trusting your gut

love bombing and lies: the narcissist and the bachelorette

I watch “The Bachelorette.” I admit it. I do.

I mostly watch to make fun of it, but that hardly excuses my participation. I’m a huge fan of the HuffPost podcast “Here to Make Friends” covering “The Bachelor” franchise, and love the recaps so much, I started watching the shows so I could get even more enjoyment from each podcast episode.

My shame aside, it’s been both fascinating and horrifying this past season to watch bachelorette Hannah Brown be manipulated by a narcissist, namely Luke P. This week’s episode was the gratifying end to their relationship, when Luke told Hannah if she had slept with any of her other three finalists, he’d leave the show because of sin and things, and she kicked him off. ABC had been teasing it for weeks, ever since it became clear to viewers that Luke was beyond a mere “villain” of the show, a bully or poser or whatever, but was actually the toxic sociopath the other men claimed him to be. It was telling to us, if not to Hannah, that without exception the men he was living with despised him and considered him to be a dangerous and manipulative liar.

Having dated one of those myself, I totally agree.

I was telling a friend recently about the experience of watching this unfold, after having been through a similar relationship. Of course I was only dating one man, not dozens, but while it did help give Hannah some other people to focus on, what she went through in her dealings with Luke was pretty excruciating in its relateability.

That’s one of the craziest things about being involved with narcissists, though—how utterly, bizarrely similar their patterns are, even though they’re completely different people coming from totally different backgrounds. In all the self-help reading I did after that relationship, blessedly, ended, the patterns were obvious and validating. And though Hannah was on a dating show, protected by security and producers and involved with other guys, she went through all the same feelings, cycles, upsets and frustrations as I did, and so many others have.

Part 1: Love Bombing

It begins with love bombing, which is the perfect term for what they do. They blitz you, besiege you, blast you with explosions of love, devotion, never-felt-this-way-befores. It’s utterly overwhelming, making you incredibly uneasy even while you’re busy buying it. Luke told Hannah he was falling in love with her within days of meeting her. The first night of the show, while other guys were posturing or trying to get to know her, Luke stared intently into her eyes and said he saw her on “The Bachelor” and knew she was the one woman for him. Flattered and, yes, overwhelmed by this declaration of his feelings, she gave him the coveted first impression rose. The other men, watching this unfold, were quickly aware that something wasn’t right. Hannah even knew that something was off. But the love bombing had begun, seduction in its basest form, and it’s incredibly hard to resist.

Most of us struggle with feeling worthy of being loved, feelings of inadequacy and fear of rejection. Especially when we’re somewhat emotionally vulnerable—like I was as my marriage broke up, like Hannah was as the bachelorette, like many of us are at different times in our life—and even if we’re not, it’s indescribably compelling to have someone tell us that we’re so amazing and special and unique that they’ve already lost their hearts to us, even though they just met us. They want to see us every day—they’re in touch constantly (this was a struggle for Luke, given the limitations of the show, but he did his best)—they don’t let us forget that they’re seriously into us.

Healthy relationships don’t work like that. You might immediately feel a strong connection to someone, and you might act on it without needing a lot of time. But there’s typically a mutual, and equitable, movement of attachment and intimacy. Love bombing is an all-out deliberate campaign to attach someone to you, an entirely different thing. It worked on me with my ex, and it worked on Hannah. Until you’ve been through it and can identify it for what it is, it’s a dangerously effective strategy.

Part 2: Manipulation and Gaslighting

Another brilliant application of a term is gaslighting, originally from Patrick Hamilton’s 1938 play “Gas Light” and made famous by the 1944 film adaptation starring Ingrid Bergman and Charles Boyer. A supposedly devoted, adoring (read: love bombing) new husband uses subtle lies and tricks, including the flickering gaslights in their home, to convince his wife she’s going insane. Ultimately his motive is greed, he hopes to gain something valuable through this process, though he does seem to relish fucking with her head.

I would call Luke a master of this, except he isn’t quite smart enough. At one point in the season, he attempted to gaslight an entire roomful of men, who all stared at him in disbelief. He used it more effectively on Hannah, talking around the truth, lying about the other men and twisting words and situations to his advantage. When she began to push back at some of his behavior and language, he stated that he didn’t say what he said, a classic gambit, and that she misunderstood him. Gaslighting is about rewriting the story to fit your own narrative, getting creative with the truth, and convincing the people around you that they’re the ones in the wrong. That they are, in fact, crazy to think otherwise.

Watching Hannah go through this, especially with the omniscience of a viewer after the fact, was both frustrating and sad. The other men didn’t seem to know what to do with the situation, even as they challenged him. One of them said, “I can’t believe you outsmarted me,” when he realized that Hannah believed Luke’s version over the truth. It was shortly after this that ABC started heavily promoting Luke’s sendoff, as it became increasingly clear that if there was any chance that Hannah was going to pick this guy, it would look bad for her, and for the show. Exposing her to a personality like this wasn’t necessarily ABC’s fault, but they did cast him.

Other forms of manipulation are cold rages, which are really effective when it’s your partner and you don’t understand why they’re suddenly furious with you (on the show, Luke tried this on the other men, who weren’t impressed); defensiveness and over-explaining; guilt trips; throwing blame; abject apologies; sweeping promises; self-loathing and pity-mongering… the list goes on and on. The key is how quickly narcissists pivot if their technique isn’t working. Within minutes, they’ll go from love bombing to cold rage to abject apologies, depending on how their target is reacting.

Part 3: Confusion, Anxiety and Misery

I remember with intense clarity what it felt like to sit at my desk at work and get a text from my ex. My stomach would lurch—my body go into stress mode—my anxiety peak. Usually he would ask for something, usually money, and I didn’t know how to say no. When I did say no, he would push back—or be enraged, or both. He sucked the air out of everything, made everything about him.

I cried so much during the two-plus years we were together, once it was finally over (and the blinding relief began), I didn’t cry. Narcissists make you crazy, and miserable, and stress out your entire life. You lose yourself in the chaos, long for that hit of adoration, for the gooey sensation you got from the love bombing, willing to do just about anything to get it even while you know, deep down, and this is somehow Not Right. Hannah brought up red flags constantly. She spent an entire morning weeping on a dock in confusion about Luke. She talked at length, to Luke and to the producers, about how she knew there was a “good man” in him, how strong their connection is, how unwilling she is to let that go. When she met his family and friends on the hometown date, she was giddy with joy to learn he’s popular and liked in his deeply religious community.

Seeing Hannah talk herself into this guy over and over was all too familiar. The problem is, you’ve fallen for someone who doesn’t actually exist, but once you’re attached, it’s extremely hard to see that and to step away.

Part 4: They Won’t Go

My ex broke up with me in a fit of temper the first time, then came back the next day and begged for a second chance. He promised everything, love bombed me all over again, agreed to everything I said. Exhausted and uncertain, I gave in. Within three weeks, he’d broken every single agreement. I finally challenged him on money he owed me, we talked in circles, and he broke up with me again. Two days later he hadn’t yet moved out, and decided he didn’t want to go, after all. Unfortunately for him, it was my apartment, I was done, and he didn’t have a choice.

A few weeks before hometown dates, Hannah actually sent Luke home, but he decided he wouldn’t accept her decision. He stalked back into the room where they were having their date and told her all the things she wanted to hear… he was wrong… she was right… he just felt so much for her, he was trying too hard to be perfect for her… he’d be better from now on… She gave in, and he stayed.

This is how Luke made it to the second to last round, the fantasy suite dates, when Hannah had a chance to spend a private (not filmed) night with each man in Greece. She had lovely romantic dates on Crete with the first three men, and saved Luke the special Santorini date. They spent the day wandering around Oia, one of the most picturesque places on the planet, and it was the best day ever, full of delicious love bombing. Hannah went into the evening part of the date with the same giddy excitement she felt meeting his family. Finally she was justified in believing this guy was as amazing as she first thought, in spite of dozens of bright red flags and all the other men questioning her judgment for trusting him.

When, after perfunctory toasts, Luke informed her that the marriage bed should be “pure” and threatened to leave if she failed that particular test, the facade finally cracked. The perfect guy was revealed as a narcissistic toad who uses his religion as a seduction technique as well as a weapon and is prepared to judge her for not measuring up to the same “pure” values. Hannah was having none of that. She is also religious and rightfully resented this being used against her. It was beautifully entertaining to watch her take him down, watch him scramble to unsay his words (“I didn’t say that!” “You literally just said that.”) and walk back his do or die statements. It didn’t work. She told him to get up so she could walk him out (the way the leads kick people off the show), and he refused on the grounds that she owed him a chance to say his piece.

That did it. She was furious that he’d claim she owed him anything and firmly escorted him to the car, where he paused to ask if he could pray over her. She refused. His last bolt shot, he slowly, unwillingly got in, and she flipped him off as it drove away. After all the chances she gave him and times she defended him, she realized, he wasn’t worth any of it.

So it’s over, right? But no.

On the previews for next week, he’s back, crashing the rose ceremony and insisting that he’s there to propose to Hannah. He has a ring. He isn’t going to take “no, leave me alone” for an answer. Of course ABC and the show are highly complicit in this, they’re the ones driving him around and giving him the ring. It’s good TV, after all. In the teaser, we see Hannah telling Luke to leave, see him refusing, see the other finalists trying to intervene and Luke facing off with all of them. Great TV. And also all too real. Most of us don’t have three other people we’re dating to stand up for us. We’re on our own if, or when, they come back and insist that we give them another chance.

I’m not sorry I got involved with a narcissist. It left a lot of damaging scars on me, caused me to do a lot of things I regret. It took a long time to heal and restore my life. But it also was a massively transformative experience in terms of understanding what’s acceptable and unacceptable, that not everyone deserves a second chance, that my gut is actually an incredibly wise guide if I only listen to it and actually pay attention to red flags. When I started dating again more than a year after the breakup, I did it with my eyes wide open and my instincts on full alert. I cancelled one date on the day of because the guy started love bombing me before he’d even met me and my gut said “DO NOT GO NEAR THIS PERSON.” So I didn’t.

Whatever happens in Hannah’s future relationships, I hope she can get as much out of the surreal, stressful, upsetting experience of dating a toxic narcissist as I did, and find a more authentic connection because of it.

When it’s all over, if we’re open to the lessons, they give us much more than they realize.

 

“I can breathe again.”

-Me, the day after my ex moved out

 

 

dating 101: fantasy and flattery

I recently came across the podcast “Anna Faris is Unqualified,” in which Anna interviews celebrity guests and then together they give callers dating advice. It’s always entertaining and often insightful. On one episode, she and Chelsea Handler were reminding a young woman that when a guy is in, he’s in, and if he’s not, then (say it together!) “he’s just not that into you.”

This truism has been well-covered in a book and movie, but hearing it in this particular context made me start thinking about why we need it in the first place. Why do we so often require this reminder in our romantic lives?

Why does a person who’s clearly not interested in us inspire us to be so completely interested in him or her? What’s the deal with crushing on people who couldn’t care less, who may be totally wrong for us? Or, conversely, stringing along someone who we really aren’t that into ourselves?

The reasons may be different for everyone, but I know that in my love life, these situations were caused by me getting caught up in either fantasy or flattery. And in my most vulnerable, least confident times, I was extremely susceptible to both.

In my love life, these situations were caused by me getting caught up in either fantasy or flattery. And in my most vulnerable, least confident times, I was extremely susceptible to both.

The fantasy part created inauthentic, irrational crushes. I didn’t honor the reality of the other person and what they could truly offer me, but focused on the perfect fantasy of them. This created a sort of painfully sublime ideal of romance made up of genuine attraction + timing/proximity + vulnerability + pure imagination. I’ve had crushes on men I’ve never met or barely knew, men who were clearly a bad idea, men I knew were absolutely not interested in dating me, because they told me so—and yet I wasted weeks if not months feeling all sorts of gushy emotions toward these dudes, dreaming of how incredible it would be to have them like me back, believing that would bring me true happiness.

Is there any benefit to a crush? I guess it can be a nice, light distraction from more serious life problems, but in general they don’t do a lot for us, especially if we’re actively dating as adults. And at their worst, fantasy-based attachments can take us to some pretty damaging places. The truth is, it’s entirely possible not to develop romantic feelings for people we barely know or people who aren’t interested in us, no matter how “perfect” they seem on the surface.

The flattery comes in to play when the opposite happens: someone makes it clear that he or she really likes us—paying us compliments, flirting, asking us out, fanatically liking every single one of our posts. We can’t deny that compliments and attention feel good, giving us a nice ego boost, even if we don’t share the attraction. It’s alluring in its way—it’s flattering. We feel pleasure, validation, gratification from their positive attention. Which isn’t a super healthy or grounded state of mind. In my experience, feeling flattered made me far more grateful than was warranted—I believed I owed the guy for liking me, and that clouded my judgment. I’d conclude that I was single, they were the only guy interested in me at that moment, it felt good to be admired… what did I have to lose?

Well, a lot—namely my time and energy. Just like with a fantasy-based crush, we’re still in the position of wasting time and energy on a potentially limited relationship, distracting ourselves from other possibilities. Sure, there are stories of X who wasn’t that into Y, but gave Y that third chance and they fell madly in love and adopted triplets and a Beagle. It’s definitely a good practice to keep an open mind and give someone different a chance. However, when you reach that tipping point and know in your gut that it’s not going to happen, whether before the first date or after the fifth, it’s not in anyone’s best interest to continue. We can honor their attraction to us, appreciate it, and still remain steadfast in our goal of finding a true, authentic partnership.

So these are a few of the reasons why we might do this to ourselves. We sometimes look for distractions, we’re romantic and imaginative, we have a lot of love to give and want to give it, we feel flattered and like we have nothing to lose.

But how do we not do it? How do we not fall into these traps, when it’s so easy to slip off-balance either way?

When I started dating after my last relationship, I thought really seriously about this. I knew how likely it was for me to develop crushes, and how easy to succumb to flattery. Months before I even considered going on a date, I made some resolutions to help navigate the dating rapids.

I resolved that I wouldn’t talk myself into being interested in someone just because they were interested in me. Not out of niceness or misplaced gratitude, not because I was flattered, definitely not because I had no other prospects. I would acknowledge my appreciation and give myself permission to kindly and firmly detach.

I also resolved that I wouldn’t waste time or attention on any man who didn’t show me he was truly interested—who wasn’t “that into” me from the start. I would reserve judgment, and pay close attention to what his actions told me about him. It might take a date or two to figure out, but when someone’s in, they’re in, and when they’re not, they’re not.

If I didn’t believe he was genuinely interested, or found I wasn’t that interested myself, I’d call it early on.

In all situations, I committed to listening to my inner wisdom and following its guidance. These resolutions served me well time and time again, saving me from attaching myself to incompatible men and allowing me to enjoy the process as it unfolded.

Of course it’s disappointing when a somebody you like doesn’t like you back. Disappointing, but not devastating. When, after our third date, I ended things with one sweet, delightful man who really liked me a lot, I knew I was letting him down. It wasn’t easy to cause him pain, but I wasn’t right for him. The truth is, nobody who doesn’t want us can be right for us. They just can’t. That’s how you know. Whether or not they’ve raised expectations by what they’ve said or done, and no matter how wonderful, charming, sexy and perfect they seem, you can accept this truth, close that door yourself, feel the hurt and disappointment, and hopefully even learn from the experience.

As Chelsea Handler told the podcast caller: life’s short. Move on. If someone doesn’t want you there’s just no point wondering if they might someday, or why they don’t. It doesn’t matter. Stop wasting time and see what life offers next.

On the flip side, it’s fine to go out with someone we’re undecided about who likes us, but if we’re not paying attention, it’s a relatively short step from feeling flattered, relieved and grateful to convincing ourselves to get entangled.

Conscious dating invites us to walk a steady line, balanced between all extremes. We have to ask ourselves a lot of questions from the moment we meet someone new, stay open to facing every truth that arises—including that someone we’re attracted to doesn’t feel the same or isn’t available—and use our energy, time and attention wisely. You might have the most amazing first date ever, which is thrilling. Enjoy the thrill—and then sit down with it afterward, honor what your instincts are telling you, give it some room to breathe. By the second or third date, this person might have lost a lot of their appeal as you begin to understand your real compatibility.

Being with someone we know in our innermost wisdom isn’t right, for whatever reason, closes us off to the possibility of meeting someone who is right. You never know who might show up next, or what you could be learning and experiencing in the interim.

Not allowing ourselves to be swept up in either fantasies or flattery allows us to step back and see what’s really going on. It gives us space to listen to our instincts, and make the best, healthiest, most empowered choices possible.

 

ignoring the red flags

My boundaries were crossed recently by someone I trusted, and uncomfortable as it was to go through, I’ve learned a lot from the experience. I’m still learning: as I’ve gotten some distance from the situation, I know that the person who crossed the line didn’t do it out of nowhere. She was, in the words of Charlie Murphy, “a habitual line-stepper.”

I just didn’t see it—or rather, I DID see it, I just didn’t allow myself to recognize her actions as red flags. This realization really surprised me, because I’ve been extremely wary and aware of red flags in dating since my terrible relationship with a narcissist ended. After it was over, I reviewed all the zillions of bright flashing neon red flags he waved at me, from our first conversation on. It was beyond mortifying, all the ways I compromised myself to be with this guy who showed me he was bad news from the start, but it was also really valuable. I took the time to define what was acceptable and unacceptable for me, and carried that with me like a magic talisman on every date, in every email exchange and conversation with a man.

And it worked. I could trust my intuition to tell me exactly what I needed to know in order to navigate through dating again. There were kind, smart, successful guys I knew just weren’t right for me—and there were charming, attractive guys who I could tell were toxic. I got so good at it, when someone really incredible crossed my path, I knew before we even spoke, just by reading his energy and trusting my instincts, that he was someone worth meeting.

I got pretty smug about it, thinking, “hey, I’ve really got this ‘gut’ thing dialed in! I’ll never trust the wrong people ever again!”

But no.

When a line was crossed, it felt like a punch in the stomach. My friend did something I never would’ve imagined I’d need to worry about a friend doing, making me so uncomfortable I was anxious and sick over it. I had no idea how to react, second-guessing myself, hoping it didn’t really happen. But it did.

After a few days of writing, thinking, and talking to other friends about it, I brought it up to her. I believed she had no idea, that she didn’t mean harm, and I needed her to know where my boundaries lay. Rather than listening with an open mind, respecting my feelings and working to clarify any misunderstanding, she went a very different route—angrily denying the whole thing, turning it around on me, calling me insecure and threatened, calling it “bullshit,” bringing up things I did wrong in the past, suggesting ways I could work on my psychological and personality issues… Your basic recipe for authentic, home-cooked crazy-making. It really stunned me; I’d encountered that kind of reaction from my toxic ex, but had never experienced it from her. Her response went so far as to tell me she knew what she was doing: her boundary-busting behavior was intentional, she just didn’t like me calling her on it.

I believed that she was a good friend, someone I could trust. I ignored a lot of red flags.

As a result, I was blindsided by something that was actually right in line with who she was.

Now, looking back at the three years we’ve known each other, I see she was showing me that all along. All the times she cancelled plans last-minute or left me waiting or stranded; her lack of self-awareness; the ways she taught me not to count on her; her ambiguous comments to and about me; her actions, lifestyle and choices—these were red flags, speaking volumes about her priorities and our differing values. She isn’t wrong, I’m not right—but I see that our closeness came from convenience and proximity when I desperately needed someone to turn to, rather than genuine compatibility. Something always felt off. I just wasn’t letting myself notice, disregarding my instincts like I had in the past.

Because of how she chose to act and respond, because she so clearly had no respect for me, and because I’ve learned not to accept what’s unacceptable, I chose to walk away from the friendship. I’m sincerely grateful for her friendship and support during a hard time in my life. Ultimately, though, what I believed about our relationship, and about her, wasn’t really true.

I don’t regret anything I said or did, but I’m not feeling especially proud of the blinders that got me here. For all my hyper-awareness of red flags in dating, I’ve ignored the fact that they can exist in any type of relationship, and ended up being hurt and disappointed by my own laziness and lack of perception. By believing what I wanted to believe and holding onto that.

The truth is, eventually everyone shows you who they really are. It’s up to us to choose whether or not we pay attention.