What Falling in Love With a Narcissist Says About You
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. Psychologists suggest we're creating more of these self-absorbed people with our social media obsessed culture. But, for me, the question has always been: Why do some people fall in love and marry narcissists when most of us try our darndest to avoid them?
This question has intrigued me ever since my best friend, Dayna, got hitched to a narcissist 32 years ago at the age of 22. Her four children, all young adults, now contend with the serious effects of having a father who always needed the spotlight shining on him and not them. Their problems include anxiety, low self-esteem, and eating disorders. Dayna's decision to marry this man and stay with him has always made me more curious about the person attracted to a narcissist rather than the narcissist himself. So why do some people fall for these self-absorbed types when most of us run from them?
What Is "Narcissistic Supply?"
"Narcissistic supply" refers to the attention, admiration, and adulation that a narcissist craves. It boosts his ego and supports his belief that he's special and superior.
1. Falling for His Charisma and Charm
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 and charming, showering 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 had never had a boyfriend.
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 the narcissist is far more comfortable and competent with superficial interaction 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.
2. Hitching Her 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. It was hugely tempting for someone naive like Dayna to hitch her wagon to a narcissist's star, letting him take care of their future while she cheered him on from the sidelines.
Sadly, the lofty plans of a narcissist rarely get fulfilled. 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. Lacking the people skills to collaborate, they're unable to get ahead even when they're intelligent and capable. Dayna was once convinced her husband was destined to head his own firm one day. But, unable to play well in the sandbox with others, he wound up struggling to keep a job.
3. Feeling 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 was wondering how they could politely extricate themselves from the 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.
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.
4. Escaping an Unhappy Childhood
Dayna's husband was the only man she had ever dated and offered an easy exit from her unhappy childhood. With a mother who was emotionally unavailable, she 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.
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 knew so she was comfortable in that role.
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 happens 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. Fearing the Future 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 he won't change but now has the tools needed to deal with his self-centered ways.
The 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 are.
I Highly Recommend This Book About Extreme Narcissists and How to Deal With Them
I've been fascinated by narcissists (and their partners) for years – long before the label started getting tossed around like it is today. This book represents the latest research on narcissists (there's a wide spectrum) and focuses on the most intriguing ones: extreme narcissists. We all have someone in our lives – a co-worker, boss, neighbor, or friend – who exists somewhere on the continuum. This book offers practical advice for dealing with them before coming unhinged or losing your cool.
© 2017 McKenna Meyers