“Shoulds”:  The Love Language of the Narcissist

Thank you Alisa Stamps for submitting another wonderful article!

In Gary Chapman’s book, The Five Love Languages:  How to Express Heartfelt Commitment to Your Mate, he outlines the ways that individuals experience and express love.  He suggests that to “discover another person’s love language, one must observe the way they express love to others, and analyze what they complain about most often and what they request from their significant other most often” (Chapman & Summers, 2010).  He theorizes that people tend to naturally give love in the way that they prefer to receive love and better communication between can be accomplished when one can demonstrate caring to the other person in the love language the recipient understands (Chapman & Summers, 2010).  This is all well and good, but what if the other person in the relationship, either a partner or a parent, is a narcissist? What if the way that other person—i.e the narcissist—expresses love is laden with manipulation and imposed “shoulds”?  

Let’s break the five love languages down, shall we?  Let’s take each one and define what is different about the way that the narcissist expresses love…

  • Receiving gifts.  Who doesn’t love a good present?  Who also doesn’t love giving someone they love a good, heartfelt present?  When my daughter was young, I remember not being able to wait to see the expression on her face when opening something that she shared she had really wanted!  

Presents are a whole different game with a narcissist.  Sure they may be very generous people, who want to give the best to their loved ones.  But sometimes, maybe a lot of times, they give a present to reap the benefits of giving that present.  They want the thank yous and the exclamations, and the “oh my this is the best present ever!”. They may also hang these presents over your head later on, saying things like, “look at all that I’ve given you”.  Narcissists may also only give you things that THEY like, never mind if the lamp shaped like a fish doesn’t fit with your décor. Again, another way to manipulate and make you feel like you SHOULD love every present they give.

  • Quality time.  In my estimation quality time is when two or more parties are authentically invested in strengthening their relationship and demonstrate that by giving one another their undivided attention in some shape or form.  In Gestalt we call this a “moment of mutuality”, where there is an even give and take from both parties which culminates in a shared experience.

I do not believe this is possible with a narcissist.  They can be time-and-energy-suckers in the most draining of “shoulding” ways.  As Dr. Karyl McBride describes in the book Will I Ever be Good Enough, they can be the 

“Flamboyant-extrovert who is a public entertainer and if you can perform in their show, too, all the better.  If you can’t, you’d better watch out. Or they can be the emotionally needy who wear their emotions on their sleeves and expect everyone to take care of them.  The other party’s needs and feelings are neglected and they are unable to get anywhere near the same nurturance that they are expected to provide” (McBride, 2013). 

  • Words of affirmation:  saying “I love you”, or “you mean so much to me”, or “you are an incredible person and I am lucky to have you in my life”.  They are unconditional words, without the obligation to feel like you “should” have to say them back.

Not going to happen with a narcissist.  Because they are unaware of their emotional worlds, it is going to be hard for them to say these things authentically.  Your mother may say that she loves you (idealization) but then in the same sentence criticize something about you (devaluation).  However, don’t overestimate the narcissist’s ability to use charm to their advantage. Their tactics may include using intense eye contact, exclaiming they share a lot of your interests without any actual proof of this, and/or acting very nice but then suddenly switching focus and acting like you don’t even exist—another example of idealization and devaluation.

  • Acts of service (devotion).  My husband and I recently had a discussion on all of the things that we do only for one another.  To be fair, he totally won, but also to be fair, I know that one of the ways he shows his love for me is by doing things for me.  His love language is definitely communicated through acts of service.

I have to go back to the gifts thing here again.  If a narcissist’s love language is through acts of service, some of that may again be to reap the benefits of doing that service for someone else.  They know that if they endear themselves to you somehow that their target “should” grow attached. And you can bet that the service will be brought up again later as a desperate way to manipulate you, utilizing such phrases as, “remember everything I did for you?”.  

  • Physical touch–the last of the five love languages.  Have you been hugged by someone who means everything to you?  Have you ever felt yourself melt into another human being and know that you belonged there, lost in their safe and powerful embrace?  An embrace that felt welcomed and unconditional, not smothering or imposed?

I recently showed a clip from the TV show Transparent to my “Shattering the Mirror:  Support and Recovery for Adult Children of Narcissists” outpatient group. We watched an engulfing and over-bearing mother physically enmesh herself with her children.  She didn’t ask if this was okay and had a hard time letting go, even when complaints were registered. Narcissists will often disregard physical boundaries and make their targets feel like they “should” engage with them physically, and if they don’t they are “doing something wrong”.  

Did any of this resonate?  Do you live your life by “shoulding” all over yourself rather than acting on behalf of your true self? Were your “shoulds” projected there by someone else?  “Shoulds” hold us back and can often dictate what we feel like we have to do as opposed to what we want to do. Living our lives out of obligation doesn’t serve our true selves well.  The next time you hear yourself saying “I should do this”, stop and pause, and examine if it’s even something you want or need to do. Then try doing that.

Works Cited:

Chapman, G. D., & Summers, A. (2010). The five love languages: how to express heartfelt commitment to your mate. Nashville, TN: LifeWay Press.

McBride, K. (2013). Will I ever be good enough?: healing the daughters of narcissistic mothers. New York: Atria Paperback.

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