If you are in a relationship with someone who struggles with addiction, and is a narcissist, you may find it difficult or impossible to figure out what, precisely, you should be doing, thinking, or feeling.
Let’s address the addiction first: It’s likely that your understanding of this individual's addiction evolved over time because many addicts are very good at hiding their behavior. Once discovered, close friends may make an effort to see such addictive behaviors through the lens of the disease model, which requires empathy and understanding. It also calls on you, as a close partner, to be as supportive as possible to help a partner in his or her struggle to recover.
But what if you’ve come to realize that your partner is also a narcissist? Dealing with that recognition in a healthy way requires a different response than the one prompted by the disease model. In fact, empathy and support are actually not helpful in dealing with a narcissist.
Deep down, is every addict also a narcissist? And is every narcissist actually an addict? These are the difficult questions that the partner of a narcissist and addict has to explore and answer for him or herself.
The Link Between Addiction and Narcissism
“I feel as though the narcissist in my life actually enjoys the attention he receives at meetings and in counseling, and it makes him feel 'special' because he considers himself the worst-case scenario in his group."
“It took me two years to discover that my husband was a closet alcoholic. I discovered it in the most banal way—by finding a cheap bottle of booze in his briefcase. He was drinking at the office. It took two more years for him to actually bottom out, losing his partnership in the process. He’d been going to meetings to placate me but didn’t have a sponsor, and didn’t participate. When he bottomed out, he started going to meetings in earnest—he got a sponsor and the whole nine yards. But with that apparent progress came other changes that were hard to ignore. He brushed aside my anger at having been lied to for years by saying, 'All alcoholics lie,' as if that fact excused his behavior. He liked the attention he got at meetings. The more his sobriety asserted itself, the clearer his narcissistic traits became. He never made amends to me, or anyone else. The storyline was one of justification. When I asked for a divorce, the narcissist was in full view.”
In a provocative study, “Narcissism as Addiction to Esteem,” Roy Baumeister and Kathleen Vohs argued that narcissism is, in fact, more like an addiction than a life-long personality trait. They applied the cycle of addiction—cravings, increasing tolerance, and withdrawal—to narcissism and found that, indeed, “craving to feel superior and the indulgence of those cravings may be the defining feature of narcissism,” and narcissists appear to be “constantly on the lookout for new and greater triumphs that bring them greater glory.” Finally, the authors address withdrawal: “When narcissists receive something other than the admiration they crave—indifference, criticism, disrespect—they exhibit considerable distress.”
Seeing narcissism as having the hallmarks of addiction also explains the instability of the narcissist’s relationships, which, they note, may be a function of depleting the supply of admiration he or she is getting from the source: They “tire of their partners when self-esteem benefits are no longer forthcoming.”
In his book, The Narcissist You Know, Joseph Burgo includes the "Addicted Narcissist" as one type of Extreme Narcissism. He notes that while all addicts aren’t narcissists, “addictive and narcissistic personalities have many features in common," including a "pronounced lack of empathy for the people around them,” which is a function of the stronger relationship the addict has to his or her drug of choice, as well as relying “on their drugs to boost self-esteem at the expense of the people around them.” According to Burgo, a deep-rooted sense of shame is at the core of both narcissistic and addictive behaviors.
What should your stance be if your partner is both an addict and a narcissist? How do you balance empathy and understanding for the guy with the hidden bottles of alcohol he can’t stop drinking with your understanding of your partner’s impaired empathy, essential emotional disconnectedness, and basic disregard for your feelings?
This is where the terrain gets rocky and unstable. Burgo is careful to state that "If you’re emotionally involved with an Addicted Narcissist, you need first of all to recognize that you can’t possibly ‘save’ him on your own.” He points out the possible dangers of this dynamic:
"Even more than the other Extreme Narcissists ... the Addicted Narcissist forces us to examine ourselves, to question what binds us to a relationship that seems, on the surface, so unsatisfactory. Perhaps the addict’s dependency makes you feel secretly superior, like a comparative winner. Maybe your apparent loving devotion and self-sacrifice don’t reflect true concern. In other words, your own grandiosity and lack of empathy may be disguised behind a show of saintliness or victimhood. Within the professional literature, covert narcissist, co-narcissist, and inverted narcissist are frequent synonyms for co-dependent."
These are tough words to read if you’ve been ensnared in the painful, horrible mess of a relationship with someone who is both an addict and narcissist. But I believe Burgo is right to underscore that you must examine your own motivations and ask yourself the tough questions: “Why am I here?" and, "Why do I continue to stay?”
Impulsivity: Another Link?
There’s no question about the role impulsivity plays in addiction, although there’s disagreement about whether it’s a failure in self-regulatory processes, or a function of the drug or substance producing both a lowered sense of consequences and a heightened sense of pleasure. One thing that has intrigued researchers about narcissists is that they are ultimately playing a losing game, and prone to self-defeating behaviors.
I realize that if you are struggling with your feelings for a narcissist, you’re not seeing him or her as losing or, more directly, caring about potentially losing you, but bear with me: While it’s true that initially, narcissists make a good impression on people, it’s also true that their relationships almost always fail in time, and that the initial high regard with which they’re held will eventually turn to disdain. They win what they need—adulation, a sense of superiority, a feeling of power—but only in short bursts. Then they have to start over. Needless to say, psychologists want to know why narcissists engage in the activities that keep them from getting what they want.
Simine Vazire and David Funder decided to look into what caused these self-defeating behaviors, asking was it a function of conscious cognitive and affective processes or something else. They honed in on impulsivity and conducted a meta-analysis of the existing literature. They posited that impulsivity was the cause. If so, that seems to make the kinship ties of narcissism and addiction even more evident. But their assertion about impulsivity was taken on by another team of researchers led by Joshua Miller, W. Keith Campbell, and others whose take was different, positing that it wasn’t impulsivity per se but the fact that narcissists only pay attention to the possibility of reward, not the potential downside, aided and abetted by their antagonistic interpersonal qualities.
As a layperson who has had the misfortune of being connected to an addicted narcissist, the takeaway here isn’t pinpointing whether it’s impulsivity or something else; it’s realizing that while the addict may be able to curb their impulse to grab their drug of choice, the narcissist will remain with his or her lack of attention to consequences and impaired empathy.
What’s Possible—and What’s Unlikely
I turned to Craig Malkin, a therapist and author of Rethinking Narcissism (and a Psychology Today blogger), for answers to the question of how to deal with someone who has addiction and narcissism issues. “When someone has narcissistic personality disorder and a substance abuse problem," he said, "it’s not enough for them to beat their drug addiction; they also have to beat their addiction to feeling special."
That change, Malkin says, is about learning to open up to and depend on loved ones and friends in healthy ways. “To the extent that you can’t depend on people, you’ll depend on other sources to soothe yourself, like feeling special (narcissism) or watching pornography or getting drunk. But addiction makes us all more narcissistic—willing to lie, steal, cheat, and even exploit others to get our high."
If you really want to know if your partner can change after substance-abuse treatment, Malkin says, you need to ask yourself these five questions:
- As your partner overcomes his or her addiction, are the two of you still feeling distant?
- Does your partner announce that they’ve made “the most progress of anyone at AA” instead of sharing with you their vulnerable feelings, like sadness, or loneliness, or fear?
- Does your partner show a pattern of exploitation, entitlement, and empathy impairment (triple E), the hallmark of pathological narcissism, even after they stop using?
- Does their emotional sharing feel empty or shallow, fueled largely by 12-step jargon instead of genuine remorse or sadness for the pain they’ve caused?
- Are they secretive about their treatment experience, as though "you couldn’t possibly understand what it’s like unless you’ve been there?”
“If your answer to any of these questions is ‘yes,' then it’s likely your partner’s narcissism is a core problem and they’re using 12-step programs to feel special in a new way instead of turning to you for mutual care and comfort," Malkin explained. In that case, he says, "Recovery is merely another way the narcissist self-soothes—one of many—instead enjoying true emotional intimacy."
“You should view their narcissism as you would any severe addiction,” he says. “It takes a lot of work to break an extreme addiction to feeling special, and you have to decide if you’re willing to stick around while your partner does it. In this case, ‘slips’ mean a return to arrogance, self-involvement—perhaps even emotional abuse.“
But being armed with the knowledge that your partner faces two addictions—not just one—is empowering, Malkin says. “It makes the decision about when to leave that much easier. If your partner is only getting help for their drug addiction, and not their narcissism, there’s no hope of change.”
The decision to leave an important relationship is never easy. When you learn that someone you love and care for is addicted, your first impulse may be one of empathy and support. But it’s important that you look carefully at what, precisely, your partner is addicted to: Is it a substance or activity, or feeling special, or both?
Copyright © 2016 by Peg Streep.
Baumeister, Roy F. and Kathleen D. Vohs, "Narcissism as Addiction to Esteem." Psychological Inquiry (2001), 12 (4), 206-210.
Burgo, Joseph. The Narcissist You Know: Defending Yourself Against Extreme Narcissists in an All-About-Me Age. New York: Touchstone, 2016.
Vazire, Simine and David C. Funder, "Impulsivity and the Self-Defeating Behavior of Narcissists.” Personality and Social Psychology Review(2006), vo. 10, no. 2, 154-165.
Miller, Jonathan D.,W. Keith Campbell, Diana L. Young et al., “Examining the Relations Among Narcissism, Impulsivity, and Self-Defeating Behaviors.” Journal of Personality (2009), 77:3, 761-792.