The most frequent question posed to me by daughters whose emotional needs weren’t met in childhood—who grew up insecurely attached and anxious about ever being loved—is this: “How did I not see who my husband was? How did I mistake what he offered me for love?”bride Some women write after relatively short marriages—four or five years in duration—while others weigh in after decades of being together as they embark on the process of picking up the pieces.

Sometimes, all the red flags that were ignored or somehow rationalized during the marriage— “He doesn’t deal well when he doesn’t have center-stage,” “He was never willing to discuss things that were hard with me,” or “I didn’t realize how much I’d disappeared and lost my voice”—suddenly make sense as the marriage unravels and the couple heads for divorce. It’s in conflict that the narcissist reveals his true stripes and divorce can be an absolutely harrowing experience since he needs to maintain a sense of control over you and the outcome at all costs. I learned this first-hand.

We are all drawn to the familiar when we seek out close others; our unconscious mental images of what relationships look like, drawn from our childhood experiences, form the basis of our attraction. This is fine and dandy, of course, if you had a good childhood with an attuned and loving parent or even two; it’s not so great if you didn’t.

Taking the bait

Multiple studies show that, initially, the narcissist is very attractive. He’s talkative, appears confident and open, and comes across as someone who would make a great partner. He’s excellent at self-presentation.  Because the narcissist needs adulation, he’s also likely to court you as you’ve never been wooed before as one woman wrote me:

 You have no idea. He lavished attention on me in the beginning like none other. Thoughtful gifts, little surprises. And I totallly let my guard down. Who wouldn’t? We were married ten  months after we met—that’s how sure I was. My close friends didn’t like him. They said he was cold and manipulative but I honestly  thought they were jealous of me. No, they saw what I didn’t and after   we were married, he did what he could so I saw less of them. He said he wanted me all to himself.

For the unloved daughter, this kind of attention initially feels like manna from Heaven. As Dr. Craig Malkin notes in his book, Rethinking Narcissism, because the narcissist needs to feel special, he needs you to be special too—reflecting his value—so he’ll initially put you on a pedestal. For a woman who’s never been sure of her self-worth, this can—at the beginning—feel absolutely fabulous.

Exerting Stealth Control

The caricature of the narcissist the culture embraces—the guy so full of himself that every sentence begins with “I,” the bully who’s easy to spot from just a few yards, the control freak out in the open—is, according to Craig Malkin, far from the truth. The narcissist doesn’t like asking for things—that would make him feel as though he was needy—so, under the guise of accommodation or even surprising you, he exerts control in much more subtle ways. Small things like derailing your plans for a quiet evening with a surprise set of tickets to a sporting event or that impromptu decision to eat at a Thai restaurant instead the hamburger you’d been craving. Small things ultimately turn into larger ones and, over time, you may completely forget your own wants and needs or even that you once had them.

 When I look through the old albums, I can now see that the photos tell the truth.  I love the beach and so there we are on our honeymoon in Florida. At the Jersey shore the second year. But he loves the mountains and from then on, every vacation we took was in the mountains. I haven’t been to the beach in more than a decade but, somehow, I didn’t notice that. It seemed easier to     accommodate him than fight. I hate fighting. Same deal with every decision that came up. I managed not to notice that I folded my tents years ago.

Losing sight of herself, it should be said, comes more easily to the unloved daughter than it might to others; she’s used to it, having done it throughout her childhood and girlhood.

Life on the roller-coaster

The narcissist is always in it to win it and that, in addition to his habit of playing games and never taking responsibility, means that every disagreement, every challenge to him, will devolve into a fight. Real discussion or hashing things out with this man is just not in the realm of possibility, no matter how hard you try. Why is that?

Craig Malkin points tellingly to the narcissist’s playing what he calls “emotional hot potato”—projecting whatever he’s feeling onto you and convincing you that those emotions are actually yours. How does that work? Say you’re unhappy with the division of labor in the household and you start talking in a calm voice, hoping he’ll hear you. Instead, he stonewalls you, not answering and looking away, his jaw muscles working. You can tell he’s frosted.  You start over but this time, you’re speaking more loudly. He smirks and says, “I’m not deaf, you know. And I’m tired of talking about this.” Your own frustration is mounting and now, you’re yelling at him. He looks at you and says, “I’m not talking about this when you’re angry. I’m tired of your being angry. It’s same old drum beat every damn time.” And then he walks out of the room.

That’s emotional hot potato. And the chances are good that you’ll end up blaming yourself for getting angry because you are actually capable of owning your feelings. Scorecard? You:0  and Narcissist:10.

Then too, if you’ve grown up with a parent who always denied saying that hurtful thing or putting you down, you’re more likely to doubt yourself when your spouse starts doing the same thing

The other point about the roller-coaster that Malkin makes is that, sometimes, it’s easy to mistake the drama for passion. I’m not just referring to make-up sex but our cultural vision of romantic love as an all-consuming thing—in which script losing sight of yourself is just part of being in love—keeps you in the game and blinded to his truth for long past the expiration date.

Now that you know, now what?

Here’s where the unloved daughter faces her greatest challenge: Loving herself enough to leave someone who doesn’t love or see her at all.


Photograph by Olenka Kotyk. Copyright free.

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Malkin, Craig. Rethinking Narcissism: The Secret to Recognizing and Coping with Narcissists. New York: Harper Perennial, 2016.