Although partners of narcissists feel loved when a narcissist bestows caring words and gestures, is madly possessive, or buys expensive gifts, they doubt his or her sincerity and question whether it’s really manipulation, pretense, or a manufactured “as if” personality. They feel tense and drained from unpredictable tantrums, attacks, false accusations, criticism, and unjustified indignation about small or imaginary slights. At first, there are minor criticisms that later escalate to narcissistic abuse.
Lack of Self-Esteem and Boundaries
Like a narcissist, these partners lack boundaries. While narcissists don't see and value others, their partners don't see and value themselves. Although it may seem paradoxical to love an abuser, partners tend to be pleasers and accommodators. They absorb whatever is said about them as truth. They're insecure and look to the narcissist for validation of their self-esteem. In vain attempts to win approval and stay connected, they sacrifice their needs and thread on eggshells, fearful of displeasing the narcissist. They're tense because they daily risk blame and punishment, love being withheld, or a rupture in the relationship. They worry about what the narcissist will think or do, and become as preoccupied with the narcissist as narcissists are with themselves. Partners have to fit into the narcissists’ cold world and get used to living with emotional abandonment.
Their insecurity and low self-esteem breed doubt and guilt. Soon, they lose confidence and self-worth. Communicating their disappointment gets twisted and is met with defensive blame or further put-downs. The narcissist can dish it, but not take it. Nevertheless, they stay, because periodically the charm, excitement, and loving gestures that first enchanted them return, especially when the narcissist feels threatened that a break-up is imminent. When two narcissists get together, they fight over whose needs come first, blame, and push each other away, yet are miserable needing each other.
Usually, partners are codependent and have experienced some trauma in their childhood from an unavailable or abusive parent. Accommodators attach to narcissists who appear bold and express their needs and anger, yet they feel needless and suffer guilt when they assert themselves. Caretaking and pleasing make codependents feel valued. Because they feel undeserving of receiving love, they don’t expect to be loved for who they are–only for what they give or do (Lancer, 2014).
Despite having a seemingly strong personality, narcissists are also codependent. Their self-image and thinking and behavior are other-oriented in order to stabilize and validate their self-esteem and fragile, fragmented self. Narcissists are also drawn to their opposite to support their pride and fill their emptiness–partners who are emotionally expressive and nurturing, qualities they lack. They need partners they can control who won’t challenge them and make them feel weak (Lancer, 2014).
Narcissism shares codependent core symptoms of denial, control, shame, dependency (unconscious), and dysfunctional communication and boundaries, all leading to intimacy problems. One study showed a significant correlation between narcissism and codependency (Irwin, 1995). Although more aggressive than passive, in my opinion, they are codependent.
Accommodating codependents and narcissists can be a perfect fit, albeit painful, because the latter’s attributes and aura of success boost the formers’ low self-esteem, which allows accommodators to tolerate emotional abuse. Typically, accommodators aren’t authoritative and prefer a nonassertive, subordinate role, because their own power and often anger are repressed, frightening, and shame-bound. They seek and hunger for missing parts of themselves and idealize new partners’ qualities, which they hope to absorb. This is why two accommodators rarely get together. They’re in awe of narcissists’ self-direction and “strength,” and live vicariously in the reflection of their success, power, protection, and charisma, while unaware of narcissists’ fragile personas and hidden shame (Lancer, 2014).
Often in these relationships, narcissists are the distancers when more than sex is anticipated. Getting emotionally close means giving up power and control. The thought of being dependent is abhorrent. It not only limits their options and makes them feel weak, but also exposes them to rejection and feelings of shame, which they keep from consciousness at all costs. (Lancer, 2014) Their anxious partners pursue them, unconsciously replaying emotional abandonment from their past. Underneath they both feel unlovable.
It is possible to change the dynamics in the relationship. For loved ones of narcissists, doing the exercises and using the recommended strategies in Dating, Loving, and Leaving a Narcissist: Essential Tools for Improving or Leaving Narcissistic and Abusive Relationships can be helpful in dealing with a narcissist. Doing them can also help an ambivalent partner get clearer about whether he or she wants to stay in the relationship. See also "Therapy for NPD and Narcissists."
Irwin, H. J. (1995). Codependence, Narcissism, and Childhood Trauma. Journal of Clinical Psychology 51:5.
Lancer, D. (2014). Conquering Shame and Codependency: 8 Steps to Freeing the True You. Minnesota: Hazelden Foundation.
© Darlene Lancer, 2015
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