There are many myths and misunderstandings around being in relationships with narcissists. One of the most common myths is that somehow people should be able to recognize a narcissist by simply checking off a few boxes on a handy dating checklist.
In reality, the behavior of a narcissist during the initial stages of a dating relationship is a carefully crafted façade. He or she does not use abusive language or ghost you on the first, second, or even the twentieth date. They do not try to manipulate in overt ways, but they do use subtle and often seemingly innocent behaviors to test the waters to determine the flexibility or the presence of boundaries.
Unfortunately, potential dating partners who have a history of emotional or physical abuse, abandonment, or dysfunctional families often lack boundaries. They fall into the trap of allowing the narcissist to begin to get his way, even over small things, which eventually lead to highly toxic behaviors that will become more significant as the relationship unfolds.
To help understand the trap the narcissist sets during the initial dating phase, let’s take a closer look at the strategies the narcissist employs. Based on your response, you may see more than one strategy in play, or the strategies may change over time.
The Real Prince or Princess Charming
Most people want to have a fairytale relationship. This includes a partner that seems to have stepped right out of their dreams. Unfortunately, a narcissist is a chameleon in this respect, molding his or her likes, dislikes, interests, opinions, and even world views to match that of their partner.
This charade of being the ideal partner is not sustained for a long time. However, it is long enough to create a very positive image in the mind of the partner. For people with a history of bad or toxic relationships, this perfect match is something they become willing to give up friends and family to maintain.
A narcissist is well aware of the limitations they have to sustain the “perfect partner” routine. They need a way to speed up the initial stages of the relationship, moving it quickly from a casual dating situation to a true relationship.
Love bombing is a strategy to shower the partner with attention and special treatment. This can include dates every night, lavish gifts, big gestures, and quickly moving to the “I love you” statement that so many people want to hear to fill up the emptiness in their life. It can also be a single large gesture, such as an expensive gift or even an engagement ring in the first few dates.
Painting a Perfect Picture
Also called future faking, narcissists create a narrative of an ideal future based on information they obtain from their dating partner. If you want children, the narcissist wants kids immediately; if you want to travel the world, they talk about all the trips you will take.
The buildup of the dream is mutual, with the narcissist drawing the partner in to embellish details, add to the idea, and create the perfect future. Of course, the narcissist has no intention of providing any of these things, but they use this as a lure to draw in the partner.
Go Away, Come Closer
Sometimes known as intermittent reinforcement, the narcissist will love bomb and future fake one day, then ignore texts, messages, or even fail to show up for dates the next. When the partner has a low sense of self-esteem and self-worth, they begin to think they are the problem or have done something wrong.
This creates a desire to do better, to pay more attention, or to accept anything the narcissist says or does to hold on to the relationship. This is precisely what the narcissist wants. At the same time, the days of attention are rewarding for the partner, keeping the hope alive that at some point every day will be this positive.
Recognizing the Patterns
Learning how to recognize these dating traps is essential for those with a history of toxic relationships. Working with a therapist can help to develop an understanding of why you may be drawn to narcissists and how to protect yourself from their dating traps.
Sherry Gaba, LCSW and Transformation Coach