A narcissist slipped me a note in the library. We were both graduate students studying literature, and in the summer of 2013, I was spending most of my days at the university library, a tranquil, sunlit space, where I enjoyed coolness and clarity for my work. Late mornings, the only sound was the gentle tapping of keyboards. By afternoon it became more populated, quiet still, but teeming with students.
In a library like this one, you develop unspoken relationships with the strangers around you. You don't really acknowledge them, but you come to recognize the rotation of faces around you. Unintentionally, you develop little stories about these people. They become an unassuming, familiar backdrop to your thoughts. Occasionally, one of them will step forward from the gentle drum of habit, becoming particularly interesting or repellent for some reason. Or, as it happens, you develop a library crush. Long hours alone with books, and your eyes roam, your mind wanders. University libraries are sexy places.
Grad school is full of handsome, hipster-poet types. I didn't usually notice these men, but I'd caught this one looking at me a couple times. A little bit of beard, a sweep of dramatic brown hair, and big, soulful eyes. I was flattered. He didn’t know anything about me — just what I looked like, and that I was often alone. We'd never spoken. The note said, “I’ve noticed you, I’d love to get coffee,” and a phone number.
I didn’t realize what I was getting into, and considered ignoring the message. Even though it was cute, it wasn't that cute. It felt restrained, inorganic, somehow cold. But I was recently single. Out having dinner one night with my friend, I told her about it. She shrugged at me, twirling her spaghetti. “Just text him,” she said. So I did.
On our first date, we talked for several hours. There was no immediate chemistry, but we were both passionate about literature, and his gritty jokes made me laugh. After a few drinks, I fully realized how attractive he was, with his smooth hands and long eyelashes. He texted almost immediately afterwards and asked to see me again. He always proposed really traditional, romantic dates — candlelit restaurants, live music, picnics in the park. He cooked, played guitar, and gave me little gifts. I'd never been courted so formally before. There were no games, no mysteries. He said he wanted to be my boyfriend; we held hands and ate ice cream.
We also talked a lot about his ex. Having been through plenty of breakups, I commiserated and tried to be supportive. But he never stopped talking about her, how high-maintenance and manipulative she was. He framed me as a kind of antidote: easy, laid-back, cool. Even though we always had fun, this dichotomy between the difficult, unattainable woman and the faithful girl-next-door (me) always made me a little uncomfortable.
Four months later, his dick wasn’t working. He rolled over and looked at the wall. “I’m sorry,” he said. “I’m just not in love with you. I’m in love with her.” We'd only been dating four months; he was hot, but worse things have happened. I called a taxi. I cried a little and made plans to hang out with friends, re-downloaded my Okcupid and Tinder apps.
He told me I didn’t try hard enough at work, that I didn’t “shine.” He complained that I didn’t wear high heels or lace underwear.
A week later, he came after me. A narcissist is rarely done with you when he breaks up with you the first time. And if you try to leave him, he won't ever let you. He will beg, cling, bribe, and cajole for as long as it takes. As long as you are part of a story he needs to sustain his narcissistic value, he won't leave you alone. He has to maintain his centrality in your story. You are supposed to be a part of his story, and he won’t have it any other way.
He convinced me to date him again: once, twice. We moved in together, until he had another crisis about his ex and moved out (after weeks of passive-aggressive silence). He tried to keep me on the side, sort of. Frustrated, I gathered the courage to cut it off completely. He said he understood, and we parted on friendly terms. But then, something in him snapped, and I got the email. I love you, he declared. You are a miracle, I want a family with you, you are the only one.
I saw him so often at school that he wore me down. He brought me coffee every day, even though I gave him dirty looks. I fought it, but I was still in love with him. The new person I was dating started to seem boring and crude; I became anxious. Everyone wants to be coveted, and slowly, I allowed my feelings for him to resurface. He tried very hard to make amends. He sent me friendly texts throughout the day, bombarded me with gifts, meals, back-rubs.
But as soon as I did take him back, he resumed the backhanded compliments, critical and judgmental. He told me I didn’t try hard enough at work, that I didn’t “shine.” He complained that I didn’t wear high heels or lace underwear. Then abruptly, he broke up with me. He hastily thrust a garbage bag full of my clothes into my hands, apologized, and disappeared.
After that, I was resolute. His behavior was bewildering, even darkly comical. Despite his charisma, and all the fun we had, I began to see something pitiably pathological in his behavior. Without him, I slowly became more relaxed and optimistic. And he sensed it; he made overtures again, stronger than ever before.
If they hate you, it's because they hate themselves. And while you are their inadequate reflection, if you love a narcissist, you'll find yourself inadequate, too.
I didn’t intend to go back to him, ever again. But he was relentless, with shows of affection, praise and promises, tears, explanations. For months I managed to keep my distance. Then, in the spring, we ended up at the same conference. We fought, talked, and laughed — and I fell in love with him, again. I was drawn by his lighthearted, playful attitude, his creativity, his slightly sadistic, boyish self-confidence. His conviction. He had detailed plans for our future — where we'd live, the kind of house, the jobs we'd have. I felt deeply insecure, but slowly, I dared to believe in him, because I wanted to so badly.
We dated for a few months. His mom, the woman who he idealizes, loathes, and fears above all others, got sick. This triggered something in him. He became cold, impatient, and began again with oblique insults. Then one day, he told me I wasn’t “fresh,” and he needed to date an “artist;” someone more plugged into the "scene," a “bohemian.” And, like every previous breakup, he blamed me repeatedly for letting him back into my life. It was all my fault for being too passive, too accepting, too trusting (while accordingly, during our relationship, he was always pressing me to be more open, to yield to him). I was enraged at first, but then I was also determined to change his mind, to make him reconsider. I would win him over with that sparkling confidence he always said I lacked. But he wouldn't even take my calls. I slept with his clothes next to me, and sobbed every night, for weeks.
Around this time, I started reading about women who had dated narcissistic men. Other women’s stories matched my own exactly. Narcissists are idiot-savants, of a kind. They are highly imaginative, motivated, charismatic people. They aren't always physically attractive, but often they are. They are dangerous because they construct robust stories about themselves, stories that are specific and powerful. If they hate you, it's because they hate themselves. And while you are their inadequate reflection, if you love a narcissist, you'll find yourself inadequate, too.
I’d read before, in my life, about battered women. I’d read about women and men, who were victims of psychological abuse. It never made sense to me, because I didn’t understand how someone who wanted you could hurt you. That was, until this person slowly, methodically, and repeatedly manipulated me into the deepest spiritual subordination I’d ever known, a horrible type of Stockholm-syndrome. And then, of course, blamed me for it. It was abuse.
Unfortunately, I still see him in the library sometimes. When he walks by, I keep my eyes glued to the page. Sometimes I hear him cough and my stomach twists; but realizing that his treatment constitutes abuse empowers me to protect myself. I'm living in a literal shadow of my ex, and while I'm getting over the relationship and facing new challenges in my life, there is also this body walking around that resembles, in some way, a person I used to love.