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How Narcissism Affects Romantic Attachment

Lacking empathy or accountability, they turn to manipulation.

Key points

  • The quality of a person’s early attachment relationship sometimes informs his or her ability to maintain a healthy attachment in adulthood.
  • A narcissist may only feel "secure" in a relationship if he or she has emotional control of a partner.
  • Three modes of relating may allow a narcissist to destructively influence a partner.

The quality of a person’s early attachment relationship sometimes informs his or her ability to form and maintain a healthy romantic attachment in adulthood. Narcissists are usually skilled at initiating closeness but may have difficulties remaining close. Often a narcissist only feels “secure” in a relationship when he or she possesses emotional control over a partner. Inappropriately obtaining the power in the relationship also camouflages his or her lack of empathy and accountability, the nuts and bolts of a healthy attachment. A narcissist tends to relate in three ways to gain control of a partner: idealize and devalue, emotionally abandon, and inflict guilt.

To maintain a healthy attachment with a loved one, a person typically needs two capacities: empathy and accountability. Empathy, or the motivation to truly resonate with how a partner feels in order to sincerely understand, deepens any bond. The person receiving the empathy usually feels understood and far less alone. Due to a narcissist’s lack of empathy, he or she is often sympathetic instead. Pitying a partner does not tax a narcissist because he or she can feel superior while playing the “hero,” which fuels his or her ego.

Equally important is accountability. A person who looks inward and owns a selfish moment in a relationship usually experiences remorse and has a clear awareness of how he or she hurt a partner. Communicating this to the partner often repairs the rupture in the attachment. Motivated to avoid repeating the mistake, this person is able to sustain the trust in a relationship. Alternatively, a narcissist may only apologize when he or she is caught or faces an unpleasant consequence. He or she often repeats the mistake because the apology is inauthentic and self-serving. Inevitably, this may erode the trust in a relationship.

Because a narcissist can’t sustain the closeness due to a lack of empathy and accountability, he or she may resort to manipulation. Three modes of relating provide a narcissist with the ability to destructively influence a partner.

First, a narcissist oscillates between idealizing and devaluing a person. For example, in the initial phase of the relationship, the narcissist is supportive, kind, and agrees with most everything a new partner thinks and feels. He or she puts this person on a pedestal and perceives him or her as flawless and perfect. Yet, as soon as the person invests in the relationship, the narcissist may exhibit his or her true colors. The narcissist becomes indifferent, annoyed, and distracted. He or she often says underhanded comments that subtly devalue a person.

The person may feel this shift acutely. Devastated at the loss of what the person thought was love, he or she is confused and wonders if he or she is responsible. Worried and wounded, the person may clamor to get answers. The narcissist uses this to his or her advantage and communicates to the person that he or she should change and sacrifice more for the relationship. The person often complies, giving up important aspects of herself or himself. The narcissist gains control.

This cycle may occur repeatedly and just as the person is able to see through the narcissist’s manipulations, the narcissist idealizes the person. Ecstatic that the fading attachment may be recovered, the person re-invests in the relationship. Over time, the person tends to surrender many important aspects of who he or she is to appease the narcissist who now has an inordinate amount of control in the relationship.

In addition, the narcissist may idealize and devalue a person on a micro level too. When a person agrees with him or her, the narcissist rewards the person with affection. Yet, if a person dares to disagree or offer a different opinion, the narcissist quickly rejects the person and withdraws love and affection. Essentially, a person has to agree with the narcissist in order to be “loved” by the narcissist and avoid repudiation.

Second, a narcissist’s immediate withdrawal of love and affection when a person fails to agree with him or her or do what he or she wants is often traumatic. Feeling emotionally abandoned may be one of the most painful experiences a human being can endure. Especially if the person attaches in a healthy and hearty manner; like an oak tree whose main root is uprooted. It may feel like a gaping hole in a person’s heart. In order to avoid this excruciating experience, a person may appease and placate in order to protect the attachment relationship that is at risk. Frequently at his or her own expense.

The confounding aspect of this dynamic is that it may evade a person’s conscious awareness because the manipulations are intangible. A person who senses a partner pulling away with no explanation often feels like he or she has done something wrong. The person may experience a combination of shame and pain which leads an introspective person to look inward for an explanation. Frequently, a narcissist may exploit this tendency and blame the person for being “insecure.” The narcissist’s unconscious defense mechanism, projection, may be at play. The narcissist cannot tolerate his or her own negative qualities so he or she unconsciously defends against them by seeing them in a partner and then feeling entitled to emotionally abandon the partner. Because these dynamics may evade both parties’ conscious awareness, they can be insidious and repetitive.

Third, a narcissist commonly gains control in a relationship by inflicting guilt. Exploiting a person’s empathy is a powerful way to manipulate a person. A sensitive and caring person tends to feel for others and is able to put others first. Although selflessness is an admirable quality, a narcissist may take advantage of this person’s empathic nature. The narcissist inflicts guilt using several tactics: playing the victim, throwing a past mistake in the person’s face, and holding things over the person’s head.

Often a narcissist will “play the victim” in order to get what he or she wants. For example, he or she may say, “I was cheated on by every past partner, so I need to track you. It’s the only way I can trust.” The narcissist uses a past hardship to control a person in a present relationship. He or she may also continue to bring up a person’s past mistakes to make them feel small again. Despite a person owning the mistake, feeling remorse, and attempting to repair the misstep, a narcissist may continue to use it to make the person feel guilty so he or she surrenders to the narcissist’s perspective. Lastly, a selfish partner may purposefully do a “good deed” so he or she can excuse a future transgression. For example, Lisa washes Matt’s car on Friday. On Saturday night, she goes to dinner with Matt’s friend, but does not inform or invite Matt. Matt is upset and as he confronts Lisa, she says, “Oh my gosh, Matt! I just washed your car! I am so good to you. Ben and I have become friends. We were planning something for you. Don’t be so insecure!”

In place of extending empathy and accountability, the two factors that may maintain closeness in a relationship, a narcissist attempts to control a partner in order to feel secure. Oscillating between idealizing a person and then devaluing him or her and emotionally abandoning the person when he or she refrains from doing what the narcissist wants are ways a narcissist gains emotional control over a partner. Inflicting guilt and exploiting a person’s selfless nature is the third. Acquiring a conscious awareness of these invisible manipulations may help a person set boundaries and protect herself or himself.

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