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Understanding the Narcissist's Antagonistic Attachment Style

Here's what it means, what it looks like, and the damage it does.

Key points

  • Securely attached people have mutually supportive relationships.
  • Narcissists have an antagonistic attachment style based on predation, competition, and parasitism.
  • The narcissist's antagonism in relationships traumatizes individuals, families, and larger social groups.
Source: Maryland GovPics/Creative Commons
Source: Maryland GovPics/Creative Commons

Humans are a highly social, collaborative species with intricately complex interdependency. We raise children together, work together, learn together, eat together, play together, and the list goes on. And the glue that bonds us is our common capacity and desire for attachment—the drive to connect, share, protect, and care.

Antagonistic Attachment

Securely attached humans approach relationships cooperatively. They work together to achieve shared goals, seek and give empathetic validation, share accurate and truthful information, and express affection and vulnerability to build trust and intimacy in their relationships. There may be conflict, there may be disagreement, but mutual support is the foundation of the relationship and respect and love are not at stake.

By contrast, for the narcissistic personality attachment with others is antagonistic, a concept in biology that refers to a relationship in which one organism benefits at the expense of another. Common forms of antagonism in nature are predation, competition, and parasitism. Let's look at these three dynamics in narcissistic human relationships.

1. Predation

A predator typically kills and eats its prey to gain life-giving energy. In a predatory human relationship there may be murder, but more often there is a condition of ongoing domination and subjugation. Because narcissists view all relationships as a struggle for dominance, they emotionally and perhaps also physically and sexually oppress, intimidate, and violate others to experience and maintain feelings of power and control.

Narcissistic displays of dominance may be flagrant forms of aggression such as hitting, pushing, berating, name-calling, playing favorites, critiquing, and monologuing; or they may be more passive-aggressive maneuvers like dismissal, silent treatment, backhanded compliments, "joking" barbs, veiled threats, and triangulating. Whatever the strategy and however well it is rationalized or disguised, the purpose is to bully the other person into submission.

2. Competition

Competition is another type of relational antagonism characteristic of narcissism. Narcissists approach relationships oppositionally, viewing other people, including and often especially their family members, as competitors for resources. Those resources may be tangible things, but often they are intangible interpersonal resources such as attention, acknowledgment, inclusion, respect, admiration, and affection.

Seeing life as a zero-sum game in which they can only win if someone else loses, narcissists continually work to undermine and one-up those around them, while asserting their superiority and greater entitlement. Typical competitive narcissistic behaviors within families and other social groups include comparing, bragging, overtalking, blaming, cheating, exaggerating, diminishing, excluding, applying double standards, distorting and withholding information, and taking undue credit.

3. Parasitism

Parasitism is another common relational dynamic in the narcissistic personality's antagonistic style of attachment. A parasite feeds off of a host organism to the host's detriment, causing depletion, disease, and sometimes death. Between humans, parasitism shows up as exploitation in relationships, usually with the parasitic narcissist manipulating or coercing the other person into providing ongoing resources such as money, housing, privilege, social standing, sex, and caretaking or other forms of service.

To render the "host" easier to exploit, the narcissist typically uses tactics such as isolation, guilt, seduction, fawning, and gaslighting, while employing forms of intermittent reinforcement to create the illusion of reciprocity in the relationship. The relationship not only drains the host of physical and emotional resources, but it also alienates that person from his or her own self-preserving instincts and ability to maintain safe personal boundaries.

Hidden Abuse

People who are narcissistic seldom make their antagonism transparent for the simple reason that they will suffer negative consequences if they do. Even overt narcissists who are more brashly superior and domineering than other types know that they won't get far in life if they fail to adhere to (or give the appearance of adhering to) some rules and social norms, whether with acquaintances, friends, or family members. So for narcissists, it becomes expedient to mask their harsh self-interest and contempt for others and develop more socially acceptable strategies for getting what they want from their relationships. It is common for narcissists to cultivate an agreeable, generous, charming, caring, pious, or noble persona to attract a partner and win favor in social or professional contexts.

The disparity between the narcissist's public and private face, a difference that is often especially dramatic in the covert form of narcissism, is one of the most confusing and dangerous aspects of the personality disorder. This disparity makes the reality of the abuse for those targeted within families more difficult to recognize and even harder to call out.

Complex Trauma

It is important to note that forms of antagonistic attachment as a bio-ecological phenomenon (except for competition) normally happen between different species, not members of the same species.

Within the human species, regardless of culture or national border, such behavior is widely viewed as abhorrent. In psychology, it is categorized as pathological. In ethics, it is immoral. In mythology and religious contexts, it is evil. And there is a very good reason for this: Antagonistic attachment results in profound traumatrauma that cascades through the targeted individual's life span, from one family to the next, across generations, and deep into our social fabric and institutions.

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