I thought my friend was the luckiest girl in the world.
I didn’t say it, but I was jealous that her boyfriend of 3 weeks did more for her birthday than my boyfriend of 2 years.
We were sorority sisters, and our shared birthday fell during Rush. This year, her new boyfriend went big, sending dozens of roses and a huge birthday banner to our sorority house that covered the staircase.
It was a grand and splashy gesture that made hundreds of girls simultaneously swoon. As a naïve 20-something, I thought he was madly in love. What I realize now (especially given the fact that they broke up soon after) was that he did it for attention – and was probably a narcissist.
Nobody warns girls about narcissists, yet they should. Why? Because narcissists are rampant in today’s world. They look like Prince Charming at first, making it easy to fool a girl with little life experience. And in the worst divorces I see, the husband shows signs of narcissism and mental abuse. I wouldn’t wish it on any girl, and that’s why our daughters need education on how to notice the signs.
When I asked my Instagram friends for help with this article, the responses floored me. Women eagerly shared their experiences to help today’s girls. In every email, one theme emerged: The red flags were there – yet I ignored them. Many women said, “I could have saved myself years of heartache if I’d just trusted my instincts and that first red flag.”
As females, we often tell ourselves we’re crazy, or let others tell us we’re crazy, or make excuses for people we love. But God gave us instincts, intuition, and the Holy Spirit for a purpose, and the more we listen to our inner radar, the stronger it gets. In his bestselling book The Gift of Fear, author Gavin de Becker says the best way to stay safe is to spot the subtle signs of danger before trouble or violence ever happens. His big message is: Trust your gut, don’t suppress your intuition, and don’t worry about hurting a stranger’s feelings.
So what are the red flags of a narcissist or a guy who may be mentally abusive? Everyone is different, but here are common clues to pay attention to.
1. He seems perfect at first. No guy begins as controlling or abusive, because what girl would ever stay? Instead, a narcissist starts off charming, strong, and too good to be true. He’ll spoil you, obsess over you, and make you feel phenomenal. He may mirror you, repeating your life goals so you think you’ve met your soul mate.
Winning you over through effusive compliments, fancy dinners, gifts, extravagant gestures, etc. slowly grooms you to trust him. By making you feel more loved, special, and understood than ever before, he creates a dynamic where you crave his praise and want to keep pleasing him.
Gut check: Value character over charisma. Think about who he is and how he acts behind closed doors. Was his lavish public display for you – or to make himself look good? How does he react when he doesn’t get what he wants or you tell him ‘no’?
2. He moves too fast, too soon. My friend married a narcissist who proposed after dating one month. She didn’t have time to see red flags, and when they emerged during the wedding planning process, it seemed too late. On their honeymoon he turned on her, yelling at her in a rage and showing a new side. This is common because narcissism escalates once they think they “own” you.
Gut check: Beware of a guy in a rush to get serious, who opens up faster or more deeply than normal. You may feel special and chosen, but this actually creates co-dependency. Anyone can be perfect short-term, so build trust slowly over time. Don’t believe declarations of love and forever from a guy who barely knows you.
3. He cares A LOT about his image. Many narcissists end up in powerful jobs (CEOs, doctors, lawyers, etc). They curate a stellar image and can sometimes snow everyone.
Narcissists in the upper-class are more likely to be mentally abusive than physically abusive because that doesn’t leave marks. In public, he may put on a show, but in private, he yells at you, critiques you, pulls your hair, grabs your arm, tells you how to dress and wear your hair, or gets mad at you for anything that makes him look like a bad person or less than perfect.
One narcissist I know made his family take their Christmas card picture in front of a huge home his company built to make it look like their home. He’d drive his family 30 minutes across town for dinner to be “seen” in an affluent area. He had a huge fancy car while his wife had no car. He was all about his image.
Gut check: Look deeper than a guy’s upbringing, appearance, family, education, job, salary, public behavior, or claim to be a “Christian.” Just because he checks the boxes or even serves in ministry doesn’t mean he’s a good catch. Instead, look for humility and the fruit of the Holy Spirit.
4. He creates division in your relationships. This is HUGE. Good relationships draw you closer to the people who love you most, like your family and friends. Bad relationships create division.
A man once told his daughters, “If a boy ever tries to come between you and God, he wasn’t sent by God,” and it’s true. A good guy will inspire the best version of you. He’ll strengthen your faith and closest relationships. A narcissist will make you feel isolated, insecure, and guilty for wanting to be with anyone but him.
Gut check: An abusive guy only wants you listening to him. He’ll cut you off from your support system by demanding all your time and attention, dissing your friends, telling you to lie to your parents, or saying he’s the only one who really knows you. In marriage, he may move you away from your support system so nobody can raise concerns or help you leave. Feeling trapped makes you stay.
5. He has anger issues. A narcissist doesn’t like to lose, look inferior, or be told “no.” He never admits he is wrong. So when life doesn’t go his way, his reaction can be scary.
What starts as a friendly argument with you may turn into yelling or rage. If you ace the LSAT and he fails it, he may get super-sarcastic or insult you in front of friends. He may be impressed with your athletic skills until you beat him in basketball. Punishment may look like the silent treatment, withdrawal, or turning on you fast.
Gut check: A guy who scares you with his words or anger or makes you walk on eggshells will only get worse with time. If you marry him, you’re putting yourself (and your children) in danger. Cut ties early before he feels like he owns you and feels rage over losing you.
6. His angry outbursts are followed by a sad story. A narcissist will flip his anger into a sad story to invoke sympathy, saying things like, “I’m sorry I yelled, my mom has cancer and I’m just worried”, “My parents hate me and want to send me to boarding school”, or “You can’t leave me, I have no reason to live without you.”
He may show extra emotion or apologize profusely through tears when he’s scared of losing you.
Girls who are caring, empathetic, eager to please, or quick to forgive and show grace make vulnerable prey. They may overlook bad behavior as they over-relate with the “hurt” part of the abuser. Narcissists often target tender-hearted girls because they try harder to make things work, sometimes to their own demise.
Gut check: Don’t accept tears or anguish about an unrelated personal issue as an excuse for verbal abuse. Don’t let a manipulator play on your tender heart. Don’t stay because you feel sorry for him. There is a difference between a mistake and a major character flaw, and if a boy is toxic, setting boundaries with him protects your ability to live out God’s plan for you (for more, read the Boundaries books)
7. At times, the truth hits you. You know he is a mistake. In random moments of clarity, you’ll know something is off. These moments may come when you’re away from him, when you have a sudden epiphany like That is not the father of my children, or when you’re scared of what may happen if you stay. Rather than push these clues down, reflect on them. Trust your instincts.
Gut check: Don’t settle for less than you deserve or ever feel like it’s too late to walk away. The right guy will give you a sense of peace, not unease, and make you want to stay.
8. He plays mind games, keeps you on a roller coaster, and changes your personality (for the worse). Your teacher may ask if everything’s okay because you don’t smile as much as you used to. Your parents may say, “Sweetie, this isn’t you” as you cry over your boyfriend’s texts. You may spend more time alone in your room isolated from friends. What should be a happy night – like being on homecoming court – may end in tears as he whispers that you look bad in your dress and have on too much makeup.
A narcissist will gaslight you. He’ll “turn on you” and then “turn on the praise” to create confusion and co-dependency. In therapy, co-dependency is often described through the frog story: If you put a put a frog into a pot of boiling water, he’ll jump out – but if you put a frog into a pot of lukewarm water and increase the heat gradually until it’s boiling, he’ll stay in the pot and die. Likewise, girls often adapt as relationships get worse and forget they have the power to leave.
Gut check: Even strong, capable, and accomplished girls can be broken down through mental and verbal abuse. A narcissist will strip you of your courage, voice, identity, self-esteem, and strength. He may orchestrate extreme highs – like an extravagant gift – to compensate for extreme lows. Don’t be fooled by his sweet or sensitive side, and don’t stay in a relationship that makes you a shell of your former self.
9. He’s jealous and controlling. A narcissist wants to control you. To avoid conflict or make him happy, you may accommodate him, but then he only gets worse.
He’ll comment a lot on your appearance. He’ll critique your clothes, your hair, and anything he doesn’t like. He’ll control your relationships too – begging you to switch seats in Biology because he’s jealous of your lab partner, forbidding you to talk to your best guy friends, blowing up your phone when his friends see you talking to a boy at the pizzeria, or texting you when you’re with friends to say, “If you really love me, you’ll leave your friends and come hang out with me.” Technology makes it worse as he tracks where you are.
Before long, you’ll feel paranoid to talk to anyone who might trigger your boyfriend. You’ll lose your sense of friendship with girlfriends and center your life around him.
Gut check: You are your own person, and you need independence. Don’t let any boy be your dictator – or mistake his control as a sign of love or caring. Some guys who act “protective” are really taking away your freedom and encapsulating you.
10. He criticizes you, belittles you, or makes you feel dumb. A narcissist can dish criticism – but he can’t take it. Initially, you may like his passionate personality as he plans fun or thoughtful dates, but you’ll soon doubt yourself as he dismisses your opinions, makes you feel incompetent, and gives you no say over decisions.
Gut check: A guy worth values your opinion, listens to you, builds your confidence, and sees you as more than just a beautiful girl who makes him look good.
11. He guilt-trips you and makes you feel responsible for his mistake. One girl’s high school boyfriend blamed her when he cheated. He called her crying and admitted that he’d done something terrible.
He’d hooked up with another girl, but he insisted it wasn’t his fault because she came on strong – and she was willing to do things with him that his girlfriend wouldn’t due to strict boundaries.
Gut check: His mistake is not your fault. Don’t let him mess with your mind, guilt you into forgiving him, or distort reality. When a boy shifts blame to you, lies, cheats, or turns the table as you question him or call him out on a lie, don’t just walk away — run. Healthy people take responsibility for their words and actions.
12. Your family or friends don’t like him. Mostly likely, someone will see red flags. You’ll get angry if they express concern. Trust the people who have been part your life far longer than any boy. When multiple people get the same funny vibe – or when the situation gets so bad that your parents forbid you to see your boyfriend – it’s time to really listen.
Gut check: Those who know you best love you best. They’re willing to upset you to keep you from making a life-altering mistake. Ask yourself if what they say aligns with what you feel deep down. Chances are, it will.
In summary, dating is tricky. And with your first relationship, you don’t know what’s normal. You don’t have a good relationship to compare a bad one to, and you’re unsure to handle a breakup.
Give yourself grace if you choose the wrong guy. Learn from it, move on, and don’t waste the lessons, because as many happily married women can attest, the wrong guys offer clarity on what you don’t want and refuse to put up with. They inspire you to find the exact opposite of what you left.
So notice the red flags and learn how healthy relationships work. Keep in mind these pointers:
- All that glitters is not gold. Character matters more than charisma (read more here).
- The best guys bring out the best version of yourself.
- Fear is never a good reason to stay. Neither is desperation.
- The longer you stay, the harder it is to leave. Cut ties early and let people help you when you don’t feel strong enough.
- Infatuation can blind you. Listen when the people you trust voice concern.
- God speaks through instincts, intuition, and discernment. Trust your gut when you sense a boy leading you down a path that doesn’t align with God’s will.
- Know your worth and find your identity in Jesus so you don’t settle for less than you deserve (the first chapter of my new book)
- If you run as fast as you can toward God, the right guy will come alongside you. You’ll look over one day and see him – and he’ll have to run harder just to get to you. Choose the guy who’s running the same race as you.
One Instagram friend who helped with this message said that she hadn’t seen her abusive ex for 10 years – and then saw him at the airport at 5 a.m. while waiting at the gate with her husband to fly to their honeymoon. It felt like a fitting bookend, and I agree. While not all stories have a tidy conclusion, it’s a good reminder of what the future can hold. You never know what may be waiting for you on the other side of a bad relationship thanks to the unforgettable lessons you learn.
Thanks for reading this message. Please share it or listen audibly on the Girl Mom podcast.
My new book for girl moms AND boy moms is coming soon! More Than a Mom: How Prioritizing Your Wellness Helps You (and Your Family) Thrive, will release April 5 and is the perfect Mother’s Day gift. Pre-order now to get the lowest price between now and April 5 and amazing pre-order incentives. If you love audiobooks, you can pre-order on Audible, where I am the narrator!
My other bestselling books, Love Her Well: 10 Ways to Find Joy and Connection with Your Teenage Daughter , 10 Ultimate Truths Girls Should Know and Liked, have been used widely across the U.S. for group studies.
Posted by Kari on February 14, 2022