may begin to belittle yourself and accept that criticism as deserved, whether it really is or not,’ Degges-White says. This creates a co-dependent relationship: ‘The relationship can become something like a yoyo – you try to get some distance, but get sucked right back into the old patterns,’ she adds.
8. You never feel good enough
‘Narcissists are deeply discontent people, and partners can find themselves locked into a pattern of futile attempts to appease them,’ says Davies. ‘You’ll never be able to fully satisfy a narcissistic partner, and that is not your fault.’
According to Davies, partners of narcissists can develop anxiety disorders or may turn to alcohol or drugs. She adds that ‘being with a narcissist and experiencing this specific kind of abuse is traumatising, and many people are left with symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. However, a healthy wellbeing is often rapidly restored upon leaving this kind of relationship.’
Repeatedly criticising you, gaslighting, and an inability to ever admit fault inevitably takes an emotional toll on someone. If you’re feeling like you’re walking on eggshells, it is a warning sign you should not ignore. If you’re reading this and the personality traits sound alarmingly similar to your partner’s, know that you deserve better and don’t need to stay in an unhealthy relationship.
If you suspect you’re in a toxic relationship with a narcissist, seek help and support from somebody you trust. Reach out to family, friends, colleagues or a professional psychologist. You deserve a healthy, rewarding and fulfilling relationship. Find a therapist or join a support group: Co-Dependents Anonymous, Al-Anon or the South African Depression and Anxiety Group.
Dr. Sarah Davies draws from her clinical expertise as well as from her personal experiences with narcissistic abuse, to put together this practical guide to understanding and moving on from toxic relationships.
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