In hindsight, much about my last relationship falls into predictable patterns. Had I known about narcissism thirteen years ago, I would have been suspicious and on my guard from the get-go. But I didnt see it. He wasnt a braggart, wasnt full of himself, none of those things I associated with narcissism. I just didnt know enough.
Picking up the pieces from a relationship with a narcissist is difficult because you feel so blindsided. The recovery is often infused with a lot of self-recrimination and blame because, looking back, the patterns are clear and obvious to you. Every time I write about narcissism, I hear from women (and men) who feel stupid and led down the garden path and often angry with themselves.
Someone wrote to say, I would have done better if Id been able to see his playbook and that sparked this post. Please feel free to switch up genders but I have written it using masculine pronouns because men dominate the far end of the narcissistic spectrum.
Inside the Narcissists Playbook
Of course, a narcissist doesnt really have one but there are enough consistent behaviors analyzed by experts that we can well imagine one. Heres my take on what it might look like.
- The Big Wow
Yes, cue the candles, the romantic dinner, the heartfelt texts or notes because when the narcissist sets his sights, there aint no mountain high enough, or so hell make you think. At first glance, he seems beyond charming, thoughtful, and someone anyone would be proud to be with. He aims to sweep you off your feet and the chances are good that he does. You may have a few girlfriends who wonder about his sincerity and how it all seemed like a full-court press and say so but you chalk it up to jealousy. After all, who wouldnt want to be with this guy? What with all the seducing going on, you dont notice the blinders hes placed over your eyes.
- Putting You on a Pedestal
According to Dr. Craig Malkin, author of Rethinking Narcissism, this is typical of the narcissist, an extension of his thinking that hes pretty great and so must you be, if youre going to be with him. Having compliments strewn about and hearing that hes the luckiest guy in the world to have met you will surely make you feel pretty terrific at first but its also a sign that hes not really seeing you but only a reflection of his own glory. Beware of the idealizer.
- Keeping You Guessing
The narcissists capacity for real emotional connection is limited and intimacy isnt something hes interested in but he does love the rush of power that comes from having someone in his orbit. In this relationship, youre likely to mistake drama for passion, and think that the hot make-up sex after hes drifted away or fought with you is proof positive of his devotion. In this playbook, drama is the spice of life.
- Stealth Control
This observation is Dr. Craig Malkins and its important because this tactic assures that you wont actually appreciate how youve lost your sense of self until way late in the game. The narcissist doesnt declare himself by being overtly controlling because he doesnt like depending on anyone or asking for anything. So, instead, he switches up plans youve already decided onor you thought you jointly agreed toand substitutes something better, more fun, and sexier. So, instead of buying plane tickets to Seattle to visit your sister at Thanksgiving, he surprises you with tickets to Paris, and what can you say? Isnt Paris more exciting than Seattle and candied yams? he asks with a smile. Well, the truth is that you were really looking forward to seeing your sister but you say nothing. Done often enoughand the narcissist willhe slowly and methodically makes your wants and needs insignificant in the scheme of things without your ever noticing.
- Emotional Hot Potato
Everyone fightsand thats what you keep telling yourselfbut somehow you manage not to fully register, not at the start at least, that he doesnt own up to what hes feeling. Instead, he plays what Dr. Malkin calls emotional hot potato, ascribing his feelings to you. So youre trying to talk through a problem with him, and hes standing there, his jaw muscles working, his fists clenched, a faint sneer on his face, and just saying uh huh or really? in a sarcastic tone of voice. Its clear to you that hes angry with you, as if you have some nerve bringing this issue up, and you call him out on it. Its at moment that he turns the tables, challenging you with Why are you so angry? Its always the same old tattoo? If youre unhappy, just leave. Did I mention brinksmanship? Up next.
- Gaming You
Just as the narcissist enjoys the thrill of seduction and successfully seducing, he also needs the relationship to feel good about himself so hes expert at playing games, doing what he can to keep you dancing on those marionettes strings. Keeping you off-balance is part of the playbookdoing something that seems like a lovely gesture after a rough patch, for example, or showing you how much he cares by doing something you know hes only doing for you. All the warning signs youve begun to take note ofhow he disparages your friends and discourages you from socializing with them, how cold and uncaring he can be at time, his habit of pushing off from his feelingsfly out of your head and youre back in his orbit.
- Under His Thumb
Yes, and between game-playing and brinksmanship, thats where youll stay for the moment at least.
- Stonewalling and Gaslighting
As you begin to become more aware of the narcissists true nature, hell up the ante on playing with your head and making sure you stay put. Stonewalling is part of a classic toxic relational pattern called Demand/Withdrawit even has an acronym DM/Wand its another way he can play on your empathy, your desire to keep things going, and to make peace. You begin by asking to discuss something and he answers with silence which, in turn, makes you frustrated and upset and your voice rises and he retreats moreand then you feel awful. Sound familiar?
Gaslighting is a classic way of making sure you stay off-balance and mistrust your perceptions. Are you in love with a liar? Did he say it or not?
- Woo or Woe
Heres where the going gets rough and if you havent recognized that hes a narcissist before, the chances are good that you will now. A narcissist doesnt take kindly to someone else calling the shots, especially if that someone is about to make him look bad by leaving him. That is not part of his vision of how things go so hell turn on a dime to make your life as miserable as he possibly can. Especially if you have the temerity to divorce himGet ready for war because hes going to wage it.
- Scorched Earth and Vindictiveness
Scorched earth is a military term which describes the tactic of burning everything to the ground as an enemy approaches, and I first used to describe my exs behavior to my lawyer during my divorce. Dr. Joseph Burgo describes vindictiveness as the hallmark of one kind of narcissist but I wonder whether all narcissists dont react to central threats in the same way. The thing that is utterly bewildering is that they honestly dont care who gets hurt or what gets said or whether lie after lie is stacked up as long as they win. Its absolutely mind-boggling. They are willing to sacrifice their children and anyone else who stays in their way without ever blinking. Be prepared to be maligned and scapegoated; its what a narcissist does to win at any cost.
Know the playbook and be vigilant. Theres no way of winning with these folks.
Photograph by Ayo Ogunseinde. Copyright Free. Unsplash.com
Malkin, Craig. Rethinking Narcissism: The Secret to Recognizing and Coping with Narcissists. New York: Harper Perennial, 2016.
Burgo, Joseph. The Narcissist You Know: Defending Yourself against Extreme Narcissists in an All-About-Me Age. New York: Touchstone, 2016.
Campbell, W. Keith, Craig A. Fogler, and Eli J. Finkel. Does Self-Love Lead to Love for Others? A Story of Narcissistic Game Playing, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (2002), vol. 83, no. 2, 340-354.