The Narcissist and the Empath: A Toxic Attraction
There is no more dangerous and painful relationship than a relationship with a Narcissist. These relationships are often categorized by abuse of every kind (physical, verbal, mental, emotional, financial...), exploitation, gaslighting, manipulation and a total disregard for the other person by the Narcissist. We know Empaths as kind, generous people who are plugged in deeply to other people's emotions, often knowing us better than we know ourselves. So why would an Empath be attracted to a Narcissist? Of course, a person does not have to be an Empath to be unlucky enough to have encountered the Narcissist. However, Empaths find themselves entangled with Narcissists a disproportionate amount of the time comparatively speaking and because it seems such an unlikely pairing in a lot of ways, this dynamic deserves some investigation.
NOTE: Though the use of the pronouns "he" and "she" are applied to Narcissists and Empaths respectively here, this is done only for ease of reading and should in no way imply that either personality can only be one gender. Narcissism and Empathic ability are not gender-dependent in any way.
The players in this drama
Who is the Empath?
Empaths are people who are uniquely and exquisitely tuned in to the emotions of other people, even to the point of feeling these emotions. They are sensitive, kind and nurturing to a fault. They will unfailingly place the needs of other people before their own. This is a big reason they are attractive to narcissists.
Who is the Narcissist?
Narcissists are selfish, emotionally and morally bankrupt individuals who are unable to feel empathy for others in any true or meaningful way. They do not consider other people's feelings at all; indeed, they don't even realize other people have feelings in the same way that they themselves do.
It doesn't seem to make sense that two such people would be even remotely attracted to each other, let alone form what can seem to be an unbreakable, almost fatal attraction-type of bond, but it happens - and frequently. How, though?
At first glance, it's easy to see why the Narcissist is attracted to the Empath. Empaths are everything the Narcissist is not: kind, caring, emotionally aware, supportive, in control, able to have relationships and make friends... True to his nature, The Narcissist covets things he does not have and he endeavors to take them from anyone who does have them (or at least ruin them so that no one has them). The Empath gives freely of herself, making herself a glowing beacon for the Narcissist. It's like waving a red flag in front of a bull. He senses an emotional source he can leech off of nearly indefinitely, like a battery that never dies. He can take and take and take, and in return she will give and give and give. This is the nature of the relationship between the two and it will never change.
But why is she attracted to him? In the beginning, the powerful "vibe" the Narcissist gives off will resonate very deeply within the Empath. It catches her attention, and she is drawn to him as magnetically as he is drawn to her because of it. His presence is often very emotionally intense and most Empaths are attracted to that, whether they realize it or not. He may also be hard to read emotionally (his vibe is intense but it may be very distorted, like static on a TV where one cannot see the true picture) and since reading other people's emotional states is often very easy for the Empath to do, she may be drawn to him in spite of herself in an attempt to figure him out. Who is this guy? What's going on with him? What's he about? In short order, he will reveal his lifetime of abuse (real or embellished) along with a carefully-crafted commercial pitch showcasing how wonderful he is (usually not real) - and how wonderful she is, even though he just met her - and she will be effectively snared because she does not realize at first that the intense emotionality she is reading from him has nothing to do with her. It is all for himself.
It would seem unlikely that the Empath would fall for this considering that she is very in tune with others' emotions and their true selves. Can't she see what he really is? The answer is yes, she can. Most Empaths sense something "wrong" about the Narcissist very quickly, sometimes during the first conversation. But she can also see something else, and it overrides everything else: how wounded and broken he is inside, beneath all the lies and abuse. He needs. It's not an act on his part or a mistake on the Empath's part; the Narcissist really is fundamentally wounded and broken inside. A large number of Narcissists are skilled at appearing helpless and lost. That's because in many ways, they truly are. Her mistake is in thinking she can help him.
This is the attraction. She wants to help him. It is her fatal blind spot, because the Narcissist cannot be helped and more importantly, he does not want help. Yet even when she can see this clearly, his wounds are clearer. They are evident in everything he does, even in the horrible things. Especially in the horrible things.
He is adept at making her believe she is the only one who can help him, or that she already has helped him. This is what she wants. It feeds her need to help, and no one is more convincing than the Narcissist when he is showering someone with praise or pushing their emotional buttons to get a response. She gives him the emotional sustenance he both wants and needs, allowing him to bask in the light of her care and attention all the time. It is a dangerously codependent relationship which revolves around superficially fulfilling the needs of only one person who can be neither satisfied nor happy. The Narcissist is like a cup with a hole in the bottom: no matter how much you pour into it, it is never enough.
There is an important distinction to make here, however. We say "superficially fulfilling" because it is important to remember that the Empath's needs are being fulfilled, too, even if this does not seem to be the case. She is usually the obvious injured party in the relationship but she is a willing injured party; she has locked herself in a situation where she can perpetually "help" someone who will always need her. She has made a "career" out of taking care of a professional victim who does not want to get better. This may seem like victim-blaming to some, but it is only by recognizing this very thing that the Empath can empower herself to get away from the Narcissist for good: she has to understand that she is choosing to stay and she can choose to leave. He only has the power over her that she is giving to him.
Lots of Narcissists are arrogant overachievers but most are crippled by their disorder in many ways, unable to function in the world normally in more than a very superficial way. The Empath sees an opportunity to take care of someone in perpetuity - and even if she doesn't want to, her caring nature can make her feel that she must. What will he do without her? It doesn't seem fair to abandon him, regardless of how horrible he is because he is sick and the sickness is not his fault. It's true that the way his brain works is not his fault. Maybe no one loved him enough when he was a child. Maybe he was abused. Maybe none of it is really the Narcissist's fault. However, it is not hers, either. She does not need to be punished forever because of someone else's mistakes. If she stays in the relationship with the Narcissist, she will be.
This is the Empath's nightmare: abandoning those who need her when she could have helped. That is the problem with her logic, though: she cannot help him. No one can.
Since it is unrealistic to expect that the Narcissist possesses the insight to be able to recognize his problems, it is up to the Empath to recognize the situation and resolve it. The first (and most important) thing she must realize is that the only way to resolve the situation is to get out of it. That can be a very hard truth to face. No one wants to believe they have wasted years of their life on someone who literally does not care or appreciate it at all, but this is the trap the Empath finds herself in - especially when she is dealing with a Narcissist who (in his manipulative moments) swears this is not the case. Don't be fooled. It is the case, and it will never change.
The Narcissist cannot and will not change. He is not capable of the type of emotion, empathy and compassion necessary to render him a fair, loving, satisfying partner - and he can never learn. He cannot learn how to be a "real" person. This ability is learned in the first few years of life. By the time the Empath meets the Narcissist, it is already far, far too late. He cannot be helped.
It is important here, too, to remember that all blame is not laid squarely on the Narcissist. The Empath must take responsibility for her own actions and acknowledge the hard and embarrassing truth that her needs were being fulfilled on some level by the relationship, regardless of how painful or horrible the relationship was. If she cannot do this, she will continue to seek out relationships with other Narcissists and the pattern will not be broken. The problem (and pattern) is not solely with one person, because any relationship - even one with a Narcissist - is reciprocal. The Empath stayed in the relationship far past the time when she knew the relationship was unhealthy, dangerous, abusive or unfair and she must take responsibility for that. Only by acknowledging this can she truly break the cycle and be free.
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.