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What’s ‘Wrong’ with People Who Fall for Narcissists?

A Personal Perspective: Nothing's wrong with them. They're just like us.

Key points

  • You may have molded yourself to become more "lovable" to a parent, making you a pleaser.
  • We stay for reasons that seem to defy common sense, making us question our own level of intelligence.
  • Take stock of the incredible person you were before you encountered this person who made you feel small.

The word “narcissistic” was rarely used as an adjective until recently. Today, however, the word is everywhere.

Oh, we lay people may have known words like “bipolar”, “manic-depression”, and “split personality” because we saw old movies like Freud, The Three Faces of Eve, The Snake Pit, or Sybil at one point. But to use the word “narcissist” to describe a person who professes to feel love for us but demonstrates the opposite by abusing the purported object of their affection? Nope. He or she just had “issues” that had to be endured if the union or relationship was to survive.

 RODNAE Productions
Source: Pexels: RODNAE Productions

If you met, fell in love with, and married people who fell along a personality disorder spectrum that we now call narcissistic personality disorder (NPD), in hindsight you can no doubt identify trait after trait possessed by these seemingly charming people.

Those of us who were victimized, no matter how long ago, can describe someone who repeatedly reeled us in, threw us back into the water, and in the process, eroded our sense of identity. We lived in a reality we could never have surmised until we look back and try to analyze their characteristics. No sense of empathy. Doesn’t form close friendships. Is controlling. Gaslighter. One who doles out mental, emotional (or even physical) abuse and then displays an impressive display of remorse, yet can't see the cause-and-effect of their actions as a reason to get help. And even sadder — a person who could never fathom the idea that the word “narcissist” could ever apply to them, which, by the way, is often part of the disorder itself.

We stay with them for many different reasons, even though those reasons have us questioning our own level of intelligence for not recognizing it early on. Truth is, anyone can find themselves in a relationship with a narcissist. Even our own self-esteem contains elements of narcissism. A healthy dose of it can have its perks. In the extreme, however, most of us realize when we are operating from a position of selfishness and insecurity and we proceed to correct our courses, feeling it most intensely when someone else points it out.

It’s grandiose narcissists that can more skillfully suck us into romantic relationships. They start out as charming and charismatic. And while we often find them manipulative, strangely enough, those parts of their personalities attract us as well. At first, they seem great at “verbal boxing” — a kind of flirtation that challenges us while drawing us in. It’s different. It’s sexy. And it’s anything but boring. We feel special having become the objects of their attention. They rely on our continued excitement at being with them. This “facade” of excitement can last for a good, long while, and even when we are offered glimpses of their inability to even have a healthy curiosity about things they should be paying attention to, we shrug it off for fear the excitement might go away.

Relationship patterns are, however, important. Experts here will acknowledge that there is something deeper at play — something subconsciously driving you towards narcissistic partners or making you the objects of their games. But it doesn’t mean there is anything wrong with you. It just means you haven’t yet put a name on it. As a result, you haven't made a conscious decision about staying around it. Just take it from others who finally left it behind -- it doesn't just go away on its own. If you've already stayed a long time in a relationship with someone with NPD, you unwittingly chose to “hug the cactus.” Because no one (not even a narcissist) can continue to make you feel small with their subtle or overt abuses without implied permission on your part.

Our first influences, self-perceptions, and examples in life are, of course, our parents, whether we are the victim of a narcissist or the narcissist him/herself. Let’s look at you, though. If you had a parent you wanted to please, you no doubt learned to bend and make yourself into the person you knew they would love even more. As we hear often, we accept the love we think we deserve, whether we think our family is functional or dysfunctional. Old-school mothers may even have taught their daughters to accept the men they love at face value, and that at least superficial submissiveness (laughing off or minimizing your husband's bad behavior) was a normal part of a marriage. Back in her day, few people analyzed and labeled what they perceived as everyday less-than-desirable behavior. But one must also take into account how women had fewer choices in life back then.

The people-pleasers among us love feeling indispensable to our significant others. Our “need to feel needed” plays into why those with narcissistic tendencies are drawn to us and us to them. Your penchant to love unconditionally is like catnip to a person who wants the entire focus to remain on them. Got a good sense of empathy, able to place yourself into your partner’s shoes in a heartbeat? When someone relates their stories of woe (perhaps stories of an abusive childhood or a bad former marriage) you may feel like a savior and safe harbor — a lovely feeling for a while, at least. It feeds you.

If you are naive to any of the things mentioned here, it will take you much longer to notice what is going on in your own relationship. You may label your devotion to a person who treats you badly as a sign of loyalty and stability instead of recognizing co-dependency for what it really is.

How do you break this attraction to narcissistic people? It’s up to you to realize that you (no matter how long you hug that cactus) will not be able to convince him or her that any core relationship conflicts stem from a "disorder." To even refer to their personality in such a way is usually anathema to them.

Next, take stock of the incredible person you are, and especially the one you were before you encountered this person you fell for that made you feel small.

Then? Get yourself to a therapist. With the right person sitting across from you or talking to you 1:1 on your computer screen and your willingness to examine what led to this (these) relationship(s), past or present, all of this will come out. And your habit of “hugging the cactus” over and over again will get the attention it deserves.

Breaking this pattern is one of the healthiest things you can do for yourself, even if it takes a good, long while to find another partner or find joy in simply reveling in your own amazing company.

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