Here’s what one woman messaged me not too long ago: “Why do I have a knack for attracting guys who look great at the beginning and then, over time, turn out to be users or narcissists? I had a toxic childhood with an abusive mom and an absentee dad. Is there a connection?”
There is a connection, of course, since what we learn about love in our families of origin is what we take with us into the world when we are adults. How we are treated in childhood, especially by our primary caretaker—most usually our mother—forms the basis for how we see ourselves, provides the foundation for our self-esteem, and, even more important, shapes our mental models of how people act and how relationships work. With a loving and supportive mother, a daughter is equipped with pretty decent antennae for identifying the users and narcissists; she knows what love looks like and feels like, and is very clear about what’s loving behavior is and isn’t. She respects boundaries and anything that feels like bulldozing isn’t going to be her cup of tea.
That’s just not true for the unloved daughter who learns a number of lessons about love that don’t stand her in good stead. She may grow up believing that love is bestowed only upon those who are worthy and obedient, and that it must be earned, not freely given. She may learn that needing love hurts, and makes you weak and vulnerable; she’ll carry that internalized message into adulthood along with an emotional coat of armor. Always needy and starved for affection, she may believe that love must be sought out and that it’s always conditional; anxious in love, she may never believe, deep down, that anyone cares for her enough to stay.
But because she never learned in childhood what love looks and feels like, her imagination fills in the gaps of her knowledge, much of it drawn from contemporary culture. While it’s certainly true that those internalized and unconscious mental models of relationship hobble her in very real ways—and will continue to until she sees the effects of her childhood treatment, as I explain in Daughter Detox: Recovering from an Unloving Mother and Reclaiming Your Life—her ideas of what romantic love should look like equally put her at risk for ending up with the wrong men again again.
Four romantic scripts you’ve got to let go of
The example I always give is that of a securely attached woman going out on some dates with a narcissist and what she sees, compared to the view of an unloved daughter with an insecure attachment sitting in the very same chair. Let’s make him impeccably groomed, accomplished, and very charming as many men high in narcissistic traits are, and let’s assume the woman met him briefly at a party and he asked for her number. She’d suggested a place to meet but he texts her that he’s got somewhere way nicer, somewhere “someone like you deserves to go.”
It crosses the secure woman’s mind that he doesn’t know enough about her to gauge what she “deserves” and she registers it; in contrast, the insecurely attached woman is flattered and then when she Googles the place, she’s impressed that the restaurant is way nicer and very expensive and that makes her feel special. Now they meet up and the woman orders a drink and the guy intercedes, saying he’s a regular here and she needs to order their house cocktail; the same thing happens when she orders dinner and he wants to change her order to something off the menu the chef makes specially for him.
Here’s where the responses of the two women really begin to diverge. While the securely attached woman goes for the recommended cocktail, she’s clear on what she wants to eat and, yes, her antennae are up: Is this guy a controller? Alas, our insecure woman is blown away by the man’s attentiveness and his consideration for trying to make the evening a success. Without any conscious awareness, she slips on some blinders.
The dinner goes on and the secure woman notices how he directs the conversation, and deflects any of her questions, all the while telling her “how interesting” and “terrific” everything she says is. When he reaches for her hand at the end and tells her the dinner was “beyond special,” she is ready to go home and delete his number. The words that come to her mind are “no,” “controlling phony,” and “too bad because he’s cute.”
But our insecure girl with those rose-colored blinders sees none of the above. She’s on the hook from the moment she thinks he’s “taking care of her” by ordering, and loves how he is focusing all of his attention on her. She’s so busy basking in the light of his compliments that she doesn’t notice he only reveals himself as much as needed and then only subject to his script. When he reaches for her hand, she reaches for all the romantic scripts she’s memorized to figure out how she got so damn lucky.
Yes, ladies, the moment of truth: How you walked yourself down the garden path without any help from anyone—not even the guy.
Four myths about romance you must give up
The moment your eyes locked— the thunderbolt in so many languages, including the French coup de foudre which emphasizes its randomness—seems to be proof positive of love, right? Never mind that real relationships and emotional connections take tons of talk and work and knowing each other, but you love the idea of that out-of-the-sky and the only-this-man moment. And the narcissist knows that and he love-bombs you. He’s going to feed that belief by texting and calling, buying you gifts, and underscoring the possibility of random events which oh-so-luckily included his finding you.
And you, dear heart, are toast.
- The Guy on the White Horse
Unloved daughters understandably dream of rescuers, and it’s really not an accident that the story of Cinderella has gripped so many imaginations over the centuries. It not only has a rescuer prince but it conveys the message that as awful as things are in childhood, it’s not going to stay that way forever. But no matter how many iterations of Cinderella charm you—from the Disney version to Pretty Woman and Ever After—the truth is that no one can heal you from the wounds of the past except for you. As Colette Dowling observed many years ago in her bestseller The Cinderella Complex, women who want to be rescued are afraid of being independent. Only you have power to find the key that lets you out of the dungeon or high tower.
If you’re looking for your prince instead of an empathic equal, you are in deep trouble.
- The man who puts you on a pedestal
In an abstract kind of way if you believe the myths of romance, it sounds ideal: Finding someone who simply adores you and thinks you’re perfect, But, in fact, it’s a red flag and a warning sign that you’re involved with a narcissist, according to Dr. Craig Malkin, author of Rethinking Narcissism. Think about it for a second: No one is perfect, not even you, and you have to wonder why anyone would put you up there to begin with. Answer? As a projection and validation of his own perfection; if I’m perfect, the woman I’m with has to be too.
So, the choice is yours: Want to be a person in your own right or a figment of someone else’s imagination? I think it’s pretty clear, no?
- Made for Each Other
Yes, the idea of the soulmate and destiny is undeniably appealing. But again, the reality is that true connections and lasting relationships are forged through mutual understanding and work, and much of that includes acknowledging the ways you are different. Dr. Craig Malkin identifies thinking of your partner as a “twin” as another warning sign that you are dealing with a narcissist. A partner who focuses on destiny can also open the door to insistence that you change yourself in meaningful ways to fulfill that destiny—playing Pygmalion and making you the ideal partner. This kind of thinking may also encourage you to ignore the advice of friends who have real reservations about him and the relationship.
Understanding how your own views about romance, articulated or not, affect your choices and behaviors is key to making sure you just don’t up in a repeating pattern the next time.
Photograph by shamim-nakhaei. Copyright free. Unsplash.com
Malkin, Craig. Rethinking Narcissism: The Secret to Recognizing and Coping with Narcissists. New York: Harper Perennial, 2016.
Dowling, Colette. The Cinderella Complex: Women’s Hidden Fear of Independence. New York: Pocket books, 1981.