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Narcissists and codependents: Part 2 – How their relationships turn toxic


Illustration of hands intertwined
rawpixel.com / Freepik
Deep dive by Diana Marin
 

This is the second part in a series of two articles about narcissism and codependency. You can read part one here.

 

Even though 'narcissism' and 'codependency' are now commonly-used terms to the point that their respective definitions are diluted and simplified, the yin-yang relationship between these two character traits is anything but. In the second of two articles on the topic, Diana Marin explores how narcissist-codependent relationships become unhealthy, and why they continue to exist regardless.


Narcissistic seduction: How it starts and why codependents are lured in


The narcissist’s craving for control influences the way in which they relate to others. Using manipulation and seduction tactics to lure their partner in, narcissists tend to follow a recognisable pattern.


At first, many narcissists (with some exceptions), employ the “good-natured” type of manipulation, characterised by love bombing (praise, admiration, appreciation, listening, sweetness, incessant gifts). They create a false, idealised self that mirrors their romantic interest or the image that they think the romantic interest has of an ideal partner.


As in most interactions, they project a grandiose image of perfection, success, or power, with a focus on status, physical attractiveness, impressive intellect, superior skills, and various other superlatives. Now, wanting to please your partner and make a good impression by presenting the best version of you is not inherently wrong. Everyone has a persona and a tendency to present themselves in a positive light, especially in a romantic context. But for the narcissist, it goes much further and deeper than that, especially because their sense of self is warped and constantly shifting.


In the case of love-bombing, what we are talking about is taking such behaviour to extremes and acting in an intense way that is often unusual for the nature or duration of the relationship. There is also a sense of exhibiting this behaviour for manipulative purposes, with an ulterior motive – usually wanting to advance towards the next stage of the relationship too quickly, to take it to the next level at an unusual pace that their romantic interest would normally be uncomfortable with, if they think this would be something the codependent would fall into. Otherwise, they might resort to different tactics.


Unfortunately, the answer to the question of whether it is a form of manipulation or not, can sometimes only be found in retrospect. The romantic interest might not realise if it’s a charade or not, and to what extent it’s just pretence, and at the time, they might get a vague impression that everything seems too good to be true. It might not sound like a red flag for everyone, and everything should be considered in light of the grand pattern, the entire set of behaviour, and all the signs.


Yet the truth is that love-bombing is a technique that works particularly well on codependents, because of their needy nature, craving for validation, and re-affirmation of the self through the other. The creation of the idealised self in the case of the narcissist is also facilitated in relations with a codependent, because codependents tend to put their partners on a pedestal anyway, so they find it easier to believe the illusion and get sucked into this dynamic.


How the relationship usually progresses and why the codependent sticks around


You might think to yourself: So far so good. Constant tokens of appreciation and an ideal partner, who would really complain? What follows after the good-natured manipulation, however, is a succession of red flags.


The semblance of heaven might turn into something hellish. The negative parts start piercing through the idealised self. The heavenly experience is clouded by negative manipulation tactics – gaslighting (making the partner doubt their perception of reality), boundary testing, boundary breaks, triangulation, isolating the partner from their loved ones, devaluation, and potentially discarding – which is often temporary.


Most people with high self-worth and healthy ways of relating with others would leave or take measures as soon as the personality shift happens. Codependent individuals don’t; instead they get attached. They want to see the best in the other. They remind themselves of the good times. In fact, due to the intermittent reinforcement, the good times – filled with affection, gifts, and compliments – might still be present, it’s just that they are simple distractions from the bad parts and the toxic behaviour.


The personality shift could start with an outburst of narcissistic rage, not necessarily directed at them, initially. There are subtle hints and red flags before everything spirals down into an abusive situation: how they treat the waiter on a date, how they act around people they don’t need something from, or people who don’t put them up on a pedestal. This can be followed by the need to one-up their partner, or the tendency to subtly diminish their success and to test their boundaries.


Manipulation can be insidious, until it starts coming into view, when the false self starts breaking apart. It can also manifest itself through triangulation – toxic comparisons, bringing a new person in and pitting two people against each other so they fight for their affection, all meant to make the narcissist feel important. This could include orchestrating a situation in which they induce hostility, trying to turn one person against another to create drama. Planting seeds of doubt in the minds of their partner. They might lie or induce negative feelings about the other.


Malignant narcissists take the negative behaviour to the extreme, resorting to intimidation, insults, shaming, demeaning or undermining remarks, or not-so-subtle emotional abuse – even actual physical abuse. The malignant narcissist is always trying to make their partner feel inadequate in some way through insults, because it makes them feel in control, diminishing their own insecurities and assuaging their fear of abandonment, of not being enough.


If they can’t find a real fault or flaw in their partner, they will invent one. The narcissist may directly or indirectly diminish their partner’s confidence and erode their sense of self, as well as isolating them from their family or friends in order to have power over their partner and ensure they remain dependent on the relationship.


They are emotionally manipulative and have the tendency to try to damage their partner’s self-esteem to keep them around, making them feel like they have to improve to please them, so they don’t have to focus on themselves, their flaws, insecurities, and what they should improve. This relieves them from the burden of self-doubt and insecurity, the feeling that they are repressing – that of being unlovable, inadequate, inferior. It’s the adaptive response employed by the narcissist’s fractured psyche, leaving their codependent counterpart feeling unfulfilled and resentful, but unable to leave, because of their own inner wounds and trauma.


Piercing through the façade


What lies behind the surface, beyond the protective layers and the polished image of the false, made up self?


There is a notable discrepancy between a narcissist’s charming, idealised self versus their authentic self. The latter tends to be alienated, repressed, and cast into oblivion, being deemed as weak. It’s a protective mechanism against narcissistic injury. Eventually, the narcissist ends up identifying with the grandiose self-image they conjure up – a narrative of omnipotence, high status, infinite power, and psychological impenetrability. Meanwhile, the real self becomes so fractured and distorted that it is hard to access or restore even in the rare cases when the narcissist ends up in therapy sessions (they don’t tend to seek treatment).


Since the true self deteriorates as the false self is continuously nurtured and replaces the true self, this creates an inevitable, strong dysfunctionality that is hard to undo. The false self might emulate the true self, borrowing emotions, sets of beliefs, values, and behaviour from it in order to function well in the world and pass as normal, for the purpose of obtaining validation and approval from others – an aspect upon which their constructed self relies.


However, the narcissist tends to dislike the true self, and any glimpses of its unpleasantness (emotional powerlessness, fear, shame), which is also why they reject people who mirror those parts they dislike in themselves and why they end up devaluating their partners. They often project their negative feelings on others, especially their partners, and end up feeling repulsed by their partners when they perceive them as weak and less than perfect, as this reminds them of their imperfections. Turning towards or acknowledging the true self would make the false self – and the fantasies it sustains – crumble.


There is a notable distinction between the false self of the narcissist and the social persona of non-narcissistic individuals. It is true that people often prefer to act in certain ways that are conducive to good outcomes in social and romantic situations, including showing up as the best version of themselves – but most people try to achieve a balance and don’t compromise or lose touch with their true self and their values, beliefs, and self-concept in the process.


Whilst trying to impress someone, for instance, people who don’t exhibit psychopathological conditions might omit certain aspects that they are self-conscious about or that they are unsure their partners would find attractive, but this process cannot be compared with the construction of an entirely new self and the tendency of pretending to be someone else, which is what happens in the case of the narcissist. Mirroring the gestures and behaviour of someone you are interested in and attracted to is normal to a certain degree, but in the case of narcissists it’s taken to extremes, it’s not natural, it’s contrived, and there’s usually a ulterior motive – to create a sense of connection that they don’t truly feel.


Behind this habit of reflecting the traits of the ideal partner in order to be liked, there is no substance to their personality and sense of self. There is an emotional void underneath. Most people with a healthy sense of self strive to have a balance – they don’t fully pretend, so the discrepancy between their persona and their authentic self is not as significant, or, at least, doesn’t conceal an emotional void and a deteriorated self-concept. Narcissists are mirroring you as well as the idealised concepts you might have in your mind, that they may have inferred by analysing you (they can read people well due to high levels of cognitive empathy).

 

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Projective processes are very common in narcissistic relating. Because narcissists don’t tend to have a stable basis for self-love and self-worth, they project their negative feelings onto their partners.


At times, their codependent partner will reflect or embody aspects or traits that the narcissist wants to repress in themselves, so, out of their need for self-preservation, they reject and devalue their partner, trying to shame them for those attributes they remind them of. They prefer to live in a fantasy world where they are infallible.


Even if the relationship is not that extreme or their codependent partner is resilient and plays along as they don’t want to upset them, thus tolerating their bad moments and unacceptable behaviour, the narcissist eventually either gets bored or sees the other as weak for not standing up for themselves, so they discard them – at least temporarily.


This is a vicious cycle. Perhaps the codependent appeared powerful at the beginning, in the honeymoon period: they were self-confident, but since the narcissist chipped away at their power, they lost their initial spark, and now the narcissist blames them for it. They liked the codependent until they changed for them. Even if their partner was not codependent, they might start projecting traits they don’t like in themselves onto them (traits which they’ve hidden away) and be repulsed by their perception of them. They might also guilt-trip them, making them feel like they have done something wrong to them, rather than the other way around. Covert narcissists are very likely to play the victim merely to guilt-trip the codependent.


Why are codependents likely to be attracted to and stick around narcissists?


The term “codependent” has its origins in relationships with people with substance use disorders. It is often used in family settings, in which one family member is an alcoholic with a toxic, problematic behaviour, and another member of the family (the codependent) enables this person’s behaviour. This was the initial use of the word, which has since become relevant and used in relationships with people with extreme personality traits such as narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) as well.


The image of the codependent is associated with words such as the enabler, the martyr, the rescuer. These words reflect what lies at the core of the codependent: the need to be needed, to save another person from themselves, even at the expense of their own peace of mind and mental health.


The reason behind this self-destructive tendency is the need for control and the need to define themselves through their relationship with someone else. In a way, codependents manipulate others as well, in order to maintain control, even if they are not corrosive like (overt) narcissists. Codependents have a strong inclination towards people-pleasing, and this is a vibe that the narcissist picks up right away and uses to their advantage.


When they get involved in a romantic relationship, codependents often neglect other responsibilities and relationships, even profession, turning all their attention and affection towards their partner: the narcissist becomes their whole world. This devotion helps maintain the grandiose self-image of the narcissist, feeding their ego, whilst reinforcing the codependent’s fluid sense of self in unhealthy ways.


Internalising the emotions of their partner and having blurred lines between self and other, the codependent turns inward when they feel wounded by the narcissist, rather than communicating their emotions and holding their partner responsible for their mistreatment. The pleasing codependent enables the narcissist to continue in his or her toxic ways, as they don’t set clear boundaries or send any strict, serious warnings. Their boundaries are fluid, not immutable.


They take on all responsibility and blame, downplaying the other’s behaviour, impact, and the effect of emotional abuse, not expressing their emotions or opening up to others about their experience and the narcissist’s tendencies, taking on the role of 'flying monkey' in relation to others, or allowing themselves to be triangulated (‘flying monkeys' are people that the narcissist surrounds themselves with, who support their narrative and sustain their self-delusion). Codependents tend to be conflict-avoidant, so they don’t challenge their partner. Both narcissists and codependents want to control the other in their own way and they enable each other’s unhealthy relational patterns.


Echoism versus codependence


The term “narcissism” is derived from Greek mythology character Narcissus, the young man who becomes so mesmerised by his own image in a lake that he wastes away whilst looking at it. In the same myth, Echo is a nymph whom Hera punishes by taking away her unique voice and capacity to express her thoughts, so that she can only echo other people’s words. When Echo encounters Narcissus in the forest, she falls in love with him, but faces rejection and, despite that, she clings onto him.


Similarly, echoists nowadays have a needy nature, an undefined identity and sense of self, and are unaware of and incapable of voicing their own desires and preferences, hence they prefer to cling onto other people’s identities as a way to define their own. Echoists are also afraid of being perceived as self-centred or attention-seeking, being averse to praise and attention.


The concepts of echoism and codependence overlap in many ways: both are traits found on a spectrum, and neither are acknowledged as a personality disorder. Both share the aspect of an unstable sense of self, as well as the focus on echoing other people’s needs whilst neglecting their own. Both struggle when it comes to setting boundaries and expressing their needs and desires. And both are incapable of identifying what bothers them and what they enjoy, alongside a tendency to self-blame.


One possible distinction would be that echoists don’t necessarily feel inclined towards or guided by the need to be in control. If unaddressed, echoism can progress into depression and other issues. Echoists can also gravitate towards the other end: counterdependence.


The underlying issues and potential causes that lead to narcissism or codependence


There are many potential causes for the development of codependent and narcissistic patterns of relating. One common, classical one is narcissistic parenting, leading to the formation of unhealthy, dysfunctional attachment styles. A narcissistic parent’s personality (just like the personality of a parent with a substance use disorder or extreme personality traits) can be detrimental to the child’s sense of self.


Narcissistic parenting can involve an overly critical attitude, diminishing kids’ accomplishments and aspirations, shaming, and not paying attention to their needs. Children sometimes feel like they need to meet the parents’ needs at the expense of their own, so they become alienated from their own needs. If their parents are alcoholics, abusive, unstable, or narcissistic, children can end up assuming the role of the caregiver to support and calm them down or silencing their own voices to avoid being a burden, receiving negative attention, or triggering an outburst of rage.


This pattern dictates future tendencies in relationships: Some people gravitate towards narcissists in relationships because it feels familiar – they find safety in the familiarity of this pattern. Even if they find themselves in an abusive situation, they can be stuck in a trauma-bonding cycle. Through this repetition, they wish to re-enact the same situation in order to feel in control, to conquer the childhood scenario with the narcissistic parent.


Whilst some people’s coping mechanism against the annihilation of the self caused by a dysfunctional background will be codependency, other people will drift away from the concept of empathy and vulnerability and become narcissistic rather than codependent. They emulate the narcissistic parent’s behaviour because they learn that they can only maintain control over situations through a manipulative approach. Echoist parents can also create echoist children, as they perpetuate the aversion towards attention, self-centredness, and uniqueness through shaming such behaviours.


Breaking the habit


For some of you reading this exploration of narcissism and codependency, parts of this journey may have rung true with experiences in your life, and perhaps even your current circumstances. Do not feel like your current situation cannot change though. If you suspect you may harbour your own narcissistic or codependent traits, know that you are in control of them. You can change if you want to.


​ Dear codependent, Establish and reinforce healthy boundaries. Stand by your values. Be truthful to you. Seek external opinions and don’t allow anyone to isolate you from your loved ones. Having a support network can help you put things into perspective. Identifying, articulating, and respecting your dreams, ambitions, preferences, values, and sources of pleasure and joy, will lead to a shift towards empowerment.

  • Recognise a toxic relationship or abusive situation and distance yourself

Recognise red flags, toxic patterns of behaviour, and be aware of the power dynamic highlighted in this article. Does any of it feel familiar? Know that you are not alone and that you don’t need to perpetuate this vicious cycle. Do you like yourself when you are with your partner, do you like that version of you? Do you feel seen or do all conversations lead back to them?

  • Re-evaluate what you need from a relationship

If you become aware of the fact that your relationship does not contribute to your well-being, ask for some breathing space, perhaps some time apart, away from the toxic environment, from their influence, so you can see things with fresh eyes. Reinforce your boundaries if they insist you should not stay away. Acknowledge how that dysfunctional relationship led to a distorted sense of self. If you feel angry or resentful, that is ok, it can be a sign that you acknowledge on some level that your boundaries have been crossed and you have your own needs that you want respected. Relinquish the need to control or “fix” your partner. Start by seeing where this need comes from and “fixing” yourself.

  • Redefine yourself. Reclaim your sense of self

Some factors that help in overcoming and recovering from codependency include: Meditation, reconnecting with yourself and/or exploring your identity through creativity (e.g. art, poetry, dancing), cathartic forms of self-expression (writing down your thoughts in a journal), giving yourself time to heal, seeking external help in the form of therapy (unravelling your relational patterns and identifying the source of the behaviour in a safe environment), having a support network.

  • Visualise what a healthy relationship looks like

Choose relationships that are likely to lead to personal growth. In healthy relationships you should be able to communicate your needs. A relationship should be nurturing and allow you to become your best self. Dear narcissist, The common belief is that you are unlikely to want to change. That you have wrapped yourself in a fortress, behind many psychological defences, which prevents you from wanting to dig deeper, to seek change or see the value in shifting towards a different mindset. However, there are self-aware, less extreme narcissists out there, who want to become better and to live better, rather than merely improving the surface, polishing the image, or engaging in a process of self-mythologising. Perhaps you are one of them. When you realise your relationships with others and with yourself seem to be problematic and ultimately detrimental to your well-being, this can constitute a catalyst that makes you see the value in change and in seeking meaningful connection and a more meaningful definition of self.


 

If you have been impacted by narcissistic abuse, The Echo Society provides support and online counselling. You can visit their website here.

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