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Narcissists and codependents: Part 1 – What brings them together?

Illustration of hands reaching out to one another / Freepik
Deep dive by Diana Marin

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 first of two articles on the topic, Diana Marin provides insight into the complex interconnections between narcissists and codependents, and why they are drawn to each other in the first place.

In a relentless and often uncompromising pursuit of perfection and admiration through various methods of enhancing their self-image, a narcissist (a person with Narcissistic Personality Disorder) inevitably feels drawn towards those who exhibit so-called ‘codependent’ traits: they maintain and boost the narcissist’s self-image, providing narcissistic supply, as well as enabling their toxic ways and influence.

At the incipient stage of the relationship, whilst the mask hasn’t slipped and reality hasn’t seeped through the well-fabricated illusion, the pairing seems like a match made in heaven. But in time, it becomes obvious they are both quite damned, as their relationship starts morphing into something toxic.

Since narcissists are not in touch with their feelings and true selves, and codependents derive their sense of self from their relationships – particularly from the feeling of being needed – they’re often incapable of forming a meaningful bond with one another. Without an awareness of self-sabotaging patterns that trap them in dysfunctional relationships, the codependent might find themselves on a path of disempowerment and self-annihilation.

The underlying similarity: an unstable sense of self

Outwardly, it might seem like narcissists and codependents are polar opposites that complete each other through their differences.

The codependent is a giver, putting other people’s needs before their own and bypassing their emotions for the sake of their partner, whilst the narcissist is a taker, who only cares about their own needs. When something goes wrong, the codependent takes all responsibility for their partner’s emotions and blames themselves for their unhappiness or discontent, whilst the narcissist is known to shift the blame.

In reality though, the behavioural patterns of both narcissistic and codependent individuals share a key similarity: an unsubstantial sense of self that requires a coping mechanism.

The narcissist’s adaptive response is to create a false, idealised self that revolves around worshipping their self-image at the expense of the authentic self – which tends to be cast into oblivion. The codependent, on the other hand, relies on a self-concept that is defined in relation to their partner: if the relationship fails or they fail to satisfy their partner, they perceive themselves as a failure, and their self-worth plummets.

Both approaches are unhealthy and not conducive to genuine self-fulfilment, and this becomes apparent over time. By that point, however, the two will probably have become entangled with each other to a degree that makes it seem impossible to escape.

Their identities will have merged: the narcissist tends to see the codependent as an extension of the self, they interact with their partner as a mental construct, or, in psychoanalytic terms, as the “internal object” (the inner symbolic representation of another) in a way that simply reaffirms their ego superiority. At the same time, in the mind of the codependent, boundaries between the self and the other are blurred, as they become engulfed by the relationship.

Due to the uncertainty and insecurity within their inner world of object relations, neither of them sees the true self of the other. Escaping this poisonous symbiosis/enmeshment and working on their relationship with themselves requires, first and foremost, self-awareness. This first step is challenging for them, due to the unstable sense of self – an aspect which is sometimes deeply rooted in their childhood. It’s not enough to be aware of the nature of the problem, however – they also have to have the power and the will to break the pattern.

Emotional intimacy issues

The narcissist and the codependent have intimacy issues and often exhibit traits and behaviours associated with emotional immaturity. Narcissists, especially overt narcissists (the typology most people associate with the term “narcissism”) are often counter-dependent – they are afraid of intimacy, which tends to prevent them from experiencing true intimacy.

Counterdependents take pride in their self-sufficiency, uncompromising independence, and control. Narcissists are averse to vulnerability, as well as having a fear of abandonment that is disguised and hidden behind their psychologically impenetrable façade. Investing in someone else emotionally on a deep level would put them at risk of suffering, so they tend to be emotionally detached. They envelop themselves in this fossilised shell that their partner attempts to see through, usually in vain.

Simultaneously, the codependent has low levels of self-love and they are often either unaware of what a healthy relationship should look like, or they are aware but unable to break up with their partner or reinforce their boundaries. They might initially fully throw themselves into the relationship with the narcissist, but then, as the relationship progresses and he or she realises they are in an unsafe environment in which the narcissist weaponises their weaknesses, they start having issues with emotional intimacy and feel reluctant or overly careful about what they share with their partners. Effectively, they can’t fully be themselves around their partner, growing afraid of emotional intimacy or their already existing fears are confirmed and they no longer want to reveal their vulnerabilities, remaining confined within themselves whilst avoiding self-expression. They even lose connection with their own feelings and in some cases end up dissociating in order to cope with an unfavourable situation, rather than breaking up with a problematic partner.

Despite the counterdependent tendencies of the narcissist, their insatiable ego usually requires constant appreciation – also known as ‘narcissistic supply’ – so they also have an interest in perpetuating the vicious cycle. The connection between the narcissist and their codependent partner is therefore often insubstantial and superficial: they need and enable each other, but are afraid to connect on a deeper level.

The narcissist thrives on being appreciated, whilst the codependent wants to be needed – these are the main aspects that make them tick. They share a deep-seated fear of abandonment. Connecting authentically and allowing themselves to be real and aligned with their true selves most of the time would represent a threat to their fluctuating self-worth, as it might damage that essential drive which emerges from an unhealthy place. It would be a risk that would trigger their fears of abandonment and resurrect the phantoms of emotional trauma.

The elusive and controversial question: Do narcissists feel emotions and real empathy?

Some people believe that narcissists are incapable of feeling, in that they lack the capacity for emotion, hence they are considered a lost cause in the context of relationships. Other scholars have suggested that the narcissistic mindset is merely a reaction, a defence mechanism to combat the likelihood of suffering and not being in control, of being at the mercy of one’s emotions.

Emotions can be perceived as threatening and destabilising, hence narcissists consider that it’s better to detach themselves in order to be strong and infallible. In the process, they lose touch with their emotional side, no longer understanding their emotions. For this reason, instead of forming genuine connections, narcissists interact with others and process traces of emotions through an intellectual or analytical filter.


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They don’t see others for what they are – they interact with mental constructs that they have created of others, with extensions of themselves created in order to reinforce their self-image. When people around them act out of line, they feel threatened. They restructure the existence of their significant others in their minds in order to not feel threatened by their individuality. As a result, a narcissist’s relationship with reality becomes distorted, in the sense that they are divorced from the reality of emotions. This is what allows them to sometimes act in ways which would hint at a lack of emotionality. Ultimately, it is a form of self-delusion. Emotion is a key aspect of our human experience, so narcissists may still feel inadequate at times during rare moments of self-awareness.

Narcissists don’t integrate their emotional parts, as they prefer to experience the world without worrying about not being in control; to live in an ideal world in which they are perfect and not subjected to the unpleasant side of being human – suffering, unsafety, insecurity, powerlessness. They also don’t integrate other people’s experiences and emotions.

Still, it is generally acknowledged that narcissistic individuals can have enhanced cognitive empathy, even if their emotional empathy is inhibited. This is why they are so good at psychological penetration, being able to detect others’ emotions and behavioural patterns, whilst at the same time not connecting with them on a deep level, allowing them to manipulate others and put their own interests before anyone else’s needs. They can also emulate good behaviour, empathy, and displays of emotions in the process of creating an image that compels and appeals to their (potential) significant other emotionally, but they tend to remain emotionally detached, enveloping themselves in a psychological fortress.

The many shades of narcissism

Before further analysing the complex relationships between narcissists and codependents, I would like to clarify some common psychiatric terms, as well as drawing a distinction between the use of the words in mainstream language and psychiatric terminology.

When I talk about narcissism and narcissistic individuals in this article, I am usually referring to people who exhibit the set of beliefs, patterns, and behaviour which would make them likely to be diagnosed with Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD). There is a significant difference between people who exhibit varying degrees and fluctuations of narcissistic traits versus those who have narcissistic personality disorder, hence meeting the criteria of extreme manifestations of (toxic) traits that cross into the realm of the pathological.

Narcissism can be viewed on a spectrum: on the far left, we have deficient levels, then at the centre of the narcissistic spectrum there is a healthy, stable, “normal” dose of narcissism, and towards the other end, we have pathological, destructive narcissism – NPD.

Healthy narcissism is glorified, beneficial, perhaps even necessary in contemporary society, because it is associated with self-love, a positive sense of self, high levels of self-worth, emotional resilience, and the feeling of being special. Striving to become the best version of you is not problematic.

This is different, however, from the false, idealised self constructed by individuals with NPD to replace the real self, which is associated with repressed negative feelings. As previously mentioned, narcissists don't have a stable sense of self, relying too much on external factors to feed the ego and the image – AKA 'narcissistic supplies' – whilst being devoid of deep emotion (feeling only fleeting, intense, but shallow and transient emotions) and not possessing a healthy sense of self that relies on being authentic and in touch with their emotions rather than identifying with an image constructed to successfully face the world.

The toxic behaviour exhibited by narcissists who are driven by a need to be worshipped and viewed as superior can be a nightmarish challenge and a curse, both to those around the narcissist and, ultimately, to the narcissist. It disrupts their happiness, their life, and their inner peace, particularly that of those around them. When they pursue narcissistic supply at the expense of others’ needs, instead of nurturing and honouring their true self, it affects their interpersonal relationships and prevents them from establishing a genuine, meaningful connection to others and to themselves.

As far as NPD is concerned, there are different shades of narcissists as well: the classical, most well-known and widely recognised type of narcissism is overt narcissism. There is also a less recognisable, more subtle typology of narcissism: the covert narcissistic personality.

The covert narcissist displays common narcissistic traits such as a sense of superiority and entitlement, grandiosity, expectation of special treatment, a lack of or diminished empathy for others, manipulative tendencies, and a need for admiration. However, as opposed to overt narcissists, who are ostentatious and can be spotted through their exhibitionist behaviour and sometimes obnoxious bravado, the covert ones are more reserved, potentially introverted, and not as transparent or easy to read. In these individuals, it might take longer for the narcissistic traits to seep through the surface and be detected.

The covert narcissist has fantasies of grandeur and daydreams about achieving unlimited fame, success, beauty, or some type of recognition of superiority, just like the overt narcissist. But they are less likely to act in a way that implies any of these characteristics due to their vulnerability and a tendency to victimise themselves, which in turn results from introversion or an awareness that arrogance is counter-productive and unpleasant. They are also more likely to resort to victimisation and guilt tripping within a relationship, sometimes also qualifying as co-dependent and being attracted to overt narcissists – who tend to be counter-dependent.

Defining codependency

Codependency is not considered a diagnosable disorder: it is a trait which can, however, be associated with or overlap with certain disorders if it is taken to extremes. Certain traits that are characteristic of Cluster C personality disorders and Cluster B disorders (particularly Dependent Personality Disorder and Borderline Personality Disorder) can coincide with traits associated with codependency.

The essence of codependency is the tendency to rely on others to establish a sense of self and the need to feel in control of others (in their own way, which is different from the narcissistic way). Codependents have a clingy nature, a habit of prioritising other people’s needs above their own, an inclination towards enmeshment in relationships with narcissists, and an inability to set healthy boundaries. They also often get into situations in which they end up in denial and resort to emotional repression.


How the relationship turns toxic

Although it may not seem like it on the surface, we've seen that narcissists and codependents share key traits that encourage their interconnection. But what causes these relationships to veer into unhealthy territory? In the second part of this series, Diana Marin explores how narcissist-codependent relationships turn toxic, and why they continue to exist regardless.


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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