You can spot some narcissists from a mile away. Loud, obnoxious, demanding, their-way-or-the-highway types. But in reality, most narcissistic behavior is not so obvious. In fact, much of the narcissist’s toolbag is things that are done underhandedly and in secret. Most people have no idea what is being done to them. And when they do see this kind of narcissistic behavior, they tend to extend grace and overlook a lot of it because they have no idea what is really going on.
So what do we need to look for regarding narcissistic behavior? Here are some of the top things:
- Facts change as often as the weather.
- Lies that don’t make any sense.
- They are controlling the money.
- You are being blamed for things that are not even remotely your fault.
- Extreme anger or rage when you try to talk to them about something they did wrong.
- Living in their own reality.
- The constant need for accolades.
- Everything is part of a deal or bargain.
- Lack of empathy, no matter what the struggle others around them are going through.
- Inability to relate on a personal level.
- Only sees people as a means for self promotion.
- They seemed absolutely perfect for you (initially).
- They don’t have any long-term friends.
- Inability to respect others’ boundaries.
- Expecting perfection from everybody but themselves.
- Circular arguing.
- Lack of their own identity.
- Stealing or destroying others’ property.
I have experienced literally all of these over my 31-year marriage to a narcissist. Now I lead support groups, where many others experience all the same. Unfortunately, our stories are not rare. Let’s take a look at each one of these more closely.
Table of Contents
Facts Change as Often as the Weather
One day, the sky is blue, the next it is purple. It doesn’t even have to be a realistic fact change. This kept my mind swirling. Most of the time it was absolutely ridiculous things.
Here is a good example. Three of my boys were playing soccer. My ex was the coach for my youngest son’s team (it gave him brownie points for being such a “great dad”). We would usually bring separate cars. Because I drove a very large car (Nissan Armada), I would always park at the back of the parking lot. I did that everywhere I went. One of the advantages was that my adult kids could instantly find me in any parking lot, regardless of if we had ever been to whatever location we were meeting at. An added benefit was that I got some good walking in no matter where I went.
In counseling, it had come up that my parking habits were strange and he was traumatized by the fact that he could never figure out where I was going to park. It was literally the opposite of the truth. He actually started crying when he said he was traumatized. My counselor was trying so hard not to laugh because she knew it was an act.
It Gets Crazier
Soon after that, we drove to a soccer practice together. He was driving. He parked in a really random spot on the opposite side of the parking lot to where we normally parked. I asked him why, not even making any connection to anything. He answered that we were parking in the shade so the car wouldn’t get hot. The tree was a sapling. I looked at him, not knowing what to say. He looked back at me and said, “Besides, I always park here.” All three boys responded at the same time, “No you don’t!” The conversation ended abruptly. When it came up in counseling the next week, he just said that was his reality and he would never veer from it. Even though he literally made it up as he was parking.
Lies That Don’t Make Any Sense
Constant lying may be the hallmark of narcissistic behavior. They don’t care about the truth as much as they care about making you think what they want you to.
For years, I didn’t understand this. I was so confused about the weird lies. They made no sense. They were usually about really small things that wouldn’t even cause any trouble by just telling the truth.
An example of one of these lies was toward the end of our marriage. As counseling started helping me to understand and heal, he started grabbing for more control and manipulation. It was the first time in his life that he didn’t have it. So one way he tried to gain back control was with finances.
I had done the budget and bill-paying for the majority of our marriage because he wasn’t good at it. He would forget to pay bills, pay them late, and take out extra loans and credit to cover things unnecessarily. I was constantly doing damage control trying to get our finances under control.
He Pulled Out All the Stops
Toward the end, he started saying that I wasn’t good and he could do better. But after nearly 30 years, had it down to a science. Almost daily, he would print up these new budgets and tell me I had to pay the bills that way. He would switch when I paid bills and to who. It was very bizarre. Especially because the cycle of bills I was paying was based on which bills were due on what day of the month. It couldn’t be any more basic.
He tried to tell our church leadership that I wasn’t submitting to his budgeting. That was the first lie. They refused to step in because after a few questions, they knew I was fine with the bills and not harming the finances, but indeed, helping them.
When he didn’t succeed in getting the church to force me to let him take over the finances, he “turned me in” to the church for not paying tithe. That part was true. But the reason why was because he had forced our debt to be run so high that there wasn’t enough money left. So instead of admitting that was the wrong committed, he told them I was wrong to not have faith in God to make money appear. They didn’t buy that one either and supported me. But he never did let go of that lie and continued to use it against me. He constantly said I was stealing from God, even though the church told him I was doing the right thing to get us back on our feet so we actually could pay our tithes.
They Will Control the Money
In keeping with the previous point being related to money, as my narcissist felt his control slipping, he cracked down on the money even more. While it was true that I paid the bills and technically had control of the money, it didn’t stop him from attempting almost daily to take it back.
He accused me of overspending. Even thought at that point I was pretty much only buying food and clothing. We had buckled down pretty tightly as he had recently taken a job that paid significantly less. He would look at the bank accounts online every night as soon as he got home from work. And he would immediately come to me to tell me what I had spent that day. Just so I knew he was watching everything I did.
I was fortunate to have a credit card in my own name that I had gotten a few years back while he was out to sea. So I had a credit score. And it was easy enough to pull out some extra money at the grocery store so the kids and I could get what we needed without him lording the spending over us. I let my counselors and church leadership know what I was doing so that I had documentation when needed of the abuse. All of them were very supportive of me.
You are Being Blamed for Things That are not Even Remotely Your Fault
Another name for this narcissistic behavior is projection. And what it really means is that the narcissist in your life does those things and by proxy, assumes you are doing them too. If they are doing them, then you have to be. It took me a very long time to see this for what it was.
And yep, I have an example for this one too. My house was the one in the neighborhood that all the kids played at. We had a pool for the summer time and plenty to do for the rest of the year. We also lived less than a block away from a major body of water.
One day, when I was down at the water with a couple of my kids, there was a boy that came up to us and started talking to us. He asked if he could come back to our home, so I said of course. This boy, about 8 years old, had a very bad home life, so I “adopted” him. He was at our house frequently and absolutely loved it. His social worker even came by from time to time to catch up. I didn’t mind because he made it clear he was grateful that someone cared enough to love him.
As he grew up, he still kept coming around. But his mother moved to the next town, so it was rare for him to come anymore. Once he called me to say his mom was in my church’s neighborhood and could he go to church with us that day. I was so excited to see him because it had been over a year.
Not Everyone Thinks Like a Narcissist
When my then husband found out, he was livid. He said the only thing that boy (who was now 18) wanted was to take me to bed. I was horrified that he said that. Nothing even remotely out of line had ever happened with this boy. He was always incredibly respectful and kind to me in return for the love, care and time he gave us over the years.
My counselor later pointed out to me that it was likely that was the way my then-husband felt toward his teachers and assumed everyone else felt the same. Those thoughts would allow them to perceive themselves as more normal if they can convince themselves everyone else thinks and functions the same way they do.
Extreme Anger or Rage When You Try to Talk to Them About Something They Did Wrong
This narcissistic behavior tends to get worse as the relationship progresses. By the time the relationship is ending, it is usually at a fever pitch.
They cannot face the idea that they could be seen as doing anything wrong. So when you approach them about it, they will immediately be angry that you even thought that. It tends to shut you down immediately. So it becomes a go-to narcissistic behavior.
I remember my narcissist getting very angry when our son wanted him to spend more father/son time. He blasted him and told him the amount of time he spends is just fine. Our son came to me to tell me what happened. I apologized and said I would talk to him. I did that evening and got the same response. He had successfully shut us both down in a day.
In counseling, lying was always an issue. By about the third time, his counselor clearly caught him in a lie. Rather than admit it and work through it, my he instead yelled at the counselor that he would not be called a liar and stormed out of the room, nearly knocking his counselor out of his chair on his way out. That left me with my counselor and his for the next half hour. We spent the time talking about strategies to stay safe through the anger.
Living in Their Own Reality
I actually used to joke with my then husband about this because I had no idea that it was narcissistic behavior. At that point, I had no idea what narcissism really was. I just thought it meant overly arrogant.
We used to go out with another couple on a regular basis. And this came up frequently in conversation. We would joke about the fact that one of them and my husband both had an alternate reality. Once I realized that it was an intentional construct, it wasn’t so funny anymore. By that time, he was using it against me to accuse me of living in an alternate reality while changing the facts of things that had happened. This references back to the first point about the facts changing with the weather. Once they change those facts to what they want them to be, their whole new reality has been created. Their new job is to protect that reality with everything they can.
The Constant Need for Accolades
This is something that was normal from the first day I met him. Everything he did was in order for someone to see what a good person he was. And if they didn’t give him those accolades, he was upset that he was underappreciated for all the hard work he did.
I did not give him the praise that he expected or felt he needed. I did try. But on the flip side, if he said he wanted to do something that I thought was a bad idea, I couldn’t tell him that. I could only tell him that it was a wonderful idea and I knew he would execute it perfectly. That expectation cost us a lot of misery and money over the years.
And eventually, I stopped praising him for anything. I was just to beaten down to say much about anything happening.
Everything is Part of a Deal or Bargain
Narcissists will give gifts or money randomly all the time. This certainly happened in my house. Within a short time of being married, I realized that when he gave me $80 to “go have a good time with” that meant that he expected $80 to buy whatever it was he wanted. I thought it was a cute trick at first. Except that we could rarely afford what he was trying to buy. And when he matched the money for me, I was scrambling to make things work for us financially at the end of the month.
I ended up just not spending the money. But I still let him have what he wanted. He didn’t care as long as he got it. And it was a little easier for me to balance things out after the money was spent.
This didn’t just include money. It included time. And it even included sex. If he took me out to dinner on a Friday night, he expected that we would be having sex when we got home that night. Even if he didn’t say a word to me at dinner and spent the whole time on his phone. There was hell to pay every time I said no.
Lack of Empathy, no Matter What the Struggle Others Around Them are Going Through
Narcissistic behavior does not allow the narcissist to feel empathy for others. They are so into what they need to get for others and what they need for themselves that they literally can’t see anything else. That was very confusing for me. We would be talking about some really serious things. I am not an overly emotional person. But on the few occasions that I was so devastated that I was sobbing, he was stone-faced cold. He didn’t care.
There was a time that his counselor told me about in a later session. My ex would complain constantly that all this counselor ever talked about was empathy. He was so over it. I would tell him that maybe the counselor would stop talking about empathy when he started understanding. That didn’t go over well.
Anyway, his counselor told me that in a previous exercise in empathy, he set up the scenario that he was using crutches and went to shut the office door with me near the door, wearing flip flops. He mistakenly ground his crutch into my foot and hurt me. Then he asked him, “How would you feel if I did that to your wife?” His answer: “Well, her foot was in the way. That was on her, not you.” His counselor told me at that point, he couldn’t even get him to fake empathy. There was nothing he could do.
Inability to Relate on a Personal Level
The inability to relate on a personal level is a narcissistic behavior that is really a by-product of having a lack of empathy. When narcissists cannot get in touch with their feelings, they also cannot relate to others based on those others’ feelings. Generally speaking, relationships don’t go that far when there is not ability to relate.
So then, why do some narcissists stay married for years? Why did my marriage last for 2 months shy of 31 years? It is because the victim of the narcissist, especially when they are covert, doesn’t realize what is going on. But they do know something is wrong. They just keep trying to make things better. They think if they can be better themselves, surely their partner will reciprocate. And eventually, they realize that is never going to happen.
I had no idea I was married to a narcissist until we had been married for 27 years. I knew things were wrong. I jsut didn’t know how wrong. And because I am a devout Christian, I didn’t think I could ever get a divorce.
I was incredibly grateful to have the best Christian counselors, great church leadership, and lots of resources to lead me to a healthy life. This book, The Emotionally Destructive Marriage (pictured below), by Leslie Vernick was absolutely life changing for me. The reason this book is so much better than most other books on this subject is because it has three critical components. First, Ms. Vernick begins by giving you a test to help you know definitively if you are in a difficult or destructive marriage. Next, she gives you the ability to decide what your best steps going forward are rather than just telling you what you should do. The power you feel in knowing you can make your own clearly thought-out decisions is amazing! Finally, she gives you “CORE” principles that help you to maintain healthy boundaries and a good life regarding your relationships. Here is what each of the letters of CORE mean:
C – I will be committed to truth, both internally in my own heart and mind and externally. I refuse to pretend.
O – I will be open to the Holy Spirit and wise others, teaching me, maturing me, and guiding me into his way of living my life.
R – I will be responsible for my own responses to destructive behavior and commit to being respectful without dishonoring myself.
E – I will be empathic and compassionate toward others without enabling people to continue to abuse and disrespect me.
In a response to a follower, she goes on to say, “When you know and believe that you are a loved, valuable, worthwhile human being and live from that core place, toxic people lose their power to manipulate you. They can’t control and intimidate you as they once did when you felt worthless, dependent and needy.”
Once I learned these 4 really important steps and started practicing them, my whole world changed. Tell me how it worked for you too!!!!
Find out more here:
Only Sees People as a Means for Self Promotion
Because they never formed any bonds as children, narcissists find it impossible to form those bonds as adults. They don’t have meaningful relationships.
This actually came up in marital counseling soon after we started it. I had complained that I felt like I wasn’t a person in our relationship. It was the only way I could describe it at the time. Fortunately, my counselor understood what I was trying to say. And she was able to evaluate that aspect of our relationship.
My ex was actually able to express (quite proudly) that he treated his marriage like a business transaction. Everything was based on what he would get in return. All of his proposals were basically business proposals. I have to admit that one hurt me quite a bit.
They Seemed Absolutely Perfect For You–Initially
This narcissistic behavior totally fooled me, just like it does many others. Even my lawyer, who was amazing by the way, was fooled into marrying a narcissist because he tricked her into thinking they were so perfect together and meant to be. She got out long before I did. And she also knew exactly how to work with narcissism in the court room.
Anyway, back to the subject! While it seems to the victim that you are both getting to know each other, asking questions, learning, the narcissist is doing the same. But it isn’t for the sake of loving and relating to you in a healthy way. It is to find out what makes you tick. Once they know what buttons to push to make you react, they’ve got you. And they only have to keep up that pretense long enough to get married, which they try to do as fast as possible, before the shiny newness wears off.
I remember when I was engaged along with a lot of my friends. We had just gotten out of Bible school. And many of them were expressing concern that they could be marrying the wrong person. I actually never had any second thoughts. We had talked about EVERYTHING. And we were so on the same page. Except we weren’t. He just studied me until he could say whatever I needed to hear to seal the deal. That peace and assurance didn’t last long. And if I was honest with myself, I was seeing red flags from the very beginning. But I wanted to hear his perfect words.
They Don’t Have any Long-term Friends
The reason for this narcissistic behavior is because narcissists cannot connect on a personal level with others. In my case, of course, we were together for nearly 35 years. And for many years, I did think that we were friends. I gave him nearly all that I could. But I think I viewed our marriage through rose-colored glasses. I lived for what I wanted things to be. And actually, he said (even in counseling) that he thought things were perfect for many years. That was because I was always trying to do better for him, hoping for more in return.
There were good times, for sure. There were times we enjoyed together. But that was all part of a deal. Unfortunately, it had nothing to do with actual friendship or value in me as a person. It was all how he could manipulate me to get more for himself.
Inability to Respect Others’ Boundaries
As a devout Christian in very conservative circles, I didn’t believe that I had any boundaries. I thought that my husband could take anything he wanted of me. And he gave me plenty of Scriptures to make that point. So I just kept giving in to whatever he wanted, usually in the hopes that he would return that loyalty to me. It didn’t work. It was just all about what he could get. I wasn’t even a partner in our relationship. Except maybe a business partner.
As our marriage started to decline and we went to counseling, a whole new world was opened up to me. I realized that I am my own person, just the way God made me. It isn’t an offense against my husband to keep myself safe and maintain healthy boundaries.
Expecting Perfection From Everybody but Themselves
Narcissistic behavior capitalizes on being perceived as perfect. One of the tenets of Narcissistic Personality Disorder is that they believe they are so superior to everyone else that they can only be around superior people.
Over the years, the more I worked at doing my best, the higher his expectations became. As I got older, I got better at a lot of things. So I thought that was an indication of things getting better. I kept on trying. I was exhausted. But there were also some good moments in this too. That is what makes narcissism so confusing. You think you are making progress. Until the next battle. Then you wonder where in the world things went wrong.
But it’s not you! The book I recommended above, The Emotionally Destructive Marriage, talks about this too. And it gives you four great aspects of making yourself healthy through using the acronym CORE.
I remember the frustration of never being able to get to the solution of an argument. There was never any common ground. I couldn’t figure it out. I kept thinking if we were working on our marriage together, surely we could come to an agreement if I could just explain it well enough for him to understand.
Then one day I realized–right in the middle of an argument in our car–that he wasn’t arguing for us. He was arguing for him. When I stopped in the middle of my sentence to express my realizeation, he just stopped and looked at me. The expression on his face said to me that he didn’t understand why I saw that as a problem. He had no words at that moment. And honestly, neither did I.
The cirular arguing didn’t stop there though. I still tried to convince him. And he was still running me in word salad circles trying to get whatever it was he wanted. My total mindless obedience to him so he could continue to get whatever he wanted.
Lack of their own identity
For many years I had no idea about this narcissistic behavior. But then, once I did see it for what it was, I couldn’t un-see it. It was so obvious.
You can actually see a narcissist “put on” the role they are about to play. You can see the concentration on their face, as they contemplate what the new role will take for them to accomplish and how they plan to accomplish it. And then you can actually watch their face contort into whatever it is they are going to play. And their body language changes as well. Then they emerge as the thing that they feel they need to be to get whatever it is they are seeking. It is pretty scary, and yet fascinating to watch.
Stealing or Destroying Others’ Property
This is my last point of narcissistic behavior for this article. And one of the hardest for me to write. I have lost so much materially speaking. But when I think about it in those terms, it was so much better to lose those earthly possessions than to lose something way more valuable–my life, my kids, my health and wellbeing. All of those are largely intact, albeit imperfect.
My narcissist found it a fun game to ruin my things and then tell the kids, “Don’t tell Mom!” It was disheartening, maddening and frustrating all at once. I was glad the kids were willing to tell me what was going on. But I think part of that was because they know he was doing it with their possessions too.
He would think it was funny to run his truck through my flower beds and then announce to me that he tried to avoid them but just couldn’t. But he could get the truck down the much narrower driveway without a problem. Eventually I told him that I knew he could get the truck through a 12-foot space much more easily than he was claiming. Interestingly, the flower beds didn’t get crushed by his truck after that.
Another notable occurrence that happened regularly in our house was that money came up missing frequently. It started before I even had kids. Many times he would blame it on company we had had. I kind of knew better but always thought maybe it was something I just missed. I didn’t realize I was being gaslighted from the start. Once the kids were born, he would accuse them of stealing the money. But what toddler steals money?
Eventually, he stopped even lying about it or blaming others. He said if money was left lying around, it deserved to be stolen. The last time he said that was his last month in the house. It was his youngest son’s $3 in tooth fairy money that was left on our grand piano. Everyone knew what it was and why it was there. But he didn’t care. He never did.