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Tina Swithin Headshot

How I Fell For A Narcissist

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How does a person fall for a narcissist? Individuals who suffer from narcissistic personality disorder can generally charm the pants off of anyone, so it is easy to fall into victim mode and blame these emotional con-artists. I've chosen a different path. I've chosen to own my part of the equation because it opened the doors to a tremendous amount of personal growth and insight. I was approximately two years into a category five divorce hurricane when I realized that I had two choices. I could continue to be a damsel in distress perched high in a tower or I could own my role in the severely dysfunctional relationship. I'll happily choose the latter version of this twisted fairy-tale because I believe that taking ownership is the only way to move forward in a healthy way.

Part of healing involves research on this personality disorder. I reached out to Dr. Craig Malkin, clinical psychologist and instructor in psychology at Harvard Medical School, for his opinion on how a person could potentially fall for a narcissist. According to Dr. Malkin, narcissists are experts at "impression management."

"Part of what makes narcissists so seductive, especially at the start of a relationship, is that they're experts at impression management. According to research, for example, they're no more physically attractive than the average guy or gal -- maybe a 5 or 6 -- but they've perfected the art of looking like (and acting) like a 10. They can be charming, alluring, and even sensitive (up to a point). Add to all this the fact that, when we're in love with someone, the judgment centers of the brain become eerily quiet, and it's easy to see why narcissists can slip by, red flags and all, and cozy up to us for a good long while.

Narcissists who run hot and cold are especially difficult to leave. The ups and downs put you on what psychologists call a variable-ratio reinforcement schedule -- the same pattern of occasional reward that keeps gamblers racing back to the slot machines.

One key to spotting a narcissist is to bring your judgment centers back online. Pay attention to feedback from friends, for instance. They're more apt to see -- and remember -- important red flags that you miss, precisely because they're not under the narcissist's spell (I call this 'borrowed judgment'). Keep a journal of painful moments, and ask yourself, is your partner working with you to understand and prevent them? Learn, and watch out for, some of the hallmarks of narcissism: Is every mistake he makes, for example, someone else fault ('externalizing')? Does she routinely devalue and belittle other people in her stories? If so, it's only a matter of time before the disdain or indifference comes your way."

Over the past four years, I have been on a long, winding road of self discovery that has bumps and hills along the way. I embrace each fork in the road as a learning opportunity. Since my divorce, I have spent a lot of time sitting on my therapist's comfy couch with the all too familiar throw pillows cushioning me as I poured my heart out. I have been on a quest to understand my role in this toxic relationship and to understand why I initially fell for a narcissist.

As the child of very young, divorced parents I carried several loads of heavy baggage with me into adulthood. I craved stability and a marriage where the words "They lived happily ever after" were etched into our storybook. While dating, Seth often spoke of his parents and their long, happy marriage. Seth bragged about how stable he was in all aspects of his life from his career to his finances. I was showered with compliments, gifts, vacations and romance. He was the modern day prince charming and successfully wooed everyone in my life from my parents to my friends. Seth successfully morphed himself into the cure for anything that ailed me from my past.

In my new book, "Divorcing a Narcissist", I take readers on a journey through my "red flag reflections" because in hindsight, there were flags of every color waving madly in the wind during our courtship. Anyone who has dated someone with narcissistic personality disorder can attest to their charming nature and the charisma that seems to exude from every pore in their body. Narcissists have a knack for honing in on your deepest wounds and becoming your loving, caring, band-aid. Unfortunately, this phase is very short lived, which leaves one in a state of confusion and angst.

During our courtship, there were several red flags that I ignored. Three of the main red flags were spending, bragging and deception. Over time, those vices merged together to create a living, breathing monster with extraordinary credit limits. In the beginning, Seth's spending made me extremely uncomfortable, but his boastful attitude while spending was even more of an issue for me. Seth was always quick to remind me that my childhood lacked financial stability. I swept my concerns under the rug and convinced myself that the uneasy feeling had to do with the fact that this was a new and foreign world to me. Hindsight really is 20-20.

During our marriage, the spending continued but rose to an extreme level. Wealth, prestige and impressing friends and family members became the driving force for Seth. Lies and deception became intertwined with his need to live a lavish lifestyle. The uneasy feeling that I had during our courtship was magnified as our driveway began filling up with expensive cars that I knew we couldn't afford. I begged Seth multiple times to walk away from the fancy house and cars in an effort to simplify our lives. By the end of our marriage, there was a total of $1.7 million worth of debt -- much of which came as a complete shock to me.

Through this experience, I have learned to trust my gut feeling because if something seems too good to be true, it usually is. I saw the issues early on but the naive and trusting side of me chose to focus on the positives and ignore the red flags. I accept my role in the equation and have come to terms with the fact that my desire for stability and a storybook romance outweighed my instincts. I am now keenly aware of yellow flags, orange flags and red flags. I have learned a lot, healed tremendously and will never make the same mistake twice. One narcissist in a lifetime is one too many.

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