Whenever I post about narcissists and the perils of being in relationship with one, I invariably get a number of messages here or comments on my Facebook page that read pretty much like this: “I am a magnet for narcissists—I’m at four of these disasters and counting. I feel like giving up at this point and just forgetting about love. Do you know what I mean?”
While I actually do know from experience what it’s like to recover from one of these relationships, the truth is that no one is a magnet for narcissists because 1) we all have free will and make choices. Being a magnet makes it sound as though you’re nothing more than a puppet waiting for someone to pull your strings! And 2) relationships are dyadic, consisting of two people, each of whom comes to the relationship with expectations, thoughts, and past experiences.
If I’m not a magnet, why do I keep becoming intimate with the same kind of person?
Answering that question requires a bit of self-reflection, especially since most of the self-help out in the world tends to underscore the view of the narcissist as a victimizer, and therefore puts you in the victim role. That’s where the idea of a “magnet” comes from. This isn’t to say that narcissists don’t bully or victimize their spouses, especially when it comes to divorce; they absolutely do since they need to win at all costs, and I hear from men and women alike who have spent years and many thousands of dollars being dragged to court again and again, even post-divorce.
But rather than focus on the narcissist, whether the overt or covert kind, let’s take a look at what you might bring to the party which could up the ante and make a narcissist look appealing. The point of this exercise isn’t to dissolve into a puddle of self-blame but, instead, to take an honest look at yourself and why history keeps repeating itself.
- You believe in romance, the swept-off-your feet kind, and passion
In his book, Rethinking Narcissism, Dr. Craig Malkin tells the stories of women who, after having been involved with a narcissist, bemoan how they miss the passion, and how dull everyone seems in comparison. If you’re someone who’s a sucker for the kind of love that dominates a novel by Nicholas Sparks, you’re very likely to mistake the excitement of being on a carousel with a narcissist for romantic love. As Malkin points out, the drama that’s usually built into these relationships offers up a lot of emotional arousal, and it’s pretty easy to mistake that arousal (jealousy, anger, fear) for passion.
- You care about your partner’s success (and looks matter)
Again, this isn’t meant to give you a segue into berating yourself but, if the surface things are important to you—and they are to many of us—the narcissist’s way of presenting himself or herself is going to be very appealing. The chances are good that you also present well, and the narcissist is going to shower you with compliments about exactly how wonderful you are. It may not occur to you, in the midst of feeling oh-so-validated and lucky, that these compliments are actually the result of his or her need for self-validation and have practically nothing to do with you. When you combine this with the desire for romance, you’ve just gotten a look at why you keep making the same mistake over and over. Sometimes, things are too good to be true.
- You’re the peacemaker, prepared to make sacrifices to keep the relationship going
All of us tend to overstay in relationships since, generally, humans are resistant to change and tend toward being overly optimistic. That said, the person who puts a high value on being in a relationship and doesn’t enjoy being single is much more likely to stay committed, even when actively unhappy. If you’re also used to putting your own needs on hold in order to keep the peace, you’re the perfect catch for a narcissist who relishes control and needs to assert his independence at every turn; he or she will be able to play you to the max. A large part of recovering from a relationship with a narcissist often has to do with figuring out why you didn’t leave earlier, and this insight into your behavior may explain why.
4. You were unloved or inadequately loved in childhood
On a completely unconscious level, we all gravitate to what we know when it comes to relationships; our internal models of relationships and our attitudes toward people and the world generally are formed by our childhood experiences with our primary caretaker, most usually our mothers. With a loving and attuned mother, a child learns that the world is a safe place, that people can be trusted, and she can rely on her thoughts and feelings to guide her choices and decision-making. This securely-attached daughter is much more likely to spot a narcissist early on, to be able to differentiate the cascade of flattery from true feeling, and to recognize that drama and love aren’t synonyms. The unloved daughter is in a very different place and is usually unused to trusting her perception which, when you’re dealing with a narcissist who wants control, is a huge disadvantage. Additionally, she’s much more like to normalize bad behavior and treatment because she’s used it to it—it feels familiar, you see—and more likely to make excuses for why he acted as he did. If her attachment style is anxious-preoccupied, the narcissist is going to find it relatively easy to push her buttons—making her feel jealous, anxious about left, and deeply insecure. That heightened emotional state may actually make her feel more committed to the relationship, especially if she understands her reactions as being part of being in love. (See #1.) Her anger won’t penetrate his façade but his will devastate and worry her, and she’ll shift into her pleasing mode. For the moment, she’s stuck.
The only way to stop making the same choices is to understand how your behavior factored in. Thinking about yourself as a magnet doesn’t help.
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Malkin, Craig. Rethinking Narcissism: The Secret to Recognizing and Coping with Narcissists. New York: Harper Perennial, 2016.