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Five Ways You Attract Narcissists

2. You function best as a satellite.

Getting involved with a narcissist is confusing. A few of the pathways to this frustrating situation might be worth spelling out. I recognize that this post also applies to hiring them, voting for them, and idolizing them, but I am primarily interested in dating at this moment.

1. You function best as a doormat. In certain families and cultures, things may have gone smoothly (or, at least, that was your sense of things) when you had no agenda of your own. Things might have been tense, perhaps to the point of violence, and you learned to stay in your foxhole. Or maybe other people were so needy, perhaps you were the older child of parents overwhelmed with the baby, that you found that things ran better when you had no opinion and no desires. The doormat goes on a date or meets someone in a social situation and has no agenda. The doormat has no food preferences, no desire for self-expression in the conversation, and no requirements that the other person must fulfill. Who would want to be with such a person? Anyone looking for a partnership will keep looking. Only narcissists, looking for a place to wipe their feet, will be interested.

2. You function best as a satellite. Some people become satellites because they grew up in situations (or thought they did) where someone else was the main character of the family and the only other roles available were bit parts and supporting roles. Here, you have an agenda (unlike the doormat), but the agenda is to tend to others. Some people became satellites because they were traumatized, and it is apparently a characteristic of vertebrates to cower before scary figures. Some people become satellites because they are gifted at diplomacy. In fact, it’s one of the main paths to becoming a therapist. Satellites need planets, supporting players need stars, courtiers need royalty, talent managers need divas. On a date, satellites spend the whole time asking about the other person with sympathy and admiration. Who wants that? Narcissists.

3. You don’t have a solid relationship with an internalized parent figure. One way to look at dating is to consider it as a playdate, where two parents get two kids together. The adult selves are concerned with the quality of the conversation and with whether the other person is a good match, as I imagine the parents behave in societies with arranged marriages. The child selves are more concerned with having a good time and being appreciated. Sometimes, the adult selves are such a good match that they ignore messages from the kids that they don’t really enjoy each other. Sometimes, one parent is so impressed with the other parent that they insist on continuing the relationship regardless of how it feels to the child, like a parent who insists that the child get along with the boss’s child.

When you’re on a date, it’s important to have an inner parent asking you how it feels. Are you having a good time? Are you being treated well? Do you get to be who you want to be in this encounter, or are you being treated as royalty, or as a servant, or as a contestant in a game show where the prize is the other person? If you haven’t been asked those questions by a parent figure, it’s hard to know how to ask them of yourself. If you were raised by a narcissist, you are likely to discount your date’s narcissism under the heading, “I’ve seen worse.”

4. You want to be rescued. The more dire you consider your circumstances, the more you need a superhero to set things right. Some single parents are prime examples, but so are those who are ill, losing their looks, or unhappy for a host of reasons. Recognizing that love is missing from your life is a good motivation for dating, but dreaming that love will save you from your life is a turnoff for those who don’t think they are superheroes.

5. You don’t trust. If you’ve been “bitten” in romance, you may now be “twice shy.” This is most pronounced with people who say they are not interested in dating. Most mate-seekers will move on to look for someone who wants to build a relationship; a narcissist sees an uninterested person as a challenge. Even if you’re actively looking for romance, distrust can make you construct a series of tests that only a narcissist would attempt to pass. Regular people aren’t looking for a contest where you are the prize; narcissists live for contests. Thus, as noted above, dates that feel like a game show (or a reality show) can be constructed by narcissists but also by people trying to protect themselves from narcissists.

If neither participant is narcissistic (if both are self-protecting), they will drift apart. A game show or Bachelor atmosphere is a good way to attract narcissists. Things get even worse when your friends tell you that you are brilliant, attractive, and fascinating to bolster your confidence. You become King Lear dividing his kingdom, and only narcissists will promise exceptional love and devotion (to win the prize). Those who actually love you (like Cordelia) are likely to resent having to exaggerate it to prove it.

Mutuality. All of these ways of attracting narcissists have in common that they make you reluctant to address conflicts or dissatisfactions for problem-solving conversations. If you can’t agree on a place to go on a second date without one person dominating or submitting to the other, the second date might not be a good idea. It’s hard to tell if your date is a narcissist because everyone is trying to look impressive on a date.

Raising a minor conflict (“Can we talk about your grabbing the check? Coming late? Eating off my plate? Not introducing me to your friend? What you want in a relationship?”) gives you a chance to see if your date wants to talk it through to find something that works for both parties, or whether they want to blame you for being too sensitive or apologize quickly to make the conflict disappear. Strategies that seek negotiated mutuality attract people who want to build a relationship that works while discouraging narcissists.