Push-Pull Dynamic of a Romantic Relationship with a Narcissist
“A mistake that is repeated more than once is a decision.” Unknown Author
In my private practice I work with many clients who are healing from toxic relationships in love, work or family. Commonly, my clients are managing cognitive dissonance in the aftermath of a myriad of abuse weaponry by their psychological abuser, including gaslighting, blame-shifting/projection, silent treatment, and power/control grandstanding. What many are confused by is the push-pull cycle of “come close/go away” behaviors.
Commonly, abusers such as extreme (malignant) narcissists engage in this push-pull dynamic in their intimate relationships. By virtue of the diagnosis of NPD (Narcissistic Personality Disorder), the abuser has difficulty maintaining healthy relationships and communication with significant others. The NPD individual is, by definition, afraid of intimacy because of their own disordered attachment history in which closeness or love was connected with emotional pain and suffering.
Often, an NPD individual comes from a family-of-origin where the a primary attachment figure neglected or abused the NPD person. At times, the emotional abuse might have been interspersed with sporadic showering of over-the-top attention and and over-indulgence, only to resume behaviors such as cold detachment or overt emotional abuse. It was never safe for the NPD individual (as a child) to feel attached to a primary caregiver because their parent could not consistently show them authentic love over a sustained period of time. With a net result from childhood of feeling rejected and unloved, attachments between caregiver and child (who becomes an NPD) are avoidant, disorganized, anxious and resistant (Bowlby, 2005).
As a result, the narcissist experiences tremendous anxiety as an adult when confronted with possible romantic liaisons. The NPD individual’s internal working model of relating becomes such that they cannot rely on others to meet their basic needs for emotional safety. Vulnerability is essential in any healthy relationship, but the narcissist cannot psychologically tolerate the risk of emotional anhilation should the object of his affection reject or criticize is very fragile, developmentally immature ego.
Thus, a false self is constructed to the outside world to defend against the horror of being let down by the universal human need for connection and attachment. The narcissist constructs a false reality, or mask, to project to the outside world, such that their inner wounded psyche, which feels completely unloved and unworthy, is deeply buried and inaccessible, even to the narcissist. And when a romantic partner attempts to get close emotionally with a narcissist, the NPD person engages in avoidant behavior that has the effect of pushing away their love object. Essentially the narcissist becomes less available for dates, phone calls, cancels plans last minute, and in some cases, slowly fades away or even vanishes. The result is one of consternation and confusion for the romantic partner. It’s hard not to personalize the dysfunctional behavior of the NPD, and it is not the fault of the romantic partner. The responsibility for the emotional pain lies squarely on the NPD person’s shoulders.
Sometimes an NPD person will know that they have caused hurt and emotional pain to their romantic partner, but even knowing or “mentalizing” how their actions have impacted another is not sufficient to change behavior (Nassehi, 2012). The NPD is so locked into defending their fragile ego that all energy goes to buttressing their false self against any potential or perceived criticism or abandonment. Even excellent, loving partners are pushed away because the NPD cannot tolerate the possibility of exposing her/himself to such vulnerability that would result in emotional abandonment, thus reopening the original core trauma of the NPD.
Once the NPD individual has successfully restored their sense of equilibrium by engaging in a slow fade or a complete launch off the cliff into vanishing (or “ghosting”), the narcissist often will return with the ubiquitous “hoover.” Higher functioning NPDs want and chase intimacy and closeness (idealization stage), but once they have it, NPDs cannot tolerate the requirements of reciprocity, empathy, compromise, authenticity and integrity that are required of any healthy, forward moving relationship. The NPD then orchestrates their own abandonment so that they have full control of the ending of the relationship (devaluing/discarding), because subconsciously NPDs know they have a problem with attachment. They are not operating out of conscious awareness, and their devaluing and discarding behaviors are typically very cruel and painful for their romantic partners.
With the “hoover” the NPD tries to pull back in their love object into a romantic cycle. The NPD has typically had enough time to get in touch with their human needs, wants and longings for closeness again, as we are all constructed to be social, attached beings. However, once re-engaged with the romantic partner, the same cycle of devaluation and discarding ensues. The extreme NPD cannot maintain and sustain a close intimate relationship that requires vulnerability, compromise, honesty and empathy. The NPD has great difficulty with their own internal construct of reality and how their behavior impacts their significant others.
These cycles can also manifest in family or friendship relationships, as well as business/work relationships. The outcome is the same with an extreme NPD: the significant other/partner/friend/colleague of the extreme NPD will experience emotional pain and hurt. As Sandra Brown states, it is a “relationship of inevitable harm” (2009).
At the end of the day, the NPD individual is not constructed with the psychological innards to sustain insight or an internal working model of the self in environment which generates empathy. Sadly for the extreme NPD, they are not able to love in a deep, mature fashion, and as a result of their own internal psychological wounding, the NPD hurts others in all environments of life domains.
Bowlby, J. (2005). A secure base: clinical applications of attachment theory. London: Routledge.
Nassehi, A. (2012). Mentalizing theories oder theories of mentalizing? Theory of Mind, 39-52. doi:10.1007/978-3-642-24916-7_4
Brown, S. L. (2009). Women who love psychopaths: inside the relationships of inevitable harm with psychopaths, sociopaths, and narcissists. Penrose, NC: Mask Pub.
Schneider, A. (2017). Push-Pull Dynamic of a Romantic Relationship with a Narcissist. Psych Central. Retrieved on February 22, 2018, from https://blogs.psychcentral.com/savvy-shrink/2017/11/push-pull-dynamic-of-a-romantic-relationship-with-a-narcissist/