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Codependency and Narcissism: 10 Similar-Yet-Distinct Patterns


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On the surface the dance of narcissism and codependency seems to be between two complete opposites; and, in many ways, they are. To see what’s really happening in a couple relationship with these dynamics, however, it helps to look at 10 similar yet distinct patterns in their dance steps.

An awareness of these patterns gives us a glimpse of what is really going on to keep both addicted, and stuck repeating the same old dance steps, despite evidence that things are getting worse, and no improvement is in sight.

First to clarify, the references to “codependency” and “narcissism” in this post, speak to “tendencies” toward either pattern in varying degrees, and these patterns are widespread, primarily, because they are rooted in deeply ingrained ways men and women are socialized, from childhood, in roles their minds and bodies are conditioned to perceive, as norms.

Although these tendencies have a negative impact on couple relationships, it’s important to note that the occurrences of extreme forms of this dance are relatively rare, as are the cases that warrant an official diagnosis for “narcissistic personality disorder” (NPD).

Fear is the driving emotion that keeps them both stuck, more specifically, core intimacy fears of inadequacy, rejection, abandonment, etc., activated by the internalized survival-love maps of each partner.

To be socially approved as “real’ men, male partners are required to prove they’re “bad,” that is, not only to feel entitled as providers, to wear the pants (overtly or covertly), but also to remain emotionally detached, which is the most emotionally cruel thing a partner can do to their own and partner’s brains. Men are conditioned to regard women as “emotionally crazy,” and to think it’s their job to fix this childish craziness; thus, in similar ways that they’ve learned to block their own feelings of vulnerability inside, to prove that “real men feel no pain, ” they treat their partner’s emotions and feelings in calloused ways, the most harmful being the use gaslighting, a thought control tactic that works to make their partner feel confused and “crazy,” to silence themselves, to never question, to work ever harder to please, and in general, to disrupt any of her efforts in building a mutually satisfying partnership. Some men perform the role knowingly, or “overtly” with pride, while others do so unknowingly, or  “covertly.”

In contrast, to obtain the socially approved award of “good” women, female partners are socialized to take on all the responsibility for providing comfort and pleasure, for the maintenance of their relationships, and in practice that means to always be “nice,” pleasant, selfless, never complain about how she’s treated, ever seek to understand and meet other’s needs and wants, never her own, wants, and especially to never ask her partner to do any “unmanly” things such as show affection, express or listen to her feelings about their relationship, do something romantic, which would “make him” feel emasculated. Regardless, a “good” woman never questions him or gets upset, angry, etc.

Similarly, some women play the role knowingly, or “overtly” with pride, while others do so “covertly” or unknowingly.

Regardless the intensity, the ideals for romanticized dominance for women, and eroticized dominance for men, much resemble the scripted roles in the tale of beauty and beast.

The fantasy seems doable on the screen, or in the mind and imagination of men and women, but only because each has been socialized to see only what they want to see, so they may feel worthwhile inside — not unlike the way ads train human brains to think they “need” a certain car, food, drug, etc., like a drug, to make human beings feel good inside, that is, to feel they exist if only superficially in their own eyes or the eyes of others.

In the reality of day to day life of two partners attempting to form a healthy connection, and fulfill their core emotion-drives to matter, the toxic dance is the cause of much emotional suffering (DSM diagnoses) for each partner, male or female, and other family members, in cases where children are involved.

This post outlines 10 similar yet distinct patterns that partners in this addictive relating pattern exhibit, and stuck repeating over and over, despite evidence of making things worse.

Awareness, in this case of similarities between the two, it always the first step to break free of an addictive pattern, and set ourselves free to love with our whole heart.

Here are ten similar yet distinct patterns:

1. Both feel “needed” on the basis of perceiving the other as “weak, incapable” child.

The codependent feels “needed” on the basis of seeing the narcissist somewhat like a child, “weak” and incapable of handling their emotions and certain situations, such as signs that someone disappointed them or failed to give them preferential treatment, and so on. Adept at propping up egos, she monitors the environment around the clock, to protect his ego, provide safety and comfort, in nearly exact ways that a mother would attentively care for a small child.

The narcissist feels “needed” on the basis of of seeing the codependent like a child, in nearly exact ways that an authoritarian parent, with “rights and responsibilities” to correct, to scold, to punish, to mold, to lecture, overall, to dominate and obtain one-side “respect” (which really means “obey without question”).

2. Both anxiously protect their own illusion of “how things are.”

Codependents believe they are capable of being a super-human source of everything he needs, to rescue him from feeling any upsets, disappointments, to include using her like a drug to numb — rather than feel the pain — of his cruel actions. rescue a partner addicted to numbing their pain with either substances or persons; this is part of maintaining the illusion that they can be a source of everything for the other, to include a buffer that absorbs all the pain in the relationship, so the other doesn’t have to feel any.

The narcissist is ever on the alert around the clock lest anyone break the illusion he holds of himself as superior and entitled. He also “needs’ others to view him as independent, impervious to the emotional needs of others, incomparably superior especially to his partner, and thus entitled to preferential treatment. Anything that threatens to tarnish the illusion, or the discovery that his wounded ego needs to be propped up like a house of cards, is what he most fears.

 3. Both are in a heated competition for some arbitrary “prize.”

The codependent is in a “competition” of sorts, with regard to who is going to win the “giving their all for the other” prize, etc. Of course this is not “seen” as a competition, however, the “giving” person is riding a train that is energized high frequency power. They attract others to themselves. This makes her feel worthy, alive, and she anxiously hoards most of the giving “power” in the relationship. Expecting little or nothing in return, she makes sure to stay one step ahead of the narcissist, so that he doesn’t have to stretch himself to say or do something beneath him, ever there to comfort him, and others who get in his way.

The narcissist is in a ferocious competition for what he thinks is “real” power, that is, the power to dominate, subvert one’s will for own use and pleasure. His philosophy of life (relationships) is based on the concept of “might makes right,” ruled by jungle-animal instincts, governed — not by the higher brain and frontal cortex, and rather — by the lower brain’s survival system, which is hyper-vigilantly on guard for any signs that his partner is attempting to take over control of their den.

4. Both hold limiting beliefs about having “magical” powers.

A codependent believes her worth, as a human being, depends on proving to the world that she can “keep her man” and relationship in tact, and that they way a woman does that is with the “magical” powers that only women have to make or break a man’s masculinity. Thus, she must never do anything that would make him feel “uncomfortable” as a man, such as to ask him to be romantic, communicate like two partners, make suggestions, try to influence decisions, say no to something he wants (especially sex), and in general, to never expect him to be interested in any “things” that only the female-sex, or gays, should be interested in.

A narcissist believes his worth, as a human being, either overtly or covertly, depends on proving he has “magical” powers to “fix” (socialize) his partner, similar as a parent does with a child, to get her to never question him, to feel ashamed or fearful of every bringing up her “emotional” stuff, etc., but especially to get her to  “man up,” to be more callous, cruel and detached in dealing with her own or the children’s “softness” or “hurts”; and thus to “fix” and eliminate any of her tendencies toward emotional “craziness,” whining for closeness, connection, and the like.

5. Both have unrealistic expectations for self and other. 

The codependent is consumed by expectations that, if she makes sure her only pleasure is making him feel loved, respected, important and valued, and never thinking about her own needs, wants, dreams, pain, etc., she will gain his approval and trust, and that then somehow or someday he will express love and kindness in return, and will see all her efforts and the pain she’s had to endure, and thus, all her efforts were not in vain. Thus, once she satisfies all of the requirements, the narcissist will somehow grant her the fairy tale life, because he will at last want to give her the love and appreciation she yearns for, without her ever asking.

The narcissist is consumed by expectations that, if he makes sure he stays in control, doesn’t give her an inch of “control,” display his superior use of skills, strategies, fear- and punitive tactics, etc., like a child, she will realize this was for her own good, and will willingly want to obey and be grateful for all his efforts to fix her “emotional craziness,” and understand she was born to bring him comfort and pleasure, and deny her own self. Thus, once he trains her to only attend to his needs, wants, pain, pleasure, that he can shape her behavior, emotions and thoughts, so that she not only obeys at will, and never complains about what he does or how cruel he is, she will also somehow see this was her only pleasure all along, and that living with him is like heaven.

6. Both are “needy” or dependent on the other to feel worthy and alive.

The codependent depends on her partner to fulfill a “neediness” to prove her self-worth, by sacrificing her self and needs, ultimately gain the other’s approval, to feel deserving of love and affection, appreciated for all her sacrifice.

The narcissist’s unhealthy “need” is an unhealthy “neediness” for others to subjugate themselves, their needs and wants, in order to make them feel that they have proven they are “good enough” and have proven their superiority, and ability to dominate.

7. Both are addicted to the power they feel they have over the other.

The codependent is addicted to the power of giving, needing him to turn to her like a drug, a continual source of attention that enables the narcissist to stay dependent on her to rescue him from ever feeling or learning to heal and handle his own — and her — emotions of vulnerability.

The narcissist is addicted to the power of feeling worthy and alive from finding someone he can dominate, own, use as a continual source of emotional energy, so that he can maintain the illusion that “the emotional void” inside him is a sign of strength and superiority.

8. Both judge, and look down on the other, as weak.

The codependent judges the narcissist for being “insensitive and clueless about what really matters in life,” such the emotional connection between them, the way he treats her or the children, and so on.

The narcissist judges the codependent as “inferior and weak” for being emotional, for not seeing all the tricks he uses to get her to feel crazy, confused, distract her from having the shared communications, togetherness, etc., she wants to feel.

9. Both hate feeling inadequate in the relationship.

The codependent hates to feel inadequate, and they often do, whenever there are signs that they are not making the other happy, not creating the illusion of loving and stable relationship, and especially fearing they may fail their job of making the relationship work

The narcissist hates feeling inadequate, and they often do, at signs the codependent is not doing what he’s advised or asked, not keeping the rules, and especailly, not keeping her place, by whining about how he treats her, talking about her needs, wants, feelings.

10. Both are controlled ultimately by how they think others (and God?) will judge them as “worthy.”

The codependent’s dance steps are controlled by a fear that, ultimately, society and the world will judge her, as either worthy and  deserving of love — or not — on the basis of how she uses the tremendous or “magical” powers (that only women have) to either build or “emasculate” men. A woman is “good” if she uses this power to prop up his ego, and if not, she is “evil” or “dangerous” to  masculinity, like the Sirens in Greek mythology who lured sailors to their doom with their beautiful voices. In short, a woman’s job or purpose is to make men feel like men, thus women have to “behave” in certain ways, i.e., never saying no, never question, and keep their place so that they appear less threatening, small in comparison, to make their man (and their sons, brothers, father, etc.) feel superior. Thus, the greatest “sin” of a woman is to display rather than hide her emotions of strength, such as anger or confidence, knowing that they threaten and emasculate men.

The narcissist’s dance steps are also controlled by a fear that, ultimately, the world will be watching him from cradle to grave, that there will be no rest to his efforts to prove whether he is worthy as a “real” man — or not. So he must be on guard throughout his life, to prove he uses his power to dominate, thus protect his masculinity, more specifically, by “fixing” her “emotional craziness,” while also making sure he stays away, avoids any contamination that would result from the lure of her “love and closeness” stuff — which is the biggest threat to his masculinity, and staying in control, to neutralize the “love stuff” strategies, she uses in attempt to control and dominate him. The greatest “sin” for a man, therefore, is to permit her to come close, under the pretense of forming a “partnership” with her, thus “giving in” his power, letting her win and dominate.

In sum, this post outlines 10 similar yet distinct relating patterns between codependency and narcissism, with an emphasis on awareness as the first step for each partner to break free of their toxic, and fear-based addictive pull.

More often, the spell of the dance is broken when the codependent partner gets so overwhelmed, and emotionally bankrupt, and comes to resent giving to such a degree that she decides to no longer “do” her steps. This can mean she leaves the relationship, or simply finds other sources outside the relationship, in addition to the children, to meet her needs for meaning, emotional connection, collaboration.

Ultimately, the same applies to both to set themselves free. Each needs to first want to connect to their own life-affirming yearnings within, their emotion-drives, and it always starts with growing their awareness of what is really going on.

Together, yet also working as individuals, it’s up to each to break the spell of the tale of beauty and the beast from impacting their heart and mind, brain and body, and instead to learn how to grow their capacity to love both self and other with their whole heart, and in the process transform themselves.

To make a relationship work, it always take two, and each can only own and act their part to set themselves free, from limiting mindsets and illusions.

The most important thing is for each to remember, and repeat over and over, again and again, that:

Only you can heal you. Pure power is a choice to collaborate. This always resides inside you. (By the way, we now know that, the survival of species is not the principle of “the fittest” rather the capacity for “collaboration.”)

Only you can only control your dance steps, your part, your thoughts, emotions, etc., your relationship with all these parts of you.

Your own love, respect, acceptance is the only source that can heal you, and a critical ingredient to the formation of a healthy, vibrant couple relationship.

No one has power to control you, simply because: they cannot control your heart. The dance steps of codependency and narcissism fail partners, as they are driven by fear.

It always take two, and each can only own and act their part to set themselves free, from limiting mindsets and illusions.

It’s not really love, if you or the other is doing all the work (or, you’re switching back and forth).

Deep down, as human beings first and foremost, both men and women yearn to meaningfully feel connected, loved, valued for their contribution. An authentic love connection between two persons however is mutual, reciprocal, freely given and received, never forced or given mostly out of fear.

There are is no magic. Magic is about tricks and illusions!

Why opt for moments of superficial power, when the miracle-making power of genuine love is within reach, built in equipment, ever accessible to every human being, male and female, at any given moment and time?


Codependency and Narcissism: 10 Similar-Yet-Distinct Patterns

Athena Staik, Ph.D.

Relationship consultant, author, licensed marriage and family therapist, Dr. Athena Staik motivates clients to break free of anxiety, emotion reactivity, and other addictive patterns, to awaken wholehearted relating to self and other. She is currently in private practice in Northern VA, and writing her book, What a Narcissist Means When He Says 'I Love You'": Breaking Free of Addictive Love in Couple Relationships. To contact Dr. Staik for information, an appointment or workshop, visit, or visit on her two Facebook fan pages DrAthenaStaik and DrStaik

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APA Reference
Staik, A. (2016). Codependency and Narcissism: 10 Similar-Yet-Distinct Patterns. Psych Central. Retrieved on June 6, 2020, from


Last updated: 22 Jun 2016
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