Lacking empathy, caring little for others’ feelings or interests, being completely self-involved…. The emotional résumé of a narcissist is pretty much the exact opposite of what most people want in a forever (or even a just-for-now) partner. So why then do so many daters fall into their trap, providing them the attention they crave so much?
“There are a variety of hooks associated with narcissism that draw us in, not necessarily all in the same [narcissistic] person,” says clinical psychologist Laurie Helgoe, PhD, who literally wrote the book on why, in American culture especially, it’s so common for folks to willingly enter destructive relationships with narcissists. (Seriously, it’s called Fragile Bully.)
And, she says, not all instances of narcissism necessarily indicate toxicity and doom. “Moderate degrees of narcissism can relate to confidence, an ability to advocate for oneself, and expressing oneself. So not having any narcissism at all isn’t good either.”
But when these traits are taken to the extreme, the relationship is at risk for heading south. Keep reading to see how that looks (it’s not as obvious as you may think) and what to do about it.
Scroll down to learn 3 ways narcissists pull you in—and what to do about it.
1. Hook: Confidence
“A narcissist can be very bold and confident and willing to draw attention to themselves,” Dr. Helgoe says. This can be an especially powerful hook for people who are more introverted and not so personally interested in being center stage, but thrive from getting the attention of someone who is. “Narcissists are comfortable having other people focus on them. They may speak in a very confident way. Those things can be compelling,” she adds.
“Narcissists are comfortable having other people focus on them.They may speak in a very confident way. Those things can be compelling.” —clinical psychologist Laurie Helgoe, PhD
Again, in moderation, all of these qualities are great. “It’s only when they don’t allow space for anyone else that they become problematic,” she says.
How to kick the habit: Practice taking steps to feel more confident in yourself. Doing so will help to quiet the subconscious desire to bask in the rays of someone else’s confidence. “It’s important to identify what draws us in and realizing that about our own behavior,” Dr. Helgoe says.
2. Hook: Vulnerability
Dr. Helgoe breaks narcissists into two groups, grandiose and vulnerable, and says knowing the key differences between them is key. “Grandiose narcissists are the ones we usually think of that are really into themselves, brag a lot, and like being the focus,” Dr. Helgoe says. “But for a vulnerable narcissist, even any hint of a criticism can make them fall a part. They really need constant reassurance and constant bolstering.”
The inner need to want to take care of someone can make this a particularly strong hook for many singles. “It’s that idea of ‘everyone else has failed me, but you get to be the one person who helps me,'” Dr. Helgoe says, adding that people with narcissistic-leaning tendencies do often have painful pasts. She adds that related to this hook is wanting to “fix someone,” something else many people, often women, who have good intentions fall into.
How to kick the habit: Recognize what could be drawing you to someone with these traits. “A narcissist is always focused on their own needs,” Dr. Helgoe says, explaining that your partner should be willing to listen to your needs, too. “One way to get them to listen to you is to say, ‘You are important to me, so I really need you to understand what’s going on with me right now.'” Now, whether or not you’re willing to actually do that—and they’re willing to comply—is an entire other matter.
3. Hook: Sexy tension
Virtually every romantic comedy starts with the two protagonists starting on shaky terms. “Some people are drawn into the challenge of a narcissist; wanting to combat and win,” Dr. Helgoe says. Many narcissists are confident in their stance of being right, so if you’re someone who likes to debate, this could be a potential hook.
How to kick the habit: Pay attention to how the tiff is going. A healthy argument allows for both points of views to be respected and heard—even if both parties don’t ultimately agree. If you aren’t being heard, recognize this as a red flag and resist the bait.
Avoiding a relationship with a narcissist requires both knowing the red flags to watch out for and also being aware of your own vulnerabilities. With that in mind, you can move forward to healthier, more fulfilling, and more equitable relationships.
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