I Dated a Narcissist for 3 Months & Didn't Even Know It Until We Broke Up, Here's What I Learned

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Shakayla Brown

Two days before my ex-boyfriend broke up with me, I wrote him a letter. (To protect his privacy, let’s call him Dan.)

Dan and I had been dating for three months, and during that time, I believed I was in a healthy relationship. Never mind that we got into pointless arguments or that Dan was quick to call me out on my faults. What mattered was that we cared about each other and wanted this relationship to work. But here's the thing: I wasn't being completely honest with myself. Deep down, I knew that something I couldn’t put my finger on it. But there were little signs that started to concern me—like the fact that I began to doubt my own memories and my ability to communicate clearly.

I wrote about these things in my letter to Dan, occasionally adding that I “wasn’t trying to hurt his feelings” and that I “really cared about him.” I wrote that I felt compelled to write my thoughts on paper because he tended to misinterpret my words. I even explained that I was inspired by a close friend, to whom I'd recently confided my concerns. I wrote that, after our eye-opening discussion, she labeled his behavior as “emotional abuse.”

I didn't realize it yet, but this was the moment that marked the beginning of the end of our relationship.

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My plan was to deliver the letter in person, so I sent Dan a cryptic message saying that we needed to talk. His instant response was, “What did I do? Are we breaking up?” 

To avoid any further discussion through text, I suggested that we meet and talk. But when we saw each other later that evening, I didn’t have the guts to give him that letter. Instead, I voiced all the concerns and doubts I had about our relationship. Per usual, I was made to feel like I was being unreasonable and that everything wrong with our relationship was my fault. 

Dan found my subsequent meltdown so amusing that he smiled and offered me a hug as I stood in from of him crying. I had never felt so helpless in my life. No matter how hard I tried, I couldn't get him to fully understand why I was so upset.

As I continued to cry, Dan proceeded to lecture me on all the effort he was putting into our relationship and complained about my shortcomings. Then, he left the ball in my court and asked, "So, are you breaking up with me?"

What I wanted to say was, “Yes! Let’s break up.” But I was so afraid of hurting his feelings that I quietly said, “No.” Being the people pleaser that I am, I assured him that I would try to make this work, which was music to his ears.

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On the day of our breakup, I woke up to a sweet text from Dan about his desire to stick by my side and embrace the tough conversations. In response, I thanked him for being “patient” and for “listening” to me the night before. But that nagging, unsettling feeling never went away. Something still felt off, and I was overwhelmed with guilt.

Fast-forward to 2 0'clock in the afternoon and I am looking at my letter, sobbing. I thought of how Dan would react if he knew how I was feeling at that very moment, and my anxiety skyrocketed. This was not what I wanted. I hated the idea of having to walk on eggshells around Dan, but I was equally terrified of letting him go because I didn't want to be alone.

Desperate to clear my head, but not quite ready to pull the plug, I pulled a Rachel and texted him a long, heartfelt message about why we should take a break—but Dan wasn’t having it. Less than a minute after I sent that text, he responded with, “Let’s break up.”

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While struggling to process my messy emotions, I called my close friend and told her the news. She assured me that this breakup was for the best, but then she used a term to describe his behavior that I had never considered before: narcissism.

It was only then that it dawned on me…I wasn’t just dating someone who happened to be stubborn and emotionally immature. I was dating a narcissist.

Curious to get a deeper understanding of narcissism—and how I went three whole months without realizing I was being emotionally abused—I reached out to two experts for some insight.

Meet the Experts

Dr. Amelia Kelley: Dr. Kelley is a trauma-informed therapist, author, podcaster and researcher who teaches psychology at Yorkville University. She is the author of Gaslighting Recovery for Women: The Complete Guide to Recognizing Manipulation and Achieving Freedom from Emotional Abuse, and co-author of What I Wish I Knew: Surviving and Thriving After an Abusive Relationship.

Natalie Jambazian: Jambazian is a licensed marriage and family therapist therapist based in Los Angeles. She specializes in narcissistic abuse recovery, as well as overcoming PTSD, grief, trauma, ADHD, anger, anxiety and life transitions.

First of All, What Is Narcissism?

“Narcissism falls under a spectrum,” says Jambazian. “Not every narcissist has Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD), but can have certain behaviors and traits that portray narcissism. Narcissism refers to an exaggerated sense of importance of one’s own achievements and talents and also a lack of empathy or remorse. They have a grandiose sense of self characterized by a need for admiration and attention. They exploit others to fulfill their own needs, lack genuine interest in the feelings of others, and struggle when receiving criticism or feedback.” 

This explains why, in the case of my past relationship, I was so hesitant to discuss my concerns or call Dan out on his behavior. It also explains why, in the rare times that I did, I felt compelled to apologize for something I did wrong.

Dr. Kelley adds, “Many narcissists struggle with remorse and will do anything it takes to build themselves up, even if it means tearing someone else down. They infrequently feel comfortable being vulnerable or recognizing true emotions of others and even for themselves. The behavior is often motivated by insecurity or internalized traumas.”

“Within that category, there are also different types of narcissists such as insecure narcissists who present as victims and feel like the world is against them and operate as such, versus grandiose narcissists, who have an overinflated sense of self, an unhealthy level of focus on how they present to the world and hyperfocus on attaining or remaining in power.”

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What Are the Key Signs of Narcissistic Behavior?

If there’s one thing I wish I had known before agreeing to be Dan’s girlfriend, it’s how his habits lined up with so many of these key signs: 

  1. Gaslighting: Jambazian defines this as a form of emotional manipulation that “seeks to make a person doubt their reality and their own perceptions, memory or sanity.”
  2. Love bombing: Narcissists will often shower their partner with gifts, affection and constant attention to gain control in the relationship. It’s another dangerous form of manipulation that narcissists use to establish a false sense of trust and intimacy.
  3. Grandiosity: Per Jambazian, “Their sense of self-importance is exaggerated and can be reflected in what car they drive, the house they live in, and their achievements.”
  4. Arrogance: Narcissists may have an arrogant streak or a sense of entitlement, where they expect special treatment and have unrealistic expectations of others.
  5. Lack of empathy: Narcissists find it difficult to put themselves in other people’s shoes and have genuine compassion for how others are feeling.
  6. Moodiness: “Narcissists tend to be hot and cold, with unpredictable mood swings,” says Jambazian. “This ranges from love bombing to giving the cold shoulder the next day.”
  7. Projection: Narcissists project their own insecurities onto others by blaming them for being dishonest when they are the ones who are lying.
  8. Difficulty apologizing: Since they lack empathy and often feel no sense of guilt, many narcissists don’t understand why the other person is offended or hurt, so they don’t feel the need to apologize. 
  9. Ignoring boundaries: Setting up a boundary is like putting up a roadblock that prevents narcissists from getting what they want most, which is control. As a result, they may react negatively or completely ignore your boundaries altogether.
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Why Did I Miss These Signs?

1. They started subtly 

OK, I’ll be real with you. In the early stages of my relationship, there were several red flags that I dismissed, although I should’ve taken them very seriously.

For instance, before we started dating, Dan would text me every single day, like clockwork, which I found kind of intense and unnecessary. Although I appreciated the check-ins and enjoyed our conversations, I told him that I found it a bit overwhelming, noting that I don’t even speak with my closest friends that often. In response, Dan assured me that he would respect my boundaries, but in the weeks following, there were a few consecutive days when he would still text little messages to say that he missed me. Of course, I wound up letting it slide because I found it romantic. 

“Emotional abuse starts subtly and gradually escalates over time, making it harder to identify when you’re so immersed in the dynamic of the relationship,” says Jambazian. “Over time, abusive behaviors can become normalized, making them seem less toxic than they actually are.”

So, in the case of my relationship, when I started to see Dan’s true colors, I dismissed them because I was convinced that his better qualities outweighed the bad. I chose to focus on the romantic gestures and late-night talks that lasted until two in the morning, not knowing that he was using abusive tactics to reel me in from day one.

Dr. Kelley explains, “They draw you in through manipulative tactics, such as love bombing, to make sure you become invested in them and the relationship. Otherwise, there would be no reason to stay in these types of relationships and the narcissist would not receive what they wanted, which is your adoration and attention. When they do start employing tactics it will be slow and gradual. At first, they will test the waters and see what they can get away with. As they succeed, their efforts may increase more rapidly and gaslighting will be commonly used against you if you try to confront their behavior.”

2. I thought my partner would change

After Dan and I moved on from the talking stage and officially started dating, his tactics grew worse. Things I said were twisted and pulled out of context to mean things I never meant to say. I was accused of misunderstanding him whenever I called him out for saying or doing something hurtful. Arguments almost always ended with me apologizing. But do you want to know the craziest part? I genuinely believed that Dan's behavior would change.

Jambazian says, “The reason why people don’t recognize the signs earlier is because survivors hold onto the hope that they can or will someday change. Unfortunately, with narcissists, their personality traits get worse over time. The hope creates an illusion of who the person is versus who they want them to be.”

3. My previous history with emotional abuse made me normalize his behavior

After attending a few therapy sessions, I came to realize that I tolerated Dan’s behavior because I grew up around people with narcissistic tendencies. So technically, his emotional abuse felt familiar, or dare I say “normal.” This made it much harder for me to spot the signs of toxicity while we were dating.

Jambazian explains, “Survivors tend to be in denial and rationalize certain behaviors by telling themselves ‘It’s ok, they are just having a bad day’, or ‘They come from a broken family.’ This mentality excuses the unhealthy dynamic. When you are out of the relationship, you start seeing the toxic relationship for what it is. Individuals often gain distance and perspective, allowing them to see the abuse clearly once the fog clears up.”

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6 Things I Learned After Dating a Narcissist 

There are times when I wish I never met Dan. But if I'm being honest, this experience turned out to be the catalyst for my mental, emotional and spiritual growth. Not only did this boost my resilience and self-awareness, but it taught me a few valuable lessons I can implement in the future:

1. Don’t ever date in isolation

One of the biggest mistakes I made while dating Dan was keeping our relationship a secret from my closest friends. We told ourselves that it would be “wiser” to avoid involving other people, because it could potentially add stress or lead to unnecessary chaos. He even reacted negatively when I brought up the idea of seeing a therapist, adding that I ought to confide in him if I needed to talk to someone. In reality, though, he was using isolation strategies to separate me from my friends and make me more dependent on him.

Fortunately, towards the end of our relationship, I went against his advice and spilled all the tea about our relationship to one of my closest friends. Naturally, this was the conversation that opened up the door for me to escape that toxic relationship. 

2. Don’t date based on someone’s potential 

You know that classic saying, ‘What you see is what you get’? That couldn’t be truer of the textbook narcissist. After initially trying to reject Dan, he convinced me to give him another chance and I agreed. I figured he’d mature over time, but I was wrong.

As Jambazian mentioned above, narcissists typically don’t change. But as a general rule, it’s best to avoid dating someone because you can potentially see them blossoming into the ideal partner. Dating someone for who they could be can blind you to the current reality of who they are. And this is especially dangerous when the other person is stubborn or shows no signs of growth.

3. Beware of love bombing

Think of it as the honeymoon phase in a relationship—except in this case, it’s one-sided. Counselor and professor Suzanne Degges-White, Ph.D told us, “It’s flowers delivered at work with hearts dotting the i’s in your name. It’s texts that increase in frequency as they increase in romantic fervor. It’s surprise appearances designed to manipulate you into spending more time with the bomber—and, not coincidentally, less time with others, or on your own.” 

In short, it’s a tactic that most narcissists use to gain control, and I didn’t realize I was a victim until after I parted ways with Dan. When we were dating, the calls and text messages quickly increased in frequency and his messages were riddled with cute compliments and reminders of how much he missed me. Additionally, he spoke of all the things we’d do together in the future, hinted at getting married, occasionally showed up at my job to surprise me and even showed up at my apartment with dessert. Here I was, feeling like the protagonist of a Hallmark movie when really, I was being manipulated.

4. Prioritize your mental and emotional health

I was so concerned about Dan’s well-being that I continued to worry about him after our breakup. In fact, I felt so guilty that I considered calling him to apologize, even though he’d broken up with me in a disrespectful way. I wondered: What if he thinks I’m being selfish and unfair? What if he’s hurting?

See, this was a common occurrence in our relationship—me neglecting my own mental and emotional health to ensure that Dan was OK. Even in times when he encouraged me to be open with him, it didn’t feel safe to do so, which is why I opted to listen more. If I did open up, I figured I’d risk hurting his feelings and make everything ten times worse.

Jambazian says, “Empaths are great listeners. They may absorb the emotional needs of those around them by supplying the narcissist with affection, validation and attention, feeding the narcissist with what they want.”

As much as I wanted to check in with Dan after our split, I fought this feeling and decided to focus on myself for once. As far as I was concerned, my ex’s emotional well-being was no longer my responsibility. 

Dr. Kelley says, “After spending time with the narcissist, it can be common to lose touch with your own emotional individuality and self-esteem. Work on getting to know yourself again.”

5. Ditch the people-pleasing habit

Narcissists are drawn to people-pleasing empaths like magnets, and I suspect they can spot this personality type from a mile away. 

When Dan and I started talking, he revealed that he’d been observing me closely after we first met through mutual friends. Apparently, he saw something “different” about me and realized that I “wasn’t like other girls.” (Yes…I actually took that last part as a compliment.) In retrospect, I get the feeling he took notice of my kindness and people-pleasing habits, which immediately made me a target. 

Jambazian says, “Narcissists are drawn to empaths and highly sensitive people who are compassionate and have a strong desire to please others. They see their own reflection through the eyes of others because they lack certain characteristic traits they don’t have, such as being secure and confident.” 

“Although they show otherwise, deep in their core they are insecure, frightened children,” she adds. “The empathetic nature of these individuals might make them more susceptible to manipulation by a narcissist because they are forgiving and have taken on the role of a caregiver for so long.” 

6. Don’t try to reason with a narcissist 

Why, you ask? Because it will likely backfire and end with the narcissist turning the tables on you. 

Dr. Kelley says, “The issue with standing up to a narcissist is that they will weaponize what you say in any way possible. Many of them are very quick to respond and their manipulation tactics are so well practiced that they will hyperfocus on winning an argument. In fact, many of them crave this type of interaction as overpowering another person feeds their narcissistic needs. In these instances, if it’s safe to stand up to them and get them to admit what they were doing, you most likely are not even dealing with the narcissist. Or at least if they are willing to admit their wrongs and apologize, they may not be fully clinical.”

So, what’s the best course of action when calling them out doesn’t work? Dr. Kelley suggests getting a journal, where you can keep track of reality as these situations occur, especially if they have a habit of displacing blame or gaslighting you.

She adds, “Checking in with other support people can be valuable, especially because these people can help you focus on the reality of the situation. Distancing yourself and not engaging in conflicts with narcissists robs them of what they're looking for, which is your attention—but it helps protect you. The less you engage with a narcissist and try to change their mind, the better.”

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How to Heal from Emotional Abuse, According to Experts

1. Establish a solid support system

When Dan and I broke up, it was one of the lowest moments of my life because I felt alone. I had isolated myself from our mutual friends, so I wasn't sure who I could trust or open up to. Fortunately, all hope wasn't lost.

Thanks to the support and prayers of trusted friends from my church community, I was able to get back on track and start my healing journey. Dr. Kelley says, “Take a close look at the relationships that you have and make sure they are highly supportive and encouraging of this new chapter in your life. Choosing people to keep in your corner, who have your best interest and validate your experience, is crucial.”

FYI, if it turns out that you and your narcissistic ex have mutual friends that you want to stay close with, Dr. Kelley advises, “Let these individuals know the boundaries that you have with the narcissist. Make sure they know not to include the two of you on group chats or shared invitations. Also, ask your friends and loved ones not to share your personal information with the narcissist going forward.”

2. Get to know yourself again

This breakup wreaked havoc on my confidence and self-esteem, to the point where I no longer felt like myself. According to Dr. Kelley, this is quite common for people who’ve experienced emotional abuse. She says, “After spending time with the narcissist, it can be common to lose touch with your own emotional individuality and self-esteem.” 

To combat this, Kelley suggests getting to know yourself again. “Just like any relationship, the relationship with yourself takes effort and time and so dating yourself is helpful. This can look like taking yourself out to do things you love or getting involved in new hobbies or learning new things. Try not to rush the process and know that just like it took time for the narcissist to employ their tactics, it takes time to recover from them.”

3. Set boundaries

A few weeks after our breakup, Dan reached out to apologize and asked if we could be friends. I accepted his apology and followed suit by apologizing to him as well. I mentioned that I didn't intend to hurt him in my efforts to be honest about how I was feeling. However, as tempted as I was to immediately reconcile, it didn't feel like a wise move.

Dr. Kelley says, "I would never recommend remaining friends with a narcissistic ex. The very nature of a relationship with a narcissist is based on intermittent reward and the dopamine rush of the trauma cycle of abuse. There are too many instances where the narcissist can hoover you back into the relationship or degrade your progress in becoming the best version of yourself."

Now, this doesn't mean that you're holding a grudge against the person. In fact, Dr. Kelley notes that you can practice forgiveness and move on while still maintaining those healthy boundaries, whether you're keeping a distance or using minimal statements around them. She adds, "If a long amount of time has passed and true change has occurred, of course, there are moments where people might revisit and choose to forgive. Remember that forgiveness, however, does not permit someone to treat you poorly, nor does it need expressed or extended to the other person. Forgiveness can be an internal process that allows you to let go of anger and move forward towards healthy and safe relationships in your future."

4. Get professional help

Jambazian highly recommends seeing a trained professional, who can guide you on your journey to recovery. She says, “It is very important to work with a mental health professional who understands this type of narcissistic abuse. This will help navigate what made you attracted to this type originally and work on childhood patterns that have contributed to the toxic patterns.” 

“As you work on this with a trusted therapist, you will build your self-worth and self-esteem back and rewire the parts of you that felt entangled so that you don’t repeat the pattern. You also have to take the time to grieve your relationship and your past self. You will probably have self-blame and thoughts of ‘Why did I put myself in that situation.’ You will probably go through the stages of grief (not in order); denial, anger, sadness, bargaining (looking back thinking what if things were different), and finally acceptance. Focus the attention back to yourself and learn to prioritize your well-being by participating in activities you enjoyed or always wanted to do.”

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