Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


Tips for Dating: Spotting a Narcissist Before It’s Too Late

Even when a narcissist is being charming, it’s not about you.

Key points

  • Narcissists can be charming when you first meet them.
  • They are overly interested in letting you know how important they are.
  • No matter how giving we are, narcissists leave us feeling used and abused.

Narcissism is a character trait that arises for any number of reasons, including as a defense mechanism to combat low self-esteem. It is also a diagnosable personality disorder characterized by exaggerated feelings of self-importance, an excessive need for admiration, a pattern of exploitative behavior, and a delusional sense of status. With either definition, narcissists show an unwillingness or inability to empathize with the feelings of other people.

Narcissism, be it of the character trait or the personality disorder variety, is not much fun to be around. That said, narcissists can be charming when you first meet them. In a dating setting, either online or real world, they can initially knock your socks off, and if you don’t know what to look for, you can easily find yourself in a relationship with one (and wishing you weren’t). This is especially true with online dating, where it’s easier for people to hide or minimize their character flaws.

A small amount of narcissism is not a bad thing. In fact, without some healthy self-esteem, most of us would find it hard to crawl out of bed most mornings. We need to believe we are worthwhile and have something to offer to other people and the world at large. This belief is doubly needed when we enter the dating world. When looking for a mate (or even a casual hookup), we need to have enough self-esteem that we’re willing to take some reasonable risks, like asking someone out and then being honest about who we are and what we desire in a relationship.

There is a difference, however, between healthy self-esteem and narcissistic behaviors. For starters, most of us find, as we navigate the world, that healthy self-esteem is attractive in both the short-term and long-term, while narcissism can make someone seem attractive at first but a nightmare down the line. In the beginning, narcissists can look as great as they profess to be, but after we experience their ongoing neediness, manipulation, and lack of empathy, the appeal wears off.

The truth of the matter is none of us wants to be in a long-term relationship with a narcissistic person. No matter how giving we are, narcissists leave us feeling used and abused. Still, narcissists have a way of enticing us and then trapping us and keeping us trapped (and miserable). Recognizing this, our best defense is to identify narcissistic behaviors early on, so we can step away from these relationships before we’re fully ensnared.

This is easier said than done, of course, but there are some telltale signs that you can usually spot early in a relationship, even when your initial interactions with a person are limited to the online realm. These include:

  1. They are overly interested in letting you know how important they are. They talk incessantly about their own success, wealth, power, physical appearance, and intelligence. They might also name-drop, less to tell you how fabulous their friends are, more to tell you how worthy of fabulous friends they are.
  2. They consistently behave as if they are entitled to what they want, when they want it, and you should feel honored that they’re asking you to provide it. If you’re online dating, they will dictate the terms, such as when to chat, what pictures you should send, and more. If you’re going to meet in person, they’ll expect you to come to them. Sure, they might send a limo or a plane to come and get you, but they probably won’t be in it when it arrives. Travel time is your responsibility, not theirs.
  3. They may shower you with expensive (though relatively generic) gifts, but always with strings. Basically, they think that if they spend money on you, then you should express profuse admiration and thanks and that you also owe them both sex and personal allegiance. If/when you have sex with them, they will expect high praise for their performance—even if the sex is terrible—and they will get angry or sulk if you don’t provide that validation.
  4. They may express jealousy if they think you’re not paying enough attention to them, accusing you of seeing other people or caring too much about your own family and friends. At the same time, they think you should never be upset about how they choose to spend their time or who they choose to spend it with—because, of course, their needs and desires are far more important than yours.

Yes, when you first meet them, narcissists can and often do seem charming, but this is only because they’re trying to win you over. They’re like the proverbial used-car salesman: anything to close the deal. They’ll flatter you, seduce you, and go out of their way to make you feel special. But this is only to get what they want. And what they want is your undying devotion to and adulation of them.

Even when a narcissist is being charming, it’s not about you. It’s about them and what they want to extract from you. So, if you have met someone new and you find yourself feeling as if your primary role in the relationship is to consistently and endlessly boost the other person’s ego, you’re probably involved with a narcissist. If so, my advice is to break things off as soon as possible, because narcissistic behaviors gather steam over time.

More from Robert Weiss Ph.D., LCSW, CSAT
More from Psychology Today