5 Dating Red Flags of Narcissists Every Twenty-Something Woman Must Know to Avoid Life-Altering Mistakes

Age-gap relationships.

If you’re in your early twenties, mind the age gap when it comes to dating and relationships. The 33-year-old man who is telling your 21-year-old self that you’re so “mature” for your age is just hoping you’re naïve enough to believe this so he can better control and manipulate you. This isn’t a relationship: this is grooming. While you may be “legally” ready to date whomever you like, you’re likely not mentally prepared for the consequences when it comes to dating older men. After all, why is it that this older man can’t find anyone within his own age group to date? Could it be that women in his age group have the life experience to see right through him? Narcissistic and otherwise toxic individuals look for vulnerable victims to exploit – people who are either willing to not see the red flags or may not be aware of them at all. Younger women are considered an easy target – not only does the narcissist use them to raise their perceived status or as “arm candy,” they are more likely to be controlled and made dependent on the man. They are also considered easier to impress: if you’re in your early twenties, you may feel awe that your 30-something man lives in his own apartment and pays his own bills because as someone in their early twenties, you’re just starting college and finding your way in life. But you have to ask yourself: why would a grown man be interested in someone he likely has very little in common with at such a drastically different life stage? Your prefrontal cortex, that pesky “reasoning” part of your brain hasn’t even developed yet until approximately age 25 – which means you’re likely more impulsive and less thoughtful in your decision-making than you might think. There is an inherent power imbalance when you enter an age-gap relationship: that person has the life experiences and knowledge to know how to best destabilize you, coerce you, and traumatize you.

You may have a desire to feel sophisticated and taken care of. Perhaps you want a partner with more emotional maturity, financial security, and you think an older man is going to provide you with higher quality dates or experiences. But there’s plenty of high-achieving men in their mid-twenties who can also do that and emotional maturity is not necessarily dependent on age alone in men.  For example, an older man who suffers from “Peter Pan” syndrome and never wants to grow up can be less emotionally mature than a man in his mid-twenties who has his life together and possesses empathy. Your early-to-mid twenties should be spent having fun, exploring different sides of yourself, pursuing your education, dating different men (if you want to), focusing on your interests, building supportive friendships, and pursuing your dreams – not catering to a predatory older man whose interest depends on the age group you’re in. You will never experience this decade of your life again. Make it count and do what fulfills you – not your dating partner.

Love bombing and future faking. Not every toxic lover is going to show up as Darth Vader. Some will come dressed as the knight in shining armor and Prince Charming.

In your early-to-mid twenties, it is so easy to get swept up in a whirlwind romance and what society tells you your life should be like. As a woman, you’ve been programmed to center your life around men and romance. You’ve been taught by media to envision your wedding day and a cozy family life with the man of your dreams. You could likely never envision the benefits of the alternative: waiting longer until you meet someone that meets your standards and expectations or even a single, childfree lifestyle. You’ve been conditioned with pick-me habits of pursuing and chasing men who aren’t worthy of you. You’ve been shamed into having lower standards when it comes to choosing a partner for marriage and raising children because of your “biological clock.” You haven’t yet explored the world fully or met many predators (unless they were in your own family or were present among your peers) so you do not yet know how many actually exist yet. It’s an innocent – yet brutal – time because of what you do not know. Predators take advantage of this lack of knowledge and abundance of social conditioning to prey on you with tactics like love bombing and future faking. They promise you marriage, family, children; they take you on lavish vacations, buy you expensive gifts and flowers, and call and text you every hour. They say “I love you” and “You’re my soulmate” early on.

All of this seems deeply enchanting, magical, and romantic when you’re in your early twenties. You want to risk it all for love and get engaged to the first handsome man who appears decent. Advice: don’t. Imagine a future where all your decisions and agency are robbed because you decided to marry and have children with a love-bombing manipulator who ended up terrorizing you and your future kids – this will change your entire life-course trajectory and who you could have been – and it will impact future generations to come. Consider the early courting process of every relationship as a honeymoon stage – of course there will be butterflies, kisses that will feel like they’re part of a romcom, and memorable firsts. You should cherish these experiences, but don’t bet your future on them. Some of these men will be immature manipulators and others will have darker personality traits. Either way, you’re giving away too much power by allowing them to decide your future before you’ve gotten a chance to live.

Control disguised as love and generosity.

If you’re in your early twenties, be wary of partners who claim they will “take care of you” while you forego your education, dreams or career, stay home and raise the kids. This is a trap that can derail your life, finances, lifelong health, and career. You have no way of knowing they will take care of you long-term or won’t (at the very least, get a strict pre-nuptial agreement that will compensate you for your labor and protect you in the event of infidelity or divorce as a stay-at-home wife if you choose to get married in your twenties). Contrary to popular myth, it’s not women who “baby-trap” their boyfriends or husbands – toxic men actually get full control once you’re pregnant with their child because now you are always tethered to them and you are the one who has to go through a risky pregnancy and expected to be a mother regardless of whether or not he stays or leaves – while he gets to carry on his “legacy” with no repercussions to his mind or body. Once a child enters the situation, it’s very difficult to extricate yourself from someone, toxic or not. Don’t go through a potentially life-threatening pregnancy for a man you barely know. Don’t immediately disrupt your employment history for a man just because you want to get married and he promised to financially provide for you – you will need skills to re-enter the workforce in the event of a divorce. Don’t travel across the country or give up on attending your dream college just because a toxic man said he’d feel more comfortable in another state. Don’t abandon long-held dreams of a career just because a man promises to take care of you: toxic men can be very temperamental and fickle and if you’re in an age-gap relationship, there are way too many stories out there of husbands pursuing another young woman once they’ve gotten their first target pregnant to make such a life-altering decision.

Perhaps it really is your dream to be a stay-at-home wife and mother, but you likely won’t know that until you’ve explored your interests and passions. What do you like to do? What makes your soul feel alive? What kinds of goals do you want to reach? Even if you want to marry a man who is a provider, create a financial safety net for yourself so that you are always independent enough to leave a toxic situation or an abusive marriage. You never know what kind of situation you will end up in, especially if you’re with a malignant narcissist who can mask his true self and hide his real colors for a long time.

Pathological envy and emotional abuse of any kind.

As a woman living and dating in her twenties, you’re going to run into jealous and envious people, especially if you have goals and ambitions and have positive internal and external qualities people are attracted to. Perhaps you’ll run into envious co-workers at the workplaces you enter or encounter jealous female narcissists as friends. Most devastating of all, you might even date or enter a relationship with a pathologically envious narcissist. This is the type of man who will never be genuinely happy for your success, even if he initially pretends to support you so he can showcase your achievements to his friends to make himself look better. He benefits from being associated with your beauty, success, and popularity. Yet he appears to frequently sabotage you and your goals, or express resentment when you are surpassing him in some way. Maybe he starts crazymaking arguments right before important interviews or exams. He might discourage you from applying to your dream college, job, or internship. He could put down your intelligence or talents because he knows how far you’ll go and the potential you have. Familiarize yourself with the red flags of manipulators ahead of time so you are aware of their diversion tactics.

He could try to provoke jealousy in you and betray you just because he knows you could do better than him. He could even verbally or emotionally abuse you or stonewall you when you’re trying to have constructive conversations with him. Drop that man. He is not your biggest cheerleader, he’s your biggest culprit: his envy will be the baggage that will overwhelm you and deflate you each step you take. You will find yourself constantly mired in self-doubt rather than experiencing joy when you achieve something when you are with him. Is this the life you want to live? You’d be better off spending that time and energy going to therapy, working to heal your traumas, and building your self-confidence than spending your time trying to change him.

Being pressured to live together early on.

In your early twenties, living with a man may seem like an “ideal” situation. Your boyfriend and you can spend time together 24/7 and even share the costs – isn’t that just the dream? Let me be the one to deliver the bad news: no. Absolutely not. Of course there are exceptions when this type of situation works out perfectly (when you’re in a once in a blue moon type of relationship where you really are soulmates and fully compatible with one another), but that is very rare. Many women who co-habitate with their boyfriends, especially at such a young and vulnerable age, end up regretting it. Not only do you get subjected to patriarchal expectations (such as taking on the vast majority of domestic labor, cooking and cleaning) before even becoming a wife while your toxic boyfriend gets to have a second childhood and another mother to take care of him (gross), you also lose out on the freedom of your twenties. You’re forced to spend most of your time with a romantic partner and can never escape them or the labor that is expected of you. Your social networks become limited. This is an ideal situation for a narcissist to control you. Ask yourself this: how would you feel knowing you became a live-in girlfriend, providing all the benefits of a wife to this man, only for the relationship to end and for him to get married to someone else after you did all that free labor? What would it feel like if you were trapped by a lease or financial situation that you cannot easily escape in the event of abuse?

Most narcissists won’t show their true colors until after you’ve already moved in, so that is always a risk. It is far better to live alone regardless of who you are dating. If you need to move in with someone because the financial situation in your early twenties is likely going to be less than stellar than when you’ve progressed later in life, move in with your best friend or a neutral roommate instead until you can live on your own. The freedom, peace, and joy that comes with not having to do labor for anyone but yourself is priceless. Resist the urge to move in with a mate you don’t fully know before there is even a legal commitment on the line. Do yourself a huge favor in your early twenties that your future self will thank you for: invest only in yourself.

Shahida is a graduate of Harvard University and Columbia University. She is a published researcher and author of Power: Surviving and Thriving After Narcissistic Abuse and Breaking Trauma Bonds with Narcissists and Psychopaths. Her books have been translated into 16+ languages all over the world. Her work has been featured on Salon, HuffPost, Inc., Bustle, Psychology Today, Healthline, VICE, NYDaily News and more. For more inspiration and insight on manipulation and red flags, follow her on Instagram here.

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