Narcissists Can Love – But Run!
Understanding Narcissistic Love
Ross Rosenberg, M.Ed., LCPC, CADC, CSAT
Considering Narcissists have hurt and damaged the lives of so many people, it makes a great deal of sense why there is a proliferation of information, advice, articles and books on the subject of narcissism. There seems to be a surplus of people on Facebook, YouTube and other social networking sites who are making it their life’s mission to vilify narcissists, while making themselves out to be specialists (or even experts) on the subject. Those who contribute are often victims of narcissistic abuse and want to help others avoid their mistakes. I am thankful for their efforts, especially since it is connected to codependency recovery, which is where I spend a great deal of my personal and professional effort. It seems to be one of the biggest psychological movements I have seen in recent years.
And there are well-researched and experienced experts in the area who have and are making valuable contributions to the understanding of narcissism. Sam Vaknin is one such expert on narcissism who, just by his own efforts, has almost made the term “Malignant Narcissist” a household term. But even with his contributions, and perhaps because of them, there has been a backlash of misunderstanding on the subject. By focusing on Malignant Narcissism (which happens to be the condition he purports to have), he has accidentally and unintentionally given the impression that “Malignant Narcissism” is the same clinical condition or psychopathology as Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD). The truth of the matter is Malignant Narcissism is a subcategory of NPD. Moreover, those with NPD, or what I call “garden variety narcissists,” do not display many of the same characteristics as those with Malignant Narcissism.
One common mistake about Narcissism, which I see frequently on the Internet, about which there is now a deluge of articles, posts and blogs is that those with NPD cannot love and do not have empathy. This subject was discussed in detail in a recent YouTube collaboration video with me and Sam Vaknin entitled, “Can Narcissists Love and Do They Have Empathy?” Although Vaknin and I agreed it was a complicated question that has an equally complicated answer, we agreed for the most part that narcissists can, in fact, feel and express love and can be empathetic.
We also mostly agreed that Malignant Narcissists and those with Antisocial Personality Disorder (ASPD or Sociopaths) cannot feel or experience love. Because Malignant Narcissism is often confused with ASPD, it is necessary to simply define it as a subcategory of NPD, which is not only a pathologically narcissistic disorder, but also combines traits of Paranoid Personality Disorder and Antisocial Personality Disorder. For more information on Malignant Narcissism, consider reading Vaknin’s book, “Malignant Self-Love: Narcissism Revisited” (2015). It is, therefore, correct to assume that Malignant Narc’s and ASPD’s cannot love as it is understood in our general culture. But it is incorrect to make that same leap for those with Narcissistic Personality Disorder, which will henceforth be referred to as “narcissists.”
As I have mentioned in my YouTube videos and in my book “The Human Magnet Syndrome: Why We Love People Who Hurt Us,” “garden variety narcissists,” or those with NPD are capable of love and empathy AS LONG AS IT MAKES THEM FEEL GOOD OR THEY GET SOMETHING IN RETURN. Since they desperately and perpetually seek love, appreciation and affirmation from others, they will consciously and unconsciously (Human Magnet Syndrome) gravitate toward others that can meet this impossible need. Sadly, however, the people who are going to fall in love with them and, consequently, try to take their problems and pain away are deprived of the very same love, respect and care that the narcissists fight so hard to obtain. These unfortunate people are almost always going to be codependents.
Since narcissists suffered unmitigated abuse and trauma as a child, which was when their pathological narcissism was created, they have a huge gaping empty hole inside themselves that endlessly motivates their futile search for their “holy grail” or fountain of love, respect and care. Sadly and pitifully, they can NEVER receive enough of love, respect and care to satiate their unquenchable thirst for it.
My Human Magnet Syndrome book explains in detail why narcissists perpetually seek love, respect and care from others, while not being able to reciprocate in the same manner. My book also explains why codependents are the only personality type that can actually withstand the narcissist’s selfishness while shaping it (distorting it) into a loving relationship. Therefore, according to this clinician and writer, it is a fact that both the narcissists and codependents love each other. The feeling is quite real to them. If you don’t believe me, just ask one!
When narcissists fall hopelessly and deeply in love with codependents, they love even more intensely than a person who is psychologically healthy, i.e., a person who is neither a codependent nor a narcissist. In the rapturous and euphoric beginning stages of the relationship, the narcissist experiences complete and unconditional love, which is what they have been seeking their whole life. Because the codependent can deliver the goods, they fall hopelessly in love. And why not? They just found the one person who will adore them for who they are and give them love, praise and affirmation despite their broken selves, which they keep nicely repressed and out of the way of their conscious mind. But what the narcissist cannot and does not realize is that their soulmate experience is going to be short-lived.
The fleeting and unstable nature of their love experience is best explained through a metaphor – a bucket with holes. Narcissists need a steady stream of unconditional love, respect and care to keep their hole-ridden bucket filled. No amount of unconditional love or affirmation, kindness, empathy, etc., will ever keep their “buckets” topped off! Hence, their need for affirmation, attention, etc. while desperately self-promoting themselves, gives us an idea why they are motivated, if not addicted, to their narcissistic ways and why they are unable to stop. But here is the rub: they can only adore and love people who fill their holey bucket. They really do “love” these people – their codependents. And the codependents selflessly “love” them back. A sad state of affairs…
Incidentally, the psychologically healthy person has the same bucket. But because the bucket is whole instead of having holes, it can be filled and remain that way. A filled bucket promotes love for self and others. It also promotes an aversion to others who scoop away too much of their own water.
When the narcissist’s bucket is empty, which is a perpetual problem for them, their “love” experience mysteriously vanishes. What once started off as ‘soul mate” experience quickly devolves into a “cellmate” nightmare. They will do whatever they need to do to find a source from which they can siphon water. Their desperate need to keep their bucket filled magnetically draws them back into the “loving embrace” of their endlessly forgiving, selfless and altruistic lover – their codependent; or compels them to find another codependent source. And, as soon as the existing or new codependent re-fills their love bucket, the narcissist’s subjective experience of love returns.
In conclusion, NARCISSISTS CAN LOVE. The question should be why can’t they love someone else unconditionally or why do they hurt people they love. The confusion of Malignant Narcissism with Narcissistic Personality Disorder may be the source of this confusion. Lastly, I don’t want to criticize or blame people for mistakenly believing narcissists can’t love. When one is a victim of narcissistic abuse, it is ever so easy to think of them as monsters who lack human feelings. But don’t get me wrong, I am not on the “love your narcissist” bandwagon!
Ross Rosenberg, M.Ed., LCPC, CADC, CSAT