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The Narcissist's Cheating Playbook: Six Signs

Are narcissists more likely to be unfaithful or have predictable responses?

Key points

  • Knowing these signs of a narcissist's cheating playbook can help potential victims protect themselves.
  • Are those with narcissistic traits more likely to cheat: Yes and no.
  • If someone with narcissistic traits is unfaithful, they will often claim that they are being cheated on.
StockSnap/ Pixabay
Source: StockSnap/ Pixabay

Clarissa sat in my office, head in her hands.

"Why didn't I see the signs?" She said aloud into her palms. She had just ended a relationship after discovering her husband had been cheating on her for the last three years of their marriage.

"He was always so jealous of everyone I talked to and everywhere I went," she continued. "When it was his behavior I should have been concerned with the whole time. I should have known that his possessiveness and constant accusations were actually him telling on himself."

When she caught him coming home late one night, hours after he should have been home, something told her to check his car. She found a small black cardigan, two sizes too small for her.

But he tried to convince her that it was her cardigan. "Like I would forget purchasing a small, skintight sweater," she exclaimed at his obvious attempts to gaslight her. When the gaslighting didn't work, he switched on the manufactured charm in an attempt to win her back. He begged for forgiveness as she stood there in shock.

His final attempt was to blame her for his actions.

"What did you expect, Clarissa? You barely have time for me with your job at the bank," he said.

His behavior was appalling, yet predictable. Like others, Clarissa noticed distinct patterns when she confronted her ex about his infidelity. So distinct, in fact, that the behavior can be seen as an almost playbook of sorts; a manual that they follow when caught doing something bad.

Many who have been cheated on by someone with narcissistic traits often wonder if narcissists are more likely to be unfaithful: To this, I say yes and no. All people are capable of cheating, whether they have elements of a personality disorder or not, but because one of the major elements of narcissism is a lack of compassion and empathy, this makes them less likely to feel remorse or guilt following the behavior.

To help illustrate this process, here are six patterns of unspoken "rules" of narcissistic cheating, which I often see in my practice of working with survivors of traumatic and narcissistic relationships:

1. Do as they say, not as they do: Those with elements of a personality disorder, such as narcissism, often feel that they are above the law—both in society and also in relationships. They will often expect things out of you that they do not plan to do themselves. This can be things such as how to dress, where to go and who to associate with, what to spend money on, and what behaviors are appropriate and acceptable outside of the relationship. Just because their expectations are clear that flirting is not okay for you, you can believe they do not hold themselves to this same standard.

2. If they accuse, they are telling on themself: One of the traits of narcissists is that they often project their negative traits onto their partner: If they are unfaithful, they will claim that you are cheating on them. This is why so many with narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) are unable to realize or believe they are doing anything wrong or see their behavior as problematic: Their cognitive distortions often prevent them from seeing the reality of their actions.

3. They often engage in gaslighting to deflect attention: When caught, or at risk of being caught, many with NPD will engage in unhealthy and dysfunctional behavior that deflects the attention off of them and their behaviors. They will tell you you’re crazy, making things up, or must be mistaken. This will often leave victims second-guessing themselves and wondering if they really are crazy.

4. Remorse will be manufactured and not genuine: When they can no longer gaslight or deflect out of a situation, such as if they were caught cheating directly, they will employ the tactic of "manufactured remorse." Many of my clients will tell me that their gut was telling them something felt "off" about the situation. "He apologized, but it felt cold." "She cried, but it felt scripted like she was acting." Narcissists might really believe that they feel bad, or that they are doing the right thing. Again, their cognitive distortions will convince them that they were doing the right thing.

5. How dare you be upset at something they definitely did do: You will usually only be allowed to be upset momentarily, and eventually the narcissist will lose patience with having to be remorseful. If you bring up their cheating at a future event, such as sharing that you do not feel like you trust them, this will be used against you. “You never let things go!” or “Are you perfect?” Sometimes being caught will cause them to lash out at or blame others, wanting them to hurt the way they are hurting. They will tell you it was your fault that they cheated: “What did you expect?” Hurt people hurt people, even if those hurt people are delusional, in a different reality, or unaware that their actions are contributing to a situation.

6. They will often play the victim: When all else fails, they will play the victim, especially in front of a third party, such as a therapist, other family and friends, and even a judge. Due to the nature of NPD, they may really believe their reality to be the truth. They may really feel victimized, and that conviction makes them sound more believable to outsiders, and can even work to further gaslight the victim.

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