Psychology of The Lifestyle (Swinging)

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

The Lifestyle involves sexual acts performed by more than two participants whether in the same space, or separately. It is also known as “swinging”, “wife-, or spouse-swapping”, “wife-, or spouse-sharing”, “group sex” and, where multiple people interact with a single person, “gangbanging”. Swinging can be soft (engaging in sexual activity with one’s own intimate partner, but in the presence of others), or hard (having sex not with one’s spouse or mate.) Threesomes (mostly male-female-male or MFM) are the most common configuration.

The psychological background to such unusual pursuits is not clear and has never been studied in depth. Still, thousands of online chats between active and wannabe adherents and fans in various forums reveal 10 psychodynamic strands:

1. Latent and overt bisexuality and homosexuality: both men and women (but especially women) adopt swinging as a way to sample same-sex experiences in a tolerant, at times anonymous, and permissive environment;

2. The Slut-Madonna Complex: to be sexually attracted to their spouses, some men need to “debase” and “humiliate” them by witnessing their “sluttish” conduct with others. These men find it difficult to have regular, intimate sex with women to whom they are emotionally attached and whose probity is beyond doubt. Sex is “dirty” and demeaning, so it should be mechanical, the preserve of whorish and promiscuous partners;

3. Voyeurism and exhibitionism are both rampant in and satisfied by swinging. Oftentimes, those who partake in the Lifestyle document their exploits on video and share photos and saucy verbal descriptions. Amateur porn and public sex (“dogging”) are fixtures of swinging;

4. Vicarious gratification. “Cuckolds” are (typically male) swingers who masturbate to the sight of their partner having sex with another, usually without actually joining the fray. They derive gratification from and are sexually aroused by the evident pleasure experienced by their significant other: her vocalizations, body language, body fluids, enraptured movements, and orgasm and abandon;

5. Masochism is a prime motive for a minority of swingers. They relish in their own agony as they watch their spouse hooking up with others: envy, pain, anxiety, a sense of humiliation, an overpowering feeling of worthlessness and inadequacy, sinfulness, debauchery, depravity, and decadence all conspire to thrill the masochist and delight him;

6. Swinging is also a form of legitimized cheating. It spices up the stale sex lives of the players and neutralized the emotional and financial risks and threats associated with furtive extramarital escapades. Many swingers adopt the Lifestyle in order to alleviate boredom, counter routine, realise sexual fantasies, learn new techniques, feel desirable and attractive once more, and cope with discrepancies in sex drive. They insist: “swinging saved my marriage”;

7. Some swingers use the Lifestyle to “display” or “exhibit” their partners, casting them as desired and desirable trophies, or status symbols. Others present may sexually “sample the wife” but never own her, a form of restricted access which causes her suitors much envy and frustration. “I am the one who ends up going home with her” – these swingers brag, thus reaffirming their own irresistibility and attractiveness;

8. The Lifestyle is a rollercoaster of serial relationships, mostly with strangers. It is, therefore, thrilling, risky, and exciting and provokes anxiety, romantic jealousy, and guilt (for having dragged the partner into the Lifestyle, or for not having restrained her). There is also a recurrent fear of losing the partner owing to a growing emotional or sexual bond with one of her casual “F-buddies” or “friends with benefits”. Swinging results in an adrenaline rush, a high, and in addictive periods of calm after these self-inflicted psychosexual storms;

9. Swinging calls for the objectification of sexual partners. Many swingers prefer to remain anonymous in settings like Lifestyle retreats or group sex and orgies. They are thus reduced to genitalia and erogenous zones enmeshed in auto-erotic and narcissistic acts of masturbatory gratification with other people’s bodies as mere props. Women reported experiencing a new sense of empowerment and mastery as they can finally dictate the terms and conditions of sexual encounters, pick and choose partners, and realize hitherto suppressed sexual fantasies. Other practitioners actually prefer to swing only with close friends, using sex as a form of intimacy-enhancing recreation;

10.Nudity has a pronounced aesthetic dimension and when multiple naked bodies intertwine, the combination can amount to a work of art, a flesh-and-blood throbbing sculpture. Many swingers find sex to be the most supreme form of artistic experience, an interconnectedness that enhances empathy and communication and provides extreme sensual pleasure. It is also great fun: the ultimate in entertainment, where novelty and familiarity merge to yield a unique journey with each new entrant.

 

Munchausen and Munchausen by Proxy Syndromes: Forms of Pathological Narcissism?

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

Patients afflicted with the Factitious Disorder colloquially known as “Munchausen Syndrome” seek to attract the attention of medical personnel by feigning or by self-inflicting serious illness or injury. “Munchausen by Proxy Syndrome” (Factitious Illness or Disorder by Proxy, or Imposed by Another, or FII – Fabricated or Induced Illness by Carers) involves the patient inducing illness in or causing injury to a dependent (child, old parent) in order to gain, in her capacity as a caretaker, the attention, praise, and sympathy of medical care providers. Both syndromes are forms of shared psychosis (folie a deux or a plusieurs) and “crazy-making” with hospital staff as unwilling and unwitting participants in the drama.

Superficially, this overwhelming need for consideration by figures of authority and role models (doctors, nurses, clergy, social workers) resembles the narcissist’s relentless and compulsive pursuit of narcissistic supply (which consists of attention, adulation, admiration, being feared or noted, etc.) But, there are some important differences.

To start with, the narcissist – especially the somatic variety – worships his body and cherishes his health. If anything, narcissists tend to be hypochondriacs. They are loath to self-harm and self-mutilate, let alone fake laboratory tests and consume potentially deleterious substances and medications. They are also unlikely to seriously “damage” their sources of supply (e.g., children) as long as they are compliant and adulating.

As opposed to narcissists, people with both Munchausen Syndromes desire acceptance, love, caring, relationships, and nurturing, not merely attention: theirs is an emotional need that amounts to more than the mere regulation of their sense of self-worth. They have no full-fledged False Self, only a clinging, insecure, traumatized, deceitful, and needy True Self. Munchausen Syndrome may be comorbid (can be diagnosed with) personality disorders, though and the patients are pathological liars, schizoid, paranoid, hypervigilant, and aggressive (especially when confronted.)

While narcissists are indiscriminate and “promiscuous” when it comes to their sources of narcissistic supply – anyone would do – patients with the Munchausen Syndromes derive emotional nurturance and sustenance mainly from healthcare practitioners.

Solitude as a Rational Choice

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

“Purebred” schizoids shrug off their disorder: they simply don’t like being around people and they resent the pathologizing of their lifestyle “choice” to remain aloof and alone. They consider the diagnosis of Schizoid Personality Disorder to be spurious, a mere reflection of current social coercive mores, and a culture-bound artefact.

Narcissist, as usual, tend to rationalize and aggrandize their schizoid conduct. They propound the idea that being alone is the only logical choice in today’s hostile, anomic, and atomized world. The concept of “individual” exists only in the human species. Animals flock together or operate in colonies and herds. Each member of these aggregates is an extension of the organic whole. In contradistinction, people band and socialize only for purposes of a goal-oriented cooperation or the seeking of emotional rewards (solace, succor, love, support, etc.)

Yet, in contemporary civilization, the accomplishment of most goals is outsourced to impersonal collectives such as the state or large corporations. Everything from food production and distribution to education is now relegated to faceless, anonymous entities, which require little or no social interaction. Additionally, new technologies empower the individual and render him or her self-sufficient, profoundly independent of others.

As they have grown in complexity and expectations (fed by the mass media) relationships have mutated to being emotionally unrewarding and narcissistically injurious to the point of becoming a perpetual fount of pain and unease. More formalized social interactions present a substantial financial and emotional risk. Close to half of all marriages, for instance, end in a divorce, inflicting enormous pecuniary damage and emotional deprivation on the parties involved. The prevailing ethos of gender wars as reflected in the evolving legal milieu further serves to deter any residual predilection and propensity to team up and bond.

This is a vicious circle that is difficult to break: traumatized by past encounters and liaisons, people tend to avoid future ones. Deeply wounded, they are rendered less tolerant, more hypervigilant, more defensive, and more aggressive – traits which bode ill for their capacity to initiate, sustain, and maintain relationships. The breakdown and dysfunction of societal structures and institutions, communities, and social units is masked by technologies which provide verisimilitudes and confabulations. We all gravitate towards a delusional and fantastic universe of our own making as we find the real one too hurtful to endure.

Modern life is so taxing and onerous and so depletes the individual’s scarce resources that little is left to accommodate the needs of social intercourse. People’s energy, funds, and wherewithal are stretched to the breaking point by the often conflicting demands of mere survival in post-industrial societies. Furthermore, the sublimation of instinctual urges to pair (libido), associate, mingle, and fraternize is both encouraged and rewarded. Substitutes exist for all social functions, including sex (porn) and childrearing (single parenthood) rendering social institutions obsolete and superfluous social give-and-take awkward and inefficient.

The individual “me” has emerged as the organizing principle in human affairs, supplanting the collective. The idolatry of the individual inexorably and ineluctably results in the malignant forms of narcissism that are so prevalent – indeed, all-pervasive – wherever we direct our gaze.

Countering Abandonment and Separation Anxiety

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

Clinging and smothering behaviours are the unsavoury consequences of a deep-set existential, almost mortal fear of abandonment and separation. For the codependent to maintain a long-term, healthy relationship, she must first confront her anxieties head on. This can be done via psychotherapy: the therapeutic alliance is a contract between patient and therapist which provides for a safe environment, where abandonment is not an option and, thus, where the client can resume personal growth and form a modicum of self-autonomy. In extremis, a psychiatrist may wish to prescribe anti-anxiety medication.

Self-help is also an option, though; meditation, yoga, and the elimination of any and all addictions, such as workaholism, or binge eating. Feelings of emptiness and loneliness – at the core of abandonment anxiety and other dysfunctional attachment styles – can be countered with meaningful activities (mainly altruistic and charitable) and true, stable friends, who provide a safe haven and are unlikely to abandon her and, therefore, constitute a holding, supportive, and nourishing environment.

The codependent’s reflexive responses to her inner turmoil are self-defeating and counterproductive. They often bring about the very outcomes she fears most. But these outcomes also tend to buttress her worldview (“the world is hostile, I am bound to get hurt”) and sustain her comfort zone (“abuse and abandonment are familiar to me; at least I know the ropes and how to cope with them.”)

This is why she needs to exit this realm of mirrored fears and fearsome mental tumult. She should adopt new avocations and hobbies, meet new people, engage is non-committal, dispensable relationships, and, in general, take life more lightly.

Some codependents develop a type of “militant independence” as a defense against their own sorely felt vulnerability (their dependence.) But even these daring “rebels” tend to view their relationships in terms of “black and white” (an infantile psychological defense mechanism known as “splitting”.) They tend to regard their relationships as either doomed to failure or everlasting and their mates as both unique and indispensable (“soulmate”, “twin”) or completely interchangeable (objectified.)

These, of course, are misperceptions; cognitive deficits grounded in emotional immaturity and thwarted personal development. All relationships have a life expectancy, a “sell by”, “good before”, or expiry date. No one is irreplaceable or completely interchangeable. The codependent’s problems are rooted in a profound lack of self-love and an absence of object constancy (she regards herself as unloved and unlovable when she is all by herself.)

Yet, clinging, codependent, and counterdependent (fiercely independent, defiant, and intimacy-retarding) behaviours can be modified. If you fear abandonment to the point of a phobia, here’s my advice:

Compile a written, very detailed “mission statement” regarding all the aspects of your romantic relationships: how would you like them to look like and how would you go about securing the best outcomes. Revisit and revise this “charter” regularly.

List your 3 most important mate choice criteria: what would you be looking for in a first date and without which there will be no second date. This list is your filter, your proverbial selective membrane. Revisit and revise it regularly as your taste and preferences change.

Conduct a thorough background check on your prospective intimate partner. Go online and Google his name; visit his social networking accounts; ask friends and family for information and an appraisal of his character, temperament, and personality. This preparatory research will put you in control and empower you. It will serve as an antidote to uncertainty and the anxiety attendant upon it.

Next use the “Volatility Threshold” and the “Threat Monitoring” tools.

The “Volatility Threshold” instrument is a compilation of 1-3 types of behaviours that you consider critically desirable (“deal-makers”) in your partner. Observe him and add up the number of times he had acted inconsistently and, thus, reversed these crucial aspects of his behavior substantially and essentially. Decide in advance how many “strikes” would constitute a “deal-breaker” and when he reaches this number – simply leave. Do not share with him either the existence or the content of this “test” lest it might affect his performance and cause him to playact and prevaricate.

As a codependent, you tend to jump to conclusions and then “jump the gun”: you greatly exaggerate the significance of even minor infractions and disagreements and you are always unduly fatalistic and pessimistic about the survival chances of your relationships. The “Threat Monitoring” tool is comprised of an inventory of warning signs and red flags that, in your view and from your experience, herald and portend abandonment. The aim is to falsify this list: to prove to you that, more often than not, you are wrong in predicting a breakup.

In general, try to act as though you were a scientist: construct alternative hypotheses (interpretations of behaviours and events) to account for what you regard as transgressions and bad omens. Test these hypotheses before you decide to end it all with a grand gesture, a dramatic exit, or a decisive finale. Preemptive abandonment is based more on your insecurities than on facts, so make sure to test your hypotheses – and your partner – in a variety of settings before you call it a day and before you prophesy doom and gloom.

This “scientific” approach to your intimate relationship has the added benefit of delaying the instant alleviation of your anxiety which consists of impulsive, ill-thought actions. It takes time to form hypotheses and test them. This lapse between trigger and reaction is all you need. By the time you have formed your informed opinion, your anxiety will have abated and you will no longer feel the urge to “do something now, whatever it may be!”

Armed with these “weapons” you should feel a lot more confident as you enter a new romantic liaison. But, the secret of the longevity of long-term relationships lies in being who you are, in acting transparently, in externalizing your internal dialog and inner voices. In short: if you want your relationships to last, you should express your emotions and concerns on a regular basis. You should knowingly and willingly assume all the risks associated with doing so: of exposing the chinks in your armour; of your vulnerabilities and blind spots being abused, exploited, and leveraged; of being misunderstood, even mocked. But the rewards of being open with your partner (without being naive or gullible) are enormous and multifarious: stronger bonding often results in long-lasting relationships.

Early on you should confer with your intimate partner and inform him of what, to you, constitutes a threat: what types of conduct he should avoid and what modes of communication he should eschew. You should both agree on protocols of communication: fears, needs, triggers, wishes, boundaries, requests, priorities, and preferences should all be shared on a regular basis and in a structured and predictable manner. Remember: structure, predictability, even formality are great antidotes to anxiety.

But there is only that much that your partner can do to ameliorate your mental anguish. You can and should help him in this oft-Herculean task. You can start by using drama to desensitize yourself to your phobia. In your mind imagine and rehearse, in excruciating detail, both the worst-case and best-case scenarios (abandonment in the wake of adultery versus blissful marriage, for instance.)

In these reveries, do not act as an observer: place yourself firmly at the scene of the action and prepare detailed responses within these impromptu plays. At first, this pseudo-theatre may prove agonizing, but the more you exercise your capacity for daydreaming the more you will find yourself immune to abandonment. You may even end up laughing out loud during the more egregious scenes!

Similarly, prepare highly-detailed contingency plans of action for every eventuality, including the various ways in which your relationship can disintegrate. Be prepared for anything and everything, thoroughly and well in advance. Planning equals control and control means lessened dread.

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.

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.

Abusers Target Their “Nearest and Dearest”

It is an established fact that abuse – verbal, psychological, emotional, physical, and sexual – co-occurs with intimacy. Most reported offenses are between intimate partners and between parents and children. This defies common sense. Emotionally, it should be easier to batter, molest, assault, or humiliate a total stranger. It’s as if intimacy CAUSES abuse, incubates and nurtures it.
And, in a way, it does.
Many abusers believe that their abusive conduct fosters, enhances, and cements their intimate relationships. To them, pathological jealousy is proof of love, possessiveness replaces mature bonding, and battering is a form of paying attention to the partner and communicating with her.
Such habitual offenders do not know any better. They were often raised in families, societies, and cultures where abuse is condoned outright – or, at least, not frowned upon. Maltreatment of one’s significant others is part of daily life, as inevitable as the weather, a force of nature.
Intimacy is often perceived to include a license to abuse. The abuser treats his nearest, dearest, and closest as mere objects, instruments of gratification, utilities, or extensions of himself. He feels that he “owns” his spouse, girlfriend, lovers, children, parents, siblings, or colleagues. As the owner, he has the right to “damage the goods” or even dispose of them altogether.
Most abusers are scared of real intimacy and deep commitment. They lead a “pretend”, confabulated life. Their “love” and “relationships” are gaudy, fake imitations. The abuser seeks to put a distance between himself and those who truly love him, who cherish and value him as a human being, who enjoy his company, and who strive to establish a long-term, meaningful relationship with him.
Abuse, in other words, is a reaction to the perceived threat of looming intimacy, aimed at fending it off, intended to decimate closeness, tenderness, affection, and compassion before they thrive and consume the abuser. Abuse is a panic reaction. The batterer, the molester, are scared out of their wits – they feel entrapped, imprisoned, shackled, and insidiously altered.
Lashing out in blind and violent rage they punish the perceived perpetrators of intimacy. The more obnoxiously they behave, the less the risk of lifelong bondage. The more heinous their acts, the safer they feel. Battering, molesting, raping, berating, taunting – are all forms of reasserting lost control. In the abuser’s thwarted mind, abuse equals mastery and continued, painless, emotionally numbed, survival.

Cold Empathy and Warm Empathy

Empathy is comprised of two components:

I. Cold Empathy: an intersubjective agreement as to the mental content (especially emotions) of two or more human subjects;

II. Warm Empathy: the emotional response to Cold Empathy.

Cold Empathy is an act of taxonomy and an attempt to overcome the barriers posed by the inaccessibility of the private languages of the empathee and the empathor. It entails a comparison of the mental states of the subjects, based on introspection and the classification of said mental states within agreed linguistic and cultural frameworks, vocabularies, and contexts.

Warm Empathy is the emotional arousal engendered by Cold Empathy in the empathor and the panoply of emotional responses it evokes.

The Encyclopaedia Britannica (2011 edition) defines empathy as:

“The ability to imagine oneself in anther’s place and understand the other’s feelings, desires, ideas, and actions. It is a term coined in the early 20th century, equivalent to the German Einfühlung and modelled on “sympathy.” The term is used with special (but not exclusive) reference to aesthetic experience. The most obvious example, perhaps, is that of the actor or singer who genuinely feels the part he is performing. With other works of art, a spectator may, by a kind of introjection, feel himself involved in what he observes or contemplates. The use of empathy is an important part of the counselling technique developed by the American psychologist Carl Rogers.”

Empathy is predicated upon and must, therefore, incorporate the following elements:

  1. Imagination which is dependent on the ability to imagine;
  2. The existence of an accessible Self (self-awareness or self-consciousness);
  3. The existence of an available other (other-awareness, recognizing the outside world);
  4. The existence of accessible feelings, desires, ideas and representations of actions or their outcomes both in the empathizing Self (“Empathor”) and in the Other, the object of empathy (“Empathee”);
  5. The availability of an aesthetic frame of reference;
  6. The availability of a moral frame of reference.

While (a) is presumed to be universally available to all agents (though in varying degrees) – the existence of the other components of empathy should not be taken for granted.

Conditions (b) and (c), for instance, are not satisfied by people who suffer from personality disorders, such as the Narcissistic Personality Disorder. Condition (d) is not met in autistic people (e.g., those who suffer from Asperger’s Disorder). Condition (e) is so totally dependent on the specifics of the culture, period and society in which it exists – that it is rather meaningless and ambiguous as a yardstick. Condition (f) suffer from both afflictions: it is both culture-dependent AND is not satisfied in many people (such as those who suffer from the Antisocial Personality Disorder and who are devoid of any conscience or moral sense).

Thus, the very existence of empathy should be questioned. It is often confused with inter-subjectivity. The latter is defined thus by “The Oxford Companion to Philosophy, 1995″:

“This term refers to the status of being somehow accessible to at least two (usually all, in principle) minds or ‘subjectivities’. It thus implies that there is some sort of communication between those minds; which in turn implies that each communicating mind is aware not only of the existence of the other but also of its intention to convey information to the other. The idea, for theorists, is that if subjective processes can be brought into agreement, then perhaps that is as good as the (unattainable?) status of being objective – completely independent of subjectivity. The question facing such theorists is whether intersubjectivity is definable without presupposing an objective environment in which communication takes place (the ‘wiring’ from subject A to subject B). At a less fundamental level, however, the need for intersubjective verification of scientific hypotheses has been long recognized”. (page 414).

On the face of it, the difference between intersubjectivity and empathy is double:

  1. Intersubjectivity requires an EXPLICIT, communicated agreement between at least two subjects.
  2. It involves EXTERNAL things (so called “objective” entities).

These “differences” are artificial. This is how empathy is defined in “Psychology – An Introduction (Ninth Edition) by Charles G. Morris, Prentice Hall, 1996″:

“Closely related to the ability to read other people’s emotions is empathy – the arousal of an emotion in an observer that is a vicarious response to the other person’s situation… Empathy depends not only on one’s ability to identify someone else’s emotions but also on one’s capacity to put oneself in the other person’s place and to experience an appropriate emotional response. Just as sensitivity to non-verbal cues increases with age, so does empathy: The cognitive and perceptual abilities required for empathy develop only as a child matures… (page 442)

In empathy training, for example, each member of the couple is taught to share inner feelings and to listen to and understand the partner’s feelings before responding to them. The empathy technique focuses the couple’s attention on feelings and requires that they spend more time listening and less time in rebuttal.” (page 576).

Thus empathy does require the communication of feelings AND an agreement on the appropriate outcome of the communicated emotions (=affective agreement). In the absence of such agreement, we are faced with inappropriate affect (laughing at a funeral, for instance).

Moreover, empathy does relate to external objects and is provoked by them. There is no empathy in the absence of an empathee. Granted, intersubjectivity is intuitively applied to the inanimate while empathy is applied to the living (animals, humans, even plants). But this is a difference in human preferences – not in definition.

Empathy can, thus, be re-defined as a form of intersubjectivity which involves living things as “objects” to which the communicated intersubjective agreement relates. It is wrong to limit our understanding of empathy to the communication of emotion. Rather, it is the intersubjective, concomitant experience of BEING. The empathor empathizes not only with the empathee’s emotions but also with his physical state and other parameters of existence (pain, hunger, thirst, suffocation, sexual pleasure etc.).

This leads to the important (and perhaps intractable) psychophysical question.

Intersubjectivity relates to external objects but the subjects communicate and reach an agreement regarding the way THEY have been affected by the objects.

Empathy relates to external objects (Others) but the subjects communicate and reach an agreement regarding the way THEY would have felt had they BEEN the object.

This is no minor difference, if it, indeed, exists. But does it really exist?

What is it that we feel in empathy? Do we feel OUR emotions/sensations, provoked by an external trigger (classic intersubjectivity) or do we experience a TRANSFER of the object’s feelings/sensations to us?

Such a transfer being physically impossible (as far as we know) – we are forced to adopt the former model. Empathy is the set of reactions – emotional and cognitive – to being triggered by an external object (the Other). It is the equivalent of resonance in the physical sciences. But we have NO WAY of ascertaining that the “wavelength” of such resonance is identical in both subjects.

In other words, we have no way to verify that the feelings or sensations invoked in the two (or more) subjects are the same. What I call “sadness” may not be what you call “sadness”. Colours, for instance, have unique, uniform, independently measurable properties (their energy). Even so, no one can prove that what I see as “red” is what another person (perhaps a Daltonist) would call “red”. If this is true where “objective”, measurable, phenomena, like colors, are concerned – it is infinitely more true in the case of emotions or feelings.

We are, therefore, forced to refine our definition:

Empathy is a form of intersubjectivity which involves living things as “objects” to which the communicated intersubjective agreement relates. It is the intersubjective, concomitant experience of BEING. The empathor empathizes not only with the empathee’s emotions but also with his physical state and other parameters of existence (pain, hunger, thirst, suffocation, sexual pleasure etc.).

BUT

The meaning attributed to the words used by the parties to the intersubjective agreement known as empathy is totally dependent upon each party. The same words are used, the same denotates – but it cannot be proven that the same connotates, the same experiences, emotions and sensations are being discussed or communicated.

Language (and, by extension, art and culture) serve to introduce us to other points of view (“what is it like to be someone else” to paraphrase Thomas Nagle). By providing a bridge between the subjective (inner experience) and the objective (words, images, sounds), language facilitates social exchange and interaction. It is a dictionary which translates one’s subjective private language to the coin of the public medium. Knowledge and language are, thus, the ultimate social glue, though both are based on approximations and guesses (see George Steiner’s “After Babel”).

But, whereas the intersubjective agreement regarding measurements and observations concerning external objects IS verifiable or falsifiable using INDEPENDENT tools (e.g., lab experiments) – the intersubjective agreement which concerns itself with the emotions, sensations and experiences of subjects as communicated by them IS NOT verifiable or falsifiable using INDEPENDENT tools. The interpretation of this second kind of agreement is dependent upon introspection and an assumption that identical words used by different subjects still possess identical meaning. This assumption is not falsifiable (or verifiable). It is neither true nor false. It is a probabilistic statement, but without a probability distribution. It is, in short, a meaningless statement. As a result, empathy itself is meaningless.

In human-speak, if you say that you are sad and I empathize with you it means that we have an agreement. I regard you as my object. You communicate to me a property of yours (“sadness”). This triggers in me a recollection of “what is sadness” or “what is to be sad”. I say that I know what you mean, I have been sad before, I know what it is like to be sad. I empathize with you. We agree about being sad. We have an intersubjective agreement.

Alas, such an agreement is meaningless. We cannot (yet) measure sadness, quantify it, crystallize it, access it in any way from the outside. We are totally and absolutely reliant on your introspection and on my introspection. There is no way anyone can prove that my “sadness” is even remotely similar to your sadness. I may be feeling or experiencing something that you might find hilarious and not sad at all. Still, I call it “sadness” and I empathize with you.

This would not have been that grave if empathy hadn’t been the cornerstone of morality.

The Encyclopaedia Britannica, 1999 Edition:

“Empathy and other forms of social awareness are important in the development of a moral sense. Morality embraces a person’s beliefs about the appropriateness or goodness of what he does, thinks, or feels… Childhood is … the time at which moral standards begin to develop in a process that often extends well into adulthood. The American psychologist Lawrence Kohlberg hypothesized that people’s development of moral standards passes through stages that can be grouped into three moral levels…

At the third level, that of postconventional moral reasoning, the adult bases his moral standards on principles that he himself has evaluated and that he accepts as inherently valid, regardless of society’s opinion. He is aware of the arbitrary, subjective nature of social standards and rules, which he regards as relative rather than absolute in authority.

Thus the bases for justifying moral standards pass from avoidance of punishment to avoidance of adult disapproval and rejection to avoidance of internal guilt and self-recrimination. The person’s moral reasoning also moves toward increasingly greater social scope (i.e., including more people and institutions) and greater abstraction (i.e., from reasoning about physical events such as pain or pleasure to reasoning about values, rights, and implicit contracts).”

But, if moral reasoning is based on introspection and empathy – it is, indeed, dangerously relative and not objective in any known sense of the word. Empathy is a unique agreement on the emotional and experiential content of two or more introspective processes in two or more subjects. Such an agreement can never have any meaning, even as far as the parties to it are concerned. They can never be sure that they are discussing the same emotions or experiences. There is no way to compare, measure, observe, falsify or verify (prove) that the “same” emotion is experienced identically by the parties to the empathy agreement. Empathy is meaningless and introspection involves a private language despite what Wittgenstein had to say. Morality is thus reduced to a set of meaningless private languages.

The Encyclopaedia Britannica:

“… Others have argued that because even rather young children are capable of showing empathy with the pain of others, the inhibition of aggressive behaviour arises from this moral affect rather than from the mere anticipation of punishment. Some scientists have found that children differ in their individual capacity for empathy, and, therefore, some children are more sensitive to moral prohibitions than others.

Young children’s growing awareness of their own emotional states, characteristics, and abilities leads to empathy–i.e., the ability to appreciate the feelings and perspectives of others. Empathy and other forms of social awareness are in turn important in the development of a moral sense… Another important aspect of children’s emotional development is the formation of their self-concept, or identity–i.e., their sense of who they are and what their relation to other people is.

According to Lipps’s concept of empathy, a person appreciates another person’s reaction by a projection of the self into the other. In his Ästhetik, 2 vol. (1903-06; ‘Aesthetics’), he made all appreciation of art dependent upon a similar self-projection into the object.”

This may well be the key. Empathy has little to do with the other person (the empathee). It is simply the result of conditioning and socialization. In other words, when we hurt someone – we don’t experience his pain. We experience OUR pain. Hurting somebody – hurts US. The reaction of pain is provoked in US by OUR own actions. We have been taught a learned response of feeling pain when we inflict it upon another. But we have also been taught to feel responsible for our fellow beings (guilt). So, we experience pain whenever another person claims to experience it as well. We feel guilty.

In sum:

To use the example of pain, we experience it in tandem with another person because we feel guilty or somehow responsible for his condition. A learned reaction is activated and we experience (our kind of) pain as well. We communicate it to the other person and an agreement of empathy is struck between us.

We attribute feelings, sensations and experiences to the object of our actions. It is the psychological defence mechanism of projection. Unable to conceive of inflicting pain upon ourselves – we displace the source. It is the other’s pain that we are feeling, we keep telling ourselves, not our own.

The Encyclopaedia Britannica:

“Perhaps the most important aspect of children’s emotional development is a growing awareness of their own emotional states and the ability to discern and interpret the emotions of others. The last half of the second year is a time when children start becoming aware of their own emotional states, characteristics, abilities, and potential for action; this phenomenon is called self-awareness… (coupled with strong narcissistic behaviours and traits – SV)…

This growing awareness of and ability to recall one’s own emotional states leads to empathy, or the ability to appreciate the feelings and perceptions of others. Young children’s dawning awareness of their own potential for action inspires them to try to direct (or otherwise affect) the behaviour of others…

…With age, children acquire the ability to understand the perspective, or point of view, of other people, a development that is closely linked with the empathic sharing of others’ emotions…

One major factor underlying these changes is the child’s increasing cognitive sophistication. For example, in order to feel the emotion of guilt, a child must appreciate the fact that he could have inhibited a particular action of his that violated a moral standard. The awareness that one can impose a restraint on one’s own behaviour requires a certain level of cognitive maturation, and, therefore, the emotion of guilt cannot appear until that competence is attained.”

That empathy is a REACTION to external stimuli that is fully contained within the empathor and then projected onto the empathee is clearly demonstrated by “inborn empathy”. It is the ability to exhibit empathy and altruistic behaviour in response to facial expressions. Newborns react this way to their mother’s facial expression of sadness or distress.

This serves to prove that empathy has very little to do with the feelings, experiences or sensations of the other (the empathee). Surely, the infant has no idea what it is like to feel sad and definitely not what it is like for his mother to feel sad. In this case, it is a complex reflexive reaction. Later on, empathy is still rather reflexive, the result of conditioning.

The Encyclopaedia Britannica quotes fascinating research which dramatically proves the object-independent nature of empathy. Empathy is an internal reaction, an internal process, triggered by external cue provided by animate objects. It is communicated to the empathee-other by the empathor but the communication and the resulting agreement (“I know how you feel therefore we agree on how you feel”) is rendered meaningless by the absence of a monovalent, unambiguous dictionary.

“An extensive series of studies indicated that positive emotion feelings enhance empathy and altruism. It was shown by the American psychologist Alice M. Isen that relatively small favours or bits of good luck (like finding money in a coin telephone or getting an unexpected gift) induced positive emotion in people and that such emotion regularly increased the subjects’ inclination to sympathize or provide help.

Several studies have demonstrated that positive emotion facilitates creative problem solving. One of these studies showed that positive emotion enabled subjects to name more uses for common objects. Another showed that positive emotion enhanced creative problem solving by enabling subjects to see relations among objects (and other people – SV) that would otherwise go unnoticed. A number of studies have demonstrated the beneficial effects of positive emotion on thinking, memory, and action in pre-school and older children.”

If empathy increases with positive emotion (a result of good luck, for instance) – then it has little to do with its objects and a lot to do with the person in whom it is provoked.

ADDENDUM – Interview granted to the National Post, Toronto, Canada, July 2003

Q. How important is empathy to proper psychological functioning?

A. Empathy is more important socially than it is psychologically. The absence of empathy – for instance in the Narcissistic and Antisocial personality disorders – predisposes people to exploit and abuse others. Empathy is the bedrock of our sense of morality. Arguably, aggressive behavior is as inhibited by empathy at least as much as it is by anticipated punishment.

But the existence of empathy in a person is also a sign of self-awareness, a healthy identity, a well-regulated sense of self-worth, and self-love (in the positive sense). Its absence denotes emotional and cognitive immaturity, an inability to love, to truly relate to others, to respect their boundaries and accept their needs, feelings, hopes, fears, choices, and preferences as autonomous entities.

Q. How is empathy developed?

A. It may be innate. Even toddlers seem to empathize with the pain – or happiness – of others (such as their caregivers). Empathy increases as the child forms a self-concept (identity). The more aware the infant is of his or her emotional states, the more he explores his limitations and capabilities – the more prone he is to projecting this new found knowledge unto others. By attributing to people around him his new gained insights about himself, the child develop a moral sense and inhibits his anti-social impulses. The development of empathy is, therefore, a part of the process of socialization.

But, as the American psychologist Carl Rogers taught us, empathy is also learned and inculcated. We are coached to feel guilt and pain when we inflict suffering on another person. Empathy is an attempt to avoid our own self-imposed agony by projecting it onto another.

Q. Is there an increasing dearth of empathy in society today? Why do you think so?

A. The social institutions that reified, propagated and administered empathy have imploded. The nuclear family, the closely-knit extended clan, the village, the neighborhood, the Church- have all unraveled. Society is atomized and anomic. The resulting alienation fostered a wave of antisocial behavior, both criminal and “legitimate”. The survival value of empathy is on the decline. It is far wiser to be cunning, to cut corners, to deceive, and to abuse – than to be empathic. Empathy has largely dropped from the contemporary curriculum of socialization.

In a desperate attempt to cope with these inexorable processes, behaviors predicated on a lack of empathy have been pathologized and “medicalized”. The sad truth is that narcissistic or antisocial conduct is both normative and rational. No amount of “diagnosis”, “treatment”, and medication can hide or reverse this fact. Ours is a cultural malaise which permeates every single cell and strand of the social fabric.

Q. Is there any empirical evidence we can point to of a decline in empathy?

Empathy cannot be measured directly – but only through proxies such as criminality, terrorism, charity, violence, antisocial behavior, related mental health disorders, or abuse.

 

Moreover, it is extremely difficult to separate the effects of deterrence from the effects of empathy.

 

If I don’t batter my wife, torture animals, or steal – is it because I am empathetic or because I don’t want to go to jail?

 

Rising litigiousness, zero tolerance, and skyrocketing rates of incarceration – as well as the ageing of the population – have sliced intimate partner violence and other forms of crime across the United States in the last decade. But this benevolent decline had nothing to do with increasing empathy.

The statistics are open to interpretation but it would be safe to say that the last century has been the most violent and least empathetic in human history. Wars and terrorism are on the rise, charity giving on the wane (measured as percentage of national wealth), welfare policies are being abolished, Darwininan models of capitalism are spreading. In the last two decades, mental health disorders were added to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of the American Psychiatric Association whose hallmark is the lack of empathy. The violence is reflected in our popular culture: movies, video games, and the media.

Empathy – supposedly a spontaneous reaction to the plight of our fellow humans – is now channeled through self-interested and bloated non-government organizations or multilateral outfits. The vibrant world of private empathy has been replaced by faceless state largesse. Pity, mercy, the elation of giving are tax-deductible. It is a sorry sight.

 

ADDENDUM – The I=mcu Theorem

 

I postulate the existence of three basic modes of interpersonal relatedness:

 

(1) I=mcu (pronounced: I am seeing you)

 

(2) I=ucm (pronounced: I am what you see in me)

 

(3) U=icm (pronounced: You is what I see as me)

 

Mode (1) and (3) represent variants of empathy. The ability to “see” the other is indispensable to the development and exercise of empathy. Even more crucial is the capacity to identify with the other, to “see” the other as “me” (i.e., as oneself).

 

Mode (2) is known as pathological narcissism. The narcissist forges a False Self that is designed to elicit external input in order to sustain itself and perform some important ego functions. The narcissists exists merely as a reflection in the eyes of others. In the absence of Narcissistic Supply (attention), the narcissist crumbles and withers.

 

Cold Empathy vs. Warm Empathy and the Concept of “Unacanny Valley”

Click HERE to watch the video

Contrary to widely held views, Narcissists and Psychopaths may actually possess empathy. They may even be hyper-empathic, attuned to the minutest signals emitted by their victims and endowed with a penetrating “X-ray vision”. They tend to abuse their empathic skills by employing them exclusively for personal gain, the extraction of narcissistic supply, or in the pursuit of antisocial and sadistic goals. They regard their ability to empathize as another weapon in their arsenal.

I suggest to label the narcissistic psychopath’s version of empathy: “cold empathy“, akin to the “cold emotions” felt by psychopaths. The cognitive element of empathy is there, but not so its emotional correlate. It is, consequently, a barren, detached, and cerebral kind of intrusive gaze, devoid of compassion and a feeling of affinity with one’s fellow humans.

Narcissists and psychopaths also appear to be “empathizing” with their possessions: objects, pets, and their sources of narcissistic supply or material benefits (often their nearest and dearest, significant others, or “friends” and associates). But this is not real empathy: it is a mere projection of the narcissist’s or psychopath’s own insecurities and fears, needs and wishes, fantasies and priorities. This kind of displayed “empathy” usually vanishes the minute its subject ceases to play a role in the narcissist’s or psychopath’s life and his psychodynamic processes.

Cold Empathy evokes the concept of “Uncanny Valley”, coined in 1970 by the Japanese roboticist Masahiro Mori. Mori suggested that people react positively to androids (humanlike robots) for as long as they differ from real humans in meaningful and discernible ways. But the minute these contraptions come to resemble humans uncannily, though imperfectly, human observers tend to experience repulsion, revulsion, and other negative emotions, including fear.

The same applies to psychopathic narcissists: they are near-perfect imitations of humans, but, lacking empathy and emotions, they are not exactly there. Psychopaths and narcissists strike their interlocutors as being some kind of “alien life-forms” or “artificial intelligence”, in short: akin to humanoid robots, or androids. When people come across narcissists or psychopaths the Uncanny Valley reaction kicks in: people feel revolted, scared, and repelled. They can’t put the finger on what it is that provokes these negative reactions, but, after a few initial encounters, they tend to keep their distance.

The Demise of Empathy at Home and in the Family and the Role of Technology

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

Empathy is on a precipitous decline in the family and home environments. Technology is partly to blame, but so are other social and economic trends.

 

On June 9, 2005 the BBC reported about an unusual project underway in Sheffield (in the United Kingdom). The daily movements and interactions of a family living in a technology-laden, futuristic home are being monitored and recorded. “The aim is to help house builders predict how we will want to use our homes 10 or 20 years from now.” – explained the reporter.

 

The home of the future may be quite a chilling – or uplifting – prospect, depending on one’s prejudices and predilections.

 

Christopher Sanderson, of The Future Laboratory and Richard Brindley, of the Royal Institute of British Architects describe smaller flats with movable walls as a probable response to over-crowding. Home systems will cater to all the entertainment and media needs of the inhabitants further insulating them from their social milieu.

 

Even hobbies will move indoors. Almost every avocation – from cooking to hiking – can now be indulged at home with pro-am (professional-amateur) equipment. We may become self-sufficient as far as functions we now outsource – such as education and dry cleaning – go. Lastly, in the long-run, robots are likely to replace some pets and many human interactions.

 

These technological developments will have grave effects on family cohesion and functioning.

 

The family is the mainspring of support of every kind. It mobilizes psychological resources and alleviates emotional burdens. It allows for the sharing of tasks, provides material goods together with cognitive training. It is the prime socialization agent and encourages the absorption of information, most of it useful and adaptive.

 

This division of labour between parents and children is vital both to development and to proper adaptation. The child must feel, in a functional family, that s/he can share his experiences without being defensive and that the feedback that s/he is likely to receive will be open and unbiased. The only “bias” acceptable (because it is consistent with constant outside feedback) is the set of beliefs, values and goals that is internalized via imitation and unconscious identification.

 

So, the family is the first and the most important source of identity and of emotional support. It is a greenhouse wherein a child feels loved, accepted and secure – the prerequisites for the development of personal resources. On the material level, the family should provide the basic necessities (and, preferably, beyond), physical care and protection and refuge and shelter during crises.

 

Elsewhere, we have discussed the role of the mother (The Primary Object). The father’s part is mostly neglected, even in professional literature. However, recent research demonstrates his importance to the orderly and healthy development of the child.

 

He participates in the day to day care, is an intellectual catalyst, who encourages the child to develop his interests and to satisfy his curiosity through the manipulation of various instruments and games. He is a source of authority and discipline, a boundary setter, enforcing and encouraging positive behaviors and eliminating negative ones. He also provides emotional support and economic security, thus stabilizing the family unit. Finally, he is the prime source of masculine orientation and identification to the male child – and gives warmth and love as a male to his daughter, without exceeding the socially permissible limits.

 

These traditional roles of the family are being eroded from both the inside and the outside. The proper functioning of the classical family was determined, to a large extent, by the geographical proximity of its members. They all huddled together in the “family unit” – an identifiable volume of physical space, distinct and different to other units. The daily friction and interaction between the members of the family molded them, influenced their patterns of behavior and their reactive patterns and determined how successful their adaptation to life would be.

 

With the introduction of modern, fast transportation and telecommunications, it was no longer possible to confine the members of the family to the household, to the village, or even to the neighborhood. The industrial revolution splintered the classical family and scattered its members.

 

Still, the result was not the disappearance of the family but the formation of nuclear families: leaner and meaner units of production. The extended family of yore (three or four generations) merely spread its wings over a greater physical distance – but in principle, remained almost intact.

 

Grandma and grandpa would live in one city with a few of the younger or less successful aunts and uncles. Their other daughters or sons would be married and moved to live either in another part of the same city, or in another geographical location (even in another continent). But contact was maintained by more or less frequent visits, reunions and meetings on opportune or critical occasions.

 

This was true well into the 1950s.

 

However, a series of developments in the second half of the twentieth century threatens to completely decouple the family from its physical dimension. We are in the process of experimenting with the family of the future: the virtual family. This is a family devoid of any spatial (geographical) or temporal identity. Its members do not necessarily share the same genetic heritage (the same blood lineage). It is bound mainly by communication, rather than by interests. Its domicile is cyberspace, its residence in the realm of the symbolic.

 

Urbanization and industrialization pulverized the structure of the family, by placing it under enormous pressures and by causing it to relegate most of its functions to outside agencies: education was taken over by schools, health – by (national or private) health plans, entertainment by television, interpersonal communication by telephony and computers, socialization by the mass media and the school system and so on.

 

Devoid of its traditional functions, subject to torsion and other elastic forces – the family was torn apart and gradually stripped of its meaning. The main functions left to the family unit were the provision of the comfort of familiarity (shelter) and serving as a physical venue for leisure activities.

 

The first role – familiarity, comfort, security, and shelter – was eroded by the global brands.

 

The “Home Away from Home” business concept means that multinational brands such as Coca-Cola and McDonalds foster familiarity where previously there was none. Needless to say that the etymological closeness between “family” and “familiar” is no accident. The estrangement felt by foreigners in a foreign land is, thus, alleviated, as the world is fast becoming mono-cultural.

 

The “Family of Man” and the “Global Village” have replaced the nuclear family and the physical, historic, village. A businessman feels more at home in any Sheraton or Hilton than in the living room of his ageing parents. An academician feels more comfortable in any faculty in any university than with his own nuclear or immediate family. One’s oldneighborhood is a source of embarrassment rather than a fount of strength.

 

The family’s second function – leisure activities – fell prey to the advance of the internet and digital and wireless telecommunications.

 

Whereas the hallmark of the classical family was that it had clear spatial and temporal coordinates – the virtual family has none. Its members can (and often do) live in different continents. They communicate by digital means. They have electronic mail (rather than the physical post office box). They have a “HOME page”. They have a “webSITE”.

 

In other words, they have the virtual equivalents of geographical reality, a “VIRTUAL reality” or “virtual existence”. In the not so distant future, people will visit each other electronically and sophisticated cameras will allow them to do so in three-dimensional format.

 

The temporal dimension, which was hitherto indispensable in human interactions – being at the same place in the same time in order to interact – is also becoming unnecessary. Voicemail and videomail messages will be left in electronic “boxes” to be retrieved at the convenience of the recipient. Meetings in person will be made redundant with the advent of video-conferencing.

 

The family will not remain unaffected. A clear distinction will emerge between the biological family and the virtual family. A person will be born into the first but will regard this fact as accidental. Blood relations will count less than virtual relations. Individual growth will involve the formation of a virtual family, as well as a biological one (getting married and having children). People will feel equally at ease anywhere in the world for two reasons:

 

1. There will be no appreciable or discernible difference between geographical locations. Separate will no longer mean disparate. A McDonald’s and a Coca-Cola and a Hollywood produced movie are already available everywhere and always. So will the internet treasures of knowledge and entertainment.

 

2. Interactions with the outside world will be minimized. People will conduct their lives more and more indoors. They will communicate with others (their biological original family included) via telecommunications devices and the internet. They will spend most of their time, work and create in the cyber-world. Their true (really, only) home will be their website. Their only reliably permanent address will be their e-mail address. Their enduring friendships will be with co-chatters. They will work from home, flexibly and independently of others. They will customize their cultural consumption using 500 channel televisions based on video on demand technology.

 

Hermetic and mutually exclusive universes will be the end result of this process. People will be linked by very few common experiences within the framework of virtual communities. They will haul their world with them as they move about. The miniaturization of storage devices will permit them to carry whole libraries of data and entertainment in their suitcase or backpack or pocket.

 

It is true that all these predictions are extrapolations of technological breakthroughs and devices, which are in their embryonic stages and are limited to affluent, English-speaking, societies in the West. But the trends are clear and they mean ever-increasing differentiation, isolation and individuation. This is the last assault, which the family will not survive. Already most households consist of “irregular” families (single parents, same sex, etc.). The rise of the virtual family will sweep even these transitory forms aside.

 

The Role of Technology

 

Technology had and has a devastating effect on the survival and functioning of core social units, such as the community/neighborhood and, most crucially, the family.

 

With the introduction of modern, fast transportation and telecommunications, it was no longer possible to confine the members of the family to the household, to the village, or even to the neighborhood. The industrial and, later information revolutions splintered the classical family and scattered its members as they outsourced the family’s functions (such as feeding, education, and entertainment).

 

This process is on-going: interactions with the outside world are being minimized. People conduct their lives more and more indoors. They communicate with others (their biological original family included) via telecommunications devices and the internet. They spend most of their time, work and create in the cyber-world. Their true (really, only) home is their website or page on the social network du jour. Their only reliably permanent address is their e-mail address. Their enduring albeit ersatz friendships are with co-chatters. They work from home, flexibly and independently of others. They customize their cultural consumption using 500 channel televisions based on video on demand technology.

 

Hermetic and mutually exclusive universes will be the end result of this process. People will be linked by very few common experiences within the framework of virtual communities. They will haul their world with them as they move about. The miniaturization of storage devices will permit them to carry whole libraries of data and entertainment in their suitcase or backpack or pocket. They will no longer need or resort to physical interactions.

 

Consider screens:

 

Screens have been with us for centuries now: paintings are screens and so are windows. Yet, the very nature of screens has undergone a revolutionary transformation in the last decade or so. All the screens that preceded the PDA’s (Personal Digital Assistant) and the smartphone’s were inclusive of reality, they were AND screens: when you watched them you could not avoid (“screen out”) data emanating from your physical environment. “Screen-AND-reality” was the prevalent modus operandi.

 

Consider the cinema, the television, and the personal computer (PC): even when entangled in the flow of information provided by these machines, you were still fully exposed to and largely aware of your surroundings. The screens of the past were one step removed: there was always a considerable physical distance between user and device and the field of vision extended to encompass copious peripheral input.

 

Now consider the iPhone or the digital camera: their screens, though tiny, monopolize the field of vision and exclude the world by design. The physical distance between retina and screen has shrunk to the point of vanishing. 3-D television with its specialty eyeglasses and total immersion is merely the culmination of this trend: the utter removal of reality from the viewer’s experience. Modern screens are, therefore, OR screens: you either watch the screen OR observe reality. You cannot do both.

 

Modern technology allows us to reach out, but rarely to truly touch. It substitutes kaleidoscopic, brief, and shallow interactions for long, meaningful and deep relationships. Our abilities to empathize and to collaborate with each other are like muscles: they require frequent exercise. Gradually, we are being denied the opportunity to flex them and, thus, we empathize less; we collaborate more fitfully and inefficiently; we act more narcissistically and antisocially. Functioning society is rendered atomized and anomic by technology.

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