I was at work. I was on my phone, which was unlike me, but I hadn’t been acting like myself for months. And in this case, I had an important reason: I was googling “narcissistic gaslighting.” There was an engagement ring on my finger and a fiancé waiting for me back at my house. But something had gone very, very wrong, and I knew my life was about to change.
Let’s call him Luke. When I met Luke, less than three months before we got engaged, the sparks flew instantly. From day one, he was enthusiastic about me, saying that he’d always wanted to meet someone like me and that I was all his dreams coming true. My initial skepticism waned under his continual warmth and enthusiasm. Sure, it all moved more quickly than I would have imagined, but we were in love—right? This was what I had spent my whole life waiting for—right? He assured me that it was.
But three months into our engagement, my warm, kindly, friendly fiancé, who used to worship the ground I walked on, started calling me stupid and weak, going off on a rant about a conflict and then accusing me of bringing it up, and manifesting a plethora of controlling behaviors. It got to the point that he blocked me from my family and friends and physically pushed me around. And it all happened more quickly than you could say “happily ever after.” When I finally confronted him about what were some clear mental health problems, it didn’t go well.
So there I was, googling “narcissistic gaslighting” at work. I put my phone back in my pocket, walked over to my manager, told her I was about to break up with an abusive partner and asked if she had any security available that could back me up.
Long story short, we broke up, the police got involved to see me safely out of town, and I moved to a new city. After one of my friends threatened legal action against Luke, the constant deluge of emails, calls, texts, messages, and letters finally stopped. Today I can confidently say that my new life is off to a good start.
But how did I get to the point where I was googling my fiancé’s personality disorder at work? What turned the idealistic, conservative feminist looking for love into a woman willing to compromise her own feelings, values, and needs for a man? And most importantly, how did I miss the high-flying red flags that indicated narcissistic personality disorder (NPD)?
Of course, the answers to these questions are complicated. I had high anxiety and relatively little dating experience, coupled with a lot of openness to new experiences, which perhaps made me more vulnerable. People with manipulative tendencies are good at identifying vulnerable targets and, well, good at manipulating them.
But one major factor really contributed to my missing several red flags at the start: conservative dating scripts. Ideas that I had always espoused about being “intentional,” ideals of chivalry, and the worship of marriage meant that a few very obvious indicators of NPD flew totally under the radar.
Though my perspective is naturally informed by my personal experience, I don’t mean to dwell strictly on what happened to me; rather, I want to explore the correspondence between conservative dating ideals and the warning signs of NPD (and its cousin, bipolar disorder) in a dating relationship. As I see it, perpetuating these scripts when young women are setting their expectations about dating and marriage sometimes makes them susceptible to a controlling manipulator.
With that being said, there are a few disclaimers to get out of the way. First of all, not everyone you don’t like is a narcissist. “Narcissist” is a new favorite internet label for people we don’t like, but in actuality only about 0.5% of the US population has NPD. My ex displayed some textbook signs of NPD and, relatedly, borderline personality disorder (BPD). There are details and background that I’m leaving out for the sake of privacy that also point in that direction, but I can’t diagnose him, and I wouldn’t want to.
Narcissism is also a personality trait that most people have to some degree. Trait narcissism and NPD are two different things, so don’t use this piece to try to diagnose someone in your life. Nonetheless, abusive behavior is abusive behavior, and some abusive behavior corresponds directly to specific traditional dating expectations. Approaching dating with these expectations can set women up to be vulnerable. The alternative is asking some hard questions, like those below.
Is he intentional, or is he love-bombing?
In a lot of the conservative world, “intentional” is code for “marriage-focused.” If a man is interested in casual dating or doesn’t focus on marriage soon enough, he’s not “intentional,” and he’s not the conservative man you are looking for. (As a note, Verily has done its best to dispel this myth!)
I thought my ex’s focus on getting married was a big, bright green light. Having been brought up in a conservative community where sex outside of wedlock was the worst thing that could happen to you and the lack of “intentionality” among men was constantly bemoaned, I believed that if a man wanted to marry me, I had won the dating lottery. Books like I Kissed Dating Goodbye (which author Joshua Harris has since disavowed) claim that it’s “selfish and potentially harmful” to date someone you’re not interested in marrying (potentially? In the future? Right now? It’s a little confusing, but here’s the full quote).
Another trend—courtship—disavows dating in favor of a more “traditional” courtship ritual that involves family, friends, and a hyperfocus on marriage: “You do not date or court because you want to be someone’s girlfriend; you do so when you are ready to be a wife!!” (Other highlights of this article: lots of sins to avoid, extremely specific timelines, the requirement that your potential man “approach your father or male head of the home to ask permission to court you,” and rules about intimacy when you are engaged: “Yes, you can hold hands occasionally or give a slight peck, but definitely no French-kissing.”)
Though I didn’t have a precommitment on the French-kissing point, I did like the conservative emphasis on marriage in a world where I felt women were increasingly encouraged to have sex on the first or second date to keep the guy around. But I also internalized the idea that if a man wanted to marry you, you’d avoided the biggest potential problem, namely, a man who wants to have sex before marriage or who wants to date indefinitely without getting married. So when my new boyfriend talked about how he wanted to marry me only a month or two into our relationship, I figured I had just found the conservative dream: an “intentional” man.
Here’s the problem: this intentionality also matches the first signs of the narcissistic abuse cycle.
During the “love bombing” stage, narcissists shower their partners with gifts, overwhelming compliments, and romantic gestures. It’s a form of emotional abuse that causes the victim to feel indebted to the partner involved.
But it can go undetected because, both in conservative and broader spheres, we think of grand gestures as romantic. How many rom-com movies have you seen where the man in question shows up at the lady’s door with obscene quantities of flowers and promises of staying together forever, even if they’ve only dated for a week? Popular media sets our expectations for love as immediate and all-encompassing, and the conservative emphasis on marriage leads us to expect that an “intentional” man will be ready to marry us at first sight (or at least second or third sight).
This idealizing of a partner can also be an indication of BPD. For example, Pete Davidson, who has gone public with a BPD diagnosis, told Ariana Grande he would “marry her tomorrow” the day they met. Sometimes overwhelming enthusiasm isn’t romantic—it’s a red flag.
Can you respect his judgment, or is he erasing your values?
The ideal in many conservative communities is a marriage where the man takes the lead. While to modern ears this sometimes sounds abusive right off the bat, in a perfect world a community would apply this principle (and its Biblical background) in a balanced way. For me, finding a man I could look up to—a man who shared my values and who I trusted to make decisions for our future family—was important.
From the beginning, Luke was enthusiastic about my values, needs and priorities, or at least he said he was. My values—waiting until marriage for sex, being committed to my professional life, wanting to take things slowly, and staying connected to my community and family—were, at first blush, exactly what he was looking for and agreed with. I was amazed by how much we had in common, but as the relationship developed, I started to notice a pattern.
Though in word he claimed to be willing to take things slowly and let our relationship develop gradually, in practice he pressured me from start to finish to move as quickly as possible, from first kiss to an early wedding date. Though in principle he was enthusiastic about my professional life and my intellectual life, in practice he started to run down my intelligence and constantly consumed my time, energy, and attention. Even when he set expectations for our relationship—laying down rules around intimacy or respecting my preferences about using my time well, seeing my friends, or just having alone time—I was almost always the one left enforcing those boundaries. If I showed any hesitation, he trampled all over the boundaries again, this time claiming it was my idea.
I let this slide for a long time, because respecting Luke’s decision-making was a priority for me. In my mentality, a man who was willing and able to take the lead in decision-making for our future family was, again, just what I was looking for. His ability to articulate and defend my ideas in theory distracted me from the fact that in practice he was undermining them. When I let him decide things for our relationship, I told myself it was because I respected his judgment—but in practice he didn’t respect mine.
Is he an intellectual leader, or is he gaslighting you?
Luke was smart, there was no doubt about it. We connected on an intellectual level, and from the beginning our conversations were interesting and inspiring. It was important to me that I be able to trust and respect my future husband’s thinking. But when I started to question my own reality, I realized that my respect for Luke’s intelligence had gone too far.
Early in our relationship, Luke had abundant respect for my intelligence. One of the things I liked about him was his enthusiastic support for the women in his life—his mom, his sisters, his friends, and me. But by the end of our relationship, he was regularly calling me stupid and weak, running me down as a silly and emotional woman who couldn’t keep it together. It was then that I realized we were at the end of a slippery slope.
We had slid into a pattern of him belittling me in ways that at first I thought were cute and romantic. I had let him correct me, explain things to me, tell me when I was wrong—all healthy things when they’re in the right context. But I’d leaned too much into the comfortable feeling of relying on him. I’d told myself he was an intellectual leader, that he was right even when I was pretty sure I had been right.
Toward the end of the relationship, Luke pushed my willingness to make allowances too far. The behaviors extended to blaming me for bringing up things he had brought up, claiming things were my idea when he had suggested and manipulated them into existence, and even denying something I knew for a fact had happened early in our relationship. I became overwhelmed by anxiety, which was compounded by Luke’s insistence that nothing was wrong and I was just being too weak and sensitive. What began with me trusting Luke to help me think for myself quickly became a relationship where Luke was thinking for me—and denying reality in the process.
Gaslighting is when an abusive person (often a narcissist) manipulates you and denies reality to make you question yourself and your perception of events. This can include flat-out denying that they said or did things in the past that you know they said or did or saying (or implying) that there’s something wrong with you, sometimes claiming that they’re just concerned about your mental health. They might also start blaming you for behavior they themselves are engaging in, making your world feel more and more upside-down. This isn’t caring concern or intellectual leadership—this is emotional abuse.
Is he committed to you, or is he afraid of being abandoned?
In the conservative community where I grew up, the worst-case scenario was that a marriage wouldn’t last. Since divorce and separation were frowned upon and marriage was held up as the ideal, the biggest problem on the horizon was (as above) that a man wouldn’t be willing to “commit.” “Commitment issues”—the unwillingness to settle down and commit to a relationship or marriage—among men especially, are generally bemoaned. . But when we emphasize that problem, we sometimes set aside the possibility that someone would be willing to commit too fast.
Luke and I started our relationship long-distance, and we’d been dating for less than two months (and had never met in person!) when he asked me to be his girlfriend. Taken in by his charismatic personality, I quickly started dating Luke exclusively, and stopped pursuing other men. I was relieved that he felt the same way, even if I had a lingering feeling of confusion. Why was he willing to commit to me when he didn’t even really know me well yet? He must just be madly in love, I reasoned.
That probably wasn’t it. Fear of abandonment is often associated with personality disorders like BPD, but it can also appear in combination with NPD. According to PsychCentral, narcissism can arise from childhood abuse, and “a significant and profound fear of abandonment resides at the core of the narcissistic abuser’s inner psyche.” This fear, which of course many people share to varying degrees, can manifest as clingy behavior, monopolizing someone’s time and energy, or even explicitly saying “I think you’re going to leave me” or “No one ever stays with me.” A narcissist can also loop you into this fear of abandonment by leaving you or threatening to do so. At its worst, this can lead to a continuous abuse cycle of a honeymoon period, devaluing the partner, and discarding the partner, only to come back and do the whole thing again (take a look at the Power and Control Wheel of domestic abuse for more details).
Needless to say, this isn’t real commitment. If someone is only staying with you because he’s afraid of being left alone, it’s not the kind of relationship that will stay steady and happy through the years. It’s much more likely to devolve into abuse, where the best-case (and most difficult to achieve) scenario is that you escape the cycle.
Is he supporting your mental health and relationships, or is he using your issues against you?
Admittedly, here I’m giving conservative dating scripts the benefit of the doubt in order to illustrate how difficult it can be to distinguish between healthy and unhealthy patterns when you’re dealing with an abuser. The best dating advice I’ve received—including some here at Verily!—included the recommendations that I find someone who really helped me grow as a person, who was willing to be embedded in my community, and who supported me in improving my mental and emotional health. This was what I was explicitly looking for in a relationship, and again at first, Luke seemed to check all those boxes. He intentionally wanted to get to know my family and friends, and was caring, patient, and knowledgeable when it came to dealing with my mental health problems, including anxiety.
That is—and you’re seeing the narcissistic abuse pattern here—until he wasn’t, and he didn’t. Toward the end of the relationship, Luke’s behavior was increasingly controlling, and my anxiety skyrocketed in the face of the gaslighting, contempt, and manipulation. Where before he had been caring and helpful in my anxious moments, now I didn’t know what to expect. Sometimes he would make me a fancy dinner to take some weight off my mind, and sometimes he would abrasively tell me to get it together and stop being so weak and sensitive. His knowledge of my anxiety and mental health issues turned into an excuse to blame me for the issues we were experiencing and to trigger that anxiety because he knew me so well.
What’s more, he started isolating me from my friends and family, usually my additional sources of peace and stability. Eventually, he convinced me to block my entire family, and was screening my phone calls from friends. It was when he started running down friends that we used to like (and even said that we would drop my therapist if she disagreed with him!) that I could tell things had gotten out of hand.
Manipulation can be explicit or subtle. In my case, Luke used my struggles with anxiety to gaslight me into believing that the problems in the relationship were my fault. I was too anxious, or too sensitive, or too difficult, and he had to put up with me. Narcissists can use “cognitive empathy,” a tactic where they use their ability to see things from your perspective to move you into a state of learned helplessness, in which you don’t trust yourself, to disguise their own issues and make it appear that they’re helping you. From the perspective that Luke was forcing on me, my anxiety and immaturity were sabotaging our relationship, and he was doing everything he could to keep it going—when in fact, anxiety is a common symptom of gaslighting.
This state of learned helplessness can make it easier for a narcissist to isolate you from the people who are most important to you (and the people who could help you escape the abuse). This can be as obvious as what I experienced or as subtle as complaining when you see family or friends, claiming that your family or friends aren’t “good for you,” or hearkening back to that feeling of abandonment to make you feel bad for doing anything on your own (including hobbies or other interests). They can engage in a tactic called “splitting” to make you feel that there is enmity between you and your close friends or family, so that you need to rely on the narcissist alone.
In my case, Luke had completely cut off my family from communication with us before I even realized what might be happening. Thanks to close friends who finally got in contact with me, it dawned on me that Luke was isolating me intentionally—but it was almost too late.
When I walked away from my relationship with a narcissist, I knew that a lot had changed about how I would think about relationships going forward. While I’m still working through the healing process, I know that now I’ll take the dating advice I receive with a grain of salt.
There are a few warning signs of narcissism that are easy to recognize—they just also correspond to some common conservative dating scripts. My hope is that helping other women to see the warning signs will help them discern the difference between Prince Charming and a potential abuser and stay on the brighter path toward a healthy, fulfilling relationship.