Why is it that so many women whose emotional needs weren’t met in childhood; who were actively disparaged, ignored, or dismissed by their mothers; and felt deeply unworthy end up in relationships with men high in narcissistic traits? Or men who control their lives? Is it a bee to honey thing? Are they just easy prey for emotional predators? Or is it a combination of unhealthy appeal and misreadings on the daughter’s part? I’m going for the latter explanation, based on the many interviews conducted for my new book, Daughter Detox: Recovering from an Unloving Mother and Reclaiming Your Life.
The appeal of familiar (even if it’s unhealthy)
All humans are drawn to what we know and what makes us feel comfortable; this is an unconscious process which, if you’re been well-cared for and loved in childhood, facilitates your finding people who confirm your sense of yourself, the way relationships work, and what love looks like. Alas, that’s equally true for those whose working models of relationships are more negative than positive; we too will be drawn to those who make us feel the way we’re used to feeling and who confirm our sense of how relationships work. Mind you, this happens on an unconscious and unarticulated level; as I’ve written before, we seek out comfort zones which, alas, provide no comfort.
The way in which a narcissist compliments you one minute and then withdraws his affection the next may be utterly familiar if your own narcissistic mother kept you on the same kind of tenterhooks; you’re more likely to be thrilled by the compliment than you are to register the withdrawal. Needing to win his approval—looking good or doing something impressive—may also echo the emotional quid pro quo of your family of origin in which attention was doled out according to what you did, not who you were really were.
Daughters who grew up with verbal abuse may mistakenly think that this kind of abuse is what everyone does and display a tolerance for the narcissist’s put-downs and stonewalling that prevent her from registering how she’s beginning to lose sight of herself. More likely than not, she’ll excuse his treatment or rationalize it in some way, forcing herself to look at the positives and away from the mistreatment.
The unexamined and unconscious take-aways learned in childhood about the nature of love may also solidify, rather than challenge, the narcissist’s appeal. Believing that love is conditional, that it must be earned, that it hurts, or that true feelings must always be hidden may make the unloved daughter mistake manipulation for caring, control for love. We may confuse the rollercoaster of emotions the narcissist puts us on with passion. The sad truth is that we may unwittingly cast off those who are reliable and steady in their love and attention as being dull or unexciting.
Working models of relationship and misreadings
In addition to those familiar echoes, there is the matter of the narcissist’s superficial appeal which usually is pretty considerable, and makes it even easier for the unloved daughter to misread both his behavior and, more important, his motivations. As Dr. Craig Malkin has noted in his book Rethinking Narcissism, the kind of control a narcissist exerts may not always be obvious since he doesn’t like asking for things. Instead, he may simply switch up plans already made—deciding to change where you’ve having dinner, going on vacation, or using the money you’ve allocated to getting the garage refurbished—under the guise of either surprising you or because the new plan “is better.” It’s pretty easy for the unloved daughter, especially if she’s hesitant about her own wants and needs, to mistake this kind of control for thoughtfulness on her partner’s part.
In fact, the unloved daughter’s own insecurities—her detachment from her own wants and her need to please and to be loved—may blind her to the fact that control underlies much of what the narcissist does and that it’s always about him, not her. Because the narcissist cares so much about self-image, it’s easy for the unloved daughter to bask in the reflected light, not realizing the cost. And, finally, it’s important to recognize that because the narcissist likes thinking of himself as a good guy, capable of nice gestures, the chances are good that there are plenty of nice gestures mixed in with the control and manipulation. Yes, the narcissist can be the giver of thoughtful gifts, the master of the sweet gesture, the writer of the script that makes you feel like a princess—when he feels like it.
It is, to say the least, emotionally confusing and it’s no wonder the unloved daughter just don’t have the inner resources to sort it out—until she does.
Moments of recognition
It was my oldest friend who finally sat me down and said the words. I’d moved across country with my husband when we married so I hadn’t seen Jen in six years and she came to stay with us. We were sitting on the porch, drinking wine, and she looked at me and said: ‘What’s happened to you? You’ve disappeared. It’s the Jim show and you’re sitting in the audience.”
The wake-up call for the unloved daughter may come as a result of someone else’s words or simply her own recognition of the burden of her unhappiness and her realization that she’s lost sight of herself. Or she may simply weary of being an audience member, watching a show about someone else. Or the pain of the verbal barrage may simply be too much to bear. How it happens matters less than the fact that it does.
Recovering from a narcissist you’ve loved is hard but once the lesson’s learned and you recognize how you participated, it’s not likely you’ll find yourself in the same spot again.
Malkin, Craig. Rethinking Narcissism: The Secret to Recognizing and Coping with Narcissists. New York: Harper Perennial, 2016.
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