How to Avoid a NarcissistOct 18, 2023
The day I arrived to live in Edinburgh was, I think, the worst day of my life.
Don’t get me wrong – I totally love this city, and it’s one of the best places in the world to live. It just didn’t get off to the best start for me.
The thing is, on that day I was escaping from a very bad relationship, and I had 3 small kids in tow.
I can barely describe the gut wrenching sensations I was feeling back then. I was full of self-doubt: was I doing the right thing – for me, for my little son and two daughters? I was even doubting my own sanity, there had been so much gaslighting going on. Part of me still loved the man but his behaviour was destructive and terrifying and it was never going to get better. Yep, I decided, it was definitely time – and I made a run for it.
I’m happy to say life has improved dramatically since that fateful day. The kids have grown into fantastic young adults and I’m now married to a wonderful guy. But I’m sharing my story in a bid to help other women to avoid falling into the kind of black hole I did.
You might wonder how I got into that dark place.
I did what many of us women do. I had been in so much of a rush to get with a guy who ticked all the boxes that I forgot to check he had the qualities I actually needed for a happy, lasting relationship. I was choosing with “the chemistry” rather than my common-sense brain.
This man (let’s call him James) was good-looking, charming, and super-intelligent. He liked to splash his cash on extravagant dates, and while I’d never prioritised money – I have to admit it was exciting. He was also damn sexy.
Let’s just say I didn’t take much persuading.
But there was a price to pay, and it wasn’t long before the jealous episodes started. I couldn’t talk to another man without being accused of sleeping with him. He started criticising my friends. Eventually I decided to start working from home to avoid coming into contact with other people and the inevitable conflict that would bring. I told myself it was easier for me like this. If I just behaved myself in the right way, things could tick along fine and James would be nice to me.
This was how the control started.
Things went downhill and eventually reached crisis point. But I was lucky - I managed to get out, hence my abrupt arrival in the Scottish capital. I had family and friends who provided practical help and kept me strong when I was wavering.
Not everyone in this situation is so fortunate and many end up staying in horrific relationships because they lack the financial resources they need to escape, or they’re scared of retribution, or because they simply don’t want to admit there’s a problem because this will mean they’ll have to leave a guy they’re still partly in love with.
The feeling of shame is a big issue here. Smart women wonder how they could have allowed themselves to get into this situation – but it really can affect anyone.
Trying to get out of an abusive relationship can be like going up sh*t creek without a paddle, so it seems vital then that we avoid getting into them in the first place (although if you are in such a situation please see my note at the end).
To work this one out, my ‘go-to’ is the science. I’m a behavioural biologist, in recent years specialising in attraction and relationships, and when I want to understand why people behave in the ways they do I turn to the research. In this case it was the psychology of the darker parts of personality.
I’d like to introduce you to the Dark Triad.
If you’ve come across a guy who’s controlling, abusive, possibly even violent, then there’s a good chance he’s high in one or all of the Dark Triad components, namely Machiavellianism, psychopathy, and narcissism.
To get extra insights on this I spoke to my colleague Dr Minna Lyons, an awesome researcher at Liverpool John Moores University. She's an expert on the Dark Triad and applies her knowledge of evolutionary science to tackle real world problems like sexual harassment.
First I asked Minna about the three traits that make up the Dark Triad.
Psychopathy, she says, is all about risk taking, impulsiveness, and a total lack of guilt – so there’s nothing to put the normal brakes on exploiting others. Machiavellianism, on the other hand, involves the strategic, long-term manipulation of others – they’ll remember the things you say and store them up to use against you at some point.
Narcissism, says Minna, is about thinking you’re better than others, feeling entitled. Narcissists are looking for partners who will make them look good. It’s not about them finding you irresistible; they see you as someone who will give them prestige and admiration. And they put others down to elevate themselves.
This immediately chimed with me. James would boast to his friends and colleagues about his fabulous, clever new girlfriend, while insulting me cruelly in private.
“So, if you get together with a man with dark triad traits,” I asked Minna, “what could you expect?”
She came up with four major things that you’re not going to like:
Firstly, he won’t have your interests at heart because he’ll be super-low in empathy. This is true of all the Dark Triad components – there’s no consideration for others’ wellbeing or feelings.
“He might sound very charming and lovely to convince you to be with him at the start, but actually he’s manipulating and deceiving you” says Minna. It’s all about him. And his ego.
Secondly, you can forget about a lasting committed relationship.
Your dark triad guy is often only interested in a quick tryst. In fact researchers think that the dark triad evolved as a short-term mating strategy – that would explain why it’s more common in men, because biologically speaking, men can benefit more from short-term relationships so they can get off with lots of different women. Usually that situation doesn’t suit women so well.
Number 3 is infidelity. Psychopathy seems to be the worst of these traits for having several partners at the same time and cheating and lying about it. A narcissist is more likely to be looking out for something better, and dumping the partner he has when someone even more beautiful and intelligent comes along. Nice.
Then even more scarily, intimate partner violence in relationships is prevalent in men who are high in the Dark Triad traits. Extreme jealousy, controlling behaviour and being violent towards you – these are much stronger signals than you want that you’re in a relationship with a Dark Triad man. This often starts pretty quickly after the few months or even just weeks of the honeymoon period is over.
But these guys are often just hard to resist at the start. Research demonstrates, for instance, that narcissists are attractive to women because of their extravert personalities. We love extraverts because they’re popular, they’re good at conversation and fun to be with.
Clearly the risk in being attracted to the life-and-soul-of-the-party, however, is that you might end up with a narcissist.
So how then can we avoid them? Not all extraverts are narcissistic. Not all men who are charming at the beginning of a relationship are high in the Dark Triad. How can you tell??
Minna says: “Something that often happens is the relationship starts like everything’s too good to be true – there are ostentatious gifts, excessive compliments, the constant need to be in touch”. I’m ticking these off in my head and remembering right at the start when James sent me a gigantic bunch of red roses – not to my flat - but to my workplace where everyone would notice and be impressed (with him).
“But this by itself isn’t enough to identify them because you might find there are guys that are really like that genuinely, that aren’t dark triad”, says Minna, “although maybe not quite so excessive”.
So the additional things to notice are – is he checking up on you too much, showing signs of jealousy?
“Then there are the inconsistencies”, she says. “So they seem overbearing with their love and attention but then there might be this one time where they trip up and forget and might be not very nice to you”.
Or they might gush over babies or animals to feign “niceness”, but when they think you’re not looking make a disgusted face, or you can see from their non-verbal behaviours that they’re thinking “Uggh, get that thing away from me”. This could involve micro-expressions, lasting a fraction of a second, that are difficult to consciously determine, says Minna, but it’s something that feels inconsistent and doesn’t make sense.
If you’re feeling uneasy about a guy – then this could be the reason. In my work as a dating consultant I often advocate making objective assessments of men and not necessarily following our initial instincts, but this is one situation where it is a good idea to go with your gut.
Try to make sure you can meet your man’s family and friends – if he says bad things about people who are supposedly in his inner circle and keeps you away from them then that’s a red flag.
And for narcissists in particular, another signal is the need for instant gratification: he’ll expect to get what he wants right away. A good way to spot one of these guys is when he expects you to do something you don’t particularly want to do – say, “no, maybe later”, or “I’ll think about it” – and then see how he reacts. If he keeps trying to persuade you and then starts getting impatient or angry, or starts ridiculing you or trying to make you feel guilty then there’s a good chance you’ve got yourself a narcissist.
At the same time he’ll likely be telling you how you’re the best thing that’s ever happened to him and making elaborate and exciting plans for your future together.
A good general rule of thumb: If things seem too good to be true when you start seeing a guy – exercise some scepticism and look out for the signals.
But I know it’s not that easy.
Even when we can spot these guys they’re hard to resist. I know I’m not alone in having always gone, in the past, for the edgy, sexy types that have us on an emotional rollercoaster – a lot of the women who come onto my program say the same.
You might think you could never desire a man who will actually make you happy. Well, I could write a bunch of stuff about how to fancy one of the good guys. In fact I have! Check out my other blog posts at https://www.datingevolved.com/blog.
I’ve been lucky. I learned my lessons partly through experience and partly through understanding the science and using that knowledge to figure out a better strategy for finding a man I could be happy with.
And my strategy worked. I’m now very happily married to the absolute love of my life. He’s someone I wouldn’t have even noticed while I was following my old, highly-flawed criteria for selecting partners.
And getting together with a good guy – it’s made me realise how fantastic life can be when you have someone who’s properly on your side. No need to walk around on eggshells trying to make sure to say the right thing, or behave in the right way.
The man I’m with now just makes everything better. Because I know he’s there for me, supporting me in whatever I do – I can do more. I can be more creative, take more chances, achieve stuff. That’s what happens when you’re in a secure relationship – it makes you capable of so much more.
Some women are lucky enough to choose well the first time round, but some of us take a bit longer to learn our lessons for finding a good guy. And if you’re in the latter category I’m here to help!
If you’d like to learn more about how to find (and desire) a good guy and avoid the duff ones, visit datingevolved.com and you’ll find free resources as well as details about my program. And if you fancy a complementary 121 chat with me for some advice and to see how I can help further, do book a time HERE (no strings).
PS. If you feel you’re currently in an abusive relationship – and of course the abuse and control can be emotional, physical, sexual, even financial – keep in mind that it’s unlikely to go away. If you would like some support and advice, a really good place to start is Women’s Aid x
A version of this article first appeared on NOON