My dating history has what I’d call a Goldilocks problem: Some relationships were too casual; some were too needy. After a year-long, friends-with-benefits situation, my partner ghosted me. Then a man dropped the L-bomb just two weeks in. (Overkill!) So when a friend introduced me to Monica Parikh, a relationship coach and founder of School of Love NYC, I was hopeful she’d be able to help me navigate my way to finding Mr. Just Right.
I embarked on a four-week virtual class (which included weekly reading assignments and telecom sessions) where she helped me pinpoint the common thread in my past relationships: Many of my partners had little consideration for my feelings and needs. According to Parikh, I was attracted to narcissists. “Narcissists lack empathy—the ability to see life from another person’s point of view—and, as a result, are incapable of forming deep, meaningful, and lasting relationships with others,” she explains.
The good news: If you understand the concepts associated with narcissism, you’ll recognize the red flags sooner and therefore have a better chance of walking away early, says Parikh.
Keep reading for Parikh’s tips for steering clear of narcissists—and building a healthy relationship.
How to spot a narcissist
When it comes to narcissistic partners, Parikh recommends taking note if someone has a “history of failed relationships with dramatic endings and a reluctance to express emotional depth or remorse.” Sound like everyone you’ve ever dated? Then also ask yourself: Is this person draining you physically or emotionally? Are you doing all the work to keep the relationship alive? Is this person charming, but will then insult you or ignore your needs? According to Parikh, “If you feel nervous—as if the slightest mistake will cause emotional upheaval—be wary.”
Another textbook characteristic of a narcissist: They act as if they’re superior to everyone else. “According to them, they’re always at the top of the hierarchy and believe everything has to be their way,” explains Parikh. Because of this, they will always act in their own self-interest. This could mean only seeing the movie they want, eating at the restaurant they love, and hanging out with their friends—or it could mean hurting their loved ones in order to fulfill their own desires. But they’ll never, ever take responsibility or apologize for doing so.
And yet, almost paradoxically, narcissists exhibit a dire need for external validation. “A narcissist is an empty vessel and a bottomless well,” says Parikh.
Pinpoint emotional abuse from the get-go
Have you ever dated someone who was initially charismatic, then, seemingly out of nowhere, became completely toxic? This narcissist tactic—masking their true selves and then slowly becoming more abusive as they test and push a victim’s boundaries over time—is what Parikh calls devaluation.
The cycle may sound familiar: Your S.O. gives you the silent treatment or withdraws emotionally from the relationship. Then they abandon you, suddenly and completely. But just as you’ve started to move on with your life, your ex reappears to try to lure you back. (Seriously, is there some sort of indicator light that goes on as soon as you start to feel almost normal again?) This is because, at their core, narcissists are emotional abusers who derive pleasure from manipulating others.
The only way to break the cycle is to recognize it. And to do that, you need to check in with yourself. “Many of my clients are programmed to worry more about their partner than themselves and to want to please them at the expense of their own happiness, dreams, and self-worth,” explains Parikh. To take back the power in relationships, she says, you need to push aside your people-pleasing tendencies and establish rigid boundaries for bad behavior. “You cannot attract someone into your life who will respect your feelings and needs until you learn to do that for yourself first,” Parikh says.
Understand a healthy relationship’s timeline
I learned from Parikh that just because I feel a spark for someone, that doesn’t make them a worthy long-term partner. And on the flip side, meaningful relationships aren’t established after a single date (or even three). I had to learn how to peel back the layers of someone’s personality slowly while deliberately and cautiously letting them into my life.
Looking back, I can see I had a pattern of getting swept up in the glitter and excitement of fledgling relationships. And in doing so, I failed to not only look out for stop signs, but even really get to know the person I was considering adding to my Netflix account.