The Codependent/Narcissist Dance: The Perfect Partnership
Ross Rosenberg, M.Ed., LCPC, CADC
The inherently dysfunctional “codependency dance” requires two opposite but balanced partners: a pleasing, giving codependent and the needy controlling narcissist. Like a champion dance partnership, the dancing roles are perfectly matched: the leader needs the follower, and vice versa. Or, in other words, the giver taker dance role combination enables the two dance effortlessly and flawlessly.
Typically, codependents give of themselves much more than their partners give in return. As “generous” but bitter dance partners, they find themselves perpetually stuck on the dance floor, always waiting for the “next song,” at which time they naively hope that their partner will finally understand their needs; but, sadly, it never happens.
Codependents by nature are giving, sacrificing and consumed with the needs and desires of others. As natural followers in the “dance,” they are passive and accommodating to their partner. Although narcissists are typically selfish, self-centered and controlling, when paired with a codependent, they are enabled to become champion dancers. As natural leaders and choreographers of the dance, their ambitions are focused only on fulfilling their needs and desires while ignoring the same for their partner.
Codependents experience their narcissistic dance partner as deeply appealing, especially because of their boldness, charm, confidence and domineering personality. Narcissists are delighted with their partner choice as they found someone who exudes patience, deference and a yearning to help them find greatness and recognition. With this pair up, the dance sizzles with excitement – at least in the beginning.
Narcissistic dancers control or lead the dance routine because they are naturally and predictably attracted to partners who lack self-worth, confidence and who have low self-esteem. With such a well-matched companion, they are able to control both the dancer and the dance. Similar to their codependent partner, this dancer is also deeply attracted to a lover who feels familiar to them: someone who lets them lead the dance while, at the same time, allowing them to feel in command, competent and appreciated. The narcissist dancer is most comfortable when they are either encouraged or allowed to dance boldly and decisively while garnering attention and praise from others.
Having little to no previous experience with mutually and reciprocally affirming dancers, codependents anxiously reject invitations by healthier individuals. Without self-esteem or feelings of personal power, they are actually afraid of dancing with a mutually-giving and unconditionally loving partner. Dancing with such a person, would feel confusing, uncomfortable and awkward.
When a codependent and narcissist meet each other, the dance unfolds flawlessly. The narcissist effortlessly maintains the lead while the codependent automatically and willingly follows. Their roles seem natural to them because they have actually been practicing them their whole lives. The dance is perfectly coordinated: the pleasing partner naturally and reflexively gives up their power and the needy partner thrives on power and control. Both feel like they have practiced this dance their whole life. No one gets their toes stepped on!
The magnetic-like attraction force that brings codependent and narcissist dancers together (and keeps them together) paves the way for a dancing experience that is explosively pleasurable while feeling strangely familiar. To illustrate, the selfish and controlling narcissist effortlessly leads the dance while the codependent intuitively and reflexively predicts and follow his moves. Clearly, one was “born” to lead while the other to follow. As well-matched and exquisitely coordinated dancing partners, the dancing experience is euphorically exciting and deeply satisfying – at least in the beginning.
The accommodating dancer confuses caretaking and sacrifice with loyalty and love. And why should they think otherwise, as this has been their life-long experience in relationships. Although proud and even boastful of their unwavering loyalty and dedication, they end up feeling unappreciated and used. This codependent dancer yearns to be loved and cherished, but because of her dance partner, her dreams will never come to fruition. With the heartbreak of unfulfilled dreams, codependents silently and bitterly swallow their unhappiness, while dancing furiously toward the finals of the dance competition.
The codependent is convinced that she will never find a dance partner who will love her for who she is, as opposed to what she can do for them. Over time, they are essentially stuck in a pattern of giving and sacrificing, without the possibility of ever receiving the same from their partner. They, however, pretend to enjoy the dance while harboring deeper feelings of anger, resentment and sadness. Over time, their low self-esteem and pessimism deepens, which later morphs into feelings of hopelessness. But they continue to dance, not for the joy of it, but because dancing with a narcissist is familiar and natural for them.
Since familiarity breeds security, the meaning of love for the codependent dancer is distorted into exciting but dysfunctional dips, twists and turns. Just because the blue ribbons and trophies accumulate, love, respect and thoughtfulness often do not follow. Such familiarity creates the paradox of the dance: remaining secure with what you know, but what doesn’t feel good, versus risking the unknown so that a relationship with a loving and respectful partner can be an actuality.
After many “songs,” the codependent’s enchanting dream-like dance experience predictably transforms into drama, conflict and feelings of being trapped. Even with the selfish, controlling and antagonistic nature of her dance partner, she dares not stop dancing. Despite feeling deeply unhappy, she remains committed to her partner while helping him achieve his glorious dancing ambitions. For most codependent dancers, remaining with the narcissistic partner is preferable to being on the sidelines where they predictably feel worthless and lonely. To the codependent, loneliness is a toxic and unbearable experience.
Sadly and unfortunately, codependent dancers were taught the codependent/narcissist dance routine early on in their life. Hence, their dancing choices are connected to their unconscious motivation to find a person who is familiar – someone who reminds them of their parents, who abandoned, neglected and/or abused them when they were a child. Their fear of being alone, their compulsion to control and fix at any cost, and their comfort in their role as the martyr who is endlessly devoted and patient, is a direct result of attachment trauma that they experienced at the hands of their own narcissistic parent.
Codependents cannot bear a prolonged period off the dance floor because of the wave of self-doubt and loneliness that predictably follows. Being alone is the equivalent of feeling lonely, and loneliness is an excruciating debilitating experience for codependent dancers. Like withdrawal from a drug addiction, they are unwilling to cope with the resulting deep and throbbing pain of loneliness and feelings of worthlessness, which is indicative of the childhood trauma they endured.
Although codependents dream of dancing with an unconditionally loving and affirming partner, they submit to their dysfunctional destiny. Until they decide to heal the psychological wounds that ultimately compel them to dance with their narcissistic dance partners, they will be destined to maintain the unsatisfying and potentially dangerous steady beat and rhythm of their dysfunctional dance.
Through psychotherapy and, perhaps, a 12-step recovery program, codependents can begin to fulfill their dream to dance the grand dance of love, reciprocity and mutuality. Through a challenging and at times heartbreaking journey, codependents have an opportunity to heal the childhood trauma that is at the root of their codependency.
Ultimately, the recovering codependent’s healing and transformative journey will result in deep and profound feelings of self-respect and self-love. They will have learned that the true measure of their value is determined by who they are, not what they do. Such will lead them into the arms of someone who is willing and capable of sharing the lead, communicating their movements and pursuing a mutual loving rhythmic dance.
Ross Rosenberg, M.Ed., LCPC, CADC, CSAT