Think you can spot a narcissist a mile away? Think again. Experts say the signs are more subtle than you realize.
Ask your girlfriends and it seems like everyone has a story about dating someone who talked endlessly about themselves, cared little for others' feelings, and bragged constantly on social media about their amazing life. But these traits aren't just annoying, they're hallmarks of narcissism—a personality disorder that some experts say is reaching epidemic levels. And a quick look at reality TV, sports, and politics shows they might be right. Between 6 and 10 percent of the population may have narcissistic personality disorder, according to a study in the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry, but far more than that exhibit enough narcissistic traits.
"Many people think of narcissism as a simple case of either you are or you aren't. But there's a broad consensus among social-personality scholars that narcissism is best thought of as a spectrum, where some people have more narcissistic traits than others," says Sander van der Linden, Ph.D., a social psychologist at the University of Cambridge who has done research in narcissism. "Everyone has the potential to show some narcissistic traits from time to time. The more difficult line to draw is where expressions of narcissism start to interfere with someone's ability to function in society or to maintain healthy and fruitful relationships with others."
Narcissism may be a positive in some circles—it's said that a greater proportion of CEOs have this trait—but one place it definitely hurts is in your love life. Narcissists are initially perceived as charming and confident, but over the long haul this superficial charm tends to turn into aggressive and domineering behavior, Van der Linden explains. "Severe" narcissists exploit friendships and romantic relationships for personal gain and they lack a general sense of empathy—meaning they'll use you, throw you away, and not even feel bad about it.
But narcissism doesn't always show up in the cartoon-villain form you imagine, and it can be more difficult to spot than you think. Concerned? Here are six things to look for in your partner:
You feel addicted to their love.
One of the defining characteristics of a narcissist is their ability to manipulate people to get what they want and nowhere is that more true than in love. Narcissists in romantic relationships often come on strong and fast, overwhelming you with their attention—at least at first, says Evie Shafner, M.F.T., a couples therapist in Los Angeles. But after they've reeled you in that can change just as quickly, making you feel trapped in a miserable relationship, desperate to do something to regain their love and approval. "By the time a narcissistic partner starts to show their true colors, you may feel addicted to wanting their love," she explains. "But if your partner is bullying you in any way, don't ignore the signs, even if they are charming."
They have a long string of short relationships.
It's not unusual these days to have quite a few previous relationships. But if your partner seems unable to stay in a relationship for more than a few months, there may be a good reason why. Called the "narcissist's paradox," it means that they while they look down on and manipulate others, they simultaneously need their praise and attention, says Mitja Back, a professor of psychology at the University of Münster and author of a paper on narcissism. This leads them to quickly cycle through friends and romantic partners, always looking for the next person who'll give them the adulation they crave. "Seeking admiration is like a drug for narcissists," he says. "In the long run, it becomes difficult because others won't applaud them, so they always have to search for new acquaintances from whom they get the next fix."
They are very popular but also very insecure.
Making a good first impression is the narcissist's specialty, according to a study published in Personnel Psychology. They come off as the most confident, sexy, alluring, charming, and popular person in the room. They're also more likely to take leadership roles, often to the point of silencing others in the group. But they can only keep up this performance for so long, and the more time you spend with them the more you'll find that under the bravado they're surprisingly insecure.
Also worth noting: "There are two types of narcissism: 'grandiose' and 'vulnerable,'" Van der Linden says. The grandiose narcissist is the stereotypical kind most people are familiar with—outspoken, arrogant, self-loving, and entitled, with grandiose fantasies. But while the vulnerable kind has many of the same self-loving tendencies, they can be harder to identify as they are more introverted, insecure, emotional, and vulnerable. How could a narcissist simultaneously feel insecure? "The insecurity of vulnerable narcissists often seems to stem from the fact that they internally question whether or not they are truly special and unique and therefore are more likely to seek and rely on positive affirmation from others," he explains.
You're only as good as what you can give them.
Narcissists trade in social currency and yet have a diminished sense of empathy, meaning that they see others, including lovers, in terms of what they can get from them, says Van der Linden. So be wary if your partner values you primarily for your looks ("arm candy"), the boost you give him in social standing, your bank account, or other superficial attributes.
They don't take criticism well.
Despite how they appear on the outside, at the core many narcissists have very low self-esteem. Because they are so dependent on other people to build them up, any attempt to correct them or disagree with them may be seen as a nuclear attack. "Although some narcissists are more introverted, many narcissists react defensively and even aggressively, to personal criticism or failures," Van der Linden explains. "When confronted with a weakness, even in a neutral way, they can react with sudden and surprising outbursts of yelling, crying, anger, or other aggressive behaviors."
They take great pride in being unique and different.
Narcissists are not unaware of their nature and are often proud of it, according to Van der Linden's research. "They recognize that they can be overly braggy, entitled, arrogant, and grandiose—hallmarks of the personality disorder—yet they don't tend to view having these traits as a bad thing," he says. "Quite the opposite, in fact, the 'narcissist' label seems to provide an opportunity for narcissists to differentiate themselves from other people because it signifies a unique status, which likely makes them feel even more 'special.'"
All of this makes being in a relationship with a narcissist particularly tricky—but not necessarily impossible. If your partner is on the mild end of the narcissism scale, displaying just a few of these traits in limited situations, you may be able to work with them and help them overcome it, Van der Linden says. But, he adds, if you suspect that your partner has a full-blown case of narcissistic personality disorder, or if you are suffering because of their actions, you should seek professional help right away as your relationship is in serious trouble. And if you are being abused—physically, emotionally, sexually, or socially—then it's time to get out immediately.