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Are You Dating A Narcissist?


Your date is charming, witty, and a real show-off. But when it comes time to put your needs first, a litany of excuses gets trotted out instead. Could you be dating a narcissist? Read on to find out!

By Lynn Harris

hen your back goes out, you call your boyfriend. He comes over and waits on you hand and foot. Right? Not if you’re Sarah H., a New York City publicist. When she called her then-boyfriend to say she was barely able to move, his response was, “You’re making it up.” That wasn’t even the worst of it.
Those traits may make for a good date, but not a good relationship.
When her dad was hospitalized and she needed support, her boyfriend said “I’m busy.” If Sarah — a cancer survivor — ever mentioned her illness, he’d say, “Get over it.”

Looking back, Sarah says, it shouldn’t have taken two years for her to get over him and get out. “I should have run, but I listened to my heart, not my head,” she admits. There were other warnings signs: when he wasn’t criticizing her, he was complimenting how “connected” she was in Manhattan social circles. But — here’s the clincher — he was also, from the very beginning, exciting, charming, witty and seductive.

Sarah realizes now that those traits may make for a good date, but not a good relationship. “He was like the man-eating plant in The Little Shop of Horrors. ‘Feed me, Seymour!’ Constantly feeding his own ego. And when he’s sucked you dry, he’ll find someone else,” she laments. Yes, there’s a good musical theater metaphor for people like Sarah’s boyfriend, but there’s also a technical term: narcissists.

Narcissism is extreme self-absorption — to the point of being unable to achieve true intimacy with anyone. “Narcissists are missing the empathy chip,” says Carol Landau Ph.D., clinical professor of psychiatry at the Warren Alpert Medical School of Brown University. While some people have narcissistic traits, others have full-blown narcissistic personality disorder (NPD). In fact, experts say there’s a full-blown narcissism epidemic — which might make for good drama on The Bachelor, but can’t possibly make for good dating experiences.

According to research by Jean Twenge, Ph.D., psychology professor at San Diego State University and coauthor of The Narcissism Epidemic, the incidence of narcissistic traits is increasing faster than previously thought. Data from the National Institutes of Health shows that young people in particular exhibiting NPD symptoms are on the rise at the rate of almost 1 out of 10 men and women in their 20s. More men than women exhibit narcissism, partly because culturally speaking, behavioral traits like confidence and aggression are rewarded in men. But Twenge found that narcissism is increasing more rapidly among women than men. “Men are still more narcissistic than women on average, but women are catching up fast,” she says.

Why the surge in self-absorption? Narcissism arises from a combination of genetic and environmental factors, but it’s also riding a cultural tidal wave that, Twenge says, has been gathering for centuries, as our societal focus has shifted from the community to the individual. Today it’s exploding, often in trends started by narcissists and then followed — and normalized — by others: plastic surgery, McMansions, parents who place their children in the indulgent, rule-free center of the universe. And let’s not forget all those popular reality shows, where people get famous for working at and accomplishing precisely nothing. “They are a showcase for narcissism,” Twenge says, “because they make it seem normal.”

So unless you’re dating someone from The Hills, how do you know he or she is a narcissist? You might get a very early warning sign, like Allison H. of Syracuse, NY: “Our first date started at his
We keep being attracted to — and going back for — the sizzle.
enormous, expensive apartment. He said, ‘I’m considering buying it.’ I said, ‘Wow, it’s a really nice apartment,’ and he said, ‘No, the building.’ Suddenly he jumped up on a chin-up bar and did 50 chin-ups. Then he hung there and said, ‘Climb on.’ Let’s just say I didn’t.”

Usually, though, it’s trickier. “Narcissists are charming, likable, attractive and very good at starting relationships,” says W. Keith Campbell, Ph.D., professor of psychology at the University of Georgia and Twenge’s coauthor. “But they never develop the caring part of a healthy partnership.” Instead, they become materialistic, manipulative, squirrelly, possibly unfaithful, controlling or, in serious cases, abusive. “Then you say, ‘Why did this person change? The answer is: he or she didn’t. It’s still the same person,” says Campbell.

Other behavioral warning signs that can help you identify narcissists:
  • They talk about themselves, but never ask about you; or when they do, they’re not really listening
  • They disregard or diminish your feelings
  • They’re demanding, but they don’t come through for you in return
Here is the bottom line when it comes to dating narcissists: MOVE ON. While personality disorders cause harm to the sufferer, narcissism primarily hurts others. “Narcissists leave a trail of destruction,” says Campbell. Experts say that even they — the experts — have a low success rate for getting narcissists to change; it’s unrealistic at best (and damaging at worst) to hold out hope that you can. “People make all sorts of excuses. ‘He’s got all these great qualities; if I could just stop him from text-messaging hookers,’” says Campbell. “You can’t.”

Still drawn to narcissists? It’s not uncommon. According to Campbell, “We keep being attracted to — and going back for — the sizzle. The only problem is, the steak is never there.” If you identify with this statement, I offer these two solutions:
  1. Next time, start out as just friends. If there’s “more” there, the “sizzle” will come.
  2. Reconsider what “romance” means to you. As Campbell says: “We get this cultural message that love should be magic, a constant rush. But the rush, while fun, is something that comes from 15 minutes in a bar — not from true, lasting love.”
Lynn Harris (www.lynnharris.net) is co-creator, with Chris Kalb (www.chriskalb.com), of the award-winning website BreakupGirl.net. A longtime journalist, Lynn has written about dating, gender, and culture high and low for Glamour, Marie Claire, The New York Times, Salon.com, Nerve.com, and many others. She is currently the communications strategist for Breakthrough, a transnational organization that creates pop culture to promote human rights. Submit your dating questions for Ask Lynn via bg@breakupgirl.net.
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