February 24, 2024

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Single people are increasingly turning online to find love, with more than 300 million people worldwide trying their luck on dating apps. Some find their fairy tale. But for others, online dating stories have very different endings.

You may be ghosted after a seemingly blissful start, or bonded with only crumbs of attention. Maybe you suddenly learn that the person you’re dating isn’t who you thought they were.

If these scenarios sound familiar, you may have dated a “vulnerable narcissist.”

The dark side of online dating

These days, around 30% of new relationships are formed online, and experts say this will only become more common in the future. But online dating isn’t without its risks.

Antisocial dating behaviors are common online, such as ghosting and breadcrumbing (when someone gives you scraps of attention to keep you interested, with no intention of moving the relationship forward). These experiences are often painful for the recipient, resulting in decreased self-esteem and well-being.

Misrepresentations are also widespread online. One study found that up to 81% of online dating users had engaged in some form. Some forms of misrepresentation are probably harmless, like a carefully selected profile photo. But others are more deceptive and potentially harmful, such as presenting one’s personality in an inauthentic way to attract a potential mate.

Behind the mask

In new research conducted by my colleagues Eliza Oliver and Evita March and I, we explore how personality traits may be associated with inauthentic self-presentation during online dating.

We were particularly interested in a subtype of narcissism called vulnerable narcissism. Narcissism in a broad sense can be conceptualized as a personality trait that falls on a continuum. Those at the extreme are characterized by entitlement, superiority and a strong need for attention, admiration and approval.

Vulnerable narcissism is characterized by heightened emotional sensitivity and a defensive, insecure grandiosity that masks feelings of incompetence and inadequacy.

For our study, we recruited a sample of 316 online daters (55% women) via crowdsourcing platform Prolific. We measured their scores for vulnerable narcissism, along with other “dark triad” personality traits, including grandiose narcissism (arrogance and dominance), psychopathy (low empathy and callousness), and Machiavellianism (being manipulative and calculating). .

We asked participants to complete two questionnaires measuring six domains of their personality, to measure how authentically they presented themselves.

They first considered their authentic selves, with elements such as “I can handle difficult situations without needing anyone else’s emotional support.” Then they were asked to consider the person they introduced when online dating, with items such as “the person I introduce when online dating would like people who have unconventional views.”

We then calculated a score for inauthentic self-presentation, which represented the distance between the authentic self and the online dating self.

We also asked participants if they had ever engaged in the antisocial dating behaviors of ghosting or breadcrumbing.

Here’s what we found

We found a significant link between vulnerable narcissism and inauthentic self-presentation. That is, those with higher scores for vulnerable narcissism presented more inauthentically.

Participants who ghosted or breadcrumbed someone also had higher scores for vulnerable narcissism. However, it should be noted that these effects were small and not all ghosts are likely to be vulnerable narcissists. People can ghost for a variety of reasons, some of which are appropriate to their situation (such as for their own safety).

That said, if a ghost returns from the dead with no reasonable explanation for its absence, you may have been “zombied.” This is when someone ghosts you, only to reappear months or even years later. If this happens, it would be wise to hit the lock button.

Could I date a vulnerable narcissist?

Vulnerable narcissists can be difficult to identify in the early stages of dating because the person they are introducing is not their authentic self. Over time, however, the mask usually peels off.

If you’re wondering if you’re dating a vulnerable narcissist, watch out for these red flags flying in sync.

  1. Vulnerable narcissists are usually introverted and full of neuroticism. In isolation, these traits are of no concern, but in vulnerable narcissists they typically occur in combination with dishonesty and a lack of agreeableness and humility.

  2. Love bombing is a manipulative dating tactic commonly used by vulnerable narcissists. It is characterized by excessive attention and affection. While this can be flattering in the early stages of a relationship, the intention is to manipulate you into feeling dependent and obligated to them.

  3. The devaluation phase follows the love bombing. It will often manifest itself in emotionally abusive behavior such as harsh and relentless criticism, unprovoked outbursts of anger, gaslighting, and stonewalling.

  4. Finally, vulnerable narcissists are hypersensitive to criticism. Constructive criticism is an important component of communication in healthy relationships. But a vulnerable narcissist is likely to perceive the slightest criticism as a personal attack. They may respond to criticism with emotional outbursts, making you feel like you’re walking on eggshells.

I think I am dating a vulnerable narcissist!

Vulnerable narcissists are prone to engaging in emotionally abusive behavior. If you suspect you’re dating one, you could experience domestic violence or be at significant risk if the relationship continues.

The onset of narcissistic abuse is often slow and insidious, but adverse effects (such as PTSD symptoms) can persist long after the relationship has ended.

If you are in doubt, it is important to seek help from your GP, a psychologist or a domestic violence support service. They can help you navigate the relationship or come out of it safely.

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