Defense Against the Dark Arts: Narcissism


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Dear Susan,

First off, I love your blog! I just started reading it this summer and it is a life saver. I am headed into my sophomore year of college and had quite a strange dating experience of my own during freshman year and would be interested in yours/other readers’ take on it.

I met a guy in class and we hit it off right away–hanging out, going on dates, getting to know each other, nothing physical. One night, we both admitted that we were attracted to each other, and were essentially “seeing” each other. I asked him if he was seeing anyone else and he said no. (I was also contagiously ill at the time, and thought that it was a good indication of character that he was willing to work through that with me.)

As things progressed, there were definite “player” signs that I didn’t really clue into because this was my first boyfriend-type of person and I felt confident in his promise of exclusivity. One night, we had a long talk about our relationship and he said he wanted a long-term relationship with me and wanted to work towards that. We hadn’t had sex yet, I was/am still a virgin.

On the first weekend back for second semester, one of his friends clued me in that he was, in fact, dating someone else. The friend and I were rather intoxicated at the time, and when I talked to BF about it he denied the other girl completely but went on to say that he wasn’t in the right place for a relationship. We talked again soberly, and it was more of the same and more denial.

I talked to another mutual friend later in the week, and he confirmed that the other girl was definitely on the scene. Of course, I was really upset about this and tried to have another conversation with XBF. He refused and called me crazy, etc.

I talked to a trusted male friend and he advised me to cut him off completely, and especially after reading this blog, I am so thankful for following his advice. For the next 3 months I acted as though he didn’t exist, even if we could have brushed arms. It wasn’t until school was almost over that he apologized to me.

The twist is we are working together next year, so some contact with him is unavoidable.

I guess me question is: Where do I go from here? Both in terms of having to be in contact with him again, and future dating. I felt like I did everything “right”, more or less, but was punished for it.


Hi Emma,

Thanks for the kind words about HUS, I appreciate your writing for advice. I also love it that you appeal to fellow readers for their thoughts – they are indeed the source of much of the wisdom shared here.

First, I want to say that there’s a lot you did right. Obviously, you got hurt and are anxious not to repeat the experience, but it could have been much worse. Specifically, you honored your own timeframe, not allowing yourself to be rushed into sex prematurely. That allowed enough time to pass for you to learn the truth about this guy’s manipulation and deceit.

In the time I’ve been writing, I’ve only heard of one other case where a guy blatantly deceived two women while carrying on relationships with both. In his case, one was his “home” girlfriend, and one his “school” girlfriend. By carefully manipulating his facebook presence, visits home, and keeping groups of friends separate, he was able to pull it off for a year and a half. Ultimately, he was only found out because of the unlikely coincidence of the two girls having a mutual friend 3,000 miles away. 

In this case, I’m guessing from your letter that this took a full semester to unfold, a very long time for a player cad to hover and be attentive. For most women, that in itself would be proof of honorable intentions. It’s hard to know how often this goes on, but I assume it’s fairly common among highly narcissistic individuals, who may go to great lengths to secure what they want.

He respected your wish to get to know each other gradually, and didn’t force the issue of sex. When you talked about your relationship for the first time, no doubt he came across as a guy with excellent character and noble motives. “Working toward” a long-term relationship involves ensuring compatibility, and taking the emotional intimacy seriously, a necessary prerequisite to physical intimacy. It’s what most women want, and he obviously pursued his strategy with that understanding.

Scott Barry Kaufman, a professor of Psychology at NYU, has written about how to identify narcissists.

“They are a decidedly mixed bag; therein lies one of the many paradoxes of narcissism and the primary reason narcissists are so difficult to identify and understand. If narcissists were just jerks, they would be easy to avoid. The fact that they are entertaining and exciting as well as aggressive and manipulative makes them compelling in the real world and as subjects of psychological scrutiny.”

The characteristics of narcissism:

  1. Narcissism is a stable trait that varies in degree from person to person. Some aspects, including confidence and self-sufficiency, are healthy and adaptive. It is only at the extreme end of the spectrum that narcissism becomes a disorder, often because toxic levels of vanity, entitlement, and exploitativeness are on display. 

Your boyfriend clearly displayed toxic levels of entitlement and willingness to exploit you without guilt.

  1. Male and female narcissists both share a marked need for attention, the propensity to manipulate, and a keen interest in charming the other sex…  [There is a] “charismatic air” that many narcissists exude: attractiveness, competence, interpersonal warmth, and humor. Narcissists are easily misread. The picture is further complicated by the fact that both extraverts and narcissists have an interpersonal style that endears them to others.

He didn’t act like a jerk, but won you over with his personal warmth an caring demeanor, e.g. when you were sick. He is no doubt popular among his male peers as well, even though they are aware of his lack of empathy.

  1. Promiscuity is a key behavioral ingredient, because narcissists are always searching for a better deal…when narcissists think their partner is committed, they are even more willing to cheat, presumably because they feel that they are more likely to get away with it.

He was driven to cheat, not for the easy access to sex, but rather to obtain validation from an additional source, to secure your affection over a period of time without getting caught as a sort of exercise in control over others.

  1. Because control is so important to narcissists, they can abruptly lose their charm if destabilized or threatened. This two-faced behavior is often the first clue to their true character. They get angry when rejected, overreacting to small slights and punishing those who do not support their grandiose image of themselves.

He was quick to play the “psycho” card when found out. Narcissists don’t feel badly for hurting others, and are often in denial about their own motives. They have an amazing ability to justify their own behavior regardless of the evidence against them.

  1. Narcissists’ manipulative bent can be a lever for social influence as much as for exploitation…More intentionally exploitative behavior is considered Machiavellian and, at the extreme, psychopathic. Together with narcissism, Machiavellianism and psychopathy form a cluster of distinct but related traits known as the “dark triad.” In this disagreeable constellation, narcissism is the gentlest star. Narcissism is linked much more tightly to extraversion than are the other two, suggesting that narcissism may be the most positive, social, and outgoing component of this triad. 

It is well established that many women respond favorably to the dark triad traits. Perhaps narcissism is the entry point, with its accompanying extraversion and feigned warmth. 

  1. People who date narcissists are highly satisfied for about four months, at which point they report a rapid decline in relations. Ironically, the four-month mark is when people start to reach peak satisfaction when dating non-narcissists.

I don’t know if this is coincidence in your case, or if he was starting to show his true colors by this point. You mention that there were some clues to his being a player. Needless to say, file those away for future reference. In the case I mentioned previously, there were also clues when viewed in retrospect.

Here are Kaufman’s suggestions for avoiding narcissists. Again, there are parallels to your own case, and I think you’ll see there’s a lot you did right (in bold).

Slow down. 

Don’t put so much stock in your initial attraction. Be open-minded to non-flashy people.

Observe a variety of settings. 

Extraverts can be very hard to distinguish from narcissists. Assess a person in multiple contexts before getting in too deep, and solicit honest input from friends.

Consider the venue.

If you frequent bars and clubs, you are more likely to encounter narcissists on the prowl.

Examine why you may be attracted to narcissists. 

If you are searching for an ambitious person who is not “too nice,” you are likely drawn to narcissists. What needs of yours do narcissists exploit?

Get out as soon as you can. 

Don’t try to change him or her. Remember, this person enjoys being a narcissist. The more emotionally attached you get, the easier it will be for the narcissist to manipulate you.

Take control of the situation. 

“The situation you are in does not necessarily reflect your personality,” says W. Keith Campell in When You Love a Man Who Loves Himself. “Responsibility is the ability to respond.”

As to where you go from here, I think it’s great that you declined to acknowledge his existence after your experience, and that he ultimately apologized. Perhaps he is capable of seeing the harm he caused, and will refrain from doing it again, though I doubt it. In any case, I suggest you do whatever is easiest for you. If you are working together, a professional cordiality will be required, but I suggest you limit your interaction to that. He may try to talk to you in hopes of explaining away his behavior, and I would strongly counsel you to not allow that. 

You may have failed to read some signs along the way, but don’t be too hard on yourself – it’s very difficult to do with narcissists, especially at the age of 18. You were unlucky in that you came to his attention in class, and he set out to win your affection. 

I’d encourage you not to relax any of your standards, and to be on the alert for signs of selfish, entitled behavior, if not outright narcissism. He passed muster on many of the behaviors I encourage women to reward, especially with regard to being patient on matters of sex. I’d like to think that lightning won’t strike twice, but it’s obviously possible.

Think back on what clues you missed, or dismissed, when you were very happy with how the relationship was going. And make an effort to vet every guy you date. That can be more difficult in a large city, but there’s no reason you can’t get to the truth on a college campus if you look around and keep your ears open. 

Finally, take clues from facebook. If he doesn’t have it, doesn’t want to be friends, or is oddly inactive for someone of his age and social status, beware. It’s not easy to hide a girlfriend or boyfriend. 



Readers, your thoughts? Do you agree that Emma handled this well? What did she miss?