I was once obsessed with this question. Aren’t we all?
If we could crack this one, it feels like everything else might fall into the right place. It gets to the very core of everything we endured in the relationship. Sometimes it seemed as if we were experiencing the purest and most true form of love that ever existed across space and across time. Other times, well… they rained hell upon us, traumatized us, left us for dead, and we know that no one who loves us could possibly ever have been able to inflict that kind of pain.
If we could understand how both of those things could have existed in the same person, maybe we could understand how everything else could have happened, right? Or at least that’s the way it seems. The universe could make sense and we could stop feeling like we were living in a funhouse where up was down and down was up.
Defining Love in the Alternate Universe of the Narcissist
Why do they say they love you if they sometimes treat you as if they want to destroy you?
Why do you sometimes feel as if their love for you is so powerful, but then they deny and reject every other emotion you try to show them?
Why do they treat you as if they love you one minute and throw you away the next?
Why do they act as if they’re in love with you and yet at the exact same time live their lives when you’re not around as if they don’t care if they lose you?
Why do they act as though you’re the most special person they’ve ever known and then replicate your relationship with everyone they meet?
If nothing else tells you that they have a disorder, the way they treat love should. Normal people do not shut their love off and on like a light switch.
I used to tell my ex-boyfriend that the things he did out of love for me could only be as meaningful as the worst thing he ever did to me because he wouldn’t stop doing the bad things too. It was the whole of all of those behaviors that were the sum total of what he kept calling love but never added up to anything that made sense.
So we know from our personal experiences that this how they act toward us, from a place that seems like the opposite of what love should feel like to us…
And yet researchers have found that some narcissists are capable of feeling the biological emotions associated with love in the brain. Here are some examples of what they have to say:
“If you thought that your very romantic Narcissistic ex really loved you and wanted to marry you, you are not crazy. Even though he is now gone, your guy actually meant what he said when he said it to you. He was in love with you, or at least with his own romantic fantasy of the two of you as the perfect couple.” -Elinor Greenberg
“Narcissism is, in a metaphorical sense, one half of what sociopathy is. Even clinical narcissists are able to feel emotions as strongly as anyone else does, from guilt and sadness to desperate love and passion.” -Martha Stout
“The feeling is quite real to them. If you don’t believe me, just ask one! When narcissists fall hopelessly and deeply in love with codependents, they love even more intensely than a person who is psychologically healthy, i.e., a person who is neither a codependent nor a narcissist. In the rapturous and euphoric beginning stages of the relationship, the narcissist experiences complete and unconditional love, which is what they have been seeking their whole life.” – Ross Rosenberg
How can it possibly be true that they feel such a thing as love, and yet they engage in behavior that indicates that they do not love us?
My guess is that if I asked you to stop for a minute and think about what love means to you, you would come up with things such as mutual support and pleasure, compassion and sensitivity, commitment, honest exchange of thoughts and feelings, communication, comfort, and assistance– all healthy indicators of a high-quality relationship.
In a universe where these things make up the definition of love, these two statements cannot exist together:
- Your partner loves you.
- Your partner is capable of intentionally and knowingly causing you pain.
I set about trying to solve the mystery of the two incompatible ideas. What I now know is that in the narcissist’s universe, it works like this:
- A narcissist partner can feel love for you.
- A narcissist partner is capable of intentionally and knowingly causing you pain.
Those two things don’t make logical sense in my own way of viewing the world. They are immoral and incompatible with how I live my life.
Yet when narcissists think and talk about love, they are not referring to the same things that we are.
Once I stopped trying to put their idea of love into my framework for living life and understood that this is how narcissists perceive their own worlds, I was able to stop waiting for my ex-boyfriend to answer questions he was never going to be able to answer or put them in terms that I could understand. He was never going to be able to do that because his answers could never fit into my paradigm.
Some of my anxiety started to disappear as I stopped expecting him to ever act in a way that he was incapable of acting. It didn’t happen overnight, but with time, it sank in and then came grief and some of the other emotions associated with letting go. I stopped wanting something that was impossible.
Knowing on that very basic level where to put two pieces that don’t seem to fit together lays the foundation for understanding almost everything else that happened in the relationship that won’t fall into place.
In PART II of this series on narcissists and love, I’ll address what love actually means to them by answering several common questions, such as what narcissists feel in relationships, why they hurt you if they love you so much, why they move on so quickly and several others.
Narcissists can love you, but it’s not what you think of as love.
What should you do with that information? Use it as the “a-ha moment” to start letting things fall into place to end the confusion about why it seems as if they love you, yet they act as if they don’t. You can stop wondering if their love was “real.” Their definition allows them to do things that you would never do. When they say they love you, they don’t mean the same thing that you do.
There are important practical considerations in the real world about what it means once you come to this understanding. They use the word love to keep a hold over us, and when we really and truly understand that, the understanding can be a pathway toward releasing that grip they keep on our hearts.
A Note on Types of Narcissists
Not all narcissists are the same, and I explored the different types and distinguished between them in this article. It makes a difference when talking about whether they can experience love.
Some narcissists can experience the biological emotion love and some narcissists cannot.
Drs. Ross Rosenberg, Mark Ettensohn, and Elinor Greenberg, for example, highlight the difference between malignant narcissists, who also have some of the traits of Anti-Social Personality Disorder (ASPD), and the types of narcissists they treat who are on the Narcissistic Personality Disorder spectrum. They argue that the former is less capable of feeling love, however other narcissists can experience love.
Sociopaths, psychopaths and sadistic malignant narcissists–those with more traits on the ASPD spectrum–usually will only play-act at love and cannot love you. Most of what I’m writing about narcissists and love does not refer to them.
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Ettensohn, Mark. (2016). Unmasking Narcissism: A Guide to Understanding the Narcissist in Your Life. Berkeley, CA: Althea Press.
Greenberg, Elinor. (May 4, 2017). “Narcissistic Love Patterns: The Romantic.” Psychology Today. Retrieved March 19, 2018: https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/understanding-narcissism/201705/narcissistic-love-patterns-the-romantic
Rosenberg, Ross. (September 3, 2015). “Narcissists Can Love– But You Should Still Run!” The Good Men Project. Retrieved March 19, 2018: https://goodmenproject.com/featured-content/narcissists-can-love-but-you-should-still-run-fiff/
Rosenberg, Ross. (2013). The Human Magnet Syndrome: Why We Love People Who Hurt Us. Eau Claire, WI: PESI Publishing and Media.
Stout, Martha. (2005). The Sociopath Next Door. New York: Harmony Books.