Are You Dating a Narcissist? Here’s How to Tell
It can be challenging to tell whether you're just dating someone who is self-centred or dating a narcissist. Experts reveal the telltale signs in a relationship and how to get help.
Do you know how to spot a narcissist? Maybe you’re in a relationship with a person who seems just a little too into themselves. They may take longer than most to choose an outfit for a night out. Or, they never stop talking about praise they received at work.
But when this self-obsession crosses the line from fleeting, surface-level vanity to constant and grounded narcissism, it can be seriously damaging to a relationship and possibly lead to narcissistic abuse. The problem is figuring out when this line is crossed and if you’re genuinely dating a narcissist.
What it’s like dating a narcissist
“One of the challenges with understanding relationships with narcissistic individuals is that these relationships can often start out as positive,” says W. Keith Campbell, psychology professor at the University of Georgia and author of The New Science of Narcissism. “On the positive front, a narcissist can be charming, confident, seemingly secure, and outgoing. These are attractive qualities and dating someone like this can be fun.”
But it’s at the stage when you might expect the relationship to move from casual to serious that you begin to spot signs of a toxic relationship.
“Narcissists have challenges forming true emotional commitment,” explains Campbell. “Instead of forming a commitment with their partner, they just use them to maintain their own self-esteem.”
In other words, people with narcissistic personality disorder are incapable of maintaining a happy relationship that is truly a two-way street.
Here are five signs that may suggest you’re dating a narcissist.
Ways to tell you’re dating a narcissist
Win the fight—or else
“Narcissists can’t have a disagreement without totally invalidating the entire relationship,” says Elinor Greenberg, licensed psychologist, Gestalt therapist, trainer in borderline, narcissistic, and schizoid adaptations, and author of Borderline, Narcissistic and Schizoid Adaptations: The Pursuit of Love, Admiration, and Safety.
“They have no desire to be moderate,” she says. While most people will reach a point in the middle of a fight at which they will start to consider a compromise, think about the other person’s point of view, or put the fight in context with past arguments, the narcissist will do none of these things.
“In the moment of the fight, all that exists for them is that moment,” explains Greenberg. “They will get very angry and question the worth of the entire relationship in an attempt to punish their partner for their disagreement.”
The result: A narcissist will say increasingly cruel and demeaning things until their partner agrees with them or drops the issue.
Date night whiplash
Going out on dates with a narcissist can feel like a bit of a roller-coaster ride. For example, says Greenberg, they may be talking up the restaurant on the way there, saying that it’s the best restaurant in the entire world.
“But if you arrive and the host gives you a table in the corner, they are personally offended that you’ve been given the worst table in the restaurant,” she says. “The narcissist will feel the need to go and complain about this, to give the staff a piece of his or her mind.” And you may be in for more fireworks if you try to convince them that the table is perfectly fine.
“Narcissists will be furious if you want them to just be agreeable and adaptable. And then suddenly everything is your fault and the date is a total failure.” This can occur as early as the first date—but because narcissists can also be charming, this red flag may be mistaken for a desire to have the perfect evening.
No responsibility for past failed relationships
While you may not talk about it on your first date, the topic of past relationships is bound to come up eventually. Greenberg says paying attention to how your partner talks about them—especially about how they ended—can be a clue into their psyche.
“Narcissists will think that every previous failed relationship was the other person’s fault. They won’t take any responsibility,” she explains. “When they talk about failed relationships, it will be a story in which they are perfectly blameless and just have a history of other’s doing them wrong.”
For people who don’t have narcissistic personality disorder, the story will lie more in the middle ground, with faults or problems existing for both partners, or at least a recognition that this was likely the case.
Devaluing your priorities
“Narcissists will discount the validity of any position other than their own,” says Greenberg. “From a dating perspective, they will want to impress you with what impresses them and can’t understand why you wouldn’t be equally wowed.”
Greenberg offers the following scenario as an example: You tell your date that you are a vegetarian, but they take you to a steakhouse. When you ask why, they say that it’s the best restaurant in the city and they wanted to take you to the best restaurant. When you don’t order a steak, they tell you that you must because it is the best thing on the menu. You say again that you are a vegetarian, but they say that the steak is so good that you need to get it anyway.
“Narcissists will try and try to get you to see their side of things and then they will be offended when you don’t,” Greenberg adds.
(Related: What Is an Empath—and Can You Become One?)
Being treated like chocolate cake
“What ends up happening sometimes in these relationships is the relationship starts to fall apart because one member is selfish and focused on ego gratification and the other member is looking for more of an emotional attachment,” explains Campbell, who describes the trajectory of a relationship with a narcissist as the “chocolate cake model.”
“Under the chocolate cake model, if presented with two choices—say, a piece of chocolate cake or a healthy salad with chicken—most people will choose the attractive chocolate cake, and they’ll do this for logical reasons. The chocolate cake looks better, tastes better, and feels better in the moment,” he says. “An hour later, however, the chocolate cake doesn’t feel quite as good. Although the choice to eat chocolate was rational, it’s only rational in the short term.”
In this case, the person doing the choosing is the narcissist and the relationship is the cake.
Adds Campbell: “We found that narcissistic relationships usually start with a big rush of satisfaction and then end with a full-on collapse. With non-narcissists, the initial rush doesn’t exist, but satisfaction grows over time—and doesn’t end in a crash.”
Ending the relationship with a narcissist
If any of these signs sound familiar, you may be inclined to try to end the relationship.
“Narcissists will act differently at the end of a relationship depending on their style and why they entered into it in the first place,” says Greenberg. She suggests calling on anything they may have mentioned about past relationships for help. “If they have reacted poorly to other breakups, they are going to react the same as they have in the past.”
If you’re ready to leave a relationship that has turned emotionally abusive, organizations like ShelterSafe provide resources and tools that can help you do so.