Friday, April 9, 2010

Narcissism: Unmasking the Victim

When talking about narcissism and relationships, one question that almost always comes up is, what kind of person would choose to become involved with a narcissist? This is a sensitive subject; no one wants to come off as critical or blaming, yet it's a question that needs to be broached, if for no other reason than the fact that former significant others ask it of themselves. What was I thinking, how could I have been so naive, so blind. 

To begin with, those who've been in these so-called "relationships" were looking for, and honestly thought they'd found, someone who was genuinely caring. It's terribly difficult to admit to yourself -- much less anyone else -- that the woman or man of your dreams is really a nightmare. It's also true that partners usually aren't dragged, kicking and screaming, into hooking up with a narcissist. There is the aspect of being an accomplice that must be addressed. That said, I don't believe someone who gets involved with one of these individuals necessarily does so with conscious intention. Unconscious motivation can be a powerful underlying factor in one's choice of romantic partners. 

Narcissists are smooth. In the early stages of a relationship, it's nearly impossible to conceive they could be fraudulent. They're too considerate, attentive, supportive, and affectionate. They appear utterly smitten, unable to get enough of us. It was love at first sight and they make the most of every opportunity to remind us of it. 

The narcissist's regularly repeated declarations of affection, however, are what is called "love-bombing." It's one of many techniques employed by narcissists to weaken and break down a potential partner's defenses, rendering them emotionally receptive. Before we know it, they're talking about moving in, sharing an apartment, getting married and having children. Our family loves them, our friends love them; we're living a veritable fairy tale. Until Sleeping Beauty starts to awaken, that is.

Interpersonal psychology suggests partners of narcissists are inclined to have dependent or masochistic personality traits. Either because they prefer relationships to being single or because they possesses an unusually high tolerance for emotional pain, they don't tend to make waves when they're unhappy. Instead, usually out of a sense of loyalty, they
excuse their partner's behavior, even when others find it troubling. As long as a partner is relatively comfortable mirroring the narcissist's imagined superiority or insistence they've been ignored, overlooked, and misunderstood, things go fairly well. But there is nearly always some sort of verbal or emotional abuse that goes along with preserving the relationship. Safety and security come at a high price.

Partners are convenient targets for the arrogant narcissist's (what we usually think of when we hear the term "narcissist") verbal or physical abuse when they feel embarrassed, slighted, or has failed to receive the respect and admiration to which they feel entitled. Covert narcissists, in contrast, rely on complicated, carefully planned and executed strategies of manipulation to control others. Under severe stress, they resort to passive-aggression as their normally sweet, harmless demeanor disappears and the pent-up rage we rarely see begins surfacing. As a result, they can be as unpredictable and unsafe as their arrogant counterparts. When partners have finally been drained of their usefulness, they're often surprised to discover the narcissist has already chosen their replacement and has them waiting in reserve. 

While not always true, partners of narcissists have generally been trained well. One or both parents possess narcissistic traits and thus, unconsciously identifying similar individuals for intimate relationships is second nature. Recreating the atmosphere in which a person grew up feels familiar.
I've heard it said, "I can find a narcissistic predator in a room filled with good women with my eyes closed. It's like my radar is tuned their frequency." Masochism, in the interpersonal sense, doesn't refer to the enjoyment of suffering or pain; it simply means we've learned from parents that abuse is to be endured as part of the relationship landscape. 

None of this is meant to hint that partners are somehow psychologically flawed. On the contrary, they possess considerable psychological strength, as demonstrated by their ability to survive a great deal that is truly unnecessary. Unmasking the qualities that render a person vulnerable to "narcissistic possession" is critical to recapturing one's feelings of self-worth and reinforcing the ability to protect oneself, emotionally, in the future. Failure to do so only increases the likelihood that having been hurt by a narcissist once, we may be hurt again, and that's something truly worth avoiding.

(Creative Commons image by Riccardo Cuppini via Flickr)

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