I used to think that narcissists were easy to spot.
Narcissists are the guys at the bar eager to talk about themselves. They’re the female besties invested in selfies. Right?
I’m naturally uncomfortable around people with ego-centric agendas.
I excuse myself from these conversations and seek out the party-goers standing by the peanuts. I identify with altruistic self-professed nerds.
But narcissism isn’t just about staring at yourself in a mirror. A narcissistic partner, in particular, is subtler than that. If you’re dating one, you may not even know it yet. I didn’t.
1. Responsibility is an illusion.
Narcissists may be full believers in responsibility, morality, and ethics. They may talk about how crucial it is to take responsibility for one’s own life.
At the same time, they fail to take responsibility for their own actions and words—especially if these are harmful. On the other hand, they hoard accolades and social trophies and talk about these constantly.
In the narcissist’s court of law, they are the judge and everyone else is guilty. In fact, they love the judge’s seat. It’s where they flourish.
You will feel that it is frequently your fault. If there’s an issue, you’re almost always to blame.
You may even find yourself taking responsibility for things that weren’t yours to begin with. Many times you do, just to smooth things over.
2. Arguments are unproductive.
Healthy couples argue, so they say. Humans get angry. We get especially angry with the people we love.
Productive arguments move relationships forward. They emphasize an issue or a tension and—hopefully—eventually lead to recognition, discussion, and solution.
It is possible to have unproductive arguments with non-narcissists. But narcissists will always raise their fists, keep blame cards at the ready, and maybe use manipulation tactics to derail the argument itself.
A narcissistic partner leaves the other feeling hopeless, confused, and frustrated. Arguments may become shouting matches or result in insults, emotional abuse, or even violence (in the worst cases).
An argument with a narcissist is a circle designed to tire and distract you. Soon, all you want is to get out of that circle and do something actually productive, like eating ice cream or going on a hike.
You may just want to curl up in a ball and pretend it never happened. The bad news about this is that unresolved arguments become wounds, which fester. (I can show you my own scars from these.)
3. Your passions get the side-burner.
I’m sorry to say it, but narcissists don’t put you first.
You may have all of these beautiful, bright intentions to chase your passions, try a new career, and generally improve your life. I applaud these.
But your beloved narcissist won’t. He or she could care less at the end of the day. Mine certainly had other interests in mind.
Your partner may show superficial support for these interests. If your passions have any potential of treading on their life path, however, beware.
I wanted to apply for an amazing teaching position for which I was highly qualified. I was tired of my office job. I was ready to be a mentor for young minds. The job would, however, require me to move to Colorado.
You guessed it. My little narcissist simply would not have it.
As your interests get the side-burner, your partner’s becomes the main show. You may feel as if you play the role of counselor, advisor, and cheerleader more often than the other way around.
This may even diminish your own desire to pursue what you love. Your narcissist may even celebrate this.
4. He (or she) cheats.
I wish this wasn’t on this list. Plenty of cheating partners aren’t narcissists. But many of them are.
Cheating is a deceptive maneuver. It can also be a means of acquiring emotional and/or sexual attention many narcissists fiercely crave.
Some narcissists develop sex addictions.
They may only feel comfortable dating multiple men or women (or both) at a time. Narcissists are insatiable for any kind of affection or ego-fattening substances, and lots of it.
Unfortunately, many narcissists are good at keeping affairs on the DL. They fly under the radar. If you are suspicious, they lash out, blame you, or smother their deceit with overt romantic gestures.
If you do catch them cheating, they may fall on their knees and apologize. Mine did. But then they’ll wake up the next morning and do it all over again.
5. He (or she) is abusive.
Narcissism is a powerful predicate to abuse of any kind. Narcissists may emotionally manipulate partners or resort to physical violence.
They may resort to psychological taunts or insults to make you feel small and unworthy.
If you believe you’re in an abusive relationship, I’m here. I have some words just for you.
6. The truth is hard to pin down.
Because narcissists evade responsibility and half-heartedly participate in arguments, they dance clear of the truth.
They aren’t good at providing straight answers. They may hide real answers in roundabout, confusing language. Narcissists will especially sidestep honesty if it has anything to do with their own errors or character.
What does this do for communication? Don’t get me started. Conversations without at least a skeleton of truth are frequently harmful, manipulative, or heavy-handed.
They frequently end up in places where they didn’t begin. That place is often to blame.
7. Generalizations and judgments are the norm.
My narcissistic partner was the king of charm. He gave good hugs. He had a knack for subtle, intimate compliments. He was witty and observant.
He would also surprise me with judgments or generalizations. When my best friend decided to end our friendship, he told me that “she didn’t really have that much potential anyway.”
He commented on other women being overweight or unattractive. He occasionally put down people of color. He justified any wrongs I experienced by belittling and flat-out degrading the other person.
Judgments like these act as a screen. They bolster hypocrisy. They also make narcissists somehow look better. (I’m still trying to figure out how this actually works.)
When I eventually left, I experienced this character trait to the full.
8. There are eggshells on your feet.
Narcissists are great honeymooners.
Mine was. They may buy you lots of things out of the blue. They may whisk you away to Bora Bora for the holidays. They may make you feel like a queen.
(You are a queen, but not because of your partner.)
At the same time, there are eggshells everywhere. You tread them every day and many times they cut your feet open. You may wonder if you can say or do anything right.
Bonus: You’re wondering if your partner is a narcissist.
If you’re already pondering the notion of your partner’s narcissism, read this article again. That may be your clue.
Remember that many partners will have a few narcissistic tendencies—this does not necessarily mean that they are full-on narcissists.
Others may be self-aware and invested in your well-being. Narcissism is not the automatic exit for partners in a relationship. Nor is it something that can’t ever be changed.
But it is common. Keep your eyes open. Be mindful. And remember that your voice should always be heard.