As a complex trauma therapist who specializes in treating trauma incurred through narcissistic abuse, I encounter many spouses desperate to escape from the perfidious torment of marriage to a malignant narcissist. Similarly, I work with adult children of mothers and fathers who embody malignant narcissistic traits or fit the diagnostic criteria for NPD.
Narcissistic Personality Disorder, the form of narcissism that is deep-rooted and intractable, is determined by persistent and chronic symptoms. Many adults with NPD evidenced signs of oppositional behavior as children, foreshadowing a sociopathic disposition.
Both male and female narcissists are grandiose and feel entitled to endless admiration, even worship. Narcissistically disordered folks are developmentally stunted and mired in self-loathing. Beneath their bravado lurks insecurity, shame, vulnerability, and humiliation.
Since they share a delusional sense of accomplishment and superiority, they are contemptuous towards those they regard as inferior. Paradoxically they are filled with envy and project that they are envied by those around them. Naturally, as is the hallmark of NPD, they are devoid of empathy. This, in turn, promulgates unrepentant exploitation and calculated abuse.
To be expected, any sort of consistent involvement with a narcissistically disordered person is detrimental. Indeed, the violent personal assault inflicted by NPD abuse is so destabilizing and debilitating, it can result in the manifestation of PTSD syndrome in victims, irrespective of how constitutionally strong one is and how balanced and nurturing one’s upbringing was.
Hence, when traversing the damage incurred by a narcissistic spouse and the identified parental narcissist, it is crucial to offer comprehensive trauma-informed care. Integral to this treatment process is the exploration of the role and character of the designated non-narcissist partner. Doing so offers an invaluable entry into elucidating toxic familial dynamics and generational patterns of trauma and codependency.
It illuminates what factors contribute to becoming a consistent source of long-term narcissistic supply. Likewise, it helps explain why many of my clients seeking treatment for trauma incurred through narcissistic abuse repeatedly gravitate towards malignant narcissistic partners.
Before we examine the spouse of the narcissist, it’s important to qualify that anyone can be duped by a narcissist. Due to confirmation bias and the innate need to trust in humanity, we are all prone to some degree of negotiation and bargaining with maltreatment and even moral depravity.
Naturally, the narcissist will capitalize on this propensity by cloaking their amoral, sinister motives in virtue. Through the calculated wielding of confusional techniques such as gaslighting, pathological lying, and love bombing. the narcissist devises a traumatic relational landscape designed to debilitate the victim, so that with repetitive indoctrination and thought control steadfast allegiance will eventually take tenacious hold.
Nevertheless, there are distinct reasons why some victims of narcissistic abuse are able to break away from this maneuvering while others stick around to couple with a malignant narcissist for an extensive period of time, and even embark on marriage and creating a family.
Above all, the person who gets out quickly generally classifies as low grade or insufficient supply. Supply, a term coined in 1938 by psychoanalyst Otto Fenichel. is descriptive of the narcissistic objectification of a designated target. Without supply the narcissist becomes dysphoric.
To be classified as insufficient supply usually suggests that one upholds strong boundaries and is not amenable to coercion. It indicates that the conveyance of empathy and generosity is predicated on discernment and discrimination. Hence love-bombing and weaponizing victimization will not procure immediate compliance. Most importantly, the individual suspicious of narcissistic maneuvering has enough trust in their instincts to gauge danger.
These formidable ego strengths offer an ample degree of immunity from narcissistic abuse. Although initially beguiled, this target is able to detect when charm and allure devolve into trickery and deception.
Unfortunately, most of us are not so well-equipped. In fact, I’d venture to say that it’s more likely than not that most folks unwittingly succumb to the pernicious stealth antics of a narcissist. Understanding the predisposing factors that contribute to the unfortunate trajectory of ardent devotion to a narcissistic abuser is a critical step in derailing the prospect of continuing to be a source of primary narcissistic supply.
Narcissists are inclined to target those whose inner light and talents they want to covet, usurp and ultimately destroy. So, it’s not surprising that victims of narcissistic abuse usually embody the empathy and the gifts that narcissists lack. Seeking a source of supply that serves as an ‘extension’ of what they lack and crave, the narcissist is discerning as to whom they choose to exploit and destroy.
Having identified a target, the narcissist skilled at reading others well will morph into what the designated mark yearns for. They will then proceed to love bomb. Relying on the basic principles of operant conditioning, the narcissist will specifically reinforce what the target craves through affection, admiration, compliments, gifts, and attention. Once the target is ensnared by the rapid-fire seduction, the narcissist will intermittently withhold, punish, deny, and disparage.
The machinations of narcissistic abuse are designed to heighten sympathetic arousal, causing the victim to experience responses of fight, flight, freeze, and fawning. These responses are the hallmark of PTSD. When the terror and disorientation incurred from narcissistic abuse becomes all-encompassing, a constant state of alarm kicks in. This stage is indicative of trauma bonding aka Stockholm Syndrome. At this point, the tormenter has become the redeemer.
The question remains as to why men and women, who in spite of unrelenting egregious abuse, persist with eternal devotion and even romanticize the demands of being primary supply. In my experience, a major cause explaining the tenacious embodiment as primary supply is the prevalence of unhealed childhood victimization by maternal or paternal narcissists.
Developmentally groomed to function as pawns, the children of narcissistic parents are trained to enable and accommodate the narcissist’s insatiable appetite for complete control. To manage the threat of psychological annihilation, these children must preserve the illusion that the malignant parent is good and humane.
To achieve this end, the child must carry the blame for the abuser’s cruelty while assuming it is their inherent badness that causes their caregiver to abuse. As a result, the adult child is predisposed to carry out their relational role as a culpable whipping post (the scapegoat) or an aggrandized narcissistic extension (favored golden child).
Since differentiating predation from trustworthiness eludes the victim of childhood relational trauma and is exacerbated by an insatiable craving for love that they don’t feel worthy of, subsequent subjugation is inevitable.
Essentially, enmeshment and codependency feel familiar and safe for adult children of narcissistic caregivers. Personal boundaries are insignificant. They cannot say no or enforce rules of engagement. This source of primary supply fawns, flatters, and worships narcissists in order to deflect from the pain of a tenuous sense of identity and to get their primal dependency needs met.
They are eager to please the narcissist so as to symbiotically feed off the narcissist’s perceived specialness and ward off pervasive fears of abandonment and self-loathing.
By conforming and upholding whatever agenda the lauded narcissist demands, the codependent target acquires a vicarious thrill and sense of ‘value’ through being a narcissistic extension. One might conclude, given their obsequious compliance and blind obedience, that they are addicted to narcissists.
Diana Macey elaborates on this dynamic in Narcissistic Mothers and Covert Emotional Abuse: For Adult Children of Narcissistic Parents. Macey explains how the marital dyad between a malignant narcissist and their spouse subsists on collusion.
“The spouses of narcissists cannot be independent or emotionally secure people. They are there to maintain the atmosphere the narcissists can thrive in, and this is the toxic atmosphere of miscommunication and tension that allows them to play their games and to be the ‘good one’.”
In addition to narcissists being unconsciously sought out to resolve unhealed childhood traumas and wounds in one’s family of origin, the steadfast, devout source of primary supply may identify with being a sacrificial martyr intent on loving another into health. This deeply caring empath upholds that everyone is born innocent and has an inner redemptive essence. Their humanistic convictions negate notions of irreparable malignancy.
In spite of evidence that suggests that malignant narcissism and psychopathy are an interaction between genetics and the environment, thus predisposing them to violence, aggression, and low empathy, the empath committed to fulfilling their function as a narcissistic extension vehemently denies the potential for evil in the human condition. Thus they cannot accept that moral depravity is a dominant constitutional trait in those who are narcissistically disordered.
In addition to noble ideas of innate goodness, rescue fantasies may permeate the non-narcissistic partner’s attachment template. For instance, the challenges my client Rachel faces exemplify how her father’s rescuer stance has enabled her narcissistic mother and undermined Rachel’s capacity for healthy individuation and autonomy.
Behind a clichéd, maternal personae that conceal her Machiavellian agendas and malignant traits, Rachel’s mother requires others to be needy and emotionally crippled so that she can feel important and in charge. Hence, she has consistently orchestrated events to sabotage her daughter’s safety and mental health and has incited discord that is craftily twisted as Rachel’s fault.
In the glorified role as the consummate enabler and rescuer, Rachel’s father manages the familial instability and chaos stealthily ignited by his narcissistic wife. Complicit in the covert weaponizing of victimization, Rachel’s father joins her disordered mother in characterizing Rachel as a problematic, stunted woman.
This infantilizing characterization stages a dynamic in which the non-narcissistic parent is utilized by the maternal narcissist as a shield and a source of ‘protection’ from the scapegoated daughter. In turn, the daughter conforms to her role not just as a vilified threat, but also as a person who is incapable of functioning in the world. Moreover, she learns to emulate the victim-rescuer motif in her personal relationships.
For the unsuspecting enabling empath, believing love and compassion are the panaceas to all ails makes them malleable for exploitation. Their denouncing of darkness and intractable devotion to the narcissist makes them excellent accomplices as they are brainwashed to believe that those who fail the narcissist are simply not measuring up to a criterion of unconditional loving-kindness.
As is the case with my client, her father’s investment in being a champion of protection and support has become perversely grandiose. He supports the resounding message that it is the victimized target who is harming the narcissist, not the other way around. Benefiting from her spouse’s naiveté and his need to swoop in and rescue allows Rachel’s mother to fulfill insidious agendas.
Lastly, as counter-intuitive as it may seem, there are tag-team couples comprised of two cluster~b partners. In this scenario the adage, ‘water rises to its own level’ aptly describes the dynamics that ensue when two character-disordered individuals form a pathologically intense attachment.
As Dr. Joan Lachkar explains in The Narcissistic/Borderline Couple, “There are those individuals who cannot feel a semblance of aliveness unless they are fused/bonded to another in a maladaptive attachment. In addition, the pain is familiar. It is what the child got used to. Another reason is that the disparaging partner who is cruel and sadistic can also be loving and kind. This fuels the already existing confusion and the fantasy that “If I behave, I will be loved.”
Naturally, when dissatisfaction culminates because insatiable needs are not being met and idealization has waned, volatile, enmeshed, and vengeful aggression ensues. In the case of my client Ivan, when his narcissistically malignant parents were not immersed in ripping each other to shreds, they mercilessly turned on him.
Whatever form the spouse of a disordered narcissist takes, breaking loose from being classified as desirable primary supply requires a psychological overhaul in which intelligent guardedness and rules of engagement are prioritized. Moreover, dismantling immature notions of romantic enticement and measuring one’s worth in accordance with helpfulness and servitude are crucial steps.
It’s understood by the survivor-turned-thriver that the pursuit of love needs to be guided by discernment and discrimination. These tools, not desperation, lust, or feelings of deprivation will facilitate ‘loving rightly… in an educated and disciplined way’ (Plato). It is also recognized that disposing of image-driven motivations that take precedence over authenticity results in the refusal to collude in fraudulent narratives and presentations.
The transforming of these destructive patterns may require excavating early parental objectification and exploitation, so that buried rage and grief can be assimilated and human fallibility can be embraced and the dangers in the world accepted.
Most important, breaking free from being targeted as primary supply means fully accepting, “There is no explanation for evil. It must be looked upon as a necessary part of the order of the universe. To ignore it is childish, to bewail it senseless.” (W. Somerset Maugham)
For survivors of narcissistic abuse intent on never going back, this earth-shattering truth is the ultimate source of salvation.
We always appreciate articles from Sheri and this is a good example of why. Well done!
Rev. Sheri Heller, LCSW is a NYC psychotherapist, freelance writer/author, and an interfaith minister in private practice specializing in the treatment of complex trauma, narcissistic abuse syndrome, and addictive disorders. Learn more about Sheri at www.sheritherapist.com.