So you think you've met the partner of your dreams. They're romantic, attentive, charismatic, loving and unbelievably keen on you and it all seems too good to be true! But if that's the case, according to one of Australia's foremost relationship experts, it probably is and it's possible you're dating a narcissist.
Julie Hart, Head Psychologist and Director at The Hart Centre, says it's important to identify relationship "red flags" early on, otherwise you may just find yourself entangled in a narcissistic nightmare that's difficult to extract yourself from.
"Often the way you can pick them up to start with is they can overdo this wonderfulness," she says. "They just seem too nice, too giving, too eager to please and they're mad keen on you, idolising you and the relationship and really rushing to get a commitment from you."
Hart says that when you first meet a narcissist they'll do everything they can to rock your world. "They're often quite charming and put in a lot of work to win you over at the start and be everything you want in a person, which is what draws people in," she says.
"And they'll do this until they feel settled enough to show their true selves."
How to recognise a narcissist
Hart says people with narcissistic traits are common so the chances of meeting someone on the narcissism "spectrum" are surprisingly high. "There's a huge level of degrees from one extreme to the other but I would say, probably, up to about 15 per cent of the population have some degree of narcissism in them and that around 75 per cent of those will be male."
She describes the main characteristics of narcissism as feeling superior, self-entitled, living in a fantasy world, needing to be admired, manipulative, lacking in empathy, unapologetic, detesting criticism, changeable and moody.
At the extreme end of the spectrum is a condition known as Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD), which affects around one per cent of the population. "At the disorder end of the spectrum, a narcissist is almost impossible to live with and will create enormous difficulty and havoc in everybody's lives."
She says a relationship with a narcissist usually ends up being very one-sided. "A healthy relationship needs to be a reciprocal relationship and one that is based on a genuine caring and real empathy for the other," Hart says. "However, a narcissist isn't really capable of empathy or even, what I would call, real love at all."
From Jekyll to Hyde
Sometimes the personality change from the 'partner of your dreams' to the 'monster from hell' can occur overnight but at other times it will manifest much slower. Hart describes the three life transitions' that indicate that a narcissist is feeling really settled in a relationship as when you move in together, when you have a child together and when you get married.
"These are huge life transitions where it's clear that now the narcissist has got you and you're committed to them," Hart explains. "That's when they go back to their normal behaviour, which often leaves the new partner in total shock because they've always been this super lovely person until that point."
Should you stay or should you go?
Once you're in a committed relation with a narcissist, Hart says finding a way out can be enormously difficult. "A lot of people will choose to stay with a narcissist because of financial, family or social reasons and they cope by just not making waves, just allowing them to get away with it all," Hart explains.
"But psychologically that is not at all good for them and they will suffer and can become a shadow of their former selves."
Hart says the best way to deal with a narcissist is to stand up to them. "Tell the truth as you see it and take a stand with them," she says.
"Often when you do that, they're not going to like it and they'll up the ante with their normal defensiveness but it's the only way to try and forge a healthier relationship."
Narcissists share a distinct lack of self-awareness, which means they won't recognise narcissistic traits in themselves and instead blame others. So telling a narcissist that they're a narcissist is futile.
"One thing that people will come to us at the Hart Centre and want us to do, is to diagnose their partner with narcissism and that's something we can't actually do - diagnose another person who is not there," she says.
Hart says that getting a diagnosis for narcissism isn't necessarily going to change that person anyway. "When a narcissist comes in for therapy, inevitably they don't last long because once they start to feel a little bit better about themselves, they slip back into this grandiose bubble and think, 'I'm fine now', and will find faults with the therapist instead," she says.
"Therapy is all about really looking at yourself and at the ways in which you might be creating problems but a narcissist will not want to do that."
Hart and her team have produced The Hart Centre's 100-point Narcissist Profile, which is freely available online and can help you determine if you are, in fact, in a relationship with a narcissist.
"The higher the score you get, the more likely you are to be dealing with someone with narcissistic tendency," she says.
"We can help you by taking you and your partner through relationship counselling to determine just how much insight each partner has into their own contributions in a relationship and therefore how much you're both willing to make changes to make your relationship better."