Spotting narcissism red flags is what we do in hindsight.
We look back on a relationship once we know it’s over, and we say : “Oh, here and here were the red flags; I actually could have seen this person was not good for me early on”.
This logic does two things for us:
- it gives us a sense of control, as in: “Next time I’m going to get it right and see the problem before it’s too late”
- and it also allows us to wallow in shame, as in: “How could I not see it? I’m so stupid”, which can be a familiar and oddly comfortable pattern for some of us – Well it definitively was for me.
Both points are a defense against anxiety, but are ultimately not useful. They are not self loving either, or even accurate.
Red flags are everywhere, my friend
I’m currently in a long term relationship that is one of the best things that happened to me. I’m so glad it worked out, so glad my partner Alex and I did take the decision to create a family, so happy to wake up every day sharing my life with him and our kids.
Very early in the relationship though, I realized Alex had made a bet with one of his friends that our relationship would not last.
What’s that for an early days red flag ? It sure does qualify according to me. Still, in hindsight I took the right decision to stay in the relationship.
You see, in any long lasting relationship, we will find times when our partner was not at his or her best (to put things mildly). And if we are being honest, we can see our partner could say the exact same thing about us.
Red flag is a label we stick on these episodes when the relationship ended up being disastrous, when it’s easy to be all wise and knowledgeable. The truth is, early on, we often cannot know if it’s an isolated incident or a pattern.
So let me suggest, respectfully, to stop being mean to ourselves and believing we could have spotted narcissism early.
That said, I believe that being informed of common red flags can speed our hindsights up, and help us exit sooner. I’m convinced I could have paused sooner if someone had asked me: “does he ever ask a question about you ?”
Narcissistic partners may give early warnings
A highly skilled narcissist will be undetectable until we are very dependent on the relationship. Some of us may say, in all honesty, that their partner looked great for years. Charismatic, but also kind and thoughtful, a good listener, loving, you name it.
These people can put together an excellent act, even if deep down they don’t care. To hear about a real life example, listen to the Betrayal podcast: this poor woman realized her husband was a dangerous narcissist when the cops actually came to put him in prison for sexual assault of a teenage girl.
However, narcissists in my life were not that competent at hiding: they did accidentally show who they were early in the relationship. So, with the benefit of hindsight, here are my retrospective early red flags (early meaning before it became really ugly) :
Not being interested in us:
It may seem obvious, but we can be so mesmerized by our date’s apparent charm that we do not see they showed no curiosity about us. They never asked about what we experienced in our life, what we think about an event, or a book, if our family or friends are important for us, or for that matter any personal question. There were too busy putting up a performance.
Looking back now, it amazes me that I did not click at the time: it was so obvious these guys did not know me better after a few dates, and did not even know me after a few months. The relationship was clearly not about me. The only interesting parts of me were the ones relating to them, and the shining and sparkly parts that were bringing the narcissistic gratifications . The rest of me did not exist for them.
Being nice to powerful people, but ignoring people with a lower social standing
In other words your date is calculating how he or she behaves according to the expected benefits of the relationship. If there is no benefit, the narcissist is his or her normal self : an asshole.
All is well when you are on the good side of the fence, but watch out the day you have nothing to offer: it ain’t gonna be pretty.
Raging when being called out on questionable behavior
When I found out my partner had done this unfortunate bet, I asked him about it, obviously very distressed. He spent time reassuring me, making it clear his behavior had been careless. He also tried to make me feel better but understood it could not happen instantly. In other words, his main reaction was one of accountability, empathy and an attempt to repair the relationship.
In contrast, when a narcissistic partner is called out on an outrageous behavior, the main reaction is a rageful attempt to evade their responsibility. The behavior was not that bad. We are being too sensitive. It is our fault somehow. What we witnessed actually did not happen. If we were loving we would not react like this. Or they rage silently and give us the silent treatment.
How to detect a competent narcissist then?
We detect them over time. Helped by education on narcissism, but we still do need time.
That’s the answer you can find in this excellent podcast with Doctor Ramani, host of the Navigating Narcissism podcast, discussing with Matthew Hussey, who is apparently a famous dating coach. And it makes a lot of sense: we watch their behavior over time, and see if they show respect and curiosity about us in a consistent manner.
That’s why it is so important to spend time getting to know your partner before committing. And this is why we hear so many story of narcissists love bombing and rushing the relationship : because they suspect they will not be able to perform so well for the long haul.
Of course for us it means countering desperation, insecure attachment, self esteem issues, and other trauma scars. It’s not easy, but it’s not impossible either.
If I managed this, coming from my own place of plain desperation, acute insecure attachment, disastrous self esteem, and difficult trauma history, pretty much anyone can in my opinion. It’s about healing from our trauma, which is what this blog is about: feel free to read other articles on healing…