How To Tell If You’re Dating A Narcissist — & What To Do About It

Photographed by Lauren Perlstein.
We are no strangers to the hellish situation known as dating a narcissist. Ramani Durvasula, PhD, knows these relationships all too well. Dr. Durvasula is a researcher, professor, therapist, and the author of Should I Stay Or Should I Go? Surviving A Narcissistic Relationship (out tomorrow), and she calls narcissism "the problem of our time in terms of relationships." She explains that this has a lot to do with how the rise of social media has us living in a world that considers narcissism a virtue. We asked Dr. Durvasula how to tell if we're dating a narcissist — and whether or not it's really worth trying to make it work.
What are some signs that your partner is a narcissist?
"The book lays out 30 characteristics that you see in narcissists. Having any one of them doesn’t make someone a narcissist, but having many of them together does. I always tell people: 'Think about how you feel in this relationship. Do you find that you’re often talking but you feel like nobody’s listening to you? Do you feel like you’re often apologizing? Is your partner unpredictable? Does your partner negate your feelings?' These are all signs of narcissism."
Are there any red flags to watch out for before you get too serious?
"Look at the little things. In the first two or three dates, observe how [your date] treats service employees, such as waitstaff, airline clerks, and valet parkers. Are they entitled? Are they grandiose? Do they snap at them? If so, that’s a bad sign. That’s a sign of how you may ultimately be treated as well. "Do they not listen? Or do they kind of listen, but then they’re flipping through their phone a lot, kind of chronically distracted, and can’t seem to focus on what you’re saying? Are they careless? Do they not follow through? Are they always very late? Do they say things without thinking about how they might affect you?… If they talk about really superficial stuff, if they’re more concerned with the selfie than with their conversation with you, if they’re more interested in documenting their life than living their life, these are some of the things you might see early in a relationship, before the really heavy stuff starts."

Driving angrily, like cutting people off, shows their lack of awareness of other people’s safety.

Dr. Ramani Durvasula
"Also, watch how they drive. Driving angrily, like cutting people off, shows their lack of awareness of other people’s safety or needs at a certain time — like, 'My getting there on time is more important than anyone else’s.' So if they’re driving angrily, fast, or erratic, or getting annoyed, make note of that. " What happens to people who stay in narcissistic relationships?
"They can be pretty grueling. I’ve noticed over time that people who stay in these kinds of toxic, negating types of relationships often start taking less care of themselves. It isn’t unusual to see people feeling depressed, anxious, and full of self-doubt. Their self-esteem plummets, they don’t eat as well, and they don’t exercise. "By being in such a relationship, you learn to devalue yourself, and you start buying into it. [You think], I’m being treated like I’m worthless, so I must be worthless. [People in these relationships] won’t take advantage of opportunities in their career or education, because they don’t feel worthy, or they think their partner will mock them or won’t support them. Self-doubt is one of those things that festers and grows like a cancer. So, later in life, they have trouble making decisions, and they don’t trust their own judgment. It really erodes the human psyche and soul if you stay in these relationships for a long time."

By being in such a relationship, you learn to devalue yourself.

Dr. Ramani Durvasula
Is a narcissistic relationship emotionally abusive?
"It absolutely is. Not all emotional abusers are narcissistic, but almost all narcissistic relationships are going to feel emotionally abusive. But here’s the tricky part: At first blush, narcissists are often so charming and so successful that they seem like the most attractive people in the room. And a lot of people will look back to those first days of the relationship and think, We had that once; we can go back. But not really. They love a game, and once they’ve won you, you cease to be that interesting to them. "Also, narcissists give us just enough good days, and they get it right just enough of the forgive the stuff that’s actually eroding you from the inside out. If they are a loving mom or dad some of the time, or they do take you on that great vacation, or the holidays are really pleasant, it can help someone bridge the gap between those bad days. But they are often very superficial good days or characteristics, like a good Christmas, a nice bracelet, or they’re really attractive. The person in the narcissistic relationship keeps trying to make excuses around that."

What is co-narcissism?
"There’s the term codependency, the idea that you would support an addict and that’s what keeps the relationship functional. People sometimes try to use the word codependency to describe people in narcissistic relationships, but it’s a little different. In a co-narcissistic relationship, you’ve got the narcissist, and then the co-narcissist is the audience. The spotlight is always on the narcissist, always getting their needs met. The co-narcissist is basically trying to live their life keeping the narcissist pleased... You spend your whole life applauding them, but they never come down offstage and have a shared, mutual space with you.

You spend your whole life applauding them, but they never come offstage and have a shared space with you.

Dr. Ramani Durvasula
"This often starts early in life. You’ll have a narcissistic parent, and the entire family — including the children — rally around keeping that parent happy, pleasing them, lifting them up, making sure they don’t let them down. And that can set up a dynamic for later in life. An adult coming from a family in which they were supporting a narcissistic parent is set up perfectly to go ahead and support a narcissistic partner."

How hard is it to leave a narcissistic relationship?
"It’s incredibly challenging. For one thing, staying in these relationships fills a person with self-doubt; they have trouble making decisions, and they don’t value themselves. So there’s a lot of fear, like, Maybe I deserve this, or maybe it won’t ever be better than this. "The other thing to keep in mind is that hell hath no fury like a narcissist scorned. They want to be able to do whatever they want, like a spoiled child, but they don’t like it being done to them. And they do not like being left. It feels like what we call a 'narcissistic injury.' It cuts really deep for them. So they will often launch a smear campaign, call the people in your family, call you all kinds of names, publicly berate you. "I interviewed a lot of people for the book, [and] some people stayed and some people left. The ones who left almost uniformly said it was the most horrifying, terrifying experience of [their] life, not necessarily because they were in physical danger, but because of the psychological challenge. But they said the most prevailing emotion once they got out was relief."

More from Sex & Relationships

R29 Original Series