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This morning at 5 a.m. I jolted awake, unsure of where I was and who I was with. I grabbed a handful of sheets and heard the faint buzzing of my fan—phew, home. It was just a dream. Minutes before, I was not home in the comfort of my bed; I was in a random kitchen in a random house with a not-so-random person: my ex of six years. We were separated by an island, but the 5-foot distance it lent was less than reassuring. Uneasy about the situation, I ignored his pleas to “just talk” and escaped to the living room where I found my friends. Man, I really dodged a bullet there, I thought. But I hadn’t—in fact, the bullet had followed me right out of that kitchen door, and it hit me square in the face just moments later. Without warning, my ex appeared in front of me, yet again, only this time he wasn’t begging to talk—he was spitting in my face. My ex was angry, and he wanted me to know it… typical.

My ex-boyfriend and I broke up four years ago, but I still have nightmares about running into him. I know what you’re thinking: it’s not normal to have nightmares about your ex, four years after breaking up with him. But you don’t know the full story yet. My ex was an insecure, controlling narcissist. Again, I know what you’re thinking: well, then why’d you stay with him for six whole years? The simple answer is that I loved him. And I was blinded by that love for the majority of our relationship. Fortunately, however, it became clear that our relationship was unhealthy. And I learned to spot his narcissistic ways, which was a difficult, yet essential mission.

The Tell-Tale Sign of a Narcissist

I finally realized my ex-boyfriend was narcissistic (and dangerously so) after years of being blamed for his mistakes, laughed at for “not being better,” and ultimately undervalued. But according to Laurie Thomas, author of Don’t Feed the Narcissists, there was one tell-tale sign I should’ve kept an eye out for, which would have ultimately revealed his narcissistic tendencies…

“Watch out for that lopsided smile that expresses contempt. Contempt is the feeling that goes along with being in a superior social position. (In contrast, shame is the feeling that goes along with being in a lower social position.) Feelings of contempt cause people all over the world to make the same facial expression: a smirk, which is a smile on only one side of the face.

Good relationships are based on mutual respect. In contrast, co-dependencies are based on dominance and submission. If you keep seeing that smirk on your partner’s face, it is a sign that your partner does not respect you. This problem could arise because you have done something shameful, in which case you should probably clean up your act. However, the smirking could mean that you are in a relationship with someone with a superiority complex (narcissism). Narcissists are people who love themselves too much and other people too little. They tend to seek out and cultivate relationships with submissive people (co-dependents).

Narcissists are confident and often ambitious people. For this reason, they can be appealing, especially to people who lack self-confidence. As long as the weaker partner stays submissive and co-dependent, the relationship may look stable (but is not necessarily healthy for either partner). Yet, as the weaker partner grows stronger and more assertive, the relationship may become rocky. Narcissists can feel threatened by even the mildest challenge to their rule. As a result, they can become aggressive, to bully the underling back into line. The bullied partner may then suggest couples’ counseling. The narcissist will resist this suggestion because he or she sees it as the underling’s attempt to recruit an ally. From the narcissist’s perspective, the problem is the underling’s rebellion. The narcissist sees their partner’s desire for couples counseling as a symptom of the problem, not as a way to solve a problem.

The narcissist may choose to leave the relationship. Often, narcissists leave without warning, as soon as something better comes along. But if the submissive partner tries to leave, the narcissist may become aggressive. Remember: the narcissist’s goal is to rule. Narcissists feel that they are the ones who should decide how and when the relationship will end.”

Narcissistic Personality Disorder: A Mental Illness

While it’s easy to loathe and to blame the narcissistic individual for how they’ve treated you, it’s important to remember that narcissistic personality disorder is a real mental illness that no person wishes to have. That being said, you are not obligated or expected to maintain a relationship with a narcissistic individual, especially if doing so proves to harm your wellbeing.

To this day, I do not know if my ex is/or should be diagnosed with narcissistic personality disorder—just that he appears to meet the diagnostic criteria. Again, your job is not to stay with the individual nor is it to diagnose him or her when you start to suffer as a result of their narcissistic behavior. But it is important you familiarize yourself with and consult the warning signs:

  • They envy others or believe others envy them
  • They require constant attention and admiration.
  • They have unreasonable expectations.
  • They take advantage of you or others.
  • They disregard the feelings of others.
  • They display arrogant behaviors or attitudes
  • They are obsessed with the idea of success and power
  • They exaggerate their own importance
  • They insist they are “special”

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