Dealing with narcissists is baffling. At least until we understand how their mind works.
We won’t get this understanding from them: they have no clue. But once someone knowledgeable shares how they are inside, their behavior makes sense. In a bizarre and creepy way, but still.
Let’s start with an illustration from Dr Craig Malkin, a clinical psychologist specialized in treating narcissism :
“Given the choice between a loving partner and a trophy partner, a narcissist will chose a trophy partner”.
So sadly true. But let’s look at this statement more closely.
Narcissists are not interested in love
Something went awfully wrong in their early years and their emotional development stopped before building a capacity to grasp that:
- Other people are real and have needs and feelings of their own.
- Loving and being loved by a another person is rewarding and nourishing – specifically because it is a separate, distinct person
They really believe people exist as extensions of themselves, if at all.
So contrary to normal folks, they are not trying to build emotional bonds. They are after what you can bring them, very practically speaking. Not warm and fuzzy feelings.
That’s why they can replace easily people in their life: it does not matter if we disappear, as long as there is someone else who can provide the same stuff. They don’t miss us: they may miss our admiration if we were good at, say, clapping in front of their (real or imagined) talents. Or they miss our beauty or success if we were a nice trophy partner. You get the idea.
Narcissists are addicted to attention and admiration
Narcissists need people to make them feel special in some way.
Specifics of this specialness can change according to circumstances and individuals: sometimes the important thing is physical appearance, sometimes it is success, money and status, sometimes it is intelligence, athletic abilities, altruism, whatever.
The only reason why they are interested in a relationship with us is because they believe we will help increase the specialness:
- They may need to be in a relationship, or have children, in order to fit the image of the perfect couple or family
- We can be the proverbial trophy, of course, so that our partner can bask in the glory of having such a beautiful wife, or such a successful husband.
- And as a partner we must be a great source of narcissistic gratification ourselves by clapping at everything they say and do, especially if in the outside world it is not going so well.
By pursuing endlessly narcissistic gratification, narcissists may achieve great things in their life. But the only real goal is to be the center of attention and get others to acknowledge their specialness. The reason we are in their life is to contribute to their specialness, and anything deviating from that purpose is irrelevant.
It’s even worse than that: they are addicted to narcissistic gratifications, so that they can control or dump or attack anyone standing in the way.
This is why, for example, a husband to be can write a prenup binding his future wife to loose pregnancy weight within a year, like it happened to Tina Swithin: to protect his supply of admiration for being married to a beautiful and thin wife.
Emotionally, narcissists have the maturity of a desperate toddler
Due to adverse circumstances, their emotional development stopped very early with a damaged self. The developmental steps they missed are significant :
- a sense of self, a sense of others, and the existence of boundaries between people
- as a consequence, the understanding that people exist as separate beings, with their own agenda. In other words, that not everything is about them.
- the ability to build and sustain intimate relationships, which means reciprocity
- and a reasonable level of self esteem
This internal state is intolerable, and narcissists come up with a clever solution: grandiosity, to artificially shore up their self esteem, and the pursuit of narcissistic gratification to replace real relationships.
The problem is these defenses are fragile and easily threatened, which is why they come with an array of problematic behaviors.
Grandiosity, Impaired empathy, Control, Exploitation, and the like
Not a very appealing menu, for sure. But this is really what is going on when dealing with a narcissist.
My late father was convinced he was superiorly intelligent and competent. His favorite sentence was “People are stupid”, meaning he was the only one not to be.
I knew him well and I can assure you his intelligence was pretty much average. As for competence, the failures of his businesses speak for themselves. This is grandiosity: believing in one’s specialness despite evidences of the contrary.
Grandiosity brings out a particularly unsavory side effect: narcissistic rages. These frightening episodes occur whenever you challenge the fiction, or you do not play the expected adoring part. Or even sometimes only because you are minding your own business and you’re not preoccupied with their achievements.
It is impossible for a narcissist to feel relaxed. To start with, they have these strong defenses against their damaged self esteem to maintain within themselves. And then, they have to try to control people and circumstances to that they do not disturb their fragile balance.
For the other part of the relationship, it means facing narcissistic rages, cold shoulders, endless criticism, drama to refocus the attention on them, verbal and sometimes physical attacks when we insist to be a real person, lies, manipulation and any other control maneuvers to command all our resources.
I’ve known three relationships with narcissists in my life. In each one, I ended up in a miserable state because of their outrageous behavior or outright violence. Not once did I witness a trace of empathy. I truly believe none of the people I was dealing with was capable of it. In order to behave so destructively, you cannot afford to be empathetic.
Relationships with narcissists are exploitative by nature: you believe you enter a mutually loving relationship, whereas your partner is only looking for his or her gratifications with no intention to reciprocate.
Worse, still, like a two years old, he or she feels entitled to it. Why would these characters designed to take care of them focus on something else? Why would they divert attention and care for other purposes? What an incompetent and stupid thing to do !
Sometimes we realize this when showing a need or a vulnerability and we are met by total indifference, or anger. Sometimes it is even worse, and we realize they expect us to clean and cook and take care of the kids for them while they are having fun with extra marital action.
And in some cases it goes all the way to predatory behaviors such as sexual violence.
Narcissists are a smokescreen (with nothing behind it)
Very young, I used to joke I liked guys who were like closed cabinets: I could not resist trying to open the doors and see if they were full or empty.
Well, well. I was very young, that’s all I can say for my defense now. In the meantime, I discovered there is no need to cope with difficult behavior in order to access their emotional depths : there is none.
They are expert at showcasing themselves, that’s why we enter the relationship. Not only are they empty with no real emotional life inside, but they carefully paint lots of desirables qualities on their doors.
It’s understandable: who would want to be in a relationship with a grandiose, entitled, controlling, exploitative partner, especially if there is no emotional substance ? They have to somehow disguise the reality of who they are to obtain what they believe they need.
Since other people do not have needs and feelings of their own, they think, there is no use for reciprocity. The rule of the game is to extract as much as possible from others, while giving as little as possible, but pretending otherwise.
So they pretend to be charming princes and princesses. You kiss them, and after some time they faultlessly morph into frogs: you realize they lie, manipulate, attack, and deceive without a second thought.
My last frog dumped me because, he said, he loved me deeply but did not want to risk his committed relationship. I was devastated but I understood. I even kind of admired him to be able to give up on love.
I found out weeks later he had started another affair. That moment was a mighty frog turning point.
That’s when I really understood what I was dealing with.