Why Some Women Fall in Love With Narcissists and How It Impacts Their Lives
Why Do Some Women Fall in Love With Narcissists When Most Try to Avoid Them?
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 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?
This question has fascinated 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 women who are attracted to narcissists than the narcissists themselves. This is what I discovered about this breed of female who are drawn to self-absorbed men, how it impacts their lives, and what others can learn from 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
1. They're Vulnerable to a Narcissist's Charm and 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 of us, though, see the initial luster of narcissists quickly fade as we get to know them better. We begin to comprehend the depth of their self-absorption and their 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 a 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 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'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. She 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 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 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 he won't change but now has the tools needed 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 are.
What about you?
Have you ever fallen in love with a narcissist?
Questions & Answers
© 2017 McKenna Meyers