By Darlene Lancer, JD, MFT
It’s easy to fall in love with narcissists. Their charm, talent, success, beauty, and charisma cast a spell, along with scintillating conversation, compliments toward and maybe even apparent interest in you.
Once hooked, however, you have to contend with narcissists’ demands, criticisms and self-centeredness. 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. Interpersonal relationships revolve around them. You’re expected to meet their needs when needed, and are dismissed when not.
What it’s Like to Love a Narcissist
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 preoccupied 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. 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. They see you as an extension of themselves, requiring you to be on call to meet their needs regardless of your own. 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-bind – damned if you displease them and damned when you do.
Narcissists don’t like to hear “No.” Boundary-setting threatens them. They’ll manipulate to get their way and 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, withheld love, and a ruptured relationship. This is 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 toward 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, narcissists 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 outward 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. Narcissists don’t have much of a Self at all. Emotionally, they’re dead inside. (See Self-Love.)
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 a mother who didn’t provide sufficient nurturing and opportunity for idealization. They’re left with an unrealistic view of themselves, and at times 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.
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.