Home » Blogs » Neuroscience and Relationships » What Draws Partners to a Dance of Codependency and Narcissism?

What Draws Partners to a Dance of Codependency and Narcissism?


The dance of codependency and narcissism begins when two opposite, distinctly off-balance behavior patterns, attract one another.

At first, it seems a perfect union.

When they pair up, initially, there is an illusion of a dance team that would put Fred and Ginger on the sidelines. Each feels they’ve found a suitable dance partner that most promises to help them realize the fulfillment they each seek from the relationship, that is: to feel worthy and alive.

While these innermost yearnings are realistic and healthy, their expectations for how to achieve them … are not.

To some degree, both have been rehearsing their respective roles since childhood; and the dance of one cannot be performed without the other. They “need” each other to perform their steps in the dance.

(Conceivably, they also need the other to heal the relationship with themselves, that is, to break free of their own one-sided pattern of taking and giving love, etc. More on this, later.)

To understand the pull between them, think of this as an addiction. The narcissist turns to the codependent, as to a drug, for quick-fix ways of numbing the pain inside, and the codependent selflessly serves as a source of emotional pleasure and pain killer drug. To save him be his drug is the codependent’s drug.

The dance seems perfectly coordinated in the first few rounds.

The narcissistic partner knows how to charm and be deeply appealing, but is also adept at selecting someone who is predisposed to adoringly “need” to make them feel superior, more competent, more knowledgeable, etc.

The narcissistic partner knows how to charm and be deeply appealing, but is also adept in selecting someone that is predisposed to adoringly “need” to make them feel superior, more competent, more knowledgeable, etc. This makes the narcissist feel “needed” and important, in nearly exact ways that a parent, more specifically, a punitive, authoritarian one, feels needed to prove they can socialize a child into obedience, that is, with full “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”). (Note: Whereas it may be healthy for a parent to feel needed to socialize a child, it’s toxic in relationships between adults.).

Correspondingly, the codependent is totally charmed, yet also knows how to identify signals from a fragile ego that needs to be rescued, bolstered, etc. To do so makes her feel “needed,” and at first she willings enjoys “proving” that she can be his everything, ever ready to rescue and protect the narcissist from feeling any pain, absorbing any shocks so that he never has to feel emotions of vulnerability. This way he can maintain the illusion of a superhuman, invulnerable, heartless, one who can never held responsible for how he treats others. Adept at propping up egos, the codependent sees him as “weak” and herself as comparatively strong, and seeks to protect, and provide safety and comfort, in nearly exact ways that a mother would attentively care for a small child.

As long as the promise of a continual supply of the “drug” each needs remains intact, and they can each maintain the illusion having “control” of what they think they “must” do to feel worthy and alive, to never lose their feel-good source, they do not step on one another’s toes.

What starts as a mutual attraction, however, sooner or later contorts into a mutual addiction knot.

As with all addictions, the illusion of nirvana does not last long. Both feel “needed,” but in quick-fix ways that produce “needy” patterns of behavior, which can never satisfy their innermost human needs (emotion-drives), and instead intensify their cravings, keeping each hooked on doing more of what damages relationships: their own dance steps.

This is how the biochemistry of brain and body works.

Inevitably, at some point, both notice one or more expectations of the narcissist are not met.

The narcissist has a hard time hearing “no” to a request, and gets stuck looking for new and better ways to “fix” the codependent, strategizing, and using gaslighting tactics to silence her views, feelings, wants, needs, etc. The codependent begins, more and more, to resent the criticism and unrealistic demands, and is increasingly less willing to comply with requests.

They both start to feel threatened, and fear losing “their touch,” and instead of taking a realistic look at their own dance steps, they up the ante on the behavior patterns they’ve always relied on to obtain the “drug” they need.

Whereas “love” seemed to be the main course, increasingly, “fear” drives their behaviors.

To get what he wants or stop her from what he sees are attempts to “control” him, the narcissist ups the use of fear-arousing, punitive tactics to keep the codependent second guessing herself, confused, wondering why nothing she does works to make him appreciate her. From her mindset, the codependent feels confused. From his mindset, the narcissist relies on the use of fear as a tactic, and tearing down her sense of self worth and hope for “talking about” the lovey-dovey stuff, in his view, is a strategy those with power and status use to keep a tight hold of the reins.

Seeking to meet her needs to connect with him on an emotional level, the codependent looks for indirect ways to let him know she’s not happy that he doesn’t see her as a separate person, and rather treats her as a mere extension of what he wants or needs. Instead of saying this directly, however (remember, the codependent’s main strategy is always to appease and never upset others), the codependent finds passive ways of saying “No” to his requests, such as forgetting, making excuses, shutting down emotionally, etc. She may also knowingly do what upsets the narcissist, such as something that would tarnish their public image.

As her fear of losing her “touch” increases, she resorts to complaining, mumbling, and apart from occasional outbursts, mostly indirect ways of letting him know she feels hurt, afraid and desperately holding onto hope.

Seeking to feel accepted for who she is, yet increasingly doubting this will ever happen, the codependent starts to lose hope in her “adequacy” to bring the love he needs to appease him, and to one day produce the loving connection between them she wants; she begins to pull away, emotionally.

The narcissist may or may not notice her pulling away. If he does,however, he likely interprets this as a “good” sign, that is, as proof of his superior ability to dominate and silence her complaints and “emotional craziness.” In his worldview, only weak, low status persons do things such as “feel” empathy, build partnership relations, express compassion or mutual understanding, and the like.

His plan from the get go was to make sure that his expectations dominate, and never hers. He’s always on alert for any signs of her trying to “control” him, by getting him to do what she needs or wants, so that he can systematically “train” her to accept that, as with children, “women should be seen and not heard”  — though he may throw a few crumbs her way on occasion to prove he’s “not a bad” guy.

From his perspective, only the weak, childish, inferior, etc., engage in such “love stuff,” and since he’s already caught her for his own, why would he need to bait her? From her perspective, however, this is part of the image of a happy couple that she had hoped to display to the world to attain not only his, but also social approval. Failing at what she thought was her job, to create the vision of two persons happy together, she does not feel successful, worthy, or deserving of her own love.

The more he refuses her invitations to more closeness and partnership, the more desperately she tries to please and appease. At first.

Eventually, the codependent’s hope for emotional closeness or appreciation get dashed. Indeed, it may take decades, if at all, for the narcissist to notice that his use of fear tactics, to keep the emotional “stuff” at bay, have been pushing her away. She starts to notice the only time he’s affectionate is when he wants sex, and eventually loses interest in sex. Hating to say no, she starts to make excuses, pulling away from his touch or affection, lest they turn to sexual advances. The narcissist starts to think there’s something wrong with her for not wanting sex, and adds that to his list of things to fix.

The more she refuses to let him fix her, the more punitive he gets, strategizing and determined, interpreting this as her trying to control him, not letting him dominate.

The codependent stews inside, on the one hand, worried that her perception of him as innately cruel, cold, detached, calculating, harsh and insensitive to her feelings or others, etc., may be true. And that’s her worst fear. That means she’s failed, proved inadequate, in getting him to soften, to learn to love and appreciate her. That’s it, she thinks, and second guesses herself! It’s not that he’s like a cold block of ice or marble. It can’t be; it’s just that she hasn’t been able to reach him, to prove to him that she really, really loves him, and wants to make him happy. She must not lose hope.

Both start to get a glimpse of the other’s “neediness,” and feel threatened by the qualities of the other that once made them feel “needed.” This elevates their fears of inadequacy, powerlessness, rejection, abandonment, and the like.

The “neediness” of the other also triggers certain early attachment wounds and survival-love maps. It’s like being a small child, discovering that your parent is not capable of taking care of themselves, much less you and your real needs to feel safe and loved! Fear puts the early survival-love maps in subconscious control of the brain and body. From this point, the subconscious mind of each remains on alert, on guard; more and more they respond or react mostly out of fear and mistrust, and desperate attempts to get back the feelings they had with those “first highs.”

For the narcissist, it’s a fierce competition between adversaries. For the codependent, it’s a determination to be partners, soulmates.

Deep down, they each feel scared, in particular, they fear facing the fear that their illusions of what “should” or “must” happen misled or “fooled” them. Either that, or admit that they failed to make their illusions a reality. Either way, they have to face the fear of failing.

They each hate to admit their own dance steps have failed them. They do not want to see “how things really are, in other words, to understand how their own illusions of how things “should” be set them up to fail. Instead of letting go, they each want to see themselves and the other from the perspective of their own illusions.

And that’s the problem, they’ve each come to the relationship with a mindset that sets them up to fail in realizing the fulfillment they seek, and instead to get addicted to unrealistic expectations and … illusions. In truth, it’s the particular mindsets, unrealistic expectations and illusions of each partner, the narcissist and codependent, that are the real cause of much of their suffering as individuals, and toxicity in their relationship.

Predictable outcomes and addictive relating

It’s a set up, of course; the more vigilantly the codependent looks for signs of approval and appreciation, as a prerequisite to feel their own value, own respect and love and acceptance, and so on, the more opportunity the narcissist sees to come in for a quick-fix rush of power, feeling pleasure from crushing the other’s hopes, dreams, as proof of what “strong” and “superior” persons do.

The dance between them is best be understood through the lense of addiction.

The narcissist is addicted to the power of feeling worthy and alive from finding someone whose energy they can predictably disturb and use as a source of worth and aliveness (to fill the void within). Unbeknownst to them, the human brain does come in two categories of super and meant to rule, and inferior and meant to be ruled. Instead, the mirror neurons of the brain always reflect back the same emotional states of mind we feel toward another, with same emotional intensity; thus, a narcissist’s own punitive belief system, actions, scornful thoughts and limiting beliefs regarding others, and in particular, their partner, are the main cause of a super fragile ego, and suffering in their life (and changing these, the only solution).

The codependent is addicted to the power of giving what enables the narcissist to maintain his illusions, and stay dependent on her to rescue him from ever feeling and handling his own emotions of loneliness, fear of inadequacy, mistrust, abandonment, etc., that is, rather than believing and treating him as capable, rather than weak and clueless, of learning how to handle his emotions, unwittingly, she has “trained” him (or he has trained her to train him, it’s a chicken or egg paradox!) to depend on her like a drug, a possession he owns, and must have as a continual source of emotional energy, so that he can maintain the illusion that “the emotionally void and numbness inside him is a sign of strength and superiority,” and he needs and cannot survive without her as his escape from feeling his own pain.

They both engage in a set of behaviors that, as with other addictions, provides them a pleasure-inducing “fix,” one that stimulates the reward centers of their brains. The more each repeats their respective behaviors in the interactions, the more ingrained their patterns become.

The dance inevitably gets out of synch when the fear of not getting — or giving — what each respectively “expected” to succeed in getting or giving sets in. Each has been using the other like a drug, and that means there is a predictable cycle; as soon as one quick-fix dose occurs, anxiety begins to grow, accompanied by anxious thoughts and cravings for more intense, frequent fixes, over worries about how to get the next fix.

The neuro-chemicals released in the bloodstream of each are a particularly potent mix, as both the survival and reward systems of the body are activated, releasing both stress hormones such as cortisol, as well as pleasure hormones such as dopamine and others.

At some point, inevitably, the narcissist starts to feel short-changed. He still feels numb, inadequate inside. Does he go to a therapist, to honestly see that his emotional maturity was arrested in early infancy, that he cannot feel alive until he learns to cultivate his ability to self-soothe, so that he can feel his own pain and handle it, rather than inflict pain on others to feel worthwhile and alive — and among other things, that he needs to develop emotional intelligence, such as gratitude and compassion, and in particular, esteem for others, otherwise the mirror neurons will project back the same feelings of scorn and loathing, which he feels for others, back to himself? Likely not.

Most likely, he’ll respond by seeking a quick-fix putting her down, blaming her for not making him happy, etc. And, since the last thing he’d ever give up is the feel-good power of making her feel worthless and insignificant, he refuses to admit that this is a projection of how he feels inside, thus, he’s stuck. Of course the dance was a set for both to fail from the start. Human beings are not designed to use other human beings like pills for pleasure and killing pain.

After a certain number of dance encounters in which the codependent’s toes and feet were stomped, she starts to doubt her effectiveness or ability to produce the results of pleasing and appeasing their partner, and increasingly feels discouraged, losing hope of ever having any normal conversations, feeling that their efforts and sacrifice have not only failed, but also that their very presence seems to make matters worse. They start to feel trapped in a drama of never ending pain, punishment and drama. Often cut off from the emotion of anger, they may feel helpless and see no possible course of “action.”

Distinct healing paths

To heal, the narcissist’s greatest need perhaps is to heal and move past an arrested state of neediness to take another person’s emotions hostage. The human need to be the sole focus of another human being’s love and caring attention can be healthy, but only in the developmental stage of infancy and early childhood. Love is a survival need only in infancy.

To heal, codependents need to understand that relationships take two active partners, and that their biggest mistake is too work too hard, based on a belief the narcissist is not “capable” of handling own emotions, not leaving room for others to give in return (in which case the “real” narcissist would lose interest…). Healing for codependent partners involves learning it’s impossible give to another care, love, respect, etc., that they’re not willing to give to themselves. A healthy relationship only works when both partners are working to get healthy, and that means to be in charge of keeping their own emotional bank account replenished.

It’s okay and wonderful to receive deposits from the other, however, in healthy relationships, partners never put the other in charge of your emotional and psychological health and happiness.

No drug or dependency on an external source of happiness (pleasure) can ever satisfy the inner (hard-wired) human quest to find happiness — and for human beings, neuroscience tells us, that means a yearning to matter in connection to finding meaning in our relationships with self and life around us (other).

Conceivably, they “need” each other — to not only to keep the dance going — but also to heal and break the specific barriers that prevent each from finding their respective path of healing.

They get lost in what they need from the other, lost in hurts, disappointments, unfulfilled expectations, feeling like a victim of the other– and that’s exactly what keeps them in the dark.

It’s not about the other, it’s never been about the other. The way they each describe the “problems”they have with the other, is the problem. By focusing on the other, they each avoid their destiny. Their obsession with the other is a distraction, a way to avoid the pain of the real work before them.

It’s about healing self … in the specific context of their relationship, it’s always been about healing self, and realizing they’ve been wasting their energy (power), that the only real power humans have, male or female, is to change themselves from within. It’s always about their own journey and healing their own neediness, unlearning automatic reactions in response to feeling too close or too separate, expanding their compassion in opposite directions that they tend to reject; it’s only natural — in relationships — to avoid what is unfamiliar, uncomfortable.

It’s a painful endeavor, no doubt, however, all healing is, as it involves growth and transformation, and that means doing the opposite of what is not familiar, and therefore uncomfortable. What yet if you consider the only other option is the current ongoing, needless suffering, the pain of growth and healing is the only real option.

To heal, they each need to unlearn their habitual, rigid, fear-based patterns, recorded in memory cells of the brain and body, early survival-love maps, or emotion-command neural pathways that feel familiar, therefore comfortable.

What prevents each from healing is their own neediness to enact their part of the dance, which feels and approaches the other like a drug.

Addictions never satisfy, and can lead to destroying what is central, and nourishes life and relationships in an around the addict, is that the drug of choice — or source of pleasure — they are dependent on is an external source, in this case, another person.

In contrast, happiness, health and inner fulfillment is always an inside-out job, involving inner work, shifts in thought and beliefs, self care, and personal transformation.

In the highest sense, they both genuinely need the other, in terms of what the universe may have in mind in couple relationships as top-notch schools, conceivably, they are attracted “in some way” that helps them each find their healing path.

To heal, they each must let go of the illusions, unlearn their habitual, rigid, fear-based patterns, recorded in memory cells of the brain and body, identify their early survival-love maps, and the emotion-command neural pathways that get activated, that stunt their growth, stuck in familiar comfort-zones. For this to happen, both must want to see the barriers that hide how things really are in human relationships, what it means to find and experience authentic love for self and other.

On the surface, narcissism and codependency seem to be completely opposite of each other. Narcissists focus on themselves, with a never satisfied “neediness” for proof of the other’s love; and codependents focus on their “neediness” for proof of their effectiveness (or failure) to make others happy.

There are some similarities between the two, which affects their ability to break the addictive pull.

More on this and “the dance” to be continued in Part 2.

What Draws Partners to a Dance of Codependency and Narcissism?

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

10 comments: View Comments / Leave a Comment



APA Reference
Staik, A. (2016). What Draws Partners to a Dance of Codependency and Narcissism?. Psych Central. Retrieved on June 6, 2020, from


Last updated: 9 Apr 2016
Statement of review: Psych Central does not review the content that appears in our blog network ( prior to publication. All opinions expressed herein are exclusively those of the author alone, and do not reflect the views of the editorial staff or management of Psych Central. Published on All rights reserved.