Narcissism FAQ: The Spouse / Mate / Partner of the Narcissist

A closeup of a man and woman hugging

Question:

What kind of a spouse/mate/partner is likely to be attracted to a Narcissist?

Answer:

THE VICTIMS

On the face of it, there is no (emotional) partner or mate, who typically “binds” with a Narcissist. They come in all shapes and sizes. The initial phases of attraction, infatuation and falling in love are pretty normal. The Narcissist is putting on his best face – the other party is blinded by budding love. A natural selection process occurs only much later, as the relationship develops and is put to the test.

Living with a Narcissist can be exhilarating, is always onerous, often harrowing. Surviving a relationship with a Narcissist indicates, therefore, the parameters of the personality of the survivor. He is moulded by the relationship into The Typical Narcissistic Mate/Partner/Spouse.

First and foremost, the partner of the Narcissist must have a deficient or a distorted grasp of his self and of reality. Otherwise, he (or she) is bound to abandon the Narcissist’s precarious ship early on. The distortion is likely to belittle and demean the partner – while aggrandizing and adoring the Narcissist. The partner is, thus, placing himself in the position of the eternal victim: undeserving, punishable, a scapegoat. Sometimes, it is very important to the partner to appear moral, sacrificial and victimized. At other times, he is not even aware of his predicament. The Narcissist is perceived by the partner to be a person in the position to demand these sacrifices from the partner, superior in many ways (intellectually, emotionally, morally, financially).

The status of professional victim sits well with the partner’s tendency to punish his self, namely: with his masochistic streak. The torment, which is a life with a Narcissist is a just punitive measure.

In this respect, the partner is the mirror image of the Narcissist. By maintaining a symbiotic relationship with him, by being totally dependent upon the source of masochistic supply (which the Narcissist most reliably constitutes and most amply provides) – the partner enhances certain traits and encourages certain behaviours, which are at the very core of Narcissism. A Narcissist is never whole without an adoring, submissive, available, self-denigrating partner. His very sense of superiority, indeed his False Self, depends on it. His sadistic Super-Ego directs itself at the partner, thus finally obtaining a legitimate source of satisfaction (which does not endanger the very existence of the Narcissist).

It is through self-denial that the partner survives. He denies his wishes, hopes, dreams, aspirations, sexual needs, psychological needs, material needs, everything, which might engender the wrath of the Narcissist God-like supreme figure. The Narcissist is rendered even more superior through and because of this self-denial. It is easy to explain self-denial undertaken to facilitate and ease the life of a Great Man. The Greater the Man (=the Narcissist), the easier it is for the partner to ignore his self, to dwindle, to degenerate, to turn into an appendix of the Narcissist and, finally, to become nothing but an extension, to merge with the Narcissist to the point of oblivion and of dim memories of one’s self.

The two collaborate in this macabre dance. The Narcissist is formed by his partner inasmuch as he forms him. Submission breeds superiority and masochism breeds sadism inasmuch as the reverse is true. The relationships are characterized by rampant emergentism: roles are allocated almost from the start and any deviation meets with an aggressive, even violent reaction.

The predominant chord in the partner’s mind is utter, unadulterated confusion. Even the most basic relationships – with husband, children, or parents – remain bafflingly obscured by the giant shadows cast by the intensive interaction with the Narcissist. A suspension of judgement is part and parcel of a suspension of individuality, which is both a prerequisite to and the result of living with a Narcissist. The partner no longer knows what is true and right and what is wrong and forbidden. The Narcissist recreates for the partner the sort of emotional ambience that led to his formation in the first place: capriciousness, fickleness, arbitrariness, emotional (and physical or sexual) abandonment. The world becomes uncertain and frightening and the partner has only one sure thing to cling to: the Narcissist.

And cling he does. If there is anything which can safely be said about those who emotionally team up with Narcissists, it is that they are overtly and overly dependent, even compulsively so.

The partner doesn’t know what to do – and this is only too natural in situations of conflict, as any relationship with a Narcissist is. But the typical partner also does not know what he wants and, to a large extent, who he is and what he wants to become. A lack of answers to these questions is serious.

It is serious because it hampers the partner’s ability to gauge reality, evaluate and appraise it for what it is. His primordial sin is that he fell in love with an image, not with a real person. It is the voiding of the image that is mourned when the relationships end.

The break-up of a relationship with a Narcissist is, therefore, more emotionally charged than usual. It is the culmination of a long chain of humiliations and of subjugation. It is the rebellion of the functioning and healthy parts of the partner’s personality against the tyranny of the Narcissist.

The partner is bound to have totally misread and misinterpreted the whole interaction (I hesitate to call it a relationship, usually there was none but in the aspirations and the hopes of the partner). This lack of proper interface with reality might be (erroneously) labelled “pathological”.

Why is it that the partner seeks to prolong his pain? What is the source and purpose of this masochistic streak? In all likelihood, the partner is an inverted Narcissist, a suppressed one, or a latent one – in the limited sense that his psychological make-up and formation are identical to those of the Narcissist. This deep-rooted, deep-seated identity fosters the frequent follies-a-deux which is the Narcissistic couple. Upon the break-up of the relationship, the partner (and the Narcissist) engage in a tortuous and drawn out post mortem. But the question who really did what to whom (and even why) is irrelevant. What is relevant is to stop mourning oneself (this is what the parties are really mourning), start smiling again and love in a less subservient, hopeless, and pain-inflicting manner.

THE abuse

abuse is an integral, inseparable part of the narcissistic personality disorder.

The narcissist idealizes and then DEVALUES and discards the object of his initial idealization. This abrupt, heartless devaluation IS abuse. ALL narcissists idealize and then devalue. This is THE core of pathological narcissism. The narcissist exploits, lies, insults, demeans, ignores (the “silent treatment”), manipulates, controls. All these are forms of abuse.

There are a million ways to abuse. To love too much is to abuse. It is tantamount to treating someone as an extension, an object, or an instrument of gratification. To be over-protective, not to respect privacy, to be brutally honest, or consistently tactless – is to abuse. To expect too much, to denigrate, to ignore – are all modes of abuse. There is physical abuse, verbal abuse, psychological abuse, sexual abuse. The list is long. Narcissists are masters of abusing surreptitiously. They are “stealth abusers”. You have to actually live with one in order to witness the abuse.

There are three important categories of abuse:

OVERT ABUSE – The open and explicit abuse of another person. Threatening, coercing, beating, lying, berating, demeaning, chastising, insulting, humiliating, exploiting, ignoring (“silent treatment”), devaluing, unceremoniously discarding, verbal abuse, physical abuse and sexual abuse are all forms of overt abuse.

COVERT OR CONTROLLING ABUSE

Narcissism is almost entirely about control. It is a primitive and immature reaction to life circumstances in which the narcissist (usually in his childhood) was rendered helpless. It is about re-exerting one’s identity, re-establishing predictability, mastering the environment – human and physical.

The bulk of narcissistic behaviours can be traced to this panicky reaction to the remote potential for loss of control. Narcissists are hypochondriacs (and difficult patients) because they are afraid to lose control over their body, its looks and its proper functioning. They are obsessive-compulsive in an effort to subdue their physical habitat and render it foreseeable. They are stalk people and harass them as a means of “being in touch” – another form of narcissistic control.

But why the panic?

The narcissist is a solipsist. He carries the whole universe in his mind. To him, nothing exists except himself. Meaningful others are his extensions, assimilated by him, internal objects – not external ones. Thus, losing control of a significant other – is equivalent to the loss of control of a limb, or of one’s brain. It is terrifying. It is paradigm-shattering.

Independent or disobedient people evoke in the narcissist the realization that something is wrong with his worldview, that he is not the centre of the world or its cause and that he cannot control what, to him, are internal representations.

To the narcissist, losing control means going insane. Because other people are mere elements in the narcissist’s mind – being unable to manipulate them literally means losing it (his mind). Imagine, if you suddenly were to find out that you cannot manipulate your memories or control your thoughts… Nightmarish!

Moreover, it is often only through manipulation and extortion that the narcissist can secure his narcissistic supply. Controlling his sources of narcissistic supply is a (mental) life or death question for the narcissist. The narcissist is a drug addict (his drug being the NS) and he would go to any length to obtain the next dose.

In his frantic efforts to maintain control or re-assert it, the narcissist resorts to a myriad of fiendishly inventive stratagems and mechanisms. Here is a partial list:

UNPREDICTABILITY

The narcissist acts unpredictably, capriciously, inconsistently and irrationally. This serves to demolish in others their carefully craftedworldview. They become dependent upon the next twist and turn of the narcissist, his next inexplicable whim, upon his next outburst, denial, or smile. Because he is assumed to be the only one intimately acquainted with his self -he becomes the source of certitude and veracity. In other words: the narcissist makes sure that HE is the only reliable existence in the lives of others – by shattering the rest of their world through his seemingly insane behaviour. He guarantees his stable presence in their lives – by destabilizing their own.

DISPROPORTIONAL REACTIONS

One of the favourite tools of manipulation in the narcissist’s arsenal is the disproportionality of his reactions. He reacts with supreme rage to the slightest slight. Or he would punish severely for what he perceives to be an offence against him, no matter how minor. Or, he would throw a temper tantrum over any discord or disagreement, however gently and considerately expressed. or, he would act inordinately attentive, charming and tempting (even over-sexed, if need be). This ever-shifting code of conduct coupled with the inordinately harsh and arbitrarily applied “penal code” are both of the narcissist’s design and unbeknownst to the “offenders”. Neediness and dependence on the source of all justice meted – on the narcissist – are thus guaranteed.

DEHUMANIZATION AND OBJECTIFICATION (ABUSE)

People have a need to believe in the empathic skills and basic good-heartedness of others. By dehumanizing and objectifying people – the narcissist attacks the very foundations of the social treaty. This is the “alien” aspect of narcissists – they may be excellent imitations of fully formed adults but they are emotionally non-existent, or, at best, immature.

This is so horrid, so repulsive, so phantasmagoric – that people recoil in terror. It is then, with their defences absolutely down, that they are the most susceptible and vulnerable to the Narcissist’s control. Physical, psychological, verbal and sexual abuse are all forms of dehumanization and objectification.

ABUSE OF INFORMATION

From the first moments of an encounter with another person, the narcissist is on the prowl. He collects information with the intention of applying it to extract narcissistic supply. The more he knows about his potential source of supply – the better able he is to coerce, manipulate, charm, extort or convert it “to the cause”. The narcissist does not hesitate to abuse the information he gleaned, regardless of its intimate nature or the circumstances in which he obtained it. This is a powerful tool in his armoury.

IMPOSSIBLE SITUATIONS

The narcissist engineers impossible, dangerous, unpredictable, unprecedented, or highly specific situations in which he will be sorelyneeded. The narcissist, his knowledge, his skills or his traits become the only ones applicable, or the most useful to resolving them. The narcissist contrives his own indispensability. It is a form of control by proxy.

CONTROL BY PROXY

If all else fails, the narcissist recruits friends, colleagues, mates, family members, the authorities, institutions, neighbours – in short, third parties – to do his bidding. He uses these them to cajole, coerce, threaten, stalk, offer, retreat, tempt, convince, harass, communicate and otherwise manipulate his target. He controls these unaware instruments exactly as he plans to control his ultimate prey. He employs the same mechanisms and devices. And he dumps his props unceremoniously when the job is done.

Another form of control by proxy is to engineer situations in which abuse is inflicted upon another person. Such carefully crafted scenarios involve embarrassment and humiliation as well as social sanctions (condemnation, opprobrium, or even physical punishment). Society, or a social group become the instruments of the narcissist.

AMBIENT ABUSE

The fostering, propagation and enhancement of an atmosphere of fear, intimidation, instability, unpredictability and irritation. There are no acts of traceable explicit abuse, nor any manipulative settings of control. Yet, the irksome feeling remains, a disagreeable foreboding, a premonition, a bad omen. This is sometimes called “gaslighting”. In the long term, such an environment erodes one’s sense of self-worth and self-esteem. Self-confidence is shaken badly. Often, the victims adopts a paranoid or schizoid stance and thus renders himself or herself exposed even more to criticism and judgement. The roles are thus reversed: the victim is considered the mentally disordered component of the dyad and the narcissist – the suffering soul.

Sam Vaknin is the author of Malignant Self Love, and runs the website Malignant Self Love - Narcissism Revisited.Sam has served as the author of the Personality Disorders topic, Narcissistic Personality Disorder topic, the Verbal and Emotional Abuse topic, and the Spousal Abuse and Domestic Violence topic, Suite101.

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