Narcissistic Relationship? Use It or Lose It.

My offer to help was genuine. This was a man I’d met professionally several years earlier, who had few resources available. But he had interesting ideas, determination, and his fingers in a number of pies that were good for him and good for the local community. He got in touch, we got together, and I offered him assistance. Gratis.

Handsome Guy GrinningHe had the salesman’s charm; useful personally and professionally. I had tools and experience to help, and I wasn’t busy with work at the time. Use it or lose it, I told myself. A few hours here and there, the opportunity to put some good stuff back into the universe – it seemed reasonable.

It was even more appealing when he said he wanted to compensate me when he eventually had the money, and asked me to track my time at an agreed rate.

Givers and takers

While I was enthusiastic initially, I soon recognized him as a talented taker with a (deceptively) soft-spoken demeanor. At moments, he acted like my best friend (strange in itself). At others, classic narcissistic traits appeared. Meanwhile, I had critical priorities of my own: single parenting, job searching, and my writing projects.

During those first weeks, I gave my time willingly, tracked it, and invoiced with a payment date of TBD. But his requests came more frequently, in ever-widening waves, and required a growing amount of effort.  

I’m a giver, but I know when I’m being taken.

Five weeks into the onslaught of questions, documents, and phone calls, I began to pull back, politely explaining that parenting and job searching were taking up all my time, which was true. I’d given him templates and tips, and he could carry on effectively without me. I made it clear in the beginning that my kids came first; as a part-time single dad – a fact he used to establish empathy at our first meeting – I thought he’d get that.

The narcissist always demands more

But the barrage didn’t stop. Although I emailed that I had no availability, it continued – phone messages, more emails.

I tried again, very explicitly. No change.

Then I tried ignoring him. He would stop contacting me for awhile, and then start up as beforeonce again. Frankly, his attempts to mine me for an increasing set of (free) services were exhausting and infuriating. He seemed to feel entitled, and I ended up feeling guilty, like I wasn’t holding up my end of the bargain.

But what bargain? Infinite assistance, for no compensation?

Charm, humor, flattery, persistence – these are the “user’s” methods of operation. But this was more. Angry and emotionally manipulative messages, an inflated sense of importance on his part. Classic narcissistic behaviors.

The giver’s dilemma

Givers take pleasure in helping and being needed. We are often easy targets for the “takers.”   

We may strive for give-and-take, but we tend to over give and under take. We’re also hard-pressed to confront the necessity of asking “what’s in it for me.”  There’s nothing wrong with healthy self-interest.In fact, it’s essential.

Unfortunately, on the giver’s side of the great give-and-take divide, we have difficulty with balance and context. Women in particular are people pleasers, and may have difficulty breaking away from behaviors learned in childhood, as well as patterns formed in romantic relationships.

Signs of narcissism

Three months of calls and emails later, the latest (angry) message arrived in my inbox recently. But this time, I was furious. Time to end this, once and for all. I sent a sixth email restating that my family and my work come first. I wished him well.

I don’t know if he’s done, but I am. And I’m relearning a tough lesson: the destructive nature of the narcissistic relationship.

Would the situation have been different if he were paying me as a consultant, ghostwriter, and editor? It’s a moot point. He wasn’t paying me. Did I make things worse by going for a “use it or lose it” approach?

If he hadn’t taken advantage, it would’ve been fine. Exploitation is a classic sign of narcissism, and attempts at exploitation is exactly how it played out. And I have no intention of being sucked into a long-term give-away of time and experience that clients pay me for. He abused my generosity, acted out at my push back, and then tried to make me feel guilty.

Professionally speaking

In our economy of unemployed and underemployed achievers consider this:

  • Many give away services to get a foot in the door. Be careful. You may slip your foot into a sticky situation, with nothing to show for it except aggravation. 
  • Services provided for exchange is a different story, offering a respectful solution for all involved.
  • “Use it or lose it” makes sense, but only if applied smartly. In the boardroom or the bedroom, exercise due diligence. A destructive relationship is a bad relationship, period.

Personally speaking

Is there a narcissism epidemic in this country? Sometimes I think so, especially after many years of being in the dating pool again. Personally, I’ve lived my share of draining relationships, and I thought I’d learned to steer clear. In this case, I was seduced by my own desire to feel needed and use my experience.

Statistics on narcissism in marriage and divorce appear frequently in the press; narcissistic relationships are on the rise. They often involve a charismatic man, and a woman’s slow dissolve into his world at the expense of her own.

This same dynamic occurs in business, often on a grand scale; consider the massive financial frauds that have come to light in the past few years, and the larger-than-life egos, magnetic personalities, and trusting “innocents” that are part of the story.

Pay attention to signs of narcissism in your personal relationships.

The narcissistic tool kit

So what do you do?

Every taker isn’t a narcissist any more than every giver is Mother Theresa. But narcissism disguises itself in many forms, and some of us are more susceptible. We need to watch for warning signs, including:

  • Emotional manipulation
  • Overblown sense of self-importance
  • Overestimation of talents or contribution
  • Growing need for attention
  • Disregard for the other
  • Excessive anger.

To make matters more complicated, the “use it or lose it” approach can be problematic. It’s like settling for what you can get rather than what you want. I settled for giving away skills to feel competent; I ended up feeling used.

As for my non-client client, I imagine he’ll find someone else to help. Meanwhile, I’m reminded how to recognize a narcissistic relationship. And to get out from under, as quickly as possible!

I realize that’s not so simple if we’re talking about a spouse or a boss, and I’m not suggesting anyone walk out on either. In those instances, you should seek professional counsel, identify options, and make plenty of contingency plans. Especially in this economy.

As for me, I need to listen to my own advice: in all things, due diligence.


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  1. says

    This is soooo useful — you describe the relationship and its deterioration so clearly, and your analysis is helpful to anyone in a similar situation (or trying to avoid getting into one).

    A close friend who is always a coworker has identified several of our other colleagues as narcissistic, at least in their dealings with us — something that never occurred to me before, but fits perfectly. It really makes a difference when I’m figuring out how to handle our interactions.

    And P.S.: most of them are NOT male.

  2. says

    This line: They often involve a charismatic man, and a woman’s slow dissolve into his world at the expense of her own.

    That describes my last relationship to a “T”.

    Sad but true.

  3. says

    I’m a giver, too. I love helping out, teaching, guiding. But I really hate being taken advantage of. Those takers seem to find us givers, then start taking all they can. You have to stand firm and know that it’s okay to stop giving every now and then.

  4. says

    I know one person in particular that totally fits this description of a narcissistic taker. It’s the constant guilt trips and his own sense of self-importance that does it. I’ve known him for a really long time, but recently our relationship is completely one sided. He sees himself as a teacher, mentor, boss, everything. Even though we’re the same age and I’ve never worked for him. Been friends forever, and it’s probably my fault for hanging on so long. I keep hoping he’ll come back to the way he was long ago. But, he just keeps sliding more into the narcissist category and sees me as nothing more than a play thing.

    This was a super revealing post. Made me consider my own relationships with people and all the mistakes I’ve made. I’m affable and sorta easy to take advantage of because I say yes a lot. That’s my fault. Excellent!

  5. Melssa says

    You may have read the book, but it is called “The Narcissistic Epidemic” by Jean Twenge. (perhaps her name is spelled a but differently). It is about how entitled the current generation has become due to the new way of raising children. (i.e. child centered homes, smothering parents, elaborate parties for every birthday).
    But what do we expect when you see a 4 and 5 year olds’ baseball game filled with parents, grandparents, and everyone else.? Not to mention graduations from preschool, kindergarten, elementary etc. Compare to our relationships with grandparents when we were growing up. We went to their homes. They did not attend every event in which we participated. Life was not about the kids. That was earned as we grew up. Today, nothing is earned, but handed to them. How can the Generation X and Y turn out any differently than self-centered?

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