I grew up within a family that included narcissists, but at the time I had no idea what was going on. I felt that something was wrong and that led me to search for the truth by seeing a range of psychotherapists and ultimately, me training to be one.
Later in life, I discovered the concept of narcissism and narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) and its devastating impact on others. Narcissistic traits can include grandiosity, a need for admiration and to be the center of attention, as well as a sense of entitlement, envy, self-importance and a lack of empathy for others.
Learning this helped me make sense of my experiences and validate myself. I now work fluidly and my psychotherapy background influences my work as a life coach; where the focus is on the future and learning how to overcome the trauma of the past. Of course, my knowledge of narcissism has also helped me to recognize it in relationships described to me by my clients in sessions. I have been able to point out emotional abuse they have been subjected to.
Recently, I became aware through my work as a therapist and coach that narcissists often give themselves away before they step into a relationship. The first tentative meeting can offer clues as to the narcissistic traits and behaviors that will be revealed in a subsequent relationship.
This is how I have seen narcissistic tendencies play out on a first date, and while not all incidents involving this type of behavior will indicate narcissism, the examples I use occurred with clients who went on to have relationships with people who displayed many other narcissistic traits.
1. Can they control you? Are you willing to adapt and easy to manipulate?
A narcissist is typically addicted to “narcissistic supply”, a desire for constant admiration and attention. Being involved in a romantic relationship with a partner who is willing to give what you need and who you are able to control can often provide that supply. Gaining control can mean undermining their partner’s confidence and feeding their insecurity, all while making them believe that the narcissist is “the one.”
One of my clients was feeling confused about her relationship. Even though she accommodated her partner as much as she could, she never seemed to get it “right.” She was keen to make the relationship work, but felt helpless. Her partner changed his tune almost daily, so she never knew what to expect or how to react.
I asked her about her first date with her partner. They met at his apartment, had a glass of wine before walking to a restaurant he had booked. He was a lovely, lively guy who chatted away, smiled a lot and seemed easy to get along with. During the walk something changed. He became quiet and withdrawn and when they sat down at the table my client felt uncomfortable and began asking herself if she had done something wrong. Anyway, the waiter passed the menus and when he offered the wine menu my client’s date answered: ‘No, no wine for us’. My client wanted another glass of wine, but she didn’t say anything and went along with his decision.
In retrospect, we were able to discuss that if she had ordered a glass for herself, it might have indicated to her date that he could not control her easily. Mood swings and controlling behavior is typical of narcissist testing whether their partner is willing to accommodate them without criticism.
2. Do they show immediately that they need you to be empathic, kind and willing to forgive others?
Narcissists naturally attract empathic people because empaths are beneficial to the narcissist, who needs to make sure that they can continue to behave as they wish.
One of my clients was struggling with her partner but she often seemed to be making excuses for his unpleasant and abusive behaviour, saying it only happened “when he is tired” or that it “wasn’t that important” to her.
Again, their first meeting told a story. They went for a walk and soon after they set off, they came across a couple with a jumpy dog. When the dog jumped up, my client’s date jumped away, shouting abuse at the couple. His reaction felt out of proportion and my client told me she was taken aback by the force of it. As they walked on he told her he hated it when people took on more than they could handle and subsequently made others pay the price. But he was also upset that he upset my client, and she then comforted him and was extremely understanding. Despite not understanding his behavior she soothed him. What I believe to be his narcissistic traits and this pattern of requiring her to soothe him continued throughout the relationship.
3. Is your date putting themselves above you, needing admiration or to be the center of attention?
Narcissists typically thrive on being the centre of attention and I have noticed through conversations with clients that on a first date they can test to see if they will receive the attention they need. One of my clients was so in awe of his girlfriend that he didn’t mind that their first date completely revolved around her. He took in every word she said and nodded at the right times, totally engrossed. Only later did he realize that she hadn’t asked a single question about him or his work.
My client didn’t mind, at least, not at the time. In general, he didn’t need to play the first fiddle all the time. He is laid back and happy for others to do the talking. But my client began to feel devalued in his relationship. Whenever he wanted to discuss situations that revolved around him, his partner was dismissive.
He didn’t want to be controlled and silenced by his partner and when he noticed how unbalanced the relationship was, he ended it. Narcissists are often looking for partners they can mould and they don’t want an ego to compete with.
4. Is your date showing signs that they want someone to rescue them?
Narcissists are often looking for a partner who will come to their rescue. Someone who will take the blame and responsibility and focus all their efforts on the narcissist’s happiness.
One of my clients admitted she struggled to say no and if she couldn’t accommodate someone, she felt it was her fault and she lost sleep over it.
On her first date with her current boyfriend it became clear that he felt life always against him, negative in his outlook.
It took us a while to get to a point where my client could recognize that there was codependency at play, where she was caught in a trap of trying to “fix” her partner and his seemingly narcissistic tendencies. The next steps were facing this and building up her self-awareness and confidence. My client is still with her partner but luckily, she is a much stronger person now.
Having so much experience with narcissistic abuse makes it easy for me to recognize signs of narcissism at any stage of a relationship. Not every instance of the behaviors mentioned above will indicate that the person you are on a date with is a narcissist, but I suggest always reflecting on behaviors that make you feel uncomfortable. It took me decades to see the blind spots in my own life and I feel strongly for people who are currently facing struggles in relationships.
As a therapist and coach I will never tell a client that I think their relationship is damaging, instead it is my role to empower my clients to come to their own realisations through questioning and feeding back what they tell me.
Educating others to the signs of narcissism in the early stages of a relationship is important for me, as it might prevent the involvement and development of damaging and often abusive relationships, those with a narcissist.
Dr Mariette Jansen is a psychotherapist, life coaching and author of From Victim to Victor – Narcissism Survival Guide, which is available here. Jansen has a PhD in interpersonal communication from the University of Utrecht and trained in psychotherapy at London Metropolitan University. You can find more about her work at www.drdestress.co.uk.
All views expressed in this article are the author’s own.