Have you ever had a child who made a mess and, when challenged, denies it—even if the evidence lies on his face or hands? He tells the obvious lie because he is unsure what the outcome will be. The false story is borne out of feelings of vulnerability (primarily, emotions of fear and/or shame).
Codependency and narcissism can be a sneaky and all-too-common relationship dynamic that also has vulnerability at its core. A codependent person and a narcissistic person are magnetically drawn to each other. And the dysfunctional dynamics of the relationship may be passed from generation to generation.
The good news is you can recover from a relationship ruled by codependency and narcissism and break the cycle.
Defining codependency and narcissism
To quote William Shakespeare, “What’s in a name?” When it comes to this topic, quite a lot! Fortunately, psychotherapist and author of The Human Magnet Syndrome, Ross Rosenberg has spent a lifetime exploring the dynamics of the codependent and narcissist relationship and sheds some light on the terminology.
Originally, the term “codependent” was used to describe persons living with, or in a relationship with an addicted person. Nowadays, codependency is referred to as the need to be dependent—physically, emotionally, socially—on another person. Rosenberg describes codependents as “people from all walks in life … who relinquish their power and control to individuals who neither seem interested nor motivated to participate in mutual or reciprocal relationships.”
Characteristics of the codependent include: High empathy, altruistic, low opinion of self, takes things personally, tries to please others, fears rejection (needs to be of “use”), makes excuses for other people’s behaviour, often too honest and too generous, values self-improvement (via education and self-help), mood is impacted by others, tendency to feel used and underappreciated.
The term ‘narcissist’ is carelessly thrown around a lot these days, used to describe every minor instance of self-absorption. Narcissism, as Rosenberg points out, lies along a spectrum with healthy narcissism at one end and malignant narcissism at the other. In the context of this subject, it is someone who “over-focuses on their own needs, while ignoring or marginalizing the needs of those closest to them.”
Characteristics of the narcissist include: Low empathy, high opinion of self or “grandiose”, entitled, self-absorbed, strong-willed, charming with others (attracting praise), controlling and manipulative (including tendency to “gaslight”), makes decisions for others, “stirs the pot” (to keep the codependent unbalanced), blames others for words and actions, often has boundary violations (doesn’t care about other people’s thoughts/possessions/commitments/needs), ignores or breaks social rules (especially those around politeness), ignores/dismisses/criticizes/belittles “inferior” persons, will never seek help.
The relationship “dance”
The codependent and narcissist are basically two opposing magnets that attract each other. The narcissist wishes to control and have his needs met, while the codependent wishes to serve and make someone happy. Both the narcissist and codependent have attachment wounds from their childhood (often feelings of core shame and pervasive loneliness), and these are acted out constantly without resolution. The codependent is conscious of these, while the narcissists successfully hides from them.
Rosenberg describes the relationship as two “half” people who need each other to feel whole. “This relationship of two halves can never be a whole relationship, as both people lack the requisite self-love and individuation.”
In fact, he compares the codependent-narcissist relationship to a well-choregraphed dance with partners who are perfectly suited. “Codependents are drawn to … narcissists because they feel comfortable and familiar with a person who can direct, control and lead. The narcissist is simply the yin to their yang. Their sacrificial, passive codependence matches up perfectly with their partners entitled, demanding and self-centered nature.”
So, what does the relationship really look like?
The narcissist needs to uphold the “false self” at all times. They must be seen to be charming, strong-minded and accomplished to outsiders. At home, they require their partner to reflect this positive self-image to avoid the insecurity that they may feel deep down. If the partner fails, the narcissist will resort to manipulation or gaslighting to get what they want or simply ignore their presence. The upshot is that the narcissist experiences physical and emotional freedom, because they never have to worry about upsetting someone because of their off-putting personality traits, which they deny having. For the narcissist, this is what the relationship feels like:
1. Everything is great. (“I’m getting what I want.”)
2. Everything is wrong. (“They committed a crime.”)
3. Withdraw until amends are made.
4. Return to the top.
Here’s example of the false self: Narcissists may act empathetic and supportive of others but will simultaneously harbour disgust and contempt for the vulnerable person close to them. They will often use a situation (say, a narcissist’s wife is depressed, and he is unsympathetic) to reinforce their specialness by offering acquired knowledge and support to a friend in a similar situation.
The codependent, however, is always walking on eggshells. They feel overly responsible for others and take on what is not theirs. They do this to avoid their own feelings of inadequacy. They learn to fit into the narcissist’s “self-serving” world and gets used to living in an emotional desert. For the Codependent, this what it the relationships feels like:
1. Everything is great. (“They are getting what they need.”)
2. Everything is wrong. (“You committed a crime.”)
3. Working to gain approval.
4. Return to the top.
The relationship is doomed from the outset. The narcissist has no need to work on the relationship after the romantic stage and starting a family, because by then the codependent is trapped (either “hooked in” emotionally or powerless due to dependents, lack of independent finances, etc.). Breaking up is generally not an option. Since being alone makes each partner feel isolated, and loneliness and rejection are unbearable emotions, the relationship remains intact despite shared unhappiness and negative consequences (mostly for the codependent).
Can you recover from codependency?
Yes! According to Rosenberg recovery is not only possible, but life-changing. The goals of codependence treatment revolve around themes of detachment, self-actualization, and working through past trauma to become more aware, less enabling, and less accepting of troubled, emotionally unavailable behaviour.
Steps to recovery often involve:
- Exploring triggers: Part of this process is noting when you react emotionally and what the trigger is. Something that was said or something that happened to you. Most triggers can be tracked back to a wound created in childhood that has never been resolved. It is necessary to do your personal work and taking the power away from triggers / beliefs so that don’t continue to get in the way.
- Observing how you behave: Take notice of your habits, what you choose to do each day, how you interact with others. Identify the ways you are not being your “authentic” self.
- Setting boundaries: Start smell by creating boundaries – what you will not do, what you will do. This involves deciding how to respond to events: ask yourself what you want and assert yourself.
- Communicating better: Learn how to manage your tone, don’t interrupt, try to hear what is being said without making any judgements, and bring a positive in before you add a negative.
- Avoiding the blame game: The narcissist typically blames others, while experiencing little to no internal conflict about how their words or actions affect them. Avoid spending time ruminating over what you may have done wrong, or what you could have done better. Call it and move on.
- Building support networks: Whether online or within your local community, humans do better when buoyed by others who “get” it.
Ultimately, the antidote to codependency is self-love. Rosenberg says: “when you [the codependent] disconnect and find a space where you can learn to love yourself, nurture yourself—you can then reconnect with whatever is important to you and, ultimately, what you deserve.”
Watch out for the bumps!
As with any type of healing, there are always obstacles to overcome. Common hurdles for codependents include:
- Emotional manipulation: Understand that when you draw boundaries, it will create feelings (for yourself and the narcissist). The narcissist may be passive aggressive, or attempt to induce shame or guilt, or make allegations of “being selfish” (which is an insult to the codependent who has always backed down for the narcissist). Observe but don’t absorb.
- Loneliness: The codependent often fears being alone, but a healthy relationship is more important than anything else so plan for ways to deal with loneliness when it hits.
- Relationship ending: It can be common for the narcissist to end the relationship when the narcissist is not getting what he wants anymore.
The Human Magnet Syndrome by Ross Rosenberg
Conquering Shame and Codependency by Darlene Lancer
You’re Not Crazy–You’re Codependent by Jeanette Elisabeth Menter
Facing Codependence: What It Is, Where It Comes from, How It Sabotages Our Lives by Pia Mellody
Healing the Shame that Binds You by John Bradshaw
Becoming the Narcissists Nightmare by Shahida Arabi S
© Felicia Stewart, 2019