When Narcissists Become Codependent

By Sam Vaknin
Author of “Malignant Self-love: Narcissism Revisited”

Sometimes, the breakup is initiated by the long-suffering spouse or intimate partner. As she develops and matures, gaining in self-confidence and a modicum of self-esteem (ironically, at the narcissist’s behest in his capacity as her “guru” and “father figure”), she acquires more personal autonomy and refuses to cater to the energy-draining neediness of her narcissist: she no longer provides him with all-important secondary narcissistic supply (ostentatious respect, owe, adulation, undivided attention admiration, and the rehashed memories of past successes and triumphs.)

Typically, the roles are then reversed and the narcissist displays codependent behaviors, such as clinging, in a desperate attempt to hang-on to his “creation”, his hitherto veteran and reliable source of quality supply. These are further exacerbated by the narcissist’s increasing social isolation, psychological disintegration (decompensation), and recurrent failures and defeats.

But the question who did what to whom (and even why) is irrelevant. What is relevant is to stop mourning oneself, start smiling again and love in a less subservient, hopeless, and pain-inflicting manner.

On the face of it, there is no (emotional) partner or mate, who typically “binds” with a narcissist. They come in all shapes and sizes. The initial phases of attraction, infatuation and falling in love are pretty normal. The narcissist puts on his best face – the other party is blinded by budding love. A natural selection process occurs only much later, as the relationship develops and is put to the test.

Living with a narcissist can be exhilarating, is always onerous, often harrowing. Surviving a relationship with a narcissist indicates, therefore, the parameters of the personality of the survivor. She (or, more rarely, he) is moulded by the relationship into The Typical Narcissistic Mate/Partner/Spouse.

First and foremost, the narcissist’s partner must have a deficient or a distorted grasp of her self and of reality. Otherwise, she (or he) is bound to abandon the narcissist’s ship early on. The cognitive distortion is likely to consist of belittling and demeaning herself – while aggrandising and adoring the narcissist.

The partner is, thus, placing herself in the position of the eternal victim: undeserving, punishable, a scapegoat. Sometimes, it is very important to the partner to appear moral, sacrificial and victimised. At other times, she is not even aware of this predicament. The narcissist is perceived by the partner to be a person in the position to demand these sacrifices from her because he is superior in many ways (intellectually, emotionally, morally, professionally, or financially).

The status of professional victim sits well with the partner’s tendency to punish herself, namely: with her masochistic streak. The tormented life with the narcissist is just what she deserves.

In this respect, the partner is the mirror image of the narcissist. By maintaining a symbiotic relationship with him, by being totally dependent upon her source of masochistic supply (which the narcissist most reliably constitutes and most amply provides) the partner enhances certain traits and encourages certain behaviours, which are at the very core of narcissism.

The narcissist is never whole without an adoring, submissive, available, self-denigrating partner. His very sense of superiority, indeed his False Self, depends on it. His sadistic Superego switches its attentions from the narcissist (in whom it often provokes suicidal ideation) to the partner, thus finally obtaining an alternative source of sadistic satisfaction.

It is through self-denial that the partner survives. She denies her wishes, hopes, dreams, aspirations, sexual, psychological and material needs, choices, preferences, values, and much else besides. She perceives her needs as threatening because they might engender the wrath of the narcissist’s God-like supreme figure.

The narcissist is rendered in her eyes even more superior through and because of this self-denial. Self-denial undertaken to facilitate and ease the life of a “great man” is more palatable. The “greater” the man (=the narcissist), the easier it is for the partner to ignore her own self, to dwindle, to degenerate, to turn into an appendix of the narcissist and, finally, to become nothing but an extension, to merge with the narcissist to the point of oblivion and of merely dim memories of herself.

The two collaborate in this macabre dance. The narcissist is formed by his partner inasmuch as he forms her. Submission breeds superiority and masochism breeds sadism. The relationships are characterised by emergentism: roles are allocated almost from the start and any deviation meets with an aggressive, even violent reaction.

The predominant state of the partner’s mind is utter confusion. Even the most basic relationships – with husband, children, or parents – remain bafflingly obscured by the giant shadow cast by the intensive interaction with the narcissist. A suspension of judgement is part and parcel of a suspension of individuality, which is both a prerequisite to and the result of living with a narcissist. The partner no longer knows what is true and right and what is wrong and forbidden.

The narcissist recreates for the partner the sort of emotional ambience that led to his own formation in the first place: capriciousness, fickleness, arbitrariness, emotional (and physical or sexual) abandonment. The world becomes hostile, and ominous and the partner has only one thing left to cling to: the narcissist.

And cling she does. If there is anything which can safely be said about those who emotionally team up with narcissists, it is that they are overtly and overly dependent.

The partner doesn’t know what to do – and this is only too natural in the mayhem that is the relationship with the narcissist. But the typical partner also does not know what she wants and, to a large extent, who she is and what she wishes to become.

These unanswered questions hamper the partner’s ability to gauge reality. Her primordial sin is that she fell in love with an image, not with a real person. It is the voiding of the image that is mourned when the relationship ends.

The break-up of a relationship with a narcissist is, therefore, very emotionally charged. It is the culmination of a long chain of humiliations and of subjugation. It is the rebellion of the functioning and healthy parts of the partner’s personality against the tyranny of the narcissist.

The partner is likely to have totally misread and misinterpreted the whole interaction (I hesitate to call it a relationship). This lack of proper interface with reality might be (erroneously) labelled “pathological”.

Why is it that the partner seeks to prolong her pain? What is the source and purpose of this masochistic streak? Upon the break-up of the relationship, the partner (but not the narcissist, who usually refuses to provide closure) engages in a tortuous and drawn out post mortem.

Next Crisis: The ECB-induced Sovereign Debt Bubble

By Sam Vaknin
Author of “Malignant Self-love: Narcissism Revisited”

As 2011 came to a close and in the first months of 2012, the European Central Bank (ECB) initiated a massive injection of liquidity into Europe’s embattled banking system. The ECB provided 3-year loans amounting to half a trillion euros at nominal and minimal interest rates. At first, the risk-averse banks re-deposited the funds with the ECB. Later, however, they embarked on an arbitrage operation of unprecedented proportions using the cheap money to purchase sovereign bonds with historically high coupons issued by the likes of Italy and Spain. Thus, the ECB ended up fostering yet another unsustainable bubble in sovereign obligations and threatening the balance sheets of the very institutions it seeks to prop up when the bubble inevitably bursts.

The global credit crunch induced by the subprime mortgage crisis in the United States, in the second half of 2007, engendered a tectonic and paradigmatic shift in the way central banks perceive themselves and their role in the banking and financial systems.

On December 12, 2007, America’s Federal Reserve, the Bank of England, the European Central Bank (ECB), the Bank of Canada and the Swiss National Bank, as well as Japan’s and Sweden’s central banks joined forces in a plan to ease the worldwide liquidity squeeze.

This collusion was a direct reaction to the fact that more conventional instruments have failed. Despite soaring spreads between the federal funds rate and the LIBOR (charged in interbank lending), banks barely touched money provided via the Fed’s discount window. Repeated and steep cuts in interest rates and the establishment of reciprocal currency-swap lines fared no better.

The Fed then proceeded to establish a “Term Auction Facility (TAF)”, doling out one-month loans to eligible banks. The Bank of England multiplied fivefold its regular term auctions for three months maturities. On December 18, the ECB lent 350 million euros to 390 banks at below market rates.

In March 2008, the Fed lent 29 billion USD to JP Morgan Chase to purchase the ailing broker-dealer Bear Stearns and hundreds of billions of dollars to investment banks through its discount window, hitherto reserved for commercial banks. The Fed agreed to accept as collateral securities tied to “prime” mortgages (by then in as much trouble as their subprime brethren).

The Fed doled the funds out through anonymous auctions, allowing borrowers to avoid the stigma attached to accepting money from a lender of last resort. Interest rates for most lines of credit, though, were set by the markets in (sometimes anonymous) auctions, rather than directly by the central banks, thus removing the central banks’ ability to penalize financial institutions whose lax credit policies were, to use a mild understatement, negligent.

Moreover, central banks broadened their range of acceptable collateral to include prime mortgages and commercial paper. This shift completed their transformation from lenders of last resort. Central banks now became the equivalents of financial marketplaces, and akin to many retail banks. Fighting inflation – their erstwhile raison d’etre – has been relegated to the back burner in the face of looming risks of recession and protectionism. In September 2008, the Fed even borrowed money from the Treasury when its own resources were depleted.

As The Economist neatly summed it up (in an article titled “A dirty job, but Someone has to do it”, dated December 13, 2007):

“(C)entral banks will now be more intricately involved in the unwinding of the credit mess. Since more banks have access to the liquidity auction, the central banks are implicitly subsidising weaker banks relative to stronger ones. By broadening the range of acceptable collateral, the central banks are taking more risks onto their balance sheets.”

Regulatory upheaval is sure to follow. Investment banks are likely to be subjected to the same strictures, reserve requirements, and prohibitions that have applied to commercial banks since 1934. Supervisory agencies and functions will be consolidated and streamlined.

Ultimately, the state is the mother of all insurers, the master policy, the supreme underwriter. When markets fail, insurance firm recoil, and financial instruments disappoint – the government is called in to pick up the pieces, restore trust and order and, hopefully, retreat more gracefully than it was forced to enter.

The state would, therefore, do well to regulate all financial instruments: deposits, derivatives, contracts, loans, mortgages, and all other deeds that are exchanged or traded, whether publicly (in an exchange) or privately. Trading in a new financial instrument should be allowed only after it was submitted for review to the appropriate regulatory authority; a specific risk model was constructed; and reserve requirements were established and applied to all the players in the financial services industry, whether they are banks or other types of intermediaries.

Narcissistic Supply and Sex

The psychosexuality of all types of narcissists – cerebral and somatic alike – involves the objectification and interchangeability of intimate partners. Narcissists are polyamorous and autoerotic. Quite a few of them have comorbid sexual paraphilias (are deviant.)

The cerebral narcissist aims to stabilize the flow of narcissistic supply by suppressing his sexual predilections and orientation and thus by rendering himself asexual.

The somatic narcissist aims to secure an uninterrupted flow of narcissistic supply by indulging his sexual preferences with multiple partners.

The cerebral narcissist relies on his source of secondary narcissistic supply (normally, on his spouse) to regulate his supply and so compensate for the inevitable fluctuations in both the quantity and quality of the primary supply. But few spouses would willingly participate in swinging, orgies, and group sex towards which the narcissist gravitates. The cerebral narcissist is, therefore, forced to sacrifice his sexuality to ensure the longevity of his gratifying and exclusive relationship with his source of secondary supply. His marriage gradually becomes sexless.

To compensate for this glaring lack, the cerebral narcissist turns unto himself: he becomes auto-erotic and fantasizes as he masturbates with varying frequency. His sex life is reduced to the consumption of pornography and role-playing in online forums.

Such a dreary substitute for a full-fledged intercourse is never satisfying. As frustration mounts in both members of the couple, so do aggression and hostility. There is a sense of waste and dysphoria. But the cerebral narcissist would rather hurt his mate by withholding sex from her than lose her, which would be the ineluctable consequence of him being true to his sexual self.

The question arises: why doesn’t the cerebral narcissist team up with an intimate partner who shares his inclinations and who would be happy to act on his fantasies?

The answer is: because such a partner cannot be relied on to be faithful, constant, and consistent.

This is the cerebral narcissist’s predicament:

Intimate partners who are compatible with his sexual urges are useless as stable, long-term sources of secondary supply. Intimate partners who can be relied on to provide secondary narcissistic supply are likely to be sexually-incompatible with the cerebral narcissist’s desires, urges, and sexual wishes.

This stratagem is, of course, self-defeating. The cerebral narcissist’s partner ultimately abandons him, starved as she is for sex and intimacy and resentful of being the target of his repeated pent-up aggression. As far as the cerebral narcissist is concerned, being abandoned also serves as a kind of masochistic self-punishment.

Narcissistic supply and sexuality are inversely-related in the cerebral narcissist’s mind. When narcissistic supply (primary or secondary) is low, he resorts to rampant sex as he hunts for his next stable source of secondary supply and as he seeks to “make up for lost time.” When the flow of supply has been re-constituted, he reverts almost immediately to his sexual hibernation. To the cerebral narcissist, the sex act constitutes low-grade narcissistic supply, a mere stopgap measure, and a “necessary evil” in the capture and captivation of his future intimate partner.

The somatic narcissist is the mirror image of his cerebral brother. To him, sex – sexual prowess, carnal exploits, and a string of conquests – is his narcissistic supply. His sexuality, however non-conformist or even deviant, is the only stable fount of the narcissistic supply he needs to regulate his sense of self-worth. He actually seeks out and selects partners who are labile, volatile, erratic, fleeting, adventurous, and unstable as he switches between multiple sexual objects of infatuation. The somatic flaunts his sexuality and thus knowingly gives up on a stable, long-lasting relationship.

The Three Components of Relationships

Romantic relationships with intimate partners (significant others) are comprised of three components:

I.                Mate Selection

II.             Relationship Model or Hypothesis

III.          Termination Triggers

Mate selection is critical, of course, but even more important is to ensure compatibility between the mate selected and the model of relationship one has in mind. There are as many types of relationships as there are couples and one would do well to define precisely how one would like to live her life with her spouse. An open marriage calls for one kind of partner and a traditional one calls for another. Mismatches between the personality, character, and temperament of the members of the couple and the relationship model they have adopted are often the main fount of trouble, gnawing at the foundations and leading to the disintegration of the pair.

Yet, even when one’s mate, partner, or spouse has been selected with care to perfectly fit the relationship one has in mind – some relationships crumble. This is because the members of the couple have disparate “termination triggers” and abandonment anxiety thresholds. Insecurities, fears, and codependence often rise to the surface and lead to self-defeating behaviours, such as preemptive abandonment (“I will walk away before he does.”)

Relationships with narcissists peter out slowly and tortuously. Narcissists do not provide closure. They stalk. They cajole, beg, promise, persuade, and, ultimately, succeed in doing the impossible yet again: sweep you off your feet, though you know better than to succumb to their spurious and superficial charms.

So, you go back to your “relationship” and hope for a better ending. You walk on eggshells. You become the epitome of submissiveness, a perfect Source of Narcissistic Supply, the ideal mate or spouse or partner or colleague. You keep your fingers crossed.

But how does the narcissist react to the resurrection of the bond?

It depends on whether you have re-entered the liaison from a position or strength – or of vulnerability and weakness.

The narcissist casts all interactions with other people in terms of conflicts or competitions to be won. He does not regard you as a partner – but as an adversary to be subjugated and defeated. Thus, as far as he is concerned, your return to the fold is a triumph, proof of his superiority and irresistibility.

If he perceives you as autonomous, dangerously independent, and capable of bailing out and abandoning him – the narcissist acts the part of the sensitive, loving, compassionate, and empathic counterpart. Narcissists respect strength, they are awed by it. As long as you maintain a “no nonsense” attitude, placing the narcissist on probation, he is likely to behave himself.

If, on the other hand, you have resumed contact because you have capitulated to his threats or because you are manifestly dependent on him financially or emotionally – the narcissist will pounce on your frailty and exploit your fragility to the maximum. Following a perfunctory honeymoon, he will immediately seek to control and abuse you.

In both cases, the narcissist’s thespian reserves are exhausted and his true nature and feelings emerge. The facade crumbles and beneath it lurks the same old heartless falsity that is the narcissist. His gleeful smugness at having bent you to his wishes and rules, his all-consuming sense of entitlement, his sexual depravity, his aggression, pathological envy, and rage – all erupt uncontrollably.

The prognosis for the renewed affair is far worse if it follows a lengthy separation in which you have made a life for yourself with your own interests, pursuits, set of friends, needs, wishes, plans, and obligations, independent of your narcissistic ex and unrelated to him.

The narcissist cannot countenance your separateness. To him, you are a mere instrument of gratification or an extension of his bloated False Self. He resents your pecuniary wherewithal, is insanely jealous of your friends, refuses to accept your preferences or compromise his own, in envious and dismissive of your accomplishments.

Ultimately, the very fact that you have survived without his constant presence seems to deny him his much-needed Narcissistic Supply. He rides the inevitable cycle of idealisation and devaluation. He berates you, humiliates you publicly, threatens you, destabilises you by behaving unpredictably, fosters ambient abuse, and uses others to intimidate and humble you (“abuse by proxy“).

You are then faced with a tough choice:

To leave again and give up all the emotional and financial investments that went into your attempt to resurrect the relationship – or to go on trying, subject to daily abuse and worse?

It is a well-known landscape. You have been here before. But this familiarity doesn’t make it less nightmarish.