I Went on a Date With a Married Man (or, How to Spot a Narcissist)
[Listen to an audio version of this podcast HERE].
We met at a local bar, a place we both had never been before and likely, would never go to again. We didn't intend to meet, either. I was new to the city and went out in the name of "meeting people," before realizing that the people who frequent bars are not the type of people I want to meet. Liquor makes everyone seem sexier, makes everyone seem funnier, makes the world seem carefree, if only for a moment. But going to a bar is easy. Anyone can do it, and drinking takes nearly no effort. As I ordered a glass of hard cider, I looked over at a pair of soft, middle-aged men watching a football game, struck by the realization that they've probably been coming to this bar to watch football and drink away their worries for years. I didn't want to wake up one day and realize I'd imbibed half my life away. Before I'd spoken to anyone, this bar felt unwelcoming and contrary to my nature.
Jon (name changed) stood out to me at first because he wasn't drinking, nursing a tall bottle of water while making small talk with a loud, short man with spittle in the corner of his mouth. I was ~5 months out of years-long relationship with a man who drank too much. When my ex was drunk, he was louder, he was meaner, he never shut up, and spittle would collect in the corners of his mouth. I wondered, briefly, why I came to this bar to meet the very people I had taken such pains to move away from.
Jon tried to talk to me as I ordered my drink, but I gave him a cold shoulder. I was good at the cold shoulder, having grown accustomed to ignoring men on the prowl. Men in bars are like famished hyenas, their eyes hungrily boring into any and every woman. Later that night, Jon and I ended up talking again. Talk talk talk, exchange numbers, talk on the phone the next day, and a proper date was arranged for the following Friday night. Jon had a low voice and a smooth way of talking. Put anyone in a room with him for a few minutes, and I had a hunch he'd win them over. He had the demeanor of a man who is sure of himself, and that is what I found most attractive.
The next Friday, he picked me up in a stylish Corvette, the fanciest car I'd ever set foot in. The date began with a gift, wrapped carefully in light pink paper: a curling iron. "I saw on your Instagram page that you used to have short hair. I figured you could use it," he reasoned. I was slightly shocked, a little charmed, but mostly confused. In my brief period of dating, this had never happened before.
We drove to a nice vegan restaurant near the ocean and before going inside, he handed me another wrapped gift: Bananagrams "You're a writer so I figured you'd be good at it. Let's play inside." We did play during dinner, and he beat me soundly. I vowed to practice, so he'd never be able to beat me again. Dinner was easy. Jon was a good listener, he was attentive, he was kind. After dinner came another gift: a receipt that reflected a generous donation to my workplace (the American Red Cross), I suppose to charm me further. I doubt he was thinking about disaster victims or blood recipients when he wrote the check.
We went to a hole-in-the-wall speakeasy where we ordered fancy, overpriced drinks and where he kissed me hard, disregarding the room packed with people. I felt myself smiling, and wondered if this could even be real, wondered why a charming, successful man would take such pains to win me over. Later, when he dropped me off at my apartment, he explained his situation: his wife lived in a different state but they weren't in love. He was here for work. He had two kids, but couldn't see them much. He could, however, provide for them, and that's what he was doing. Who needs the physical presence of a father, after all, when daddy's paying for things? His wife was fine with their arrangement, but didn't want to see other people. He couldn't get a divorce, he said, because then he'd lose a hefty chunk of his money.
I was skeptical: what did he want, then, from the women he dated? Clearly not life partnership. Why not just get a divorce? If money were his biggest concern, people lose and make money every day. That didn't set well either. Worse yet, I wondered if his wife knew that he was seeing other people. That sort of lie would be easy enough to sustain if she really were across the county. And finally, how could he stand living so far from his children and how could he rectify spending his free time dating and giving strangers gifts?
The brief flickering of hope I'd felt earlier that night waned, hard. He was a smart, successful, charming man, yes. But he knew it, and he used it. I pictured the dozens of women he dated before me, wooed by gifts and compliments, left heartbroken by a man who was too selfish to realize or care that he was hurting them. Hurting them by using them: for sex, for an ego boost, to fill the gaping lonely void that existed within him for God knows what reason(s).
I saw Jon off and on for a while, never quite able to reconcile his story but basking in his praise and adoration. I knew whatever we were sharing would be temporary, and maintained what I thought was emotional distance. This emotional distance helped me see some red flags, but it grew more and more difficult to maintain. When I decided to end things completely, I felt sad for while before feeling exponentially, undeniably better. That's the real sign of a narcissist: you might be scared to let them go, but once they're gone you feel like you can breathe again.
A narcissist will do things under the guise of caring about you, but what they're really doing is controlling or manipulating you. Calling you, for instance, to "check in" or "make sure you're okay" when they really want to get a pulse on where you are or who you're with. Jon's concern with or for me was never about me, but about him.
Other Signs of a Narcissist Include
1. Inflated Sense of Entitlement. In Jon's case, feeling entitled to the love or adoration of multiple women at once. Why just have one when he could have two? Or three, or however many he was seeing.
2. Grandiose Sense of Self-Importance: Jon would always tell me when someone complimented him, or brag about his success at work. This behavior was born from a place of insecurity, but it seemed that without constant recognition or gratification, he would become unhappy or worse yet, lose his sense of self.
3. Exploitative Behaviors: Jon was so good at manipulating people that most people probably didn't notice it was happening. I saw this, but foolishly thought he wouldn't manipulate me (of course, that was part of his manipulation).
I don't regret the time I spent with Jon, which was admittedly, not much. Dating can be a literal shit-storm, but the best thing about meeting different people is that I've learned a lot about myself. I'm less naive, quick to land a direct and non-negotiable "no," and best of all, entirely unwilling to compromise anything I want, especially for a man.