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A former client once told me how her husband of 30 years and the father of her children had seemed totally perfect. Even at home with the family, he was mostly a decent guy. The client said he was actually easy to live with. Obviously this made me wonder exactly why she had signed up for sessions with me, at first. This wasn’t the usual narcissist story.
The guy was prominent in his community and well-known at church to be a generous, decent person. He regularly went on mission trips with his men’s group and was loved by all who knew him. And until fairly recently, his wife had been happy.
But as it turned out, things weren’t as rosy as they’d appeared. It seemed he’d been having affairs for the majority of his marriage, and she had recently learned that he’d been introducing their kids to some of his conquests. And this guy wasn’t just a one-night-stand kind of man – he would have long-term relationships with these women.
In fact, the client confessed, there was a situation several years ago where a woman contacted her and said that he’d been living with her for the past decade in another state. It turned out that at least some of these mission trips he’d been so dutifully attending were actually a cover for his need to go and live with his mistress.
He got so good at it that the mistress in this case actually believed she was the only one for most of that decade, so she was completely bowled over when she learned that she was actually the other woman. She ended the relationship as soon as she found out, and my client thought maybe that would be the end of it.
But she had learned that he was now with a new woman he’d met at a local bar, and now she was done. As it turned out, that was why she’d called me. This particular narcissist was especially skilled with manipulation and hiding – to the point that he’d managed to have, the client later learned, several other long-term relationships within the time they’d been married. And, thanks to his manipulation, he’d also turned their children against their mother, blaming her for all of his affairs – despite the fact that she was a loving and devoted wife.
Worse, he’d somehow managed to convince all of their friends and extended family members that his cheating was somehow warranted. So, rather than supporting her when she needed it most, they shunned her and supported the cheater and his new source of supply, which the narcissist paraded in front of his wife without shame or remorse.
This was an extreme example of a cheating narcissist who clearly had a double life going on, without a doubt. But many narcissists have a need to cheat on their partners, and as research suggests, often even when things seem to be good in their marriages. And their reasons for cheating as well as their behavior around their infidelity are different than your average person. If you’re concerned that your partner is or might be cheating on you, or you’ve experienced this in the past, you’re going to want to stick around for this one. Because that’s exactly what we’re talking about today – why narcissists cheat on their partners and the signs of a narcissist who is cheating on you.
Narcissists are well-known to be disrespectful to their partners and anyone who is close to them. Their marked lack of empathy makes it possible for them to actively cheat without remorse. For the most part, a narcissist’s primary focus is getting their needs met – and one of their biggest needs is for narcissistic supply. While narcissistic supply isn’t just about physical intimacy, it can certainly be a big part of it in many cases.
How Narcissistic Cheating is Different: Secondary Supply
Let’s talk about what I like to call “secondary supply.” See, unlike your average player or pickup artist, many narcissists will become habitual cheaters in their relationships. This is one way narcissists can be different when it comes to cheating. Because, rather than having a one-night stand here or there, a narcissist needs the supply provided by a secondary partner. In addition to getting their extramarital physical needs met, this secondary partner can provide emotional supply as well. In some cases, this can get as serious as the example I mentioned – where the narcissist creates a whole double life involving their secondary supply.
Published research tells us that someone who is narcissistic is more likely to have an extramarital affair, and is likely to be okay with infidelity, and this is even true when they are happy with their partner in the current relationship. (Foster, Shrira, & Campbell, 2006; Hunyady, Josephs, & Jost, 2008; Mcnulty & Widman, 2014).
The secondary supply and the double life setup offers the narcissist something extra – another person to control and manipulate. Someone who, in many cases, doesn’t know them quite as well and is more willing to look past some of their flaws than a longer-term, live in supply like a spouse who has kids with them. This person might be a little younger or less established, and they might give the narcissist an ego boost more directly and more often than the emotionally numb spouse who is at home worrying about them, taking care of their kids and doing their laundry. And, this secondary supply may be one of several members of the narcissist’s own private little harem.
The Narcissistic Harem
The term “narcissistic harem” actually means a group or “collection” of friends/admirers (AKA sources of narcissistic supply) that a narcissist gathers up to stay topped up on their daily supply of love and admiration.
Since no single individual person could ever fill the void that is the hole inside a narcissist’s soul, they seek to fill it with whomever they can – and often these relationships are interchangeable. Now, the harem doesn’t usually include only intimate partners. It could also include friends, relatives and others. Put more simply, a narcissistic harem is a group of people who are happy to stroke the ego of the narcissist as needed.
And in some cases, this harem can also involve a number of “virtual” friends in the form of an online harem – and those can sometimes be the most dangerous because they are the most underhanded and easy to hide. Plus, if you think about it, it’s much easier to manipulate a person’s perception if they’re only seeing your world through your eyes.
Do All Narcissists Cheat?
Despite popular opinion, not all narcissists are cheaters. And not all cheaters are narcissists. But being a toxic narcissist or having narcissistic personality disorder certainly makes cheating more likely, and the reasons narcissists cheat are different than your average cheater.
Why Narcissists Cheat on You
For narcissists, cheating on their partner isn’t just about having sex with someone else, although that can be part of it. But it is also about being in control, getting narcissistic supply and more. Narcissists also have a sense of entitlement that would shock most people. This feeling of superiority and their genuine belief that they should have the right to do whatever they want is a dangerous combination.
Along with their known tendency toward impulsivity and the number of narcissists who are known to have a high sex drive, they are among the most likely to cheat on their partners.
The other thing that you have to remember here is that, in their search for narcissistic supply, one of the biggest things they’re seeking is validation. Ironically, validation is one thing they also starve their partners of in the process of trying to get their own needs met. Combined with the excitement of an extramarital affair and the sneaking and hiding involved with it, narcissists almost can’t resist the thrill. They can become predators who will at any cost get what they want, leading to a seriously high risk for their partners to be emotionally devastated in the process.
On top of this are two other factors: narcissists believe they are above the rules, so they can rationalize their cheating as acceptable due to what they consider extenuating circumstances – and the fact that they don’t see you as a whole person. What I mean is that they see you as an extension of themselves or an object – so in their minds, they might not actually think you even deserve the fidelity they promised you in the beginning.
Like the client’s husband I mentioned earlier, many narcissists are really good at putting on the mask of decency and convincing everyone around them that they’re standing on high moral ground even as they cheat on the person they once vowed to love and to be faithful to. They gaslight and manipulate everyone involved, and leave their partner (and often, also their secondary supply) with cognitive dissonance, confusion and a completely destroyed sense of self. It is very painful and can make you feel like your world is ending.
What are the signs the narcissist is cheating on you?
If you have been cheated on by a narcissist, you understand the pain that is associated with it. The signs of a cheating narcissist might be a little different than the signs an average person is not being faithful. Perhaps at the time, you weren’t able to tell, but you might see in hindsight that the signs were there all along. Let’s go over the 5 signs of a cheating narcissist right now.
1. The narcissist tells you a sob story of how their ex cheated on them.
Narcissists are really good at playing the victim, and one of the first signs that they might cheat will often happen very early in your relationship. If you think back, you might remember exactly what I’m talking about. Did they tell you sob stories about how they were cheated on? They can appear to be quite vulnerable in those moments, and this lends to you sort of rallying around them. As they see you do this, they know they’re getting somewhere. Since they seem to be completely genuine when they describe the pain they felt when their ex cheated, they sort of tug at your heartstrings. It can feel like you’re bonding with them. You end up feeling so sorry for them, and you promise you’ll never cheat on them as their ex did. And, while you feel sorry for them, you also think this means that they would never cheat on you. The two of you end up forming what you believe is an unbreakable bond. And then if and when they do cheat on you later in the relationship and you confront them, they may throw these moments back in your face and act like the fact that you suggested they might be cheating is an insult in itself. This would, in most cases, lead to you feeling bad for even thinking it, and then the narcissist feels vindicated and continues their affair, unimpeded.
2. You get accused of cheating.
We all know how narcissists have a tendency to project their own bad behaviors on to us. Well, in this case, the narcissist will start to notice anyone in your life who could be a potential partner for you. They’ll accuse you of being too flirty, or of wearing that outfit you love because you’re trying to impress other people. In some cases, this will lead to you sort of dulling-down your look in order to ease their minds. This inadvertently also might lend to your already-struggling self-esteem taking a big hit – and combined with the constant need to reassure the narcissist that you’re not their cheating ex, you might find yourself so busy and unfocused that the narcissist finds it much easier to actually cheat on you. This particular tactic is also helpful for the narcissist because, even if you do believe they are cheating on you, it is difficult to actually make this accusation as you try to defend yourself. And if you do, they’ll claim that you’re just trying to hide your own guilt by blaming them. This is ironic because it is quite literally what the narcissist is doing to you in this moment.
3. The narcissist suddenly gets too busy and starts canceling plans.
You make a plan to go for dinner and a movie with a narcissist, then they cancel at the last minute because an ’emergency’ came up. Or you’ve planned a vacation together, and suddenly they have to work all week. So they tell you that you should go ahead without them – after all, the deposits are non-refundable, and you sure look like you could use a break. You take this as kindness and think how selfless they are as you hop on the plane, clueless that they’re actually going to spend the week with their secondary supply. Or they start taking a lot of unusual business trips, or long weekend fishing trips.
And you’ll notice that, suddenly, this is something they are doing over and over again. Not only do they cancel the plans, but they might even end up disappearing for days. Then they randomly show up out of the blue. Sometimes they even apologize and promise to make it up to you – but then they never do. In fact, they often end up repeating this behavior.
4. Something seems off with their social media stuff.
Narcissists are known to create love triangles on social media. They sometimes sneak around with dating and hookup apps and they also can be known to share provocative status updates on their networks. You might notice that they suddenly stop using their usual accounts, and that can be an indication that they’re using alternate accounts. Or they suddenly become friends with a new person – and/or an existing friend starts liking all of their photos and statuses. In some cases, they won’t post photos of the two of you together, or they will hide their relationship status, if they don’t refuse to put one up at all. The social media age makes it so much easier for the narcissist to cheat and hide their double lives, and you know narcissists: they’ll take advantage any way they can.
5. They won’t let you near their phone.
Whether they’ve always been secretive about their phone or it just started, a narcissist who actively hides their phone or who freaks out anytime you go near it is probably hiding something from you. This could be an actual affair, or it could be whatever they happen to be doing on social media. In some cases, you might find questionable messages and photos from someone, or they might just want to hide the people they’re following or otherwise engaging with. In any case, when they are overly concerned about their phones and your ability to see what they’re doing there, it can be a red flag.
6. They shove their phone in your face and dare you to find something wrong.
I know, you’re probably like wait…I thought you said they hide their phones. And, yes, in many cases they do. But, in some cases, the narcissist gets really devious. So, when you accuse them of cheating, they may throw their phone at you and tell you to go ahead and dig through it. They’re doing nothing wrong, they say. In these cases, if they are cheating, they’re either really on top of deleting stuff – and have made arrangements with their secondary supply to only contact them when they say so, or they’ve got a secret secondary phone.
7. They change the way they spend money.
If a narcissist is cheating on you, the way they spend money might change. This could be because they are now spending money trying to love bomb and woo the secondary supply, so they suddenly have no money to spend on the bills or other stuff they usually buy. Or, if they are on the higher end of the income spectrum, they might suddenly start buying all kinds of unexpected gifts for you in order to throw you off and keep you from investigating them. They might also have unexplainable charges on their credit cards or in the bank account.
8. You’ll get a heads up.
In some cases, you’ll get a heads up – either from an ex or from someone the narcissist has actually had an affair with. This may happen because the ex is genuinely concerned about you, or because they are angry at the narcissist. And in the case of the person they cheated with, they may tell you because they didn’t know the narcissist was married or had a partner, or because they are upset with the narcissist for some reason. There could of course be a number of other reasons for such an admission. But in any case, the important thing to remember as well is if you encounter someone who was cheated on by the narcissist that you are seeing, or who cheated with the narcissist, then at least consider looking into the allegations.
These are just a few of the signs that a narcissist is cheating on you. Of course, just like any cheater, you’ll also see things like a sudden concern for their appearance, where there wasn’t before. Or you’ll see a change in routine – like they might join a new gym. You might notice that they are different in the bedroom – you’ll see them being intimate more or less often than before, and suddenly they might show up with a new trick after being married for 20 years.
Should you confront a cheating narcissist?
This is entirely up to you. But you should know what to expect if you do confront a narcissist you believe is cheating on you. Here is what to expect.
The narcissist will deny everything.
Narcissists are known liars, and this is especially true when they might otherwise lose you as a source of narcissistic supply. You will not get the truth ever from a narcissist when it comes to cheating – even if you actually catch them in the act. They will gaslight you and tell you that you didn’t see what you did. They will also attempt to discredit whatever information you have, as well as its source – even, again, if you caught them in the act. Since they have no respect or empathy for you, they see no reason not to lie. They figure if they never admit the truth, you’ll never know it.
The narcissist will say it’s your fault.
We all know that narcissists can’t or won’t take personal responsibility for anything they do that’s wrong. In the case of cheating, the narcissist might actually blame you for their bad behavior. For example, they might say you’re too boring, or that you’re not interested in them, or they might complain that you don’t spend enough time with them, so they had no choice. In any case, they’ll make you the bad guy.
The narcissist will rage.
When you don’t agree that it’s your fault, the narcissist is likely to go into a rage. Narcissistic rage is a common reaction to not getting what they want. It is unreasonable and illogical, but the narcissist doesn’t care. In many cases, they will convince you to shut up and accept whatever they’re doing – and this is especially true when you aren’t aware of what they are. When you do know, though, you might hold out using the gray rock method. And that will lead to narcissistic injury.
This playlist will help you learn how to use the gray rock method effectively.
The narcissist will play the “poor me” act.
This is where the narcissistic injury comes in. They act like you’re hurting them or you’ve done something to them by accusing them of cheating. The idea that you’d actually expect them to take responsibility infuriates them – and if you don’t respond to the rage in the way that the narcissist prefers, they will make you out to be the aggressor. They will tell everyone what a terrible person you are – and how mean you were to them. Don’t fall for it – it’s just a smear campaign and a last-ditch attempt to get what they want.
Personally, I don’t believe you should tell them right away, given how you know they will react. If you do tell them, you will be unable to get the satisfaction you hope for – and if you tell them before you’re ready to take action (such as leaving them), they will make you completely miserable in the process.
But if you hold your cards close to your chest, you can decide when and how you tell them. This gives you a little power back, at least.
Question of the Day: Have you experienced being cheated on by a narcissist, or think you might be experiencing it now? How did or will you get through it? Share your thoughts, share your experiences, share your ideas in the comments section below this video and let’s talk about it.
Worried that you might be dealing with a cheating narcissist? Take this quiz and find out if you might be a victim of a narcissist cheater.
Angela Atkinson is a Certified Life Coach and the author of more than 20 books on narcissism, narcissistic abuse recovery and related topics. A recognized expert on narcissism and narcissistic personality disorder who has studied and written extensively on narcissistic relationships since 2006, Atkinson was inspired to begin her work as a result of having survived toxic relationships of her own.
Atkinson offers trauma-informed coaching and has certifications in life coaching, level 2 therapeutic model, CBT coaching, integrative wellness coaching, and NLP. She is a certified trauma support coach and certified family trauma professional. She also has a professional PTSD counseling certification. Her mission is to help those who have experienced the emotional and mental devastation that comes with narcissistic abuse in these incredibly toxic relationships to (re)discover their true selves, stop the gaslighting and manipulation and move forward into their genuine desires – into a life that is exactly what they choose for themselves.
Along with her solution-focused life coaching experience, Atkinson’s previous career in journalism and research helps her to offer both accurate and understandable information for survivors of abuse in a simple-to-understand way that helps to increase awareness in the narcissistic abuse recovery community. Atkinson founded QueenBeeing.com Narcissistic Abuse Recovery Support, the SPANily Narcissistic Abuse Recovery Support Groups and the Life Makeover Academy. In her life coaching practice, Atkinson’s clients enjoy her personalized approach that allows and encourages them to become the best possible versions of themselves and to succeed in doing what they love most. She offers individual and group coaching for victims and survivors of narcissistic abuse at NarcissisticAbuseRecovery.Online and NarcissismSupportCoach.com.