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When Narcissists Become Codependents

Uploaded 1/17/2014, approx. 6 minute read

My name is Sam Vaknin, and I am the author of Malignant Self-Love, Narcissism Revisited.

Sometimes, the breakup is initiated by the long-suffering spouse or intimate partner of the narcissist or psychopath. As she develops and matures, gaining in self confidence and a modicum of self-esteem, ironically, at the narcissist's behest, his capacity as her guru or father figure, but as these developments happen, she acquires more personal autonomy and refuses to cater to the energy-draining neediness of her narcissist. She no longer provides him with all-important secondary narcissistic supply, ostentatious respect, awe, adulation, undivided attention, admiration, and the rehashed memories of past successes, glories, and trials.

Typically, when this happens, when the spouse or the intimate partner of the narcissist initiates breakup because she has outgrown the relationship, when this happens, the roles are reversed. The narcissist then displays co-dependent behaviors, such as clinging, in a desperate attempt to hang on to his creation, his hitherto veteran and reliable source of quality narcissistic supply.

These behaviors are further exacerbated by the narcissist's increasing social isolation, psychological disintegration, decompensation, and recurrent failures and defeats as he grows older.

But the question of who did what to whom and even why is largely irrelevant. What is relevant is to stop mourning oneself, to start smiling again, and to love in a less subservient, hopeless, and pain-inflicting manner.

On the face of it, there is no emotional partner or mate who typically binds with the narcissist. They come in all shapes, all sizes.

The initial phases of attraction, infatuation, and falling in love are pretty normal. The narcissist puts on his best face. The other party is blinded by budding love or lust. A natural selection process occurs only much later as the relationship develops and is put to the test by the narcissist.

Living with a narcissist can be exhilarating. It's always onerous and often harrowing.

Surviving a relationship with a narcissist indicates, therefore, the parameters of the personality of the survivor. She, or more rarely he, is molded by the relationship into a the typical narcissist mate, partner, or spouse.

First and foremost, the narcissist partner must have a deficient or distorted grasp of herself and of reality. Otherwise, she or he is bound to abandon the narcissist's ship early on.

The cognitive distortion of the partner of the narcissist is likely to consist of belittling and demeaning herself while aggrandizing and adoring the narcissist. The partner is thus placing herself 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 she is not even aware of this predicament.

The narcissist is perceived by the partner to be a person in the position to demand these sacrifices from her.

Why?

Because he is superior and, in many ways, intellectually, emotionally, morally, professionally, financially, whatever. He is superior, she is inferior, he has the right to demand, she must comply.

The status of professional victim seeks well with the partner's tendency to punish herself, mainly with her masochistic streak.

The tormented life with the narcissist is just what she deserves, so she firmly believes, consciously or unconsciously. In this respect, the partner of the narcissist is the mirror image of the narcissist.

By maintaining a symbiotic relationship with the narcissist, by being totally dependent upon her source of masochistic supply, which the narcissist most reliably constitutes and most amply provides, the partner enhances certain traits and encourages certain behaviors which are at the very core of narcissism.

On the other hand, the narcissist is never whole without an adoring, submissive, available and self-denigrating partner. The narcissist's very sense of superiority, indeed, his false self, depends on the existence of such a partner.

His sadistic superego switches its attentions from the narcissist, whom it often provokes suicidal ideation, to the partner, thus finally obtaining an alternative source of sadistic satisfaction.

It is through self-denial that the partner survives. She denies her wishes, her hopes, her dreams, inspirations, sexual, psychological and material needs, choices, preferences, values and much, much else besides. She even denies her family and friends. She perceives her needs as threatening because they might engender the wrath, the rage of the narcissist's godlike supreme figure.

The narcissist is rendered in his partner's eyes even more superior through and because of this self-denial. Self-denial undertaken to facilitate and ease the life of a great man is more palatable and acceptable to the victim.

The greater the man, in other words, the greater the narcissist, the easier it is for the victimized partner to ignore her own self, to dwindle, to degenerate, to turn into an appendix of the narcissist and finally to become nothing but an extension, and merge with the narcissist to the point of oblivion and of merely dim memories of herself.

The two, the narcissist and his intimate partner, collaborate in this macabre dance.

The narcissist is formed by his partner in as much as he forms her.

Submission breeds superiority, masochism breeds sadism.

The relationships are characterized by emergentism.

The roles are allocated among the narcissist and his partner almost from the start and any deviation from the roles meets with an aggressive, even violent reaction.

The predominant state of the partner's mind is utter confusion.

Even the most basic relationships with husbands, children, parents, old-time friends, even these relationships remain bafflingly obscure by the giant shadow cast by the intensive interaction with the narcissist.

A suspension of judgment is part and parcel of a suspension of individuality, which is both a prerequisite too and a result of living with the narcissist. The partner no longer knows what is true, what is right, what is wrong, what is forbidden, who she is.

The narcissist recreates for the partner the sort of emotional ambience that led to his own formation in the first place: arbitrariness, capriciousness, thickleness, emotional, physical, sexual abandonment and denial.

The world becomes hostile and ominous. The partner has only one thing left to cling to, her narcissist. And cling, she does.

If there is anything which can safely be said about those who emotionally team up with narcissists is that they are overtly and overly dependent.

The partner doesn't know what to do, and this is only too natural in the mayhem that is a relationship with the narcissist, it's a roller coaster.

But the typical partner also does not know what she was and to a large extent who she is and what does she wish to become.

These unanswered questions, they hampered the partner's ability to gorge reality. She loses the reality test.

Her primordial scene is that she fell in love with an image, not with a real person.

The narcissist is a projection, the false self a concoction, the whole thing a confabulation.

It is the voiding of the image that is mourned when the relationship ends, not the real narcissist.

The breakup of relationship with the narcissist is therefore very emotionally charged. It is the culmination of a long chain of humiliations and subjugation. It is the rebellion of the functioning and the healthy parts of the partner's personality against the tyranny of the narcissist.

The partner is likely to have totally mistreated and misinterpreted the whole interaction. I hesitate to call it a relationship.

This lack of proper interface with reality might be erroneously labeled pathological. It's not, it's reactive. The narcissist provokes this quasi pathology in his partner.

Why is it that the partner seeks to prolong her pain in the first place? What is the source and purpose of this masochistic streak?

On the breakup of the relationship, the partner, but not the narcissist who usually refuses to provide closure, engages in a torturous, drawn-out post-mortem autopsy of what could have been a relationship and never was.

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Transcripts Copyright © Sam Vaknin 2010-2023, under license to William DeGraaf
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