“When his sun shines on you, you feel it. But when the sun is shining elsewhere, it’s cold. He can cast quite a shadow.”
Jennifer Garner said this recently about her marriage to Ben Affleck. I read it again and again, wondering where I’d heard something similar. Then I realized that she could have been describing my ex.
I’d dated before I met him at the age of 23, so I wasn’t a naïve teenager. But there was something about the way he focused on me and only me the night I met him. I was sitting next to a girlfriend who left her seat briefly, and as soon as she did, he sat down. When she returned, he refused to give her back her seat, an act of rudeness but also a statement that he wanted to be near me. And that night, it was as though everyone else in our large group melted away and there was just the two of us. He spoke only to me. He seemed enraptured by what I said, and he was attentive and utterly captivated. I had never felt so special, so quickly, upon meeting a man.
Sadly, it was many years before I learned this was a classic narcissistic maneuver.
I have no opinion on whether Affleck is a narcissist. It wouldn’t surprise me if most of the Hollywood stars have high narcissistic traits. But what I do know is that narcissists can be found in every profession, in every city, in every social group.
So how do you know if you’ve met a narcissist who is shining a temporary light your way?
There is a lot of good information available on identifying whether or not you’re dating a narcissist, but most of it is useful for diagnosis only much later in relationships, which is often too late.
How much better would it be if we could identify them on meeting them for the first time? An article I found written by Dr. Craig Malkin lays out five things to watch out for early on.
5 Ways To Tell If You’re Involved With a Narcissist:
1. They project their insecurity onto you.
Soon after I started dating my ex, we encountered a professor whose class he took. We were in a store, and I don’t think the professor even knew who my ex was, but my ex walked up to him very confidently and engaged him in conversation. The professor cut him off, politely, and walked away. My ex turned to me and began to rant: why had I been so rude to his professor, why hadn’t I said anything? What was wrong with me? I was gobsmacked. It was obvious that he had been wounded by his professor not recognizing him, and he felt insecure. So, in turn, he blamed me.
2. They hate to show emotion. Or perhaps they simply can’t.
My ex had a false self so strong that emotion could never filter through. When his younger brother was killed in an accident, I was broken up. I had only met him a couple times, but I felt the tidal wave of grief pouring from his mother and his sisters. I can remember crying and asking my ex when he’d be getting a flight home for the funeral, and he replied, very coldly, that he had hardly known his brother since he was 16 years younger, and he didn’t think he would bother going. Dr. Malkin states, “It challenges their sense of perfect autonomy; to admit to a feeling of any kind suggests they can be affected by someone or something outside of them.”
3. They have an inconsistent or incoherent family story.
Wow. This perfectly describes my ex. And the story often changed. According to Dr. Malkin, “Insecurely attached people can’t talk coherently about their family and childhood; their early memories are confused, contradictory, and riddled with gaps.” In the first year of dating, my ex told me stories about how his father’s family had owned a big part of the real estate of a well-to-do part of his birth city. He said that when we go there he would show me. And he did. It was a slum. The house where his great aunt had lived, and which he had described as beautiful, had a run-down exterior and a postage-size backyard with no landscaping. Later, he mentioned to his aunt how the old house had been let go by the new owners, and she sniffed and said it was always like that. She then explained that her family had owned only two rental houses, both in that area and both rented out to family members.
4. Idol worship.
My ex grew up in the 1960s, in the era where the Kennedy family appeared on magazine covers as the perfect family, beautiful, polished, unblemished. Of course, the reality was very different, but at that time, they were idolized – and my ex wanted to be a Kennedy. Even though I met him more than a decade after JFK’s assassination, he spoke of JFK as though he was a hero, a saint, someone that he respected above all others. This tendency to put people on pedestals might explain that feeling of having their light shining brightly on you. As Dr. Malkin explains, their thought process is, “If I find someone perfect to be close to, maybe some of their perfection will rub off on me, and I’ll become perfect by association.” And sadly, once they discover that you are no longer that perfect individual, the light will be turned off and you will be left in those cold shadows.
5. A need to control.
This feature in my ex emerged over time and was not so easy to identify in the early dating months. But it was there. We ate at a restaurant of his choice; I never was asked where I would like to eat. We saw movies that he wanted to see, action-packed violent movies. When I did persuade him to go with me to something of my choice, he didn’t so much rebel but made me feel badly for choosing something. I remember getting tickets to a concert by Nana Mouskouri, who was popular at the time. I had a wonderful time, and as we were leaving, I asked if he had enjoyed it. He shrugged and said that her singing sounded too high-pitched and uncomfortable to listen to. The control in the early days emerged more in these subtle judgments than in things like demanding to know where I was, or who I was talking to on the phone. These emerged much later, after marriage.
If like me, you’ve survived a relationship with a narcissist, you will know why it’s important to have an early detection system in place. There’s no guarantee someone else won’t come along and shine their brilliant light only on me, only this time, I’ll see it as a warning beacon. I’ll be ready.