Many of us will, at one point or another, find ourselves reflecting on or recovering from a romantic run-in with a narcissist. Whether it was a short or long-term connection, it’s likely that during the post-mortem on the relationship, you'll ask yourself how you managed to get sucked in by his or her charms, how you missed all the warning signs, what made you so vulnerable to the charms of a cold-hearted manipulator (and, often, a cheat). It’s usually not much comfort to realize that these are probably the same questions the hapless nymph Echo asked herself after her encounter with the original Narcissus of Greek myth.
Why is it so easy to be seduced by a narcissist?
The short answer: Nothing the narcissist says or does is what it seems, and he or she is very, very skilled at manipulation—and, at least at the start of things, very attractive and engaging.
The longer answer draws from the research on how narcissists operate in relationships. Following are five lessons science has learned about narcissists. The findings are both revelatory and cautionary. Consider:
1. The very qualities that make someone a narcissist account for his or her initial appeal.
It’s at this point that you should probably remind yourself of that old lesson: Don’t judge a book by its cover. Narcissists exude self-confidence—it’s grandiosity fed by a hearty sense of entitlement—and they will do whatever they can to snow you so that you become the admirer they need. Researcher Mitja Back and colleagues conducted studies to figure out why a narcissist makes such a great first impression. One reason is self-representation. Since narcissists are all about validating themselves, they focus on presentation, including their clothes, grooming, and accessories. (My own narcissist drove a Porsche and wore very expensive clothes.) Some of them are born physically attractive, but all of them work at maintaining a polished and appealing look. Self-presentation also draws positive attention to them—whether that’s through a dramatic or commanding style, wowing you with humor, or captivating you with scintillating conversation, an easy smile, and beautiful manners—because a narcissist needs an audience to thrive.
And that’s exactly what the studies have shown. In one study of 72 college freshmen—all of them meeting for the first time and thus strangers to each other—researchers had each of them stand up and introduce themselves to the group, after administering a Narcissistic Personality Inventory. Each person was then evaluated by the others in terms of looks, stylishness, attitude, and popularity. The latter was evaluated by asking whether the person was likeable and whether the observer wanted to get to know the person.
Would it surprise you to learn that that the narcissists were considered the most appealing and charming? Many of us would find ourselves squirming and anxious while introducing ourselves to a room filled with strangers, but not the narcissist, who is, as the researchers put it, “socially bold.” A second experiment showed another group a video of the self-presentation from the first study and, once again, the narcissist scored big on popularity.
So, if falling for a narcissist makes you feel stupid, appreciate the fact that you have lots of company.
2. Boldness and that sense of entitlement make the narcissist look sexy and appear to be a good possible mate.
That’s what Michael Dufner and others found in a series of experiments. They actually sent male participants into the streets of a German city with the task of approaching 25 women—random strangers—and getting their phone numbers, email addresses, and other contact information. Research assistants followed the men and then interviewed the women they’d approached, asking whether they’d enjoyed the contact and the chat, whether they liked the man, and if they were attracted to him. Sure enough, the more narcissistic the man was, the more contacts he made, and the more appealing he seemed to women.
The narcissist simply knows how to work it. Alas, while the performance appears to be directed at the person he or she is with, it’s really not about them. It’s all about validating the self. It takes time, though, for the narcissist’s partner to figure that out.
3. The narcissist is expert at playing games.
Studies show that narcissists need relationships but prefer short-term ones without commitment. They tend to scout for the next connection that suits their needs while they’re still in a relationship so it’s highly possible that they will cheat on their current romantic interest. One of the reasons narcissists can cause their partner a lot of emotional damage is all the mixed signals: The narcissist does want to be in a relationship—but only on his or her terms.
Their relationship style, as the work of W. Keith Campbell and others has shown, is that of game-playing, which gives them control over the relationship and their partner. They love power and they guard their autonomy—avoiding real intimacy and commitment—but they do want your attention, and sexual satisfaction. It’s like being in a house of mirrors, except that the only mirror that matters is the one the narcissist holds in his or her hand.
At the end of their paper, Campbell and his colleagues address the question of why anyone would date a narcissist. They too observe that given the narcissist’s charm and charisma, it takes time to get wise to his or her tactics. They also venture that narcissists may target people who are low in self-esteem—on the surface, narcissists look like great catches, after all—and who are prone to self-doubt.
Alas, it’s a simple truth that when a sincere person gets tangled up with someone who’s playing games, it’s the sincere person who’s likely to get hurt.
4. On a technical level, the narcissist may be great in bed.
The work of James K. McNulty and Laura Widman looked specifically at how narcissism functions in the sexual domain—since, as they write, “Having a quality sexual relationship is an integral part of having a quality romantic relationship.” What’s interesting is that, sexually, narcissists are a very mixed bag. They lack empathy for their partners, but research shows that empathy is a part of a good sexual experience. Open communication, too, is a part of good sex, but the self-focused narcissist isn’t interested in open communication. They also note that narcissists tend to be sexually aggressive and have a predilection for infidelity—traits inimical to a good sexual relationship.
But here’s where the seductive power of the narcissist comes in, along with the emotional confusion he or she can shower on your life: Narcissists like sex, and they are very focused on how good they are at everything. So being "good in bed" matters to them a great deal. In the sexual domain, the narcissistic traits that are activated are entitlement, exploitation, and an inflated sense of skill. McNulty and Widman’s studies on marital satisfaction confirmed all of these observations about narcissists—both the negatives about communication and intimacy and the positives pertaining to sexual skill.
A second study by these authors, though, revealed that it was sexual narcissism, not general narcissism, that predicted infidelity. It’s been estimated that 25 percent of married men and 20 percent of married women cheat—so obviously not all cheaters are narcissists. McNulty and Widman found that a sense of sexual entitlement, pride in sexual skills, and a lack of sexual empathy for the partner were connected to infidelity.
5. The narcissist neither forgives nor forgets.
There’s another reason a relationship with a narcissist will be rocky: According to the work of Julie Juola Exline and others, conflict resolution is well-nigh impossible with narcissists, because they are skeptical about the value of forgiveness on the one hand and easily offended on the other. They tend to run a cost-benefit analysis when there has been a transgression of any sort in a relationship and, generally, don’t see the benefit of either forgiving or forgetting. They are quick to hold a grudge.
There’s a bit of good news in that for those of you unlucky enough to fall for a narcissist: That grudge-holding stance and the behavior that accompanies it may be the light you need to see the leopard’s spots.
Copyright© Peg Streep 2014
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Back, Mitja D., Stefan C. Schmulke, and Boris Egloff, “Why are Narcissists so Charming at First Sight? Decoding the Narcissism-Popularity link of Zero Acquaintance,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (2010), vol.98, no. 1,, 132-145.
Dufner, Michael, John F, Rauthmann, Anna Z, Czarna, and Jaap J.A. Denissen, “Are Narcissists Sexy? Zeroing in on the Effect of Narcissism on Short-term Male Appeal,” Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin (2013), 39 (7), 870-882.
Campbell, W. Keith, Craig A. Fogler, and Eli J. Finkel. “Does Self-Love Lead to Love for Others? A Story of Narcissistic Game Playing,“ Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (2002), vol. 83, no. 2, 340-354.
McNulty, James K. and Laura Widman, “The Implications of Sexual Narcissism for Sexual and Marital Satisfaction,” Archives of Sexual Behavior (2013), vol. 42, no.6, 1021-1032
McNulty, James K. and Laura Widman, “Sexual Narcissism and Infidelity in Early Marriage,” Archives of Sexual Behavior, April, 2014.
Exline, Julie Juola, Roy F. Baumeister, Brad J. Bushman, W. Keith Campbell, and Eli J. Finkel, “Too Proud to Let Go: Narcissistic Entitlement as a Barrier to Forgiveness,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (2004), vol. 87, no.6, 844-912.