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Think you might be dating a ‘vulnerable narcissist’? Look out for these red flags

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

You may be ghosted after a seemingly blissful start, or strung along with just crumbs of attention. Perhaps you suddenly learn 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, about 30% of new relationships form online, and experts say this will only become more common in the future. But online dating isn’t without risk.

Antisocial dating behaviours are common online, such as ghosting and breadcrumbing (when someone gives you crumbs of attention to keep you interested, with no intention of progressing the relationship). These experiences are often painful for the person on the receiving end, resulting in diminished self-esteem and wellbeing.

Misrepresentation is also rife online. One study found up to 81% of online dating users had engaged in some form of it. Some forms of misrepresentation are arguably innocuous, such as a carefully selected profile photo. But others are more deceptive and potentially harmful, such as presenting one’s personality inauthentically to lure a potential mate.

Behind the mask

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

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

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

Vulnerable narcissists tend to mask feelings of inadequacy with a grandiose presentation. Shutterstock

For our study, we recruited a sample of 316 online daters (55% female) via the 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 that measured six domains of their personality, to measure how authentically they presented themselves.

First they considered their authentic self, with items such as “I can handle difficult situations without needing emotional support from anyone else”. Then they were asked to consider the persona they presented while online dating, with items such as “the persona I present 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 whether they had ever engaged in the antisocial dating behaviours of ghosting or breadcrumbing.


Read more: First the 'love-bomb', then the 'financial emergency': 5 tactics of Tinder swindlers


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 had ghosted or breadcrumbed someone also had higher scores for vulnerable narcissism. However, it should be noted these effects were small, and not everyone who ghosts is likely to be a vulnerable narcissist. People may ghost for a range 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 without a reasonable explanation for their 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 block button.

Might I be dating a vulnerable narcissist?

Vulnerable narcissists can be difficult to identify in the early stages of dating because the persona they present isn’t their authentic self. Over time, however, the mask usually comes off.

If you’re wondering whether you’re dating a vulnerable narcissist, look out for these red flags waving in sync.

  1. Vulnerable narcissists are usually introverted and high on neuroticism. In isolation, these traits need not be of concern, but in vulnerable narcissists they typically present 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’s characterised 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 on and obligated to them.

  3. The devaluation phase follows love-bombing. It will often manifest in emotionally abusive behaviours such as harsh and relentless criticism, unprovoked angry outbursts, 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’m dating a vulnerable narcissist!

Vulnerable narcissists are prone to engaging in emotionally abusive behaviours. If you suspect you’re dating one then you may be experiencing domestic violence, or be at significant risk of it if the relationship continues.

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

If you have concerns, it’s important to seek support from your family doctor, a psychologist, or a domestic violence support service. They can help you navigate the relationship, or safely exit it.


Read more: Is narcissism a mental health problem? And can you really diagnose it online?


Anyone at risk of family and domestic violence and/or sexual assault can seek help 24 hours a day, seven days a week, either online or by calling 1800 RESPECT (1800 737 732). Information is also available in 28 languages other than English.

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