Mark had never met a narcissist, let alone fallen in love with one, which is why he reached out to the r/narcissism subreddit seeking support. The 29-year-old, now the owner of a car dealership in Michigan, was distraught over a long-term relationship with Lena, a woman five years his junior. A friend suggested she might have narcissistic personality disorder, the hallmarks of which being grandiosity, lack of empathy and a need for constant admiration (something her behavior seemed to confirm).
When I reach Mark by phone, he explains that he met Lena (a pseudonym, as are most of the names that follow) in 2010 at a party at his cousin’s house in his home village near Beirut. She was immediately interested, showering him with love and affection while insisting they go on a proper date the following day. Afterward, despite Mark recalling the date being “awful,” Lena said she wanted to take the relationship to the next level and officially become a couple. Mark obliged, figuring it could work out if they both really wanted it to. Not to mention, she was so into him, which felt nice.
Little did Mark know that he was being “love bombed” in the first phase of the narcissist abuse cycle known as “idealization,” during which the narcissist draws the partner into a seemingly perfect world created just for him or her. As the redditors explained to Mark, narcissists are highly skilled manipulators who know how to seduce their prey like psychological puppeteers, tugging at strings every step along the way. They learn their unsuspecting partner’s love language and appeal to exactly what he or she wants to hear. Their initial kindness creates a convincing façade that masks a chilly interior.
“She became the most important person in my life,” Mark tells me. “I started feeling deeply attached to her and constantly needed to see her.” This meant flying from Michigan to Lebanon four or five times a year, often arriving with flowers. Since his English was better than hers, she asked Mark to rewrite her entrance exam essay to get into med school, which she ultimately did. Med school then became her excuse for many of the one-sided occasions that followed, as he says Lena started to become emotionally unavailable despite requiring his attention at all times. “She just expected me to understand, be patient and keep my mouth shut,” he explains.
For example, when Mark told Lena he was planning to visit her in Lebanon, she replied, “Dude, what part of ‘I’m in med school’ do you not understand? I have a lot of studying to do, and the last thing I need is you stressing me out.” And yet, shortly thereafter, when she had to do additional testing in Paris — her first experience navigating a city with subways — she asked Mark to research how to get from the airport to her hotel and compile step-by-step, color-coded instructions for her.
Another time, after a lengthy time apart, Mark texted Lena to let her know his flight to Lebanon would be landing at 11 p.m. and that he planned to take a cab to her house, a mere 15 minutes from the airport. Lena replied that her bedtime was 10:30. “I was like, ‘C’mon, I’ll just see you real quick,’” he remembers. “But she said, ‘Nope, I go to sleep at 10:30 so it’s not gonna work.’ I thought she was joking and figured she’d definitely be up when I landed. But sure enough, she was fast asleep. She wouldn’t give me 30 extra minutes.”
When I ask Mark if he can recall anything thoughtful Lena did for him during their nine years together, he pauses, sighs and says softly, “No. She also put zero thought into gifts.” Case in point: For his 24th birthday, she got him a small-sized T-shirt. He was a little overweight at the time, and as such, he wore large or extra large shirts. So he thanked her for the gift but mentioned it wasn’t the right size. “Well, if you like it, you should work out until it fits,” she replied.
That was a jab, says Sandra L. Brown, an expert in pathological love relationships and founder of the Institute for Relational Harm Reduction. She says the “gift” is evidence of the second stage of narcissistic abuse, “devaluation,” which can include gaslighting, withholding emotional or physical intimacy, inexplicably disappearing from contact or subtle put-downs. “The T-shirt was offered purposefully to make him feel bad about himself,” Brown explains, adding that it’s a telltale sign of “covert narcissism,” a subtype that can carry the same self-conceit as its extroverted counterpart. “Overt narcissism would be grabbing his belly and saying, ‘You need to lose 40 pounds,’” she says. “Covert narcissism would be exactly what she did.”
While Lena may seem like an outlier, according to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, approximately one in ten people is walking around without a conscience (or at best, without empathy). The DSM puts the prevalence of narcissistic personality disorder as high as 6 percent, of which approximately three-quarters are male.
This has created a fertile (if toxic) market for divorce mediators like Steven Unruh, a 62-year-old psychotherapist in Pasadena specializing in narcissistic personality disorder. Easily a fifth of Unruh’s patients are men who are married to female narcissists, he tells me. “I don’t believe it to be any less prevalent for men to be the victims of narcissistic abuse,” he adds, “they’re just less likely to report it.” For example, he’s currently mediating a divorce in which the wife is joining a cult and making outrageous decisions to move away and take their daughter with her. When Unruh learned of her rageful explosions that completely disregard the needs and wants of her daughter and husband, he realized he was dealing with someone who was both bipolar and a narcissist — a conclusion the husband immediately related to.
“He said, ‘Oh my God, you’re kidding me. I’ve never heard someone put words to exactly what’s going on before,’” Unruh says. Still, within minutes, the husband was defending his wife since, as Unruh has often found, “somehow the diagnosis is too shocking for men who feel shame about being victimized by a woman. So they’ll quickly say things like, ‘She had a bad childhood,’ or ‘Her first husband was abusive,’ to excuse the outrageous behavior.”
This cycle of narcissistic abuse — and defense of said abuse — will go on forever, Brown says, because narcissistic personality disorder is hardwired and immutable. “These aren’t curable disorders,” she notes. “People can go to treatment to try to understand what their behavior is doing to someone else (though most narcissists won’t), but abnormal psychology — i.e., the branch of psychology that studies unusual patterns of behavior, including narcissism — is a field in which progress is measured in millimeters and damage is measured in miles. That’s why there are no books entitled Happily Ever After with a Narcissist.”
That also explains why the field of victimology related to survivors of narcissistic partners has been growing rapidly. There are, in fact, a half dozen such support groups within 10 miles of my apartment, one of which I attend on a Sunday evening. There, I find 18 adults, evenly split between men and women, huddled in the backroom of a coffee shop taking turns sharing devastating tales of abuse at the hands of a narcissistic partner. One father — Todd, a 47-year-old IT executive — speaks of coaching his two young children, ages 7 and 11, on how to respond to their mother when she explodes in a fit of narcissistic rage (“Say, ‘Okay mom, I can do what you’re asking me, but could you please not yell at me?’”); or forgets to take them to school while preoccupied and self-absorbed (“Say, ‘Mommy I’d really like to go to school today because my teacher is expecting me”); or becomes physically violent (“Call me immediately”).
“The only thing I can do for my children is to arm them with language and teach them not to engage in their mother’s irrationality, impulsivity and insanity,” he tells me after the meeting.
Unfortunately, those lessons have been hard-earned. His wife physically abused him regularly, goading him to hit her back while (rightly) bragging that men are never believed to be victims of domestic violence (he never did). One time, in the middle of the night, she began hitting him with a two-by-four while he slept. He wrestled it away from her and began hitting himself on the leg, crushing his tibia while shouting, “Stop hitting me!” As he explains, “She freaked out when I did that,” adding that injuring his own leg was “one of the best things I’ve ever done. You’ve got to fight fire with fire, dude. You can’t be a dummy and just lay down in the face of pure evil.”
For those who can’t make it to an IRL support group, the internet is chockablock with online versions — e.g., there are more than 100 Facebook pages alone on the topic. One of them, Narcissistic Abuse Recovery Awareness Group, founded by life coach Emilia Nagy, has over 4,000 members worldwide. Nagy is quick to tell me that narcissistic abuse can happen whether or not a partner is officially diagnosed with narcissistic personality disorder — they just need to have narcissistic traits that cause emotional abuse. In other words, she explains, “Whenever anyone is meeting their needs at your expense — whether those needs are emotional, psychological, mental, physical, sexual or financial — that’s narcissistic abuse.” After people become educated, she says, most choose not to stay in the relationship. In fact, in the five years she’s been leading support groups, she’s only met one person whose goal was to make the relationship work. “Everyone else said they wished they had left sooner.”
Mark, however, wasn’t ready to leave. A month after he broke up with Lena, he went back to Lebanon to stay with a friend and gave her a call. He explained he was at a beach in Beirut and had some things he’d like to speak with her about. Could she meet him there?
He didn’t have a car, so his friend, the son of a rich man in the village, drove him to the beach in his BMW convertible. When Lena arrived, she immediately began flirting with Mark’s friend, admiring his car and asking if she could drive it, which she did. “The two of them were sitting at the table carrying on with a conversation as if I wasn’t there, so I just left,” he says. “When I did, she got super angry and said, ‘I never wanna see you ever again’ while watching me leave.”
This marked the final stage in the abuse cycle, “discard,” as the narcissist abandons the partner when his or her usefulness runs out. After all, there was only one reason why Mark was in Lena’s life — to provide attention, which Brown says allowed her to self-regulate her precarious “false self.” Once Mark undermined Lena’s fabricated image, she ceased all investment in him and began the quest to secure another source of better-grade narcissistic supply.
That is, until last week. Three years after severing all ties with Mark, she sent him a text letting him know she was in Chicago for work and asked him to meet her for a walk by the lake. Or “hoovering,” as the addendum phase of abuse is called, when the narcissist attempts to reconnect after a period of separation by love bombing again.
When Mark arrived Lena handed him another present: “I know you’re gonna love this,” she said, unwrapping a jelly donut.