Do You Love a Narcissist?

Businesswoman Flipping off BusinessmanIt’s easy to fall in love with narcissists. Their charm, talent, success, beauty, and charisma cast a spell, along with compliments, scintillating conversation, and even apparent interest in you. Perhaps you were embarrassed when your mate cut in front of the line or shuddered at the dismissive way he or she treated a waitress. Once hooked, you have to contend with their demands, criticisms, and self-centeredness. The relationship revolves around them, and you’re expected to meet their needs when needed, and are dismissed when not.

What it’s Like. In the beginning, you were delighted to be in the narcissist’s aura. Now you’re tense and drained from unpredictable tantrums, attacks, and unjustified indignation at imaginary slights. You begin to doubt yourself, worry what he or she will think, and become as pre-occupied with the narcissist, as he or she is with him or herself.

After a while, you start to lose self-confidence. Your self-esteem may have been intact when you met, but your partner finds you coming up short, and doesn’t fail to point it out. Most narcissists are perfectionists, and nothing you or others do is right or appreciated. Talking about your disappointment or hurt gets turned into your fault or another opportunity to put you down. They can dish it, but not take it, being highly sensitive to any perceived judgment.

Narcissists have no boundaries and see you as an extension of themselves, requiring that you’re on call to meet their needs – regardless of whether you’re ill or in pain. You might get caught-up in trying to please them. This is like trying to fill a bottomless pit. Their needs, whether for admiration, service, love, or purchases, are endless. You might go out of your way to fill their request only to have your efforts devalued because you didn’t read their mind. They expect you to know without having to ask. You end up in a double-blind – damned if you displease them and damned when you do. Narcissists don’t like to hear “No.” Setting boundaries threatens them. They’ll manipulate to get their way make sure you feel guilty if you’re bold enough to risk turning them down. You become afraid that if you don’t please them, you risk an onslaught of blame and punishment, love being withheld, and a rupture in the relationship. All too possible, because the narcissist’s relationship is with him or herself. You just have to fit in. Nevertheless, you stay in the relationship, because periodically the charm, excitement, and loving gestures that first enchanted you return.

Do Narcissists love? In public, narcissists switch on the charm that first drew you in. People gravitate towards them and are enlivened by their energy. You’re proud to bask in their glow, but at home, they’re totally different. They may privately denigrate the person they were just entertaining. You begin to wonder if they have an outward “as if” personality. Maybe you’re reassured of their love when they bestow complimentary and caring words and gestures, are madly possessive, or buy you expensive gifts, then doubt their sincerity and question whether they’re being manipulative or saying what’s appropriate.

Sometimes, you might think they love only themselves. That’s a common misconception. Actually, they dislike themselves immensely. Their inflated self-flattery, perfectionism, and arrogance are merely covers for the self-loathing they don’t admit – usually even to themselves. Instead, it’s projected outwards in their disdain for and criticism of others. This is why they don’t want to look at themselves. They’re too afraid, because they believe that the truth would be devastating. Actually, they don’t have much of a Self at all. Emotionally, they’re dead inside. (See Self-Love.)

Early Beginnings. It’s hard to be empathic with narcissists, but they didn’t choose to be that way. Their natural development was arrested as a toddler due to faulty, early parenting, usually by the mother who didn’t provide sufficient nurturing and opportunity for idealization. They’re left with an unrealistic view of themselves, and at time make you experience what it was like having had to feed the needs of a cold, invasive, or unavailable narcissistic parent. Anne Rice’s vampire Lestat had such an emotionally empty mother, who devotedly bonded with him to survive. The deprivation of real nurturing and lack of boundaries make narcissists dependent on others to feed their insatiable need for validation. Like the mythological Narcissus, they don’t know themselves, but only can love themselves as a reflection in the eyes of others. Poor Narcissus. The gods sentenced him to a life without human love. He fell in love with his reflection by a pool, and died by the water, hungering for a response from his reflection.

Diagnosis. All personality traits, including narcissism, exist on a continuum from mild to severe. Narcissism ranges from self-centeredness and some narcissistic traits to Narcissistic Personality Disorder (“NPD”). NPD wasn’t categorized as a disorder by the American Psychiatric Association until 1987, because it was felt that too many people shared some of the traits and it was difficult to diagnose. The summarized diagnosis is controversial and undergoing further change:
Someone with NPD is grandiose (sometimes only in fantasy), lacks empathy, and needs admiration from others, as indicated by five of these characteristics:

1. A grandiose sense of self-importance and exaggerates achievements and talents
2. Dreams of unlimited power, success, brilliance, beauty, or ideal love
3. Lacks empathy for the feelings and needs of others
4. Requires excessive admiration
5. Believes he or she is special and unique, and can only be understood by, or should associate with other special or of high-status people (or institutions)
6. Unreasonably expects special, favorable treatment or compliance with his or her wishes
7. Exploits and takes advantage of others to achieve personal ends
8. Envies others or believes they’re envious of him or her
9. Has “an attitude” of arrogance or acts that way

Of all the narcissists, beware of malignant narcissists, who are the most pernicious, hostile, and destructive. They take traits 6 & 7 to an extreme, and are vindictive and malicious. Avoid them before they destroy you.

Codependency. People with codependency lack a core Self, and define themselves based on others. This is true for all narcissists, whose Self is so weak and insecure, they need constant validation. Stereotypically, they’re not interested in taking care of others – but some narcissists are caretakers. Many narcissistic men do this with money, because it boosts their self-esteem.

When two narcissists get together, they’re miserable needing each other, yet fighting over whose needs come first and pushing away. On the other hand, it can be a perfect fit, albeit painful, for ordinary codependents, because their low self-esteem, is boosted by the narcissist’s attributes and aura of success. It also allows them to tolerate the narcissist’s emotional abuse. They feel needless and guilty asserting their needs and caring for a narcissist makes them 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.

Treatment. Narcissists don’t usually seek help unless a major loss shatters their illusions. But both narcissism and codependency can be healed with courage, time, and a commitment to yourself. Recovery entails improving boundaries and self-acceptance based upon real self-knowledge. Psychotherapy and joining a 12-Step program are beneficial ways to start.
© Darlene Lancer, 2011
For a free PDF on turning self-criticism to your self-esteem, see www.darlenelancer.com.

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24 thoughts on “Do You Love a Narcissist?

  1. My wife and I have been having difficulties almost from the beginning of the relationship. We have been together 6 years and for the last 4, I have been seeking counseling. At first, we thought I was experiencing anger management issues. Just recently, she handed me an article on Narcissism. I was floored by the truth that I found in those words. So, I admit I have some of the characteristics but not all and I am learning that I am also codependent. I cannot begin to know how to correct this on my own. I see many group therapy sessions available for codependency but none for the Narcissist. Aside from your books (which I plan to purchase) can you offer suggestions for seeking help?

    • The fact that you want help and therapy is very auspicious and makes me question if you truly are a narcissist. I strongly believe that narcissists are codependent, but I’m in the minority. If you heal your narcissism, you’ll heal both. I would do the exercises in my book on shame. Shame underlies both, and it starts in childhood. Try CoDA and you’ll need individual work for the narcissism. Best wishes to you.

  2. Hello Darlene!
    I am a codependent married to a narcissist/borderline/sociopath….Cluster B, in any case. He refuses to be tested so I may never know for sure. We have been together going on 30 years. We are currently separated. I just read the book by Ross Rosenberg titled: The Human Magnet Syndrome. This book describes in detail the “dance” between a codependent and a narcissist and how we were magnetically joined. I have read 25 books on the subject and have participated in therapy for years (14 therapists). Therapy is something I have always valued. I have been so dissolutioned by it as well. I am not sure I am in recovery from my codependency, but I am working very hard. I now understand that the Narcissist is addicted to provocative words and behaviors, because he/she needs the “fix” that the codependent person gives when he/she “reacts”. THe simple answer is to “stop dancing/reacting” which is easier said than done. Another aspect I learned about is that the Narcissist my actually turn the tables in therapy and successfully get the therapist to believe that the codependent is actually the narcissist or borderline or something along those lines. THis was earth shaking information to me, as I feel that this is exactly what has been occurring in therapy. Seems to me that, based on Ross’s book, that codependents and narcissists are on a continuum and fall at the opposite ends of that continuum. If that is true, is it still somehow possible for a codependent to be a narcissist? Is there a test to take to find out specifically? I have been tested in the past, because my husband kept insisting that I was borderline. I was tested and the psychologist told me that I am not borderline, nor do I have any personality disorders. She also explained that there are milestones and I fall in something like the #2 on the scale which is very low and would not even warrant a suggestion to be tested. Even so, I am continually bombarded with accusations that I am somehow my husband. Of course, he is doing this in very covert and manipulative ways, but he continually wins over the therapists. The 2 most resent therapists both ended up sharing that they were Narcissists with the reply “So what”, because I was asserting that my husband needs to be tested for his narcissism so he can get out of denial. I truly believe you cannot change what you will not acknowledge. I understand he is very unlikely to acknowledge and/or own his behaviors, but this is were I am currently “stuck”. I have always hoped (at least since I started hearing about narcissim) that my husband would be willing to get help. He states that “no therapist has ever called me a narcissist” which is not really accurate. However, even the ones that acknowledge the narcissism don’t address it. They don’t suggest he get tested, they dont discuss the hurtful, manipulative, harmful effects on others, particularly children. It just feels like a vicious cycle and therapy feels like it has furthered the abuse, not help resolve it. My primary question is, can a codependent also be a narcissist?

    • You raise an interesting question. I disagree with Ross, but the answer also depends on how one defines codependency, and there isn’t one definition. Mine is aligned with John Bradshaw and Dr. Charles Whitfield, among others. I don’t know what Ross’ is. Have you read Codependency for Dummies? I cover codependency in depth, offer a definition, and provide an entire chapter devoted to letting go and not reacting. One study showed a significant correlation between codependency and narcissism. That doesn’t mean all narcissists are codependent, but if you eliminate self-sacrifice from the definition, all the other core symptoms line up. I also don’t think telling someone they’re a narcissist is helpful, but it is therapeutic to teach narcissists to empathize and heal their shame to enable them to take back their projections, which they use as their main defense. They carry a lot of shame linked to codependency, as discussed in my new book, Conquering Shame and Codependency: 8 Steps to Freeing the True You. Unfortunately, many are not interested in seeking help. Working on your codependency will help change the dynamics in the relationship.

  3. Hello Darlene,
    Thank you for this post, very timely. I was involved with a narcissist for a little over a year. My question for you is what are your tips regarding closure? I recognize it’s not possible to receive typical closure from a narcissist as they don’t acknowledge their faults. I’m in a wonderful healthy relationship now but have an unbelievable amount of anger left towards my ex, and am not sure how to resolve it.
    Also, any tips on how to interact with said ex narcissist if we encounter each other in public?
    I’m struggling with how to empower myself and “take back my life”. Its very challenging with this type of personality as there seems to be no logic there.
    Any perspective you have would be much appreciated!

    • You raise very good questions. First, in any relationship although closure is ideal, it’s not always possible. Sometimes, the other person is dead. Closure is an inside job. One suggestion is to write your ex a letter, say whatever you want, then read it to a counselor, sponsor or wise friend. Throw it out or do a ritual with it. You may decide to send an edited version. Before you do, I’d suggest writing a dialogue with your ex, and have him reply with your left hand. (You’ll know just what he’ll say.) Keep going until you feel some resolution. Work on self-forgiveness, also. See my blog and do the exercises there. (Also some in Ch. 15 of my Dummies book) Seeing him in public won’t be difficult when you have released your anger and forgiven yourself. Some sessions with a therapist or counselor may be helpful.

  4. Hi Dr. Lancer,

    I enjoyed your article. Thank you for caring enough to write it. I have recently (finally – after 4 years) come to the realization that I am in love with a man that suffers from NPD. I’ve spent hours reading about it and have also come to realize I am codependent on him for, well lets face it, my misery. We are sales partners, business partners and he has become my best friend and plays a big role in my 10 year old daughters life. To make matters worse we have a 20 year age difference between us. Having a “boyfriend” that is so much younger than myself AND suffers from extreme NPD isn’t make life very easy lately. He is text book NPD. We are often times joined at the hip and others he is so outrageously nasty to me I can’t think straight. There are probably so many avenues that will lead me to make a smart decision on my path to struggle free days. Perhaps a direction that will help me make smart choices on how to find myself again or how to continue to love him and be in business with him, or simply to help me find the strength to leave him, but I’d love to hear your order of suggestions. I instantly thought you had a kind smile and I’m hoping you will kindly try to help point me in the right direction. Thank you in advance for the valuable time you took to read this post. Best to you and yours. Hope to hear back from you. :)

    • Begin to ask yourself how is it that you want to love or be friends with with someone who is emotionally abusive toward you? How does it make you feel? What are you doing to protect yourself? What do you sacrifice by being with him. When you start to value yourself more, you will begin to find answers. First, to raise your self-esteem, and set some boundaries with him. I suggest my Codependency for Dummies book and ebooks on my homepage. Join a CoDA meeting or seek a counselor for support, if necessary. Roll up your sleeves, and work on yourself.

  5. “The cause may be linked to a dysfunctional childhood, such as excessive pampering, extremely high expectations, abuse or neglect. It’s also possible that genetics or psychobiology . . . plays a role.” There is no body of research on the psychobiology at this point.

    Yes it can go either way .But there is now a thought that it is to do with genetic makeup, chemicals in the brain white matter etc, as much as parenting. I can only say that I have seen this behaviour run in siblings one of them I know for sure has similar rages the other is very haughty and has sadistic tendencies this is what I have observed from the outside they may be even worse to those they live with. The one I have known for many years has the full blown malignant syndrome. A case of some very odd genetic makeup . This is why I feel they can’t help it. But never the less their behaviour is most evil and debilitating and for anyone connected to them it is at times unbearable. You really need to be a Saint to live with it.

    • One problem for codependents is their willingness to take on the role of saint and sacrifice themselves, but they’re unaware of the debilitating effect due to their shame about their needs and idealization of self-sacrifice. Resentment and low self-esteem grow as their happiness declines.

  6. I am a recovering codependent for about 7 yrs.,although that recovery revolved around a codependency cd series by Melodie Beattie and meeting once a week at local mental health for a two person group for families of alcoholics (consisting of myself and a case manager,in total)for 5 yrs.and I found an al-anon late 2011 almost an hr and half away….Ive been separated from an alcoholic husband since late 2011 after a relapse….**How can you tell if an alcoholic is a narcissist?
    My current issue is with my alcoholic sister…released fro a mental facility this year after a year long stint.She’d been out of her mind since 2006 from possibly attempting to self detox from prescrp.meds. and/or a nervous breakdown.Was in a mentally abusive marriage.
    She is also suffering from back issues and walking is a challenge.She is drinking and needs to get a lawyer as she feels her husband is planning on taking everything and moving away.My online group says i should help myself only and let her help herself.I am trying to overcome an injury and deal with a husband who seems to be a narcissist,avoidance addict(i know ive been a love addict w/him and a major codependent in the pas, but improving).
    My sister lost her license and gets confused slightly.Her husband wont put in a phone and makes good money.She is ignored as her husband goes out and sleeps around–yet i feel she had burned a few bridges w/ her addictions im sure….
    I am barely able to help my self as i have ptsd ,major depression and injured and homeschool my son and dealing with a divorce..
    Do I do as my online group suggests and let her help herself with lawyer,etc? Seems unkind.She is a really nice person and has helped me when she wasnt addicted…But she is back on the drink at times I hear…and that makes me resentful….

    • You sound understandably overwhelmed with troubles in your own life, and need all the energy and support you can possibly get. Whether you reach out to your sister is a personal choice, as well as how much effort you put into it – whether it’s referrals, taking her somewhere or talking on the phone. Your program teaches you that you can’t convince her to do anything and trying will only drain you. I recommend my ebook on assertiveness, that can help you decide what boundaries you want to set and to do so in a way that respects you both.

      • Thanks for your reply…I want to get the ebook. However, I have so many issues, I’m not really sure which one to work on first.Realistically, it woud be the one that is the most troubling.But seeing as how there are several troubling things that have been going on its still overwhelming to know where to begin.So what I’ve done is try to deal with all, and well, you can imagine how burned out I am. I have thought of some boundaries that I could set . I just don’t know (1) should I help? am I enabling if I do? (2) how much?
        I realize I will have to decide.I try to take it slow as far as how much I help, as I’m easily overwhelmed..

        • Yes! You can imagine how hard it was to organize Codependency for Dummies! But it is the most concise and well-organized book on the subject. The book is laid out so that takes you through a recovery plan. Read it and spend time with each chapter doing the exercises. You can go back and do them again and you’ll get different results. You can work it for years. Be patient with yourself. See what others are saying here. Best wishes!

  7. I recently discovered that I myself have been a codependent for many years. I was in a 5 year relationship with a narcissist and it took my own life safety for me to leave the relationship. Then after leaving him a year and a half later I found myself again in another relationship with a narcissist that was very unhealthy, he was addicted to drugs and alcohol and I kept finding myself trying to help him, while giving up my own life in a way. Nothing was ever good enough that I did, and found myself being very emotionally abused. I thought to myself why do I keep attracting these kind of men? How do they find me? Then recently realizing that not only are they looking for women like me but I was subconsciously looking for men like them. Men who seem very charming and the life of the party you might say, while deep down they are manipulative and users in a way to get what they want. My family and friends didn’t understand why I stayed in the relationship. They’d tell me that I was a pretty and an educated woman, why do I allow myself to be used and manipulated by men. Right before I met my last boyfriend who was a narcissist I had gone on a few dates with a really nice guy who was very different from anyone I had ever dated, and then when my last boyfriend came into the picture I just automatically got sucked in and told the nice guy that I had met someone else. I really regret it, I didn’t realize at the time what I was really doing was putting myself in another bad relationship and letting go of a really nice man who probably would have treated me how I deserve, even though I do believe that things happen for a reason. I guess realizing my codependence is the first step in my process of recovery, now I need to focus on setting boundaries and building my self-esteem so I am in a better place for when the right man does come along.

    • Thank you for your honesty. Your story is true for so many people – men and women I see who repeat relationships with abusive or withholding partners. As we build our self-esteem, the quality of our relationships improves. We can only allow as much love in as we believe we deserve – like getting attention or compliments that might make us uncomfortable. How we talk to ourselves and core beliefs is important and something we can change. My ebook, 10 Steps to Self-Esteem focuses on working with our inner critic – that’s half the battle. My coming book on shame digs deeper into our past, defenses, an core beliefs of unlovability. Read my other posts on self-esteem, abuse, an self-love and nurturing. You can make better choices and will if you work on yourself.

  8. I am the mother of a narcissist, and find the following line from your article incorrect, distasteful, unprofessional and revolting – to say the least!
    My son could not have been loved, cuddled, listened to, supported in every way, or valued more by me!
    ‘Their natural development was arrested as a toddler due to faulty, early parenting, usually by the mother who didn’t provide sufficient nurturing and opportunity for idealization. They’re left with an unrealistic view of themselves, and at time make you experience what it was like having had to feed the needs of a cold, invasive, or unavailable narcissistic parent. – See more at: http://www.whatiscodependency.com/do-you-love-a-narcissist

    • Thank you for your comment. Perhaps I should have added that sometimes, a parent can be overly attentive or indulged. From the Mayo Clinic: “The cause may be linked to a dysfunctional childhood, such as excessive pampering, extremely high expectations, abuse or neglect. It’s also possible that genetics or psychobiology . . . plays a role.” There is no body of research on the psychobiology at this point.

  9. I believe that I am married to a narcissist and I can finally admit that I become fully codependent. Married nine year and four of which he has used drugs and recently started gambling. We own a business and I have become the over-functioning spouse while lately he has taken on the under-functioning role for more reasons than the drugs. I have FINALLY set boundaries and out of spite he has stopped helping with our home and business, completely. His vengeance has been cruel as a result of my standing up for myself. I could ask your guidance and advice for multiple areas, because I certainly need it, but what I am wondering at this moment is: I have convinced myself that I am trying to maintain the business not to ruin my own credit, financial situation or standing in the community but at the same time I am doing that for him too. Saving his ‘standing’ too. I am having a tough time deciphering where its codependency or not. What do I do or not do? What do I fix or not fix? I have seen a lawyer and am seeking guidance as how to proceed with a divorce. This is not an easy decision. I’ve sincerely appreciated your website and valuable wisdom. Thanks for what you do!

    • Congratulations for setting boundaries and finding your voice. To your question, there are no easy answers. This often comes up when financial matters are involved. Getting professional advice from lawyer an accountant is wise. One question to continue to ask yourself is what is the most loving gesture toward yourself. Similarly, just because an addict ruins a holiday meal and won’t help out, that doesn’t mean one shouldn’t make it – if done so for oneself, without expectations and resentments. If you’re saving the business for yourself and your family, you’re taking care of yourself and feel grateful. Working the exercises in my book should be helpful.

  10. Help!! My girl friend is in classic codependent/narcissistic relationship. She is the codependent. Her ex-husband (they were married for 10years) is the narcissist. He cheated on her. She keeps going thru the same cycle over and over of distancing herself, but getting sucked back in by this selfish chump. Everyone else can’t understand how she can actually believe his “promises” of wanting to still be with her. He only says it when he senses her leaving. When she returns, he says he still needs space. And it’s almost like his cheating never happened! It’s like he’s doing her a favor. We’ve tried over and over and even staged an intervention, but nothing seems to get through to our dear friend. What can we do to help her break this destructive cycle? Please help us help her!

    • I’m sorry to say that there’s no way you can help your girlfriend. She has to want help enough to get professional help. You may be surprised to learn that repeatedly trying to help someone who doesn’t want to change IS Codependent behavior. Get my tips on Letting Go, and read my book. If your friend is interested, she can also get a copy. Best wishes to you both.

  11. This was a very helpful article – thank you so much. I am a codependent, who feels so trapped by a narcissist. It has just been the last year that I have come to realize that I am codependent and my spouse is a narcissist. Is it possible, through counselling, for the narcissist to realize his disorder??? Or does he just manipulate his way through that as well – could you ever really be sure that he has changed??? Once trust is broken in a relationship – it is so hard to repair. I feel scared and trapped, frozen by my fear of leaving him, but so scared of what it would mean to stay with him. Counselling would be my last attempt – but I’m just not sure if it is just a waste of time? Or I’m also afraid it is just my codependency trying to hold onto to broken relationship a little longer??? Any input would be greatly appreciated. Thank you again for your helpful article.

    • Lisa, there are varied levels of narcissism. Many people have a little, and extreme narcissists are cruel and vindictive. Some benefit by therapy, but most are too fragile to examine themselves and don’t stay. Regardless, therapy would benefit you to rebuild your self-esteem, learn to set boundaries, and leave if you choose to. Don’t scare yourself thinking you have to leave before you’re ready. Try counseling together, and continue if he doesn’t. Join CoDA and do the exercises in my book and ebooks. There are reasons why you married him and were in denial so long. Find out. Start working on yourself whether or not he changes. If you leave, you will still have to create a life for yourself. Best wishes on your journey. Darlene

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