Written By Dr. Sam Vaknin, Author of Malignant Self-Love and Relationships with Abusive Narcissists
See column on the right side of this website labeled Narcissistic Personality Disorder for a complete list of all NPD related articles and videos.
“The narcissist abuses his intimate partner in numerous ways: overtly, covertly, by being unpredictable, reacting disproportionately, dehumanizing, objectifying, and leveraging personal information. “~Dr. Sam Vaknin
What kind of a spouse/mate/partner is likely to be attracted to a narcissist, or to attract a narcissist?
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 puts 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. She (or, more rarely, he) is moulded by the relationship into The Typical Narcissistic Mate/Partner/Spouse.
First and foremost, the narcissist’s partner must have a deficient or a distorted grasp of her self and of reality. Otherwise, she is bound to abandon the narcissist’s ship early on. The cognitive distortion is likely to consist of belittling and demeaning herself – while aggrandising 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 victimised. 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 because he is superior in many ways (intellectually, emotionally, morally, professionally, or financially).
The status of professional victim sits well with the partner’s tendency to punish herself, namely: with her masochistic streak. The tormented life with the narcissist is just what she deserves.
In this respect, the partner is the mirror image of the narcissist. By maintaining a symbiotic relationship with him, 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 behaviours, which are at the very core of narcissism.
The 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 Superego switches its attentions from the narcissist (in 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, hopes, dreams, aspirations, sexual, psychological and material needs, choices, preferences, values, and much else besides. She perceives her needs as threatening because they might engender the wrath of the narcissist’s God-like supreme figure.
The narcissist is rendered in her 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. The “greater” the man (=the narcissist), the easier it is for the 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, to merge with the narcissist to the point of oblivion and of merely dim memories of herself.
The two collaborate in this macabre dance. The narcissist is formed by his partner inasmuch as he forms her. Submission breeds superiority and masochism breeds sadism. The relationships are characterised by emergentism: roles are allocated almost from the start and any deviation meets with an aggressive, even violent reaction.
The predominant state of the partner’s mind is utter confusion. Even the most basic relationships – with husband, children, or parents – remain bafflingly obscured by the giant shadow 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 own formation in the first place: capriciousness, fickleness, arbitrariness, emotional (and physical or sexual) abandonment. The world becomes hostile, and ominous and the partner has only one thing left to cling to: the narcissist.
And cling she 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.
The partner doesn’t know what to do – and this is only too natural in the mayhem that is the relationship with the narcissist. But the typical partner also does not know what she wants and, to a large extent, who she is and what she wishes to become.
These unanswered questions hamper the partner’s ability to gauge reality. Her primordial sin is that she fell in love with an image, not with a real person. It is the voiding of the image that is mourned when the relationship ends.
The break-up of a relationship with a narcissist is, therefore, very emotionally charged. 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 likely to have totally misread and misinterpreted the whole interaction (I hesitate to call it a relationship). This lack of proper interface with reality might be (erroneously) labelled “pathological”.
Why is it that the partner seeks to prolong her pain? What is the source and purpose of this masochistic streak? Upon the break-up of the relationship, the partner (but not the narcissist, who usually refuses to provide closure) engages in a tortuous and drawn out post mortem.
Sometimes, the breakup is initiated by the long-suffering spouse or intimate partner. As she develops and matures, gaining in self-confidence and a modicum of self-esteem (ironically, at the narcissist’s behest in his capacity as her “guru” and “father figure”), 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, owe, adulation, undivided attention admiration, and the rehashed memories of past successes and triumphs.)
Typically, the roles are then reversed and the narcissist displays codependent behaviors, such as clinging, in a desperate attempt to hang-on to his “creation”, his hitherto veteran and reliable source of quality supply. These are further exacerbated by the ageing narcissist’s increasing social isolation, psychological disintegration (decompensation), and recurrent failures and defeats.
Paradoxically, as Lidija Rangelovska notes, the narcissist craves and may be initially attracted to an intimate partner with clear boundaries, who insists on her rights even at the price of a confrontation. This is because such a partner is perceived by him as a strong, stable, and predictable presence – the very opposite of his parents and of the abusive, capricious, and objectifying environment which fostered his pathology in the first place. But, then he tries to denude her of these “assets” by rendering her submissive and codependent.
But the question who did what to whom (and even why) is irrelevant. What is relevant is to stop mourning oneself, start smiling again and love in a less subservient, hopeless, and pain-inflicting manner.
A cerebral narcissist wrote this to me (in parentheses, my comments, signed SV):
“I guess I am a throwback to the men of the 18th or 19th century: patriarchal and transactional (compare this statement to findings by Keller et al. – SV) I have had several serious relationships, including one engagement to be married and three marriages.
The pattern had always been the same: having selected a woman far inferior to my position in life (and, thus, less likely to abandon ship) and following a brief period of rampant sex (to demonstrate to her that I am ‘normal’ and to make her look forward to years of great physical and emotional intimacy – false advertising, I admit), I subside into this recluse, interested only in my studies, reading, writing, and the universe of the mind. Zero sex, no love, no intimacy, physical or emotional, no children, no home (always lived in rented flats), and no family. Take it or leave it and minimal nuisance value.
Her roles are: (1) to admire me; (2) to remind me of my past accomplishments and ‘glory’; (3) to act as a glorified housemaid and do the chores; (4) to serve as my companion, available on the spur of the moment to do my bidding and adhere to my plans and decisions; (5) to reflect well on me by not shaming me in public with her ignorance, promiscuity, or idleness.
As long as she fulfilled the aforementioned functions, I didn’t really care what else she did with her time and with whom. Nothing stirred in me, not even a hint of jealousy, when all my women told me that they had cheated on me with other men, some of them multiply. But, when they showed clear signs of bolting, when they became disenchanted, bitterly disappointed, disaffected, disillusioned, cold, aloof, weary, demonstratively absent, lost all interest in me and my work, verbally and psychologically abused me, and refused to do things together anymore, I panicked because I was afraid to lose their valued services.
I dreaded the time, effort, and resources required to ‘break in’, train, ‘domesticate’, and habituate another woman to my needs and particular requirements (convert them to sources of secondary narcissistic supply – SV.) I was also tired of having my women abscond with half my assets time and again. After all: I only married them only to secure their presence in my life and I did provide them with a lifestyle which they could never have attained by themselves, inferior as they were to start with!
Faced with such a daunting prospect, I embarked on a charm offensive and I again offered them sex, intimacy, love, attention, and, if needed, adulation. Only, usually, at this stage, it was too late and definitely too little. She was already far-gone. She bolted all the same.
All my women felt that something was wrong with me, that something was missing in the relationship such as it was, but they couldn’t quite place their collective finger on it. I simply absented myself because I regarded full-fledged intimate relationships as both a colossal waste of my precious time and the manifestation of socially-sanctioned mediocrity. There had always been a discrepancy in expectations which led to inevitable breakups and acrimony.”
Abuse is an integral, inseparable part of the Narcissistic Personality Disorder.
The narcissist idealises and then DEVALUES and discards the object of his initial idealisation. This abrupt, heartless devaluation IS abuse. ALL narcissists idealise and then devalue. This is THE core narcissistic behaviour. 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 one’s extension, an object, or an instrument of gratification. To be over-protective, not to respect privacy, to be brutally honest, with a morbid sense of humour, 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 (“ambient abuse”). 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, battering, 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 the circumstances of a life in which the narcissist (usually in his childhood) was rendered helpless. It is about re-asserting 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 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 their efforts to subdue their physical habitat and render it foreseeable. They 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.To him, nothing exists except himself. Meaningful others are his extensions, assimilated by him, they are internal objects – not external ones. Thus, losing control of a significant other is equivalent to losing the use of a limb, or of one’s brain. It is terrifying.
Independent or disobedient people evoke in the narcissist the realisation 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 (NS). 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:
The narcissist acts unpredictably, capriciously, inconsistently and irrationally. This serves to demolish in others their carefully crafted worldview. They become dependent upon the next twist and turn of the narcissist, his inexplicable whims, his outbursts, denial, or smiles.
In other words: the narcissist makes sure that HE is the only stable entity in the lives of others – by shattering the rest of their world through his seemingly insane behaviour. He guarantees his presence in their lives – by destabilising them.
In the absence of a self, there are no likes or dislikes, preferences, predictable behaviour or characteristics. It is not possible to know the narcissist. There is no one there.
The narcissist was conditioned – from an early age of abuse and trauma – to expect the unexpected. His was a world in which (sometimes sadistic) capricious caretakers and peers often behaved arbitrarily. He was trained to deny his True Self and nurture a False one.
Having invented himself, the narcissist sees no problem in re-inventing that which he designed in the first place. The narcissist is his own creator.
Hence his grandiosity.
Moreover, the narcissist is a man for all seasons, forever adaptable, constantly imitating and emulating, a human sponge, a perfect mirror, a chameleon, a non-entity that is, at the same time, all entities combined. The narcissist is best described by Heidegger’s phrase: “Being and Nothingness”. Into this reflective vacuum, this sucking black hole, the narcissist attracts the Sources of his Narcissistic Supply.
To an observer, the narcissist appears to be fractured or discontinuous.
Pathological narcissism has been compared to the Dissociative Identity Disorder (formerly the Multiple Personality Disorder). By definition, the narcissist has at least two selves, the True and False ones. His personality is very primitive and disorganised. Living with a narcissist is a nauseating experience not only because of what he is – but because of what he is NOT. He is not a fully formed human – but a dizzyingly kaleidoscopic gallery of ephemeral images, which melt into each other seamlessly. It is incredibly disorienting.
It is also exceedingly problematic. Promises made by the narcissist are easily disowned by him. His plans are transient. His emotional ties – a simulacrum. Most narcissists have one island of stability in their life (spouse, family, their career, a hobby, their religion, country, or idol) – pounded by the turbulent currents of a dishevelled existence.
The narcissist does not keep agreements, does not adhere to laws or social norms, and regards consistency and predictability as demeaning traits.
Thus, to invest in a narcissist is a purposeless, futile and meaningless activity. To the narcissist, every day is a new beginning, a hunt, a new cycle of idealisation or devaluation, a newly invented self. There is no accumulation of credits or goodwill because the narcissist has no past and no future. He occupies an eternal and timeless present. He is a fossil caught in the frozen ashes of a volcanic childhood.
Refuse to accept such behaviour. Demand reasonably predictable and rational actions and reactions. Insist on respect for your boundaries, predilections, preferences, and priorities.
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. He punishes severely for what he perceives to be an offence against him, no matter how minor. He throws a temper tantrum over any discord or disagreement, however gently and considerately expressed. Or he may act attentive, charming and seductive (even over-sexed, if need be). This ever-shifting emotional landscape (“affective dunes”) coupled with an inordinately harsh and arbitrarily applied “penal code” are both promulgated by the narcissist. Neediness and dependence on the source of all justice meted – on the narcissist – are thus guaranteed.
Demand a just and proportional treatment. Reject or ignore unjust and capricious behaviour.
If you are up to the inevitable confrontation, react in kind. Let him taste some of his own medicine.
Dehumanization and Objectification
People have a need to believe in the empathic skills and basic good-heartedness of others. By dehumanising 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 dehumanisation and objectification.
Never show your abuser that you are afraid of him. Do not negotiate with bullies. They are insatiable. Do not succumb to blackmail.
If things get rough- disengage, involve law enforcement officers, friends and colleagues, or threaten him (legally).
Do not keep your abuse a secret. Secrecy is the abuser’s weapon.
Never give him a second chance. React with your full arsenal to the first transgression.
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 later 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.
Be guarded. Don’t be too forthcoming in a first or casual meeting. Gather intelligence.
Be yourself. Don’t misrepresent your wishes, boundaries, preferences, priorities, and red lines.
Do not behave inconsistently. Do not go back on your word. Be firm and resolute.
The narcissist engineers impossible, dangerous, unpredictable, unprecedented, or highly specific situations in which he is sorely and indispensably needed. The narcissist, his knowledge, his skills or his traits become the only ones applicable, or the most useful to coping with these artificial predicaments. It is a form of control by proxy.
Stay away from such quagmires. Scrutinize every offer and suggestion, no matter how innocuous.
Prepare backup plans. Keep others informed of your whereabouts and appraised of your situation.
Be vigilant and doubting. Do not be gullible and suggestible. Better safe than sorry.
Control by Proxy
If all else fails, the narcissist recruits friends, colleagues, mates, family members, the authorities, institutions, neighbours, or the media – in short, third parties – to do his bidding. He uses 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.
Often the abuser’s proxies are unaware of their role. Expose him. Inform them. Demonstrate to them how they are being abused, misused, and plain used by the abuser.
Trap your abuser. Treat him as he treats you. Involve others. Bring it into the open. Nothing like sunshine to disinfest abuse.
The fostering, propagation and enhancement of an atmosphere of fear, intimidation, instability, unpredictability and irritation. There are no acts of traceable or provable 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 go a paranoid or schizoid and thus are exposed even more to criticism and judgement. The roles are thus reversed: the victim is considered mentally disordered and the narcissist – the suffering soul or the victim.
Run! Get away! Ambient abuse often develops into overt and violent abuse.
You don’t owe anyone an explanation – but you owe yourself a life. Bail out of the relationship.
The Malignant Optimism of the Abused
I often come across sad examples of the powers of self-delusion that the narcissist provokes in his victims. It is what I call “malignant optimism.” People refuse to believe that some questions are unsolvable, some diseases incurable, some disasters inevitable. They see a sign of hope in every fluctuation. They read meaning and patterns into every random occurrence, utterance, or slip. They are deceived by their own pressing need to believe in the ultimate victory of good over evil, health over sickness, order over disorder. Life appears otherwise so meaningless, so unjust and so arbitrary…
So, they impose upon it a design, progress, aims, and paths. This is magical thinking.
“If only he tried hard enough”, “If he only really wanted to heal”, “If only we found the right therapy”, “If only his defences were down”, “There MUST be something good and worthy under the hideous facade”, “NO ONE can be that evil and destructive”, “He must have meant it differently”, “God, or a higher being, or the spirit, or the soul is the solution and the answer to our prayers”, “He is not responsible for what he is – his narcissism is the product of a difficult childhood, of abuse, and of his monstrous parents.”
The Pollyanna defences of the abused are aimed against the emerging and horrible understanding that humans are mere specks of dust in a totally indifferent universe, the playthings of evil and sadistic forces, of which the narcissist is one – and that finally their pain means nothing to anyone but themselves. Nothing whatsoever. It has all been in vain.
The narcissist holds such thinking in barely undisguised contempt. To him, it is a sign of weakness, the scent of prey, a gaping vulnerability. He uses and abuses this human need for order, good, and meaning – as he uses and abuses all other human needs. Gullibility, selective blindness, malignant optimism – these are the weapons of the beast. And the abused are hard at work to provide it with its arsenal.