The popular catchphrase “He’s just not that into you” has become a useful shorthand for people to communicate to women that a man simply may just not be interested in them. It can serve as an important wake-up call to women who may be wasting time overanalyzing a man’s intentions rather than identifying the red flags in his behavior and are in need of detaching from emotionally unavailable people. However, the usefulness of this phrase is limited when it comes to toxic and manipulative partners and is quite male-centered in its focus.
The intention of this phrase is well-meaning – explicitly, it jolts women awake from pursuing a relationship that may be going nowhere or is riddled with red flags. Yet implicitly, what this phrase covertly communicates to partners who may have been manipulated by narcissists or psychopaths is an inaccurate depiction of their true experiences and borders on condescending. That’s because narcissists and psychopaths can appear to be extremely “into you” in the love bombing phase of the romantic relationship, pursuing their victims with ardent longing, excessive attention, lavish dates, and persistent contact. According to research, they also have a habit of staying connected to their exes for access to sex and resources. They may reengage with past partners just when these partners have begun moving on, only to impede their progress, as part of a greater manipulation cycle.
Telling a victim of a narcissist or psychopath – whether male or female – that “they’re just not that into you,” oversimplifies the cycle of manipulation, idealization, and devaluation. “He’s just not that into you” presumes a fair and just world where all people act out of a desire for compatibility and positive qualities in a partner rather than a desire for power and control like narcissists and psychopaths have. We must avoid implicitly equating any narcissist’s actions, whether male or female, to a victim’s worthiness or a narcissist’s supposed desire. Being “chosen” by a low-quality, unempathic, exploitative, manipulative person is not an accomplishment or pursuit we should be condescendingly telling women, or anyone for that matter, to desire, value, or care about. Nor does a narcissist’s choice tell us much about authentic desire.
Narcissists and psychopaths do not “choose” partners for the same reasons as empathic people do. They choose partners based on the narcissistic supply – ego strokes, praise, attention, sex, and resources – they can extract from these people. They also regularly mistreat, exploit, abuse and discard partners who are intelligent, attractive, kind, and empathic. For example, a partner who is sought after by too many suitors or is too independent may be too “threatening” to a narcissist to pursue and they may opt for an easier target. Narcissists habitually devalue people who are out of their league and have many positive qualities to gain power and control and to feel like they “won” or one-upped someone surpassing them. In fact, they can be pathologically envious of the attractive and accomplished victims they pursue, lashing out in malicious envy of those they feel inferior around, according to research. The cycles of a toxic relationship with a narcissist almost always hold a promise of the future that never quite comes to fruition for each and every victim, regardless of all the positive qualities they bring to the table.
They are also obsessed with and ardently pursue those who reject them as a power play to punish these victims and regain control, rather than due to authentic desire. Their choice of who they pursue is usually about the arbitrary whims of what best props up their ego at the time.
This phrase overemphasizes what is, in reality, the exploitative choices and decisions of a manipulator who deliberately uses initial extreme displays of desire to hook their victims. Rather than identifying the manipulation that is at play, this phrase implicitly places unwarranted value on the decisions of a manipulator whose choices ultimately don’t matter and whose decisions about their choice of partners hold very little merit.
The phrase, “He’s just not that into you” is also incredibly male-centered. Rarely do we ever hear people tell men, “She’s just not that into you,” yet male violence against women in response to rejection remains a significant problem, which should make this phrase just as applicable, if not moreso, to men as to women. Indiscriminate use of this phrase across all contexts toward women inadvertently centers what a man desires and values, placing a man’s arbitrary “choices” rather than what a woman deserves on the pedestal. It doesn’t just severely underestimate how much narcissists and psychopaths (male or female) can exhibit an extreme desire for victims in the beginning stages of romantic relationships – it also gaslights victims into believing that they should care more about what a manipulative person thinks of them, rather than recognizing how a person who lacks empathy and chronically exploits others wouldn’t be a compatible, healthy partner for anyone. While this phrase can apply to “normal” interactions with empathic people, it can be oversimplifying and invalidating to partners of narcissistic and psychopathic people, or toxic partners in general.
Narcissists dangle the carrot of future-faking to keep their victims invested in their intermittent kindness. Their reasons and motives for who they pursue and when they stop pursuing are very different from what traditional dating advice tells us about compatibility, romance, and desire. Traditional dating advice also does not consider the trauma bonds that victims develop with an abuser who has used manipulation to make the victim vie for their attention, or how the narcissist often returns to victims they appear to seemingly abandon time and time again to ensnare them back into the cycle.
“If He Wanted to, He Would” – But If He’s a Narcissist, He Did
While this reframing can apply to narcissists of any gender, is important to recognize and identify that a majority of dating advice weaponizes language that is usually centered around male desire, needs, and wants. Women regularly hear similar phrases like, “If he wanted to, he would,” which chronically instills in them a sense of falling short or needing to “earn” male approval and affection. However, if he’s a narcissist, he did – and he will blow hot and cold to get you addicted to a cycle of intermittent reinforcement. This is another phrase that is well-meaning and meant to wake women up from investing in time-wasters but this type of language has the effect of ultimately centering the narcissistic man’s actions, desires, and choices as more valuable than his actual character and does not account for manipulation.
If he or she is a narcissist, they will pursue you with a frenzy but will also periodically devalue and love bomb you to manipulate you. Their actions and choices have very little to do with your worth nor are they even valuable to be considered. We rarely hear, “If she wanted to, she would” or “If a woman wants you, you’ll know it” because female agency and desire are rarely prioritized or depicted as some sort of important “decision.”
It’s important to look closely at the language we use to describe interactions in the modern dating world where one party is a serial manipulator. Not only should we steer away from centering male desire as the primary focus, but we should also encourage victims of manipulation, whether male or female, to identify red flags in a way that focuses on the healthy relationships they do deserve, rather than implying that the unhealthy partners they encountered were “just simply not into them.” In these cases, the truth is far more convoluted.