I am a specialist in Cluster B personality disorders who has worked with people with disabilities and mental illnesses for over 10 years.
Who Enables the Narcissist?
Narcissism does not exist in a vacuum. It can't. Therefore, there are always enablers. Enablers are the people who support the narcissist, defend the narcissist, fight for the narcissist, people the narcissist recruits to their side. These people are usually called "flying monkeys," but there are other types of enablers, too.
These are the people who might not agree with or defend the narcissist, but who enable the narcissist by putting up with their behavior, or rescuing them or bailing them out of the catastrophes they manage to create. These are the people who say things like, "She's your mother, you need to forgive her" or "How can you abandon your husband when you know he has problems?" or, "I give in to your sister to keep the peace."
Why Do People Enable Narcissists?
These people usually don't have a malicious motive. Like flying monkeys, they often think they are helping. They are not. They are reinforcing the narcissist's behavior and making the problem worse. The more the narcissist's behavior works for them, the more they will do it. This is just like a child throwing a temper tantrum. If the tantrum is given in to, it will be repeated. If it is repeated and given into often enough, it becomes a pattern of behavior and eventually, the child knows no other way to react. They are simply doing what they have been taught will work. What they have been taught, by implied consent, is allowed and even expected.
Enablers Help Create the Problem
If one spouse hits the other, and the assaulted spouse does not leave the relationship or call the police, they've taught the batterer that this behavior is acceptable because there have been no consequences. The behavior will likely be repeated. Why wouldn't it be? If every year Aunt Nettie has a meltdown at the Christmas dinner that ruins the holiday for everyone, but every year she is still invited, she is being told that this behavior is allowed. Sure, people might fuss and complain, but that doesn't matter to the narcissist. They often crave chaos because it helps them feel validated and alive. Nothing is happening to prevent the narcissist from behaving this way. They are not losing anything because of it, and they are still receiving the attention they are seeking. There are no consequences. This is enabling the narcissist, whether people choose to believe that or not. If every time you draw a line, they cross it and you just keep drawing more lines, eventually they will realize these lines mean nothing and just keep walking. And soon you will find yourself boxed in with nowhere to go.
Aiding and Abetting Narcissism
We hear it all the time: "I can't just turn my back on my husband or my daughter or my sister or my mom." A fair question to them would be is, "Why not?" There is no reason to put up with abusive behavior from anybody. Ever. The only reason people put up with abusive behavior is because they have been conditioned to believe that this behavior is OK. It is not. There is nothing anywhere that states you have to continue relationships when they are toxic and abusive.
You may believe you are proving something to the narcissist by staying in the relationship. Well, you are. You're proving they can treat you however they want and you'll put up with it because their well-being matters to you more than your own. You're telling them they don't have to treat you any better because you don't believe you deserve it. That is unhealthy and it is toxic. It's also exactly what they want to hear. The narcissist wants you to set yourself on fire to keep them warm. They are bottomless pits of need, and nothing you do or give or show them will ever be enough.
In a very real way, they are like vampires. They are unable to sustain themselves or fulfill their own needs and must leech off of other people. The mechanism they employ to do this is usually abusive. Allowing that in your life is teaching the narcissist that this behavior is OK. More than that, you are teaching it to yourself. This makes it that much easier to keep putting up with it.
Helping a Narcissist: What Do You Get in Return?
There is a large amount of guilt involved in relationships with narcissists. People will say, "Yeah, but if I don't take care of the narcissist, who will?" Well, this may sound a little harsh, but that's their problem. The relationship with a narcissist is like the relationship with an infant: it is completely and totally one-sided. The parent is the one who gives all of the love, time, attention, while the infant simply needs, with no reciprocation and no understanding or even acknowledgment of the parent's feelings or even of the parent as a person at all.
It's like the example we often use about the child that is screaming and screaming. The mother is sick and has a fever and she is exhausted and she is sobbing because she cannot cope. Does the child have pity for this? No, of course not. They are not capable of understanding the situation. The child just knows they need something and cannot get it themselves. This is the dynamic we see in narcissistic relationships.
The difference is that infants grow up. They eventually will see their parents as separate, individual people with their own needs, wants and feelings. They become whole, separate individuals that can take care of themselves and attend to their own needs. They will eventually love the parent back. For whatever reason, this does not happen with narcissists. Narcissists stay in that infantile state forever, simply needing and needing and needing, and taking and taking and taking with no understanding of other people as people at all. They will take everything if you let them, and like an infant they will never stop to think about you at all.
Creating Boundaries With a Narcissist
This is where boundaries come in. Boundaries are the lines we draw when we say, "If you cross this line, if you do this thing, I will not go forward in this situation anymore." Boundaries don't work with babies of course, but they can work with narcissists because narcissists are not babies. They are capable of changing their behavior when properly motivated and they know the difference between right and wrong. They know what consequences are.
Examples of boundaries might be:
- If you hit me, I'm calling the police.
- If you disrespect my children, I will no longer remain in this relationship.
- If you continue to cuss at me, I'm ending this conversation.
- If you don't calm down, you will have to leave.
Boundaries should clearly state what is not allowed and what the consequence will be if the boundary is not respected. People who enable narcissists generally do not have clear boundaries. The consequences are not upheld when the narcissist crosses a boundary. This teaches the narcissist that the person's boundaries don't mean anything, and consequently the narcissist doesn't have to respect them.
Boundaries can be tough with a narcissist, because like a stubborn, rebellious child, they will cross every line you draw in the sand just to do it. So don't say things you don't mean. If you say you are going to end the conversation if they cuss at you one more time, do it. They will then see that you are serious. This leaves the choice up to them: if they want to respect your boundaries, the conversation will continue. If they don't, it won't. In this way, you stop enabling the disorder that is controlling - and ruining - everyone's lives. You wouldn't let a two year old be in control of the entire family. That's ludicrous. So don't let an adult narcissist. Stand your ground, state your boundaries and stick by them.
When Someone You Love Loves a Narcissist
What if the enabler is not you? What if it's somebody else and they will not listen to you when you try to tell them that their behavior is harmful and is in fact perpetrating the problem? This can be a difficult situation, because enablers of narcissists are often living in as much of a fictitious reality as the narcissist is when it comes to this. A lot of times, we are talking about a long-term enabler, so the pattern is often very deep and very established. You are likely not going to get through to this person. Their entire identity may be wrapped up in "helping" the narcissist and they are in just as much emotional danger as the narcissist if this pattern does not continue. They are probably enmeshed with the narcissist, which means interpersonal boundaries are so poor that they cannot tell where the narcissist begins and they end. They may get defend the narcissist, get angry, or simply deny everything. We often hear, "I'm doing the best I can!" or "It's not me, it's the narcissist!" These are both narcissistic statements in and of themselves, spoken by people who don't really want to take responsibility for the things they are doing or change them. And you already know what that means. It means it's pointless to even bother.
"No Contact" for Narcissists and Their Enablers
No contact is still and always will be the best strategy for dealing with narcissists and with their enablers. Again, narcissism cannot exist in a vacuum. There are always enablers. When identified, they should be subject to the same rules as the narcissist. If that's no contact, then it is. It's sad that this can result in going no contact with people you love, but they are not protecting you and are in fact enabling the narcissist to abuse you and others, so it's up to you whether you think you deserve better or not. Let's hope you think you do.
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.
MINDY on April 28, 2020:
Wow, this really puts things in perspective. The terrorist negotiation analogy was spot on. Very eye opening.
Jasmin on April 14, 2020:
After reading this, I'm so horrified. I want to get away from the narcissist I've been dealing with for the past 3 years, but I'm afraid that I've been the enabler...I don't want to be and I realize I need help getting away from him. I thought he was my soulmate. It's been the worst 3 years of my life. I feel traumatized, yet for some reason I feel like I should be helping him. I love him and I only want to see him happy. He knows he has a problem, which is why I always have hope. But even though he admitted to "being messed up in the head" he still won't change. I know I've suffered tremendously. I wish I could just leave him for good, maybe one day I will get enough strength to.
Audrey Hunt from Idyllwild Ca. on November 08, 2019:
Thanks for this article. Well written and very useful.
Alan on April 15, 2019:
This article is very enlightening.
Peggy Ballinger on January 01, 2019:
I really was liking this article up until you said you have to set boundaries with the Narcissist.....I disagree, Narcissists will never except BOUNDARIES, they will seek another poor soul to fill his every need!
Hello on September 14, 2018:
I just broke up with someone who is a narcissist. We were together for 14 months. He is in his late 40s. His finances are not in good shape. His parents co-signed on his house loan a few years (which he bought with his widow) ago. Recently, while I was with him, he bought a new car. His parents co-signed on the loan. When we went to visit his parents on a couple of occasions, he treated the parents like crap. Critical, not thankful, etc. When they bought him pajama bottoms at Xmas he complained. His 21 year old daughter was having problems with his ex wife (to whom he owes back payments of child support), his sister took her in. So his daughter, who he says he does not care about, is now living with his sister. He hasn't gone up more than once to visit. It is UNBELIEVABLE...the enabling. And from what I can gather, he was a bad kid from the beginning. So. I could not figure out why they enable him so much, but this article explains it. "Enablers of narcissists are often living in as much of a fictitious reality as the narcissist is when it comes to this. A lot of times, we are talking about a long-term enabler, so the pattern is often very deep and very established. You are likely not going to get through to this person. Their entire identity may be wrapped up in "helping" the narcissist and they are in just as much emotional danger as the narcissist if this pattern does not continue." This is his parents and sister to the tee.
A nony mouse on March 22, 2018:
Sometimes the enabler is more like a hostage trying to negotiate with a very violent terrorist. They have a choice to placate the narcissist or wind up being strangled by them. It takes considerable resources to escape an intimate relationship with one of these monsters, I should know, I did.
At first he persuaded me that his behaviour was either imagined by me or somehow a proportionate response to my behaviour. I wanted him to change or go. We went to 3 different therapists. He said 1) bullied him; 2) fancied me and we were flirting and 3) started to get somewhere. She figured out that he was narcissistic and told me there was no way he would go or let me go because I wanted out, he had got things to good. So she persuaded him that he deserved a better life and that perhaps he could have a better life with his mistress.
Many people that you describe as enablers, are not really willing participants in the dynamic. They need all the help that can be given to be able to see what has been going on in an objective light. The narcissist will have demoralised them and stripped away as many resources as they are able to. It is important that so-called enablers can have people to rely on to help them escape.
My ex had demoralised me so much and caused so much trouble, that there were times when my own mother blamed me for the situation. Having escaped the situation this was the last thing I needed and I am sure my ex would have laughed his socks off with glee if he knew some of the things that were said.
This all changed one night when police officers turned up on my parents' doorstep, as I have pretty much disappeared to outfox my ex, they were concerned about my whereabouts. My parents 'phoned me and the police asked me to contact their colleagues in another area. I did so to discover that my ex had been arrested and charged for domestic abuse towards his new family. He served time on remand over Christmas, Karma, with a bit of luck he might have shared a cell with a big, hairy guy called Ben Dover, who had the same lack of understanding of the word 'no', as he does.
Unfortunately, the new wife withdrew her statements and the Crown Prosecution Service dropped the case. He is on the look out for wife number 3.
To punish an enabler by withdrawing your support is likely to entrap them more effectively, because you are withdrawing some of the resources they may need to leave the relationship.
Yves on November 28, 2017:
Appreciated the child-narcissist analogy, the explanation of enabling, and why it is important to have and imput clear boundaries when dealing with narcissistic episodes.