When her best friend married a narcissist over 30 years ago, Ms. Meyers became intrigued by women who fall in love with self-absorbed men.
Women Who Fall in Love With Narcissists
Narcissist is the diagnosis du jour. Licensed therapists (as well as armchair ones) freely slap the label on anyone and everyone these days. We smugly give the tag to people in the public eye—Donald Trump, Madonna, Kanye West, Lady Gaga, O.J. Simpson, and Kim Kardashian—without ever having met them. We're all convinced we have a mother-in-law, a boss, a friend, or a co-worker who deserves the categorization.
Today, psychologists wonder if we're creating more of these self-absorbed types with our social media obsessed culture: full of selfies and personal blogs. For me, though, the most intriguing question has always been: Why do some women fall in love and even marry narcissists when most of us try our darndest to avoid them?
If you find yourself in a narcissistic relationship, you can first recognize what you have chosen and reflect on the unconscious motives that might have led you to choose such a partner. Did you have a self-centered parent? Are you more comfortable with your partner being in control, so you can then be more passive? Do you get a sense of worth from being attached to someone who is in the spotlight?
— Dr. Lisa Firestone, clinical psychologist and author
My Best Friend Married a Narcissist
The question of why some women fall in love with narcissists has fascinated me ever since my best friend, Dayna, got hitched to one years ago at the age of 22. Her four children, all young adults now, contend with the serious effects of having a father who needed the spotlight shining on him, not them. Their problems include anxiety, low self-esteem, and eating disorders.Dayna's decision to marry this man and stay with him has made me much more intrigued by the women who are attracted to narcissists rather than the narcissists themselves.
1. They're Charmed By His Confidence
A study in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology tells us that narcissists make a powerful first impression, captivating many of us with their looks, confidence, and charisma.The report states, "We tend to be attracted to people who possess the four qualities (flashy and neat dress, charming facial expression, self-assured body movements, and humorous verbal expression) that narcissists tend to (initially) possess...After the first meeting, narcissists were rated as more agreeable, conscientious, open, competent, entertaining, and well adjusted by the other members of the group."
Most women, though, see the initial luster of a narcissist quickly fade as we get to know him better. We begin to comprehend the depth of his self-absorption and his lack of interest in us and others. The exception to this, however, can be young, inexperienced women who are drawn to a narcissist's worldliness and bravado. They see him as just the right person to escort them into adulthood.
When Dayna met her now husband, she was just 18—a shy freshman at a large university. He was ten years older—a college graduate already well-established in his profession. Like many narcissists, he was charismatic, charming, and showered her with attention. Unlike her teenage girlfriends, Dayna went on expensive dates to fancy restaurants, theater productions, and sporting events. His self-confidence and worldly experiences made her feel special: protected and secure. Being on his arm was heady stuff for an 18-year-old who'd never had a boyfriend.
2. They're Willing to Hitch Their Wagon to His Star
Narcissists are known for their grandiose thinking and big ideas. They have the bravado to convince some people (especially those younger and less experienced) that they have what it takes to become rich and successful. Contrary to the popular belief that narcissists thrive in the business world, their lofty career plans rarely get fulfilled and they often struggle to get ahead on the job.
As anyone who works with one can attest, it's no fun to have them at the office. They're arrogant and manipulative, power hungry and competitive, sensitive to criticism and always needing to be right. In her article in Psychology Today called "7 Ways to Cope With Narcissists at Work," Dr. Stephanie A. Sarkis describes how these self-absorbed types are unlikely to rise in their companies because they're disliked and distrusted by co-workers.
Dr. Sarkis writes, " While everyone at work initially is in awe of or looks up to the narcissist, eventually they figure out the narcissist's game. Eventually the narcissist runs out of people to sabotage or blame—until a new hire comes along. Everyone else has learned to distance themselves." Lacking the people skills to collaborate, they're unable to get ahead even when they're intelligent and capable.
When she was young and unsure of herself, Dayna was eager to hitch her wagon to a narcissist's star. She was willing to let him take care of their future while she cheered him on from the sidelines. She was once convinced her husband was destined to run his own company with dozens of employees. She saw a future of extreme wealth and privilege for their family. Unable to play well in the sandbox with others, though, he found it nearly impossible to keep a job and she wound up supporting the family.
3. They Feel Special Because He Feels Special
Like many narcissists, Dayna's husband sees himself as special and superior. In his eyes, he's exceptionally intelligent, witty, and articulate. He fancies himself a gifted story teller who beguiles an audience with his adventures and insights.
In the early days of their courtship, Dayna would sit by his side, beaming with pride, as he went on and on about this or that. While everyone else around her was wondering how they could politely extricate themselves from this blowhard, she was blissfully oblivious to their eye-rolls and “get-me-outta-here” body language. This was her man and he was special and, therefore, so was she.
Like many narcissists, Dayna's husband put on an impressive show in public—chatting up people at the ballpark, telling engaging anecdotes at parties, and joking with the baristas at the corner coffee shop. Introverts like Dayna find this extremely appealing because it's outside their own comfort zone and abilities.Over time, however, they discover that the narcissist is far more comfortable and competent with superficial interactions with strangers in public than deep, meaningful connection with his partner at home.
He gets his narcissistic supply when someone laughs at his joke, compliments his wardrobe, and praises his taste in beers. Public adulation is more important to him than the approval of his partner. She starts to feel diminished and dismissed.
As the years (and decades) went by, family and friends like me began to distance themselves from the couple. Dayna's life got more isolated as she gradually realized she was married to a narcissist and people were avoiding them. She sought professional help so she and her children could learn coping strategies. She now understands how her childhood (feeling unloved by her mother) made her highly susceptible to a narcissist's allure.
"True narcissists lack empathy. As a result, their interpersonal relationships are destined to suffer. Because they can never see the world from the eyes of someone else, including their closest romantic partners, they'll lack the ability to connect emotionally. this lack of empathy almost ensures, then, that they won't get the social support. Narcissists push people away be being unable to see the world as others do.
— Susan Krauss Whitbourne, Professor Emerita of Psychological and Brain Sciences
4. They're Escaping an Unhappy Childhood
Dayna's husband was the only man she had ever dated, and he offered an easy exit from her unhappy childhood. With a mother who was emotionally unavailable, she had felt unloved and invisible at home. Her self-esteem was in the cellar when this older confident man came into her life, making her feel secure and wanted. He offered an escape that was appealing—one she didn't feel confident enough to make on her own.
Without realizing it until years after they wed, Dayna had married her husband to repair the relationship with her mother. As is so often the case, though, it proved to be futile. Instead of fixing the dynamic she had known as a kid, she managed to recreate it with her spouse.
Once again, she was left feeling alone and misunderstood. Stephen Treat, director of the nonprofit Council for Relationships, says: “Your psyche wants to go back to the scene of the crime, so to speak, and resolve that parental relationship in a marriage. You think you'll be able to heal this way, but you're probably no more equipped to deal with the situation than you were as a child, and the parental dynamic gets repeated in your marriage, usually with bad consequences.”
Not surprisingly, Dayna's husband turned out to be a lot like her mother. His needs always came before hers. He took and took and gave little in return. He could quickly become cold and indifferent.
While many of us would bail from such a one-sided relationship, Dayna stayed because it was familiar to her. She had never been given the opportunity to shine as a child. Playing second fiddle was all she had ever known so she was comfortable in that role...but never happy.
Who are “crazy-makers?”
The term “crazy-maker” is often associated with narcissists. It refers to someone (a spouse, parent, friend) who sets you up for failure time and time again, leaving you feeling confused and full of self-doubt. There are many examples of crazy-making behavior. A common one used by narcissists occurs when you criticize them. They reach back into history and pull out everything you've ever done wrong, making you the one at fault and leaving themselves blameless.
5. They Fear Life Without a Man
After three decades of marriage, it seems unlikely Dayna will ever divorce her narcissistic husband. The insecurities that drove her into his arms in the first place are more pronounced than ever and starting anew in her fifties wouldn't be easy. In and out of marriage counseling for years, she understands that he won't change, but she now possesses the necessary tools to deal with his self-centered ways.
Her therapists have made her aware of the crazy-making behavior that narcissists employ. When her husband blames her for everything that goes wrong and takes no responsibility whatsoever, she knows it's par for the course. When he gives her the silent treatment for days (and sometimes weeks), it doesn't upset her and she enjoys the respite.
As a long-time friend, I'm sometimes amazed at her toughness for staying with such a difficult man. Other times (especially when I see her adult children struggling) I'm frustrated at her weakness for not leaving. By watching their relationship through the decades, I realize they're in some kind of strange dance that both fascinates and repulses me. I no longer see Dayna as a victim but know her children definitely are.
What about you?
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
Questions & Answers
Question: I got myself blind drunk for a year. I didn’t have the courage to extricate myself while I was sober, but now I’m alcohol-free. I’m reliving the breakup as if it was yesterday and I’m devastated and miss him terribly. Will I ever stop loving this man as I remember him? It’s been two years now.
Answer: First, let me congratulate you on your sobriety. That's a wonderful achievement and you should be so proud of yourself. Now that you've taken that enormous step you're ready to move forward in other areas of your life and make yourself a priority. It's always easier to look in the rear-view mirror because those sights are familiar and, therefore, feel safe and comforting. What we know (even if it's bad) is often less scary than the unknown. But, we must keep looking ahead. The spiritual life coach, Iyanla Vanzant, says: “When life removes something from you, it's not helpful to go chase it down and get it back.”
I dislike the expression “time heals all wounds” because it's a fallacy and keeps people from taking the necessary steps to get better. I've talked with people in their 80's (including my own mother) who are still suffering from childhood hurts. In order to heal, we need to be pro-active and not just wait for some magic to wash over us. Looking backwards and ruminating about the past only leaves us feeling stuck and miserable. I urge you to see a cognitive therapist for a short period to get you moving in the right direction. He/she can help you set goals to propel yourself forward. You're so worth it! If you put in the time now, you'll be so glad. Two years is enough time to have suffered.
There's a saying: “life doesn't happen to you; it happens for you.” What did you learn from that relationship with a narcissistic man? What did you discover about yourself? What made a self-absorbed guy attractive to you? What's there about you that a narcissist found desirable? This is your opportunity to make sense of that experience, gain valuable insight, and use it to move in a new, healthier direction. Too many women jump from one romantic involvement to the next without taking the time to figure out why they keep picking the same type of man and then lament when it doesn't work out yet again.
I wish you much growth and happiness in your journey of self-discovery. This is an opportunity to embrace your spirituality and heal through prayer, meditation, reading, and time spent in nature. You need to get that man out of your head and heart and enjoy all the beauty this world has to offer. I'm glad you reached out for help and hope you continue to do so. Take care!
© 2017 McKenna Meyers
A nony mouse on April 29, 2018:
Sadly, modern lives dictate that many people move around a lot, geographically as they chase jobs. This makes it very easy for a narcissist to move away from all the problems that they have created and start anew with a clean slate.
As experts reckon that about 1 in 25 people are narcissistic, there is a good chance that we have all known our fair share. When these people move on, their victims are probably all too busy picking up the pieces of their own lives to alert others of the problems. Besides which these people are generally charming and charismatic, so who would believe what they are really like until they show their true colours, which can be an awfully long way down the line.
My son and I live our lives as much under the radar as possible, we cannot be found on social media and my son intends to change his name by deed poll, when he is legally able to. We are both aware, that the game with a narcissist is only over when they say it is. So our only chance is to try and remove ourselves from the game by disappearing.
McKenna Meyers (author) on April 13, 2018:
A nony mouse, I'm so sorry you had to go through all that suffering. I hope you and your son are now leading happy and safe lives. Hopefully, women will read your words and learn from your experience and not become wife #3 with him or some other guy like him. As your therapist so wisely observed, people like that don't change. When we choose a partner, we need to look at the patterns they've established throughout their lives, realizing those will become a part of our world. As Dr. Phil likes to say, "The best predictor of future behavior is past behavior." Thanks so much for taking the time to share your heartache and enlighten others. I wish you and your son all the best as you move forward.
A nony mouse on April 12, 2018:
Many narcissists do not show their true colours until a long way down the line. Why would they, if they are getting what they want they do not rock the boat. My ex-husband was fine for eight and a half years until our son came along then he turned into a nightmare. To cut a long story short we wound up in therapy. He made out that he was an unwilling father, I asked him why in that case had he said that he wanted children when we got married. He replied that he hoped that I would forget about it or simply grow too old to have children.
Now the therapist at this stage, asked what I would have done if he had said no to wanting children and I elicited horror by saying that I would not have continued the relationship. The therapist then went on about compromise, now sure there are lots of things that you can find compromise in, but not really the issue of children. If one person wants children in a relationship and the other does not then one party is always going to feel aggrieved, not in my book a healthy foundation for a relationship.
I tried everything to try and sort the situation out, but it had become abusive and violent. The reality was that I wanted my husband's behaviour to change, that or I wanted him gone. The therapist made it quite clear that there was no way that he would change his behaviour, because he knew that I was frightened of him and no way that he would go because he had things too good. She persuaded him to open up and he told her that he was having an affair, she asked him if he felt he deserved a better life with the other woman, he agreed and left me.
I started divorce proceedings, things with the other woman did not work out for him, he came back ostensibly to pick stuff up and when I asked him for his address, his response was that if I did not know where he lived, I could not serve the divorce petition, I told him that was fine I would have it served on him in his workplace. For this, he tried to run me over. He left me dazed on the pavement, with cuts and bruises, he had no idea how badly I might have been injured, our 10 month old son was in the house alone, he knew this too.
Needless to say, the divorce was a nightmare, the judge ordered child contact and my ex used this as a pretext to continue the abuse. In effect this obliged me to give up my career and all my friends and to move to the back of beyond. You will guess he was not too happy about this and he took it back to court, this time the court said that his behaviour was disgusting and put an end to child contact.
Then one evening in December 2015 my parents answered the door to find 2 police officers who were concerned about my safety. As I wanted to make good my escape from my ex I am not on the electoral roll, so they were worried that they were unable to locate me. My parents rang me and the police told me that I needed to contact the police where my ex lived with regard to him. I did so and they wanted to know how our marriage ended. I gave them chapter and verse and when I finished they told me that the wife number 2, who is from a foreign country, had bought 2 of her children to live in their household about 6 months ago. This had led to a deterioration of their relationship, to the point that 90% of the abuse that I had described to them, he had gone on to perpetrate against her. He had been arrested and bailed, but new evidence came to light during their investigations and he was remanded in prison over Christmas. Karma, I just hope he got a big, hairy cellmate by the name of Ben Dover who has about the same understanding of the word 'NO' as he does.
Unfortunately, we think that he brought pressure to bear upon wife number 2, because she walked into the police station and retracted her statements. Because of this and the fact that she is foreign, the Crown Prosecution Service did not further pursue the matter.
The police advised me to watch social media etc, in case he tried to rekindle our relationship. Thankfully, he has not. He has, however, got himself a new job with a different company and moved miles away. Should have said the police raided his employers and took away his computer, that together with being on remand would have given his workplace plenty to talk about. So it seems pretty clear that he has moved away from all the stink that he has caused for a fresh start. Sad to say he is on the lookout for wife number 3, what can I say other than I feel sorry for whoever winds up with this guy, because I know from what was said intherapy that he will never change.
McKenna Meyers (author) on July 01, 2017:
I have no idea who you're referring to, Catherine! But like Dayna and her husband, Melania and Donald are made for each other. Being married to a narcissist means taking the good with the bad and Melania definitely enjoys many perks being married to such a rich and powerful man. I don't feel sorry for her at all. She knows how to cope (e.g. having her parents move to the White House with her). As for Barron, he'll probably grow up like his knuckleheaded half-brothers.
Catherine Giordano from Orlando Florida on July 01, 2017:
This is a wonderful essay. I learned a lot about narcissism. As I read it, I couldn't help but think about the marriage of a prominent couple in the United States. The man is a narcissist and the wife and child appear to be suffering psychologically.
McKenna Meyers (author) on June 24, 2017:
Yes, Lori, Dayna and I are still friends and I'm planning a visit with her this summer (without her husband). She's developed a lifestyle where she does a lot by herself or with her grown kids and that seems to make the relationship work. He prefers to stay at home and is no longer the outgoing, talkative guy he once was. I, too, hope her children do okay. They really dislike their dad. I'm glad you survived your relationship and are now enjoying your freedom. Good for you.
McKenna Meyers (author) on June 24, 2017:
Thanks, dashing scorpio, for your insightful comments. My friends and I were jealous when Dayna married her man -- not because we liked him (we thought he was a creep) but because we had no doubt he'd become incredibly rich and successful. He certainly had the intelligence and confidence but could never make the human connections. Now he's in his 60s and quite bitter. But, I know you're right about the high number of bigwigs who are narcissists (and psychopaths, too). It's the lack of empathy that helps them rise to the top without worrying about whom they step on.
Lori Colbo from Pacific Northwest on June 23, 2017:
I hope you and Dayna are still friends. Our stories are similar. I don't know if my husband was a narcissist but close. He and his sister have determined that their mother was a narcissist.I would agree. We are no longer together. We've made peace, but it has been sad to see him turn to a seedy lifestyle. I've never dated since we divorced 17 years ago. I love my freedom. I will say a prayer for Dayna and her children. Good for her for going to counseling and getting and using tools.
dashingscorpio from Chicago on June 23, 2017:
At age eighteen Dayna was still basically a child who had just left her parents' home for college and immediately got involved with a guy 10 years older. Naturally no guy her age (18) would have been able to compete with "worldliness" and vast experiences in addition to the expensive trips and outings.
Add to the fact he was her (first boyfriend) it should come as no surprise that she fell hard for him. It's also the only significant relationship she has ever known so she has no past relationship experience to compare it with.
I think you nailed it as to why people are attracted to narcissist because they do tend to be very confident, outgoing, and seem to (know) what they want and where they're heading in life.
Deep down most people want that for themselves.
And although you stated most narcissists don't reach massive success the fact is most people who are truly successful do have some narcissistic characteristics. Almost every "leader" in business, politics, entertainment, and sports has worked with or been around people who will confide in others that these people have massive egos and site examples whether it be Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Donald Trump, Muhammad Ali, Dick Clark, Oprah, and so on. If personal assistants weren't force to sign non disclosure agreements most of us would be shocked to learn how many of these people the public admires truly operate in private. You have to believe you're the best.
Not all narcissistic people reach the top but most who do are. Therefore it's no surprise for someone like Dayna to want to get in on the "ground floor" sort of speak with a guy she believes will fulfill his massive egocentric dreams in the near future.
(If you can't be "the star" it's good to be chosen by the star.) is how many people view life with a narcissistic. Yes, watching them "light up a room" eventually gets old but at the same time knowing how many people envy you or would gladly take your place is somehow a reward in itself.
Recently there are been many articles published regarding how to spot narcissistic people, their behavior, or co-exist with them. What is unique about your article is you offer insight as to why people (choose) to be with someone who is narcissistic.
Each of us (chooses) our own friends, lovers, and spouse.
There is no getting around that one. Thus it's more important to know why one says "yes" to someone than it is to look at the flaws of the guy or girl (you) chose to be with.
When we change our circumstances change!