Bruce Alan Kehr, M.D. is the Founder and President of Potomac Psychiatry, ranked “Best Psychiatry Care Provider in Maryland” in 2020 by Global Health & Pharma. He has been named a Washingtonian Magazine “Top Doctor” for each of the past eight years. Dr. Kehr is a best-selling author whose works have been read by over 800,000 people in 206 countries. In 2020, Dr. Bruce Kehr’s blog was ranked #2 in the nation among mental health-related blogs. Dr. Kehr’s book, Becoming Whole: A Healing Companion to Ease Emotional Pain and Find Self-Love, is an Amazon Best Seller in the self-help categories: Happiness, Counseling, Healing, and Self-Esteem.
This is a longer Tip than usual, as it provides an in-depth understanding of what to do if you are in love with a Narcissist. It includes workbook questions and advice that will help you figure out your options and begin to untangle.
Once upon a time there was a man named Narcissus. He came across a deep pool in a forest from which he took a drink. For the first time in his life he saw his reflection, and fell in love with the beautiful boy who was staring back at him. Realizing that he could not kiss or hold his own image, (only the water could hold it), he pines away, withers, and dies.
Much has been written about the narcissistic personality in the last 30 years in the psychoanalytic literature and in popular psychology. There are important lessons that can be gleaned from this research in how to identify the narcissist in love and at work, such that you can avoid unnecessary pain in relationships with narcissists. These inevitably one-sided relationships almost always result in breached commitments, dishonored contracts, and broken hearts.
Carly Simon’s famous song “You’re So Vain” paints a portrait of a modern-day Narcissus. The lyrics create an image of a man filled with self-importance, the need to be the center of attention, and excessive self-absorption and vanity. He throws away the woman he supposedly loves, after telling her he would never leave, and along the way betrays her by sleeping with his best friend’s wife. These personality traits are characteristic of someone with excessive narcissism.
Not all narcissism is bad
Not all narcissism is bad. “Healthy narcissism” is a desirable trait that brings along with it positive self-regard and self-esteem; an appreciation of one’s strengths and capabilities; the confidence to explore the world, adult relationships, and one’s own inner life; the ability to ensure that one’s own needs are met in a relationship, along with a keen interest in meeting the needs of one’s partner, and a willingness to compromise to achieve mutual happiness; and a rock-solid set of principles and virtues that are not shaken or influenced by external pressures. If one has healthy narcissism and finds themselves becoming involved with a narcissist, they typically have the inner strength to break away and move on, even if it means bearing lonely feelings and living alone.
Many adults repeatedly become engaged with narcissistic personalities. [i] Due to unconscious forces, lack of self -esteem, a repetition of earlier formative relationships, and a compulsion to repeat self-sabotaging behaviors, they seek out love relationships (and enter business relationships) that from the beginning are destined to bring heartache and failure. What makes them repeatedly tangle up their lives in this way?
To answer this question, we are reminded of that famous quote from Aristotle: “Knowing yourself is the beginning of all wisdom.” Many clients first come in for psychotherapy in the midst of a crisis, or when they have recognized a pattern in their lives where they have been involved in a series of relationships that don’t work out, and where they feel chronically unhappy. We come to learn in the course of therapy that they repeatedly choose narcissists as lovers and companions. We also uncover the sources of their low self-esteem that serve to perpetuate this pattern—often the relationships between one’s parents and even grandparents can be the source–and healthy narcissism can be nurtured and strengthened.
Through the process of therapy one makes healthier choices – seeking out and finding true partners who provide mature and durable love, an emotional connection and support and empathy. Successful therapy helps to ensure that future relationships do not wither away and die, but remain alive and vibrant.
In the past, you may have fallen in love with a narcissist, and ultimately you were heartbroken when he or she discarded you and your love. Narcissists are unable to love another, and it is important that you learn how to identify their traits and avoid them if possible. If you are currently in a relationship with a narcissist, you may already be experiencing the heartbreak and feelings of abandonment that are not uncommon in this kind of romantic liaison. If you feel stuck in an emotionally painful place with him or her, I will present some ideas below that may help you. But first, let’s try to better understand the nature of the narcissist, through the story of Rose.
Understanding the nature of the narcissist
Rose, a highly talented executive for a large hotel chain, first came for therapy in her late 40’s as her marriage was dissolving. Fifteen years earlier she had married Rob after a passionate and intense romance lasting about a year. She and Rob came from very different backgrounds; she was from a wealthy family and he grew up in very modest circumstances. Nonetheless, Rose wanted to marry Rob as his infectious sense of humor made her laugh, he was very good looking and athletic, and appeared to be earnestly engaged in his career as a corporate transactions attorney. Rose had one prior love relationship in college, her boyfriend Sam, who was also extremely good looking and athletic, and was charming and highly engaging socially. After two years together, he dumped her after cheating on her with a drop-dead gorgeous girl who was described by Rose as “dumb as dirt.”
Her marital crisis had been brewing for some time. About five years earlier Rob had developed a serious drinking problem, was caught commingling client funds with his own personal funds, and had been brought up on ethical charges and terminated by a prior law firm. Rob was punished by his professional society, and his license to practice was suspended for a year. He also entered rehab for a month and began attending AA, and over time his license was restored and he began to work as an in-house corporate counsel.
Despite Rob’s catastrophic behaviors, Rose had remained in the marriage out of her love for him, and concern for the emotional impact of a divorce on their two young children, a seven year old girl and five year old boy. In the three years preceding her first visit with me life had ostensibly returned to normal. Rob seemed happy, was well-liked in his new position as a transactions attorney for a large real estate firm, and was a loving father to their children, involved in coaching both of their lacrosse teams. Rose had received another promotion at work and was earning $175,000 a year, and between her income and his they were able to build a new house with a swimming pool, which was exciting for the entire family.
Six months prior to seeing me, Rose began to believe that Rob was abusing alcohol once again. He would ostensibly go out with his colleagues from work one evening each week to a sporting event or to play poker, and would come home in the early morning hours and fall asleep in another bedroom, so as not to wake her up. His work attendance became less reliable because he repeatedly complained of feeling sick with stomach pains and symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome, and he seemed to be hung over on some mornings as she was leaving for work.
One week prior to her first visit Rose discovered text messages on Rob’s phone from another woman, with sexually explicit photographs, provocative language, and an invitation to get together that evening, the evening of Rob’s supposed night out with the guys. She confronted Rob with this information and he denied that it was anything serious, claiming it was a female colleague from work who was playing a practical joke on him. Furious, Rose smashed his phone and told him to get out of the house. He refused to leave. Rose then locked herself in the master bedroom, picked up her cellphone and left me a voicemail to arrange for her first appointment.
In our first session Rose bitterly described how deceived she felt by Rob – that she had stood by him five years earlier during his time of professional and personal crisis – when other wives would have run for the divorce lawyer’s office – and now he showed his gratitude by lying to her and betraying her trust, with his downward spiral of excessive drinking, late nights out, and philandering. I empathized with how hurt and betrayed she felt. “Rose, you not only feel betrayed, you were betrayed. Rob was so fortunate to have you stand by him when he was fired by his law firm and threatened with disbarment. It is disturbing that he would then turn around and behave in such a destructive fashion toward you, your children, and the life you have built together. This form of betrayal can feel catastrophic, and your fury is completely understandable. It is all the more humiliating this time around, given that you had remained so loyal to him following the first betrayal.”
While sharing this with Rose, I was mindful of how her willingness to trust someone she loved had been severely damaged, and how this heartbreak would be carried over into future relationships. These important issues would have to be put on hold until I helped Rose grieve the loss of her marriage.
Over the next few sessions she wept openly, feeling victimized by Rob, wondering why she had stayed in the relationship for so long, and realizing the cold hard truth that her marriage was over. She wept over the impact on her son and daughter of a separation and divorce, having earlier vowed that she would never put them through this experience. Her parents had always emphasized to her when she was growing up that marriage was a lifetime commitment, but she came to believe that ending the marriage was her only hope for a happier life. She contacted a divorce lawyer and initiated separation. Then the real work in therapy began, as Rose started to come to terms with why she picked Rob in the first place, particularly after her heartbreaking experience with Sam.
Rose had grown up in a wealthy Boston family. Her father was a plastic surgeon and her mother a full-time homemaker. Rose was the youngest of three children, and had a sister who was three years older and a brother who was seven years older. Despite a seemingly normal family life to the outside world (one never really knows what goes on behind closed doors), there were deep divisions within the family, and Rose reported that she had never felt loved by her parents, even as a grown woman.
Her father Ian was an extremely driven man whose particular expertise in facial plastic surgery drew a prestigious clientele. His evenings were mostly spent in his study, where he prepared journal articles and lectures regarding his pioneering surgical techniques to be presented by him at international meetings. Ian insisted that his children be well-behaved and highly educated, yet his authoritarian style, emotional intensity, and frequent criticism of Rose’s mother, Mia, led both Rose and her sister to develop oppositional and defiant behavior as teenagers. Her brother took the opposite path – instead doing everything possible to please Ian and Mia at home and in school, eventually attending an Ivy League university and becoming a prominent lobbyist.
Rose’s childhood and adolescence were punctuated by frequent fights between her parents, Mia retreating to the bedroom when she developed migraine headaches, and Rose’s sister engaging in mild antisocial behavior in school and in the community resulting in school suspensions and slight brushes with the law. Suffice it to say home was not a happy place. In adolescence Rose began to rebel by smoking marijuana and hanging out with boys from school with whom she began drinking alcohol. She managed nonetheless to earn “A’s” in high school, and went on to college where she excelled in business courses.
Shortly thereafter she met Rob, married him, and entered the workforce as a hotel event coordinator. Two years later, when she was 25 years old, her father died suddenly of a massive heart attack, leaving behind a sizable estate, and her mother went into a profound depression. Her siblings began battling one another, with her brother wanting to declare their mother incompetent to manage her affairs, and her sister taking their mother’s side and opposing him. It was an ugly battle which divided the family at a time of acute grief.
Rose’s mother largely recovered from her depression, but out of anger over her loveless marriage (and having been raised herself by a highly vain and narcissistic mother) became utterly absorbed in her social life –traveling widely with friends – and either ignoring Rose or making unreasonable demands upon her. Furthermore, her penchant for health-related dramas – once confined to migraines and sciatica – expanded to include various crises that would land her in the emergency room with chest pains (most likely panic attacks) or in the hospital with severe pelvic pain (never diagnosed), where she would manipulate the doctors to prescribe large doses of Percocet and Oxycodone.
As Rose’s marital crisis developed and deepened her mother was nowhere to be found, proving incapable of giving her loving support or empathy, or even a willingness to provide advice and counsel. I pointed out on one occasion, “Rose, your mother and Rob share many attributes, don’t they? They abuse drugs, and focus a lot on pleasing themselves while neglecting those that they purportedly love. They have a penchant for creating crises in their lives and the lives of those around them, who get caught up in the collateral damage. In each instance you felt unable to set any limits on either of them, which is something that we might explore together. Perhaps it relates to your low self-esteem, and how that may keep you from being in a relationship where your needs are better met – one that would be more gratifying and satisfying.”
It now became more apparent that Rose was repeating a pattern whereby she would love someone who was excessively self-absorbed, who could never truly be there for her. As a child she loved her emotionally unavailable parents. As an adult she chose narcissistic men, whose personality attributes resulted in her feeling horribly betrayed. This complicated any development of trust, as she chose untrustworthy people to love. Her repetition compulsion[ii] – selecting men with narcissistic personalities as love objects – was a reflection of her low self-esteem, which became further damaged when the relationships deteriorated.
In treatment Rose began to recognize negative feelings about herself dating back to childhood. At a deep level she felt unlovable, and yet desperately longed for a man to love her. She recalled with great sadness and anger how frightened she was of her father Ian, and how disappointed she was in her mother Mia for not protecting her from Ian’s mood swings and anger outbursts, and for Mia retreating to bed in the face of conflict, thereby abandoning her daughter. Rose longed for a stronger role model in her mother, and came to learn that her feelings and beliefs that she was not lovable could be reinterpreted as her parents’ basic inability to love due to their own narcissistic preoccupations.
Together we reconstructed how this came about by helping her to place her parents in the context of their own childhood experiences. Rose’s paternal grandmother was vain and self-absorbed throughout her life, subjecting Rose’s father to feelings of abandonment as she lived the life of a busy socialite, and had arranged for Ian to be “raised” by a series of housekeepers. Ian’s father was also a surgeon, and had successfully inspired Ian to follow in his footsteps, yet was rarely at home, and in Ian’s presence was typically reading medical journals or bragging to his son about his surgical successes. Even after Ian had become a successful plastic surgeon, his father never once asked Ian to describe his work or discuss a particularly challenging case. That’s how self-absorbed he could be. And as for Rose’s maternal grandfather, he was a brutal tyrant who had physically abused her mother Mia, and Mia’s own mother was a somewhat distant, cool and efficient woman of Germanic origin who failed to protect her daughter from her husband’s violence.
After eliciting this family history, I said to her in a gentle voice, “Rose, you are beginning to recognize a familial pattern that dates back at least two generations, of self-absorbed parents raising children who developed narcissistic personalities, who in turn chose spouses with these same traits. You are about to break this cycle, as you courageously explore your life and yourself in an effort to end this pattern of self-sabotaging behavior. Through a more realistic understanding of your parents and yourself, over time you will feel worthy of and be able to seek out a man capable of mature love.”
Analyzing three generations of relationships helped Rose understand that her parents lacked the capacity to unconditionally love her, and as she put their lives in perspective she began to feel sad for them and better about herself. She also began to recognize that her choice of Sam as her boyfriend, and Rob as her husband, had unconsciously replicated her relationship with her father as well as her mother, as none of them had been capable of empathy or compassion. Sam and Rob were classic narcissists who never examined their own responsibility in their love relations. Rose began to realize that with these two men who reminded her of her father, she behaved a lot like her mother – passive, accepting, unwilling to stand up for herself and her happiness.
As a child she had learned that her feelings and preferences were not important to her parents, and she had carried this unconscious belief into her marriage. At the same time Rose began to acknowledge her own strengths and lovable attributes. She reached out to a few girlfriends to develop deeper and more open friendships, and focused on loving her children even more intensively. With much courage and some trepidation she then divorced Rob.
Rose continued in therapy with me for over three years to consolidate a stronger and more independent self. For much of that time she remained angry and bitter toward men, unwilling to open her heart, and believing that all men were self-absorbed jerks. [[AU: Is the below detail an example of transference, or another term you outlined in your second session? It would be helpful to connect back if possible.]]As a part of her “transference” toward me, at times she would get quite angry at me, saying, “You are so passive and withholding, it is really infuriating! Don’t you have more to give to me? You are just as self-absorbed as the rest of them!” She would then become afraid that I would abandon her in response to her angry feelings toward me, yet I would listen empathically and encourage her to share whatever she was feeling. This brought back to her many more memories of her father and mother, as she actively grieved what she had longed for from them but had never received. During that time we talked a great deal about trust and betrayal, and the compulsion to repeat in later life what had been done to her as a child.
“Rose, with Sam and Rob you unconsciously picked highly narcissistic young men to love in part because of personality characteristics that they shared with your mother and father; and in part because of how little value you placed on yourself, feeling that you were unworthy of love and respect. This resulted in your remaining in these relationships for an extended time, despite the fact that you were poorly treated. If you allow yourself to fall in love again, despite your lingering doubts about any man’s capacity to genuinely love you in return, we will work together to identify “red flags” and help ensure that you make a better choice of a man to love this time around. You deserve to find a man who is emotionally mature, capable of loving, and worthy of your trust.”
Rose’s anger and bitterness toward men continued relatively unabated, until she met Ralph, and then her heart of stone began to soften as something about him was different. Ralph was a divorcee who himself had married a self-absorbed, somewhat cold woman, and was seeking a warm and caring partner. He took his time with Rose, didn’t make demands, or press her for sex or react in anger. He patiently listened to her upsets over encounters with her mother, waited for her to initiate their sexual relations, and tenderly and lovingly comforted her when her mother passed away. He was a real gem. Over time Rose began to trust Ralph, and a lightness and joy came over her that had never been present before. The two eventually decided to marry.
Having achieved satisfaction in her career and in love, Rose felt ready to end her therapy. In our last session together, as we said goodbye, I gave her a big hug, and felt like an enormously proud father. “Rose,” I said, “you have broken a damaging cycle of family relationships that have gone on for at least three generations, and possibly more. Congratulations on your victory. Through your persistent hard work in here you have come to realize that you have been worthy of love all along, and have ended the repetitive pattern that sabotaged your happiness. Once you broke the pattern of falling in love with narcissistic men you opened up your heart to Ralph, and for the first time feel truly content. I feel so happy for you.”
Begin to untangle
Perhaps, like Rose, you have been involved in one or more relationships with a narcissist or are in one now. Please take out your workbook and I will assist you in figuring out and more effectively managing your love relationships as we walk through the following steps:
- Step 1 – How would you describe your childhood relationship with your mother? With your father?
- Step 2 – As a child did your feelings matter to your parents? Did your mother or father listen to you and attempt to understand and respond to your feelings in a constructive fashion? Were one or both parents highly self-absorbed? Do you feel that either parent tried to enter your world and get to know you as a person?
- Step 3 – Do you believe that either of your parents may have had a narcissistic personality? If so, please describe why?
- Step 4 – In your love relationships, have you chosen partners whose personality attributes resemble your mother? Your father?
- Step 5 – When you think about your love relationships, how would you describe the one you love? Please list as many attributes, positive and negative, as possible.
- Step 6 – Has there been an emotional connection? A void? Both? Describe in detail the history of your emotional relationship with them.
- Step 7 – During times where you have been in emotional pain has he or she been there for you? Describe how they behaved at these times.
- Step 8 – Is there a friendship, or mainly emotional distance or just “going through the motions?” Think about your relationships with your closest guy or girlfriends – is your partner able to be there for you in similar ways? Write out the similarities and differences.
- Step 9 – Have you ever felt truly understood or cared about by the one you love? Every relationship goes through its ups and downs, but how would you describe the basic characteristics of the one that you are in?
- Step 10 – Is the one you love capable of loving you? Have you basically felt loved over time? Is there a two-way commitment? Describe.
- Step 11 – Is there a kind of durable respect with which they treat you? Or do you feel held in contempt much of the time? Or feel simply ignored? Have they betrayed you? Give examples.
Are you involved with a narcissist?
The answers to these questions will help you to determine whether you are involved with a narcissist, and if so, to describe just how self-absorbed they may be. If you discover that this is your predicament, follow the steps below to begin to sort out this issue.
- Step 1 – First and foremost, consider whether your partner is willing to learn, grow and change. Write down any examples of their flexibility and openness to looking at themselves.
- Step 2 – Try to engage her or him in a dialogue around how unhappy you have been feeling in the relationship, and that you need to feel more loved and more of an emotional connection. Be curious about whether they too have been feeling unhappy. Let them know that you are willing to work really hard to improve the relationship. List here some of the ways that you could be more loving and gratifying, and be willing to share them to demonstrate your willingness to take responsibility. That may increase their willingness to take responsibility as well.
- Step 3 – Let your partner know that you value them and the relationship and do not want to see it come to a sad and distressing ending. Focus on what you have built together and that you do not want to lose it, yet can no longer go on as before, feeling so emotionally distant and unloved. Be patiently persistent in bringing up these issues and try to speak out of sadness and a longing for a more fulfilling relationship, as opposed to speaking out of anger.
- Step 4– Not all narcissists are destined to be like Rob. Like each of us they have had their share of emotional pain and many can engage in a therapeutic relationship to discover and recover from the early relationships in their own life that led to their developing a narcissistic personality style. Perhaps they do not want to lose you and the life that the two of you have created, and the threat of loss can be the impetus for them to get into treatment. Are they willing to engage in an ongoing dialogue with you, a therapist, or both to learn about themselves and the roots of their narcissistic behavior in an effort to develop and then improve upon their ability to love another human being (and most importantly you, and your children if you have any)? Write out how you might approach them to raise this question.
- Step 5 – Ask your partner to attend just three therapy sessions with you, no strings attached, to see if it can begin to be helpful. Engage them in jointly selecting a therapist with the kind of background and education that can bring some initial confidence and comfort. Educate them that the therapist is not going to blame either of you for the problems in the relationship, but will rather, in a non-judgmental fashion, help the two of you to explore how and why the relationship went off track, and begin to create more understanding. The therapist will encourage an atmosphere where each of you can share safely your feelings, without blame or recrimination. If you both begin to feel confident in the therapist, commit to a minimum of six months of weekly couple’s therapy to give the relationship the best opportunity to be healed.
- Step 6 – When the narcissist considers getting into individual therapy, it may be experienced (consciously or unconsciously) as a “narcissistic injury” (wounding their pride), and they will resist the idea. If he or she begins to experience the value of couple’s therapy perhaps they will become more accepting of seeking therapy for themselves. If they are willing to enter couple’s therapy with you, don’t push the individual therapy route. Let the therapist bring this up at a time when your partner may be more receptive. If you are willing to enter individual therapy yourself, that may help your partner overcome their prideful repudiation of individual therapy. That way they may not feel singled out as “the problem.”
- Step 7 – It takes a great deal of emotional strength to really mean it when you tell your partner that you are prepared to leave unless she or he gets into treatment with you. You may feel ground down, even depressed, as a result of having remained in the relationship for too long; and perhaps your chronically low self-esteem has kept you there. Have courage. Seek out as much emotional support as you can from your closest friends, or sympathetic family members (if you have any).You deserve to be loved, and only have one life to live. To remain lonely and emotionally disconnected for the rest of your life is not good for your emotional and physical health.
Here’s the bottom line–and this holds true whether or not you’re involved with a narcissistic personality; if your relationship is in trouble consider this: Work toward developing a strong foundation within yourself and then insist upon some fundamental changes in the relationship, or move on. The loneliest place in the world can be a marriage or other long-term relationship where the potential for emotional intimacy is ever-present, yet never realized. Ending the relationship and the attendant fears of being alone are real, and yet will offer the opportunity to find love with someone else – someone who can truly love you! Recall the story of Rose.