Back in 2012, I was approached by a publishing house to write a book on how to deal with a narcissist in a relationship. I flippantly replied that that book would have one page and one one word written on it. That word would be DON’T. There is nothing that has happened in the development of relationships, practically or research wise that has forced me to change that view. If you are in a relationship with someone who is abusive, entitled, narcissistic, doesn’t have any intention of meeting your needs and uses you to make themselves feel better, then work on getting the hell away from them, whatever it takes. The truth is that they will never change and if they appear to, it is likely manipulation. Beware the narcissist carrying gifts and suggesting couples therapy.
And yet, while doing some research on an unrelated topic, I came across a slew of current articles from quite respected websites on how to deal with “the narcissist in your life”. Not one of them mentioned leaving the relationship and some of the advice centered on adaptation to such a degree that it made the victim the problem. So, I am going to summarise this below with the disclaimer that this is not advice from me. As you will see, it is really promoting codependency (most of the writers I assume do not consider this to be a factor) or fawning.
I will take the good advice first. If you recognise narcissistic traits in your partner or are convinced that the typical traits of narcissism are present (one should never diagnose and the word is used too often these days but there are many reliable sites giving information that can point you in the right direction), then learn all you can about it and the effect it has on relationships. This will only help you with the decision to leave, especially if you read some of the stories out there. Secondly, if you choose to leave (and I can’t imagine why anyone would stay)then plan your exit with your safety in mind and form a support network.
The advice mostly offered centered around four things. Apart from educating yourself and planning an exit strategy, most looked at not idealising, clear communication, setting boundaries and not internalising hurtful, devaluing comments. I’m looking here at the situation from the view of codependency but the advice is true for everyone who might find themselves in this dreadful situation.
Codependent individuals often find themselves attracted to people with narcissistic tendencies. This dynamic can be traced back to a psychological phenomenon known as repetition compulsion, which was first proposed by the renowned psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud. According to Freud, repetition compulsion is an unconscious drive that compels individuals to repeat patterns, particularly those that were traumatic or distressing, in an attempt to gain mastery over them.
Freud once stated, “The patient cannot remember the whole of what is repressed in him, and what he cannot remember may be precisely the essential part of it… He is obliged to repeat the repressed material as a contemporary experience instead of… remembering it as something belonging to the past.” While Freud`s theories have been advanced by other thoughts as psychology has progressed, this is still fairly good insight for the time it was produced and very relevant today.
In the context of a codependent-narcissist relationship, the codependent individual may be unconsciously repeating patterns from their past. They might be seeking to gain love, validation, and a sense of worth from a difficult or withholding figure, much like they may have experienced in their earlier years. The codependent individual’s tendency to engage in repetition compulsion can lead to a cycle of trying to fix or save their narcissistic partner. As Melody Beattie, author of “Codependent No More,” explains, “Codependents often feel compelled to solve other people’s problems. If they’re involved with narcissists, they’re in for a never-ending cycle of trying to fix the unfixable.”
Understanding the underlying psychological dynamics at play is a crucial step in breaking free from this unhealthy pattern. It’s important for codependents to recognize that they cannot change or save their narcissistic partner (or anyone). The responsibility for healing and growth lies with the narcissist, not the codependent.
While the advice I found provided in dealing with narcissistic behavior offers strategies, it is essential to acknowledge the unique challenges faced by codependent individuals. It is not simply a matter of educating oneself on narcissistic behavior, as codependents often struggle with setting boundaries and maintaining a sense of self-worth.
Codependents are prone to idealizing their partners and having unrealistic expectations. Dr. Shawn Burn, a psychologist and author of “Unhealthy Helping: A Psychological Guide to Overcoming Codependence,” explains, “Codependents often have a hard time seeing their partner realistically, which can lead to denial of the severity of their partner’s narcissistic behavior.” This denial can perpetuate the cycle of trying to fix and rescue the narcissistic partner, despite the harm it may cause to the codependent’s well-being.
Setting clear boundaries is an important aspect of any healthy relationship. However, for codependents, setting and maintaining boundaries can be a significant challenge. This challenge becomes even more difficult when their partner is a narcissist who may react with anger, manipulation, or disregard for those boundaries.
Moreover, the advice to not internalize hurtful comments and to develop a thicker skin can be particularly challenging for codependents. Codependents often have a strong emotional investment in their relationships and are prone to internalizing the negative messages and criticisms from their narcissistic partners. Dr. Shawn Burn notes, “Codependents often take on their partner’s emotions and problems, which can make it even harder for them to separate themselves from their partner’s hurtful behavior.”
Recognizing the unhealthy dynamics of a codependent-narcissist relationship is crucial for the codependent’s well-being. It is important to understand that the responsibility for change lies with the narcissistic partner, not the codependent. While it may be difficult, codependents need to prioritize their own mental health and well-being.
In the words of Melody Beattie, “It’s not about managing the relationship but recognizing when it’s necessary to leave for one’s own mental health and well-being.” It is essential for codependents to recognize that they deserve respect, love, and a healthy relationship. Staying in a relationship with a narcissistic partner can perpetuate the cycle of emotional abuse and harm.
Seeking professional help is a crucial step in breaking free from the codependent-narcissist dynamic. A therapist or counselor can provide awareness, support, guidance, and tools to help codependents navigate their way towards healing and establishing healthier relationship patterns. Additionally, joining a support group specifically for codependency can provide a safe space to share experiences, gain insights, and receive validation from others who have gone through similar struggles.
Leaving a codependent-narcissist relationship can be a difficult and challenging decision. It may involve facing fears, uncertainties, and potential backlash from the narcissistic partner. However, it is an act of self-care and self-respect. As Melody Beattie aptly states, “You deserve to be in relationships that are healthy, nurturing, and supportive. You deserve to be with someone who values and respects you for who you are.”
If you find yourself in a codependent relationship with a narcissist, I encourage you to take the necessary steps towards prioritizing your own well-being. Reach out to a mental health professional, therapist, or counselor who specializes in codependency and narcissistic relationships. Seek support from friends, family, or support groups. Remember, you are not alone, and there is help available to guide you towards a healthier and happier life.
It’s time to break free from the cycle of repetition compulsion and reclaim your self-worth. You deserve a relationship that is built on mutual respect, understanding, and love. It may be a challenging journey, but by respecting yourself enough to leave a toxic relationship, you open up the possibility for personal growth, healing, and the opportunity to build healthier and more fulfilling relationships in the future.
Leaving a codependent-narcissist relationship requires strength and courage, but it is a necessary step towards reclaiming your own identity and well-being. It is important to remember that you are not responsible for fixing or changing the narcissistic partner. Your primary responsibility is to take care of yourself and create a life that is free from emotional abuse and manipulation.
As you embark on this journey of healing and self-discovery, it is crucial to surround yourself with a support system that understands and validates your experiences. Seek out friends, family, or support groups who can provide empathy, encouragement, and guidance. Connecting with others who have gone through similar situations can be incredibly empowering and reassuring.
In addition to seeking support, consider engaging in self-care practices that nurture your physical, emotional, and mental well-being. This may include activities such as practicing mindfulness, engaging in therapy or counseling, engaging in hobbies that bring you joy, and prioritizing self-reflection and self-compassion.
Remember, breaking free from a codependent-narcissist relationship is not an easy process, and it may take time to heal and rebuild your life. Be patient with yourself and celebrate each small victory along the way. You deserve to be in a relationship that is based on mutual respect, trust, and support.
Being in a codependent relationship with a narcissistic partner can be emotionally draining and harmful to your well-being. It is important to recognize the underlying dynamics at play and understand that you deserve better. Seek professional help, reach out to support networks, and prioritize your own self-care. By respecting yourself enough to leave a toxic relationship, you are taking a courageous step towards creating a life filled with love, respect, and genuine happiness.
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Dr. Nicholas Jenner, a therapist, coach, and speaker, has over 20 years of experience in the field of therapy and coaching. His specialty lies in treating codependency, a condition that is often characterized by a compulsive dependence on a partner, friend, or family member for emotional or psychological sustenance. Dr. Jenner’s approach to treating codependency involves using Internal Family Systems (IFS) therapy, a treatment method that has gained widespread popularity in recent years. He identifies the underlying causes of codependent behavior by exploring his patients’ internal “parts,” or their different emotional states, to develop strategies to break free from it. Dr. Jenner has authored numerous works on the topic and offers online therapy services to assist individuals in developing healthy relationships and achieving emotional independence.