Dating aside, when most people hear "narcissist," they think of someone who's self-absorbed and extremely selfish. But there's a big difference between this common perception and someone with narcissistic personality disorder (NPD).
NPD is a psychiatric condition characterized by a lack of empathy and an excessive need for admiration and superiority. Usually, by the time you figure out you're dating a narcissist, the damage has already been done.
I've seen people in long-term relationships with narcissists learn to establish hardcore strategies to preserve their sanity. Individuals who choose to break free from narcissistic partners are forever changed. Below, I've compiled these stories using aliases to explain what happens when dating a narcissist and offer ways to heal from those experiences.
» Trauma can take a toll on your life. Make sure you're ready to start dating again.
1. Loss of Trust
After being manipulated and lied to, it becomes hard to trust others and ourselves. This is why you need to listen to your gut.
When my client Anna (36) got an email from her college crush, Gabe (37), she thought fate had brought them back into each other's lives. But within just two months, Anna noticed some inconsistencies in Gabe's day-to-day stories and decided to investigate.
While going through his phone, she came across some Venmo receipts. To her shock, she discovered that Gabe wasn't just lying about being single; he also was the father of—not one—but two children.
"I always tend to see the good in people, so I never fathomed that someone could be like this—especially someone I had a history with," Anna recounted.
2. Inability to Recognize Unhealthy Behavior
When you date a narcissist, you become so used to unhealthy behaviors that you forget what healthy ones look like. By definition, narcissists operate in three distinct steps: They idealize, devalue, and then discard people. Our perception of their wrongdoings often becomes blurred when we fall for someone.
"He was always texting me around the clock and sending tons of selfies daily. I thought he was just including me in his life," said my client Mariella (31).
Mariella's partner was doing something that's called love bombing. What starts as "cute" in a relationship can often become "acute"—pay attention to patterns and notice if something seems problematic. Talk to a friend or therapist if you're unsure about certain behaviors.
3. Getting Gaslighted
One of the hallmark signs of narcissism is gaslighting. Gaslighting is when a narcissist tells you something didn't happen, and you're "crazy" for thinking it did. But the thing is—the event really did happen. Gaslighting can create major self-doubt within you.
When my client Dana (32) was dating Adam (41), she often resorted to taking screenshots of their conversations as physical evidence of his lies.
Narcissists lie frequently and are confident in their deception abilities. If you suspect you're dating a narcissist, keep a daily journal. This way, you always have a solid record of your doubts, thoughts, and feelings.
4. Experiencing Self-doubt
A month after my former colleague Melissa (33) and her ex John (34) broke up, Melissa signed up for therapy, believing her gut "could no longer be trusted." She always considered herself a good judge of character, but now she felt her intuition was off.
"When I look back on everything, it's like watching a movie for the second time. The clues were there all along."
To reconnect with your intuition, you should first forgive yourself and quiet the self-criticizing part of your mind. I usually recommend breathwork, meditation, or journaling to my clients in these situations.
Narcissists thrive on codependency and become dangerously entangled with whoever they're dating. This is their attempt to control. A narcissist often uses emotional manipulation to pull you away from your loved ones slowly.
My client Becka (29) had no one to turn to once her relationship with Bradley (29) ended. She had dropped everyone for him. The lesson here is not to lose yourself—your values and interests—in any relationship. If someone becomes your entire world, you may feel lost once the relationship ends.
6. Always Feeling Anxious
After ending a narcissistic relationship, many clients reported feeling "on edge." This is mainly because narcissists are unpredictable. Those who have children with them especially know this to be true.
Ashley (42) was cautious when she started dating again after separating from her narcissistic ex. She only talked to him about their son and kept conversations short to avoid any hurtful comments.
Since narcissists often have no boundaries, you should set them yourself and use strategies like grey rocking—becoming unresponsive to abusive behaviors—to create a safe space for yourself.
7. Turning into an Expert on Narcissism
When you work to uncover a narcissist and separate yourself from them, you achieve personal growth and learn more about the disorder. The truth is, once you've dated a narcissist, you develop a keen sense for detecting deceit.
Knowledge is power. And having the necessary information can give you more control, shifting your perspective from being a victim to having a creator's mindset. You can take responsibility for your life and actively shape your desired future.
And the extra motivation comes from never wanting to be ensnared in a narcissistic entanglement again—I can speak from experience.
» Want to see the good in people? Here's what green flags in communication look like.
8. Helping Others by Retelling the Story
Simply put, narcissistic abuse is traumatic. And, like with any trauma, retelling the story helps to process it. After being manipulated by his ex, my client John (36) would frequently recount a symbolic detail that reminds him to watch out for red flags:
"She had a neon sign that hung above her bed that said: 'It was all a dream.' The writing was literally on the wall."
It's important to tell your story after you've been through the trauma of dating a narcissist. Not only is it cathartic, but it also helps raise awareness and lets others know how to recognize the signs and how to fight back.
9. Physical Effects on Health
"I can't eat when I'm anxious" is something I'd often hear from my client Tara (37). Her anxiety around the divorce from her narcissistic ex, Jeff (35), was so bad she developed acid reflux to the point it ruined her tooth enamel. Tara's lack of eating also led to energy depletion and mood changes, making it harder for her to handle daily tasks.
This is why self-care is so important for your emotional and physical health. Healing practices such as exercising, meditating, and improving self-esteem are known to help with recovery. They help address emotional distress and also mitigate the physical effects of not eating, like cognitive impairment and muscle weakness.
10. Difficulty With New Relationships
Narcissistic abuse survivors often feel jaded when they start dating again. This was especially true for my client Tammy (30). Her ex, Mark (32), would constantly tell her: "You realize that any guy you marry will cheat on you, right? That's just how guys are, and you're living a fairytale if you believe otherwise."
After dating a narcissist, feelings of paranoia can show up in new relationships. So, don't rush back into dating. Give yourself time to heal first.
Falling prey to a narcissist can happen to all of us—and the best defense for one is knowledge.
Remember the key red flags to look out for when spotting a narcissist: Your new partner is trying to move a relationship too fast and too soon, lacks empathy, or has an air of superiority.
So whether you're on the road to recovery or want to steer clear of narcissists, arm yourself with knowing how to recognize psychological abuse and the tactics to fight back.