It can be vital to recovery to have the information we need to leave our narcissists and to move on from them. One of the things that we have trouble understanding is, did are narcissistic ex ever love us? It’s hard to reconcile that someone could have loved us and yet treated us as they did.
In PART I of this series on narcissists and love, I discussed how some narcissists can feel love, however, their definition is different from the definition that most of us have. It does not include things such as the mutual caring, compassion, support, honest communication and the provision of emotional and physical needs.
As odd as that may sound, an understanding of this is the first step toward recognizing that you are not crazy. The narcissist you were with may have actually expressed what looked like love and it may have felt like love as they expressed it to you, however, he or she often treated you in an unloving manner as well. It can be maddening trying to figure out how those two can both be possible.
In some cases, the answer is clearer than others. Sociopaths and most malignant narcissists are very good actors and are unable to even feel what we would call love. I am making a distinction here between types of narcissists to include a wider range of the experiences that those of us who have been victimized may have faced. This may be beneficial in helping some shed more light on what happened to you and put it behind you.
But if some narcissists can actually feel love, why does it look so much different from your definition of it? Below, I’ll explore eight major questions on narcissists and love to help explain what is happening in the mind of the narcissist when he or she falls in love.
EIGHT QUESTIONS ABOUT NARCISSISTS AND LOVE
1. IS THIS ACTUALLY LOVE?
If by love you mean healthy, mature love, then no. The love bestowed by narcissists will be extremely passionate and idealized, yet immature and always conditional, as explained more below.
They will tell you they have never felt this way about anyone else in their lives. In that moment, that may be what they are feeling. Each time, it’s new and fresh for them. It will be like mainlining a drug and you both will never want to come down. They will do, be, and give you everything you want during this time period. The problem is that they hope to stay in this phase forever. They want to live in a dreamland with you where real-world problems never interfere.
If you try to have an adult conversation with them to communicate about any issues in the relationship, they take it personally as an attack on their self-esteem. They will start to resent you for making them feel bad about themselves.
2. WHAT IS LOVE LIKE FOR THEM?
Here is the crux of the problem between the way you view love and the way they view it. Love is utilitarian for them. You believe you are entering a mutually-beneficial relationship with a person who will take care of you in the same way you take care of them. You assume everyone has the same basic definition of a relationship– and why wouldn’t you?
Narcissists, however, will assess what you can do for them, make a rational choice and consider it an exchange if they see what they like. They will learn what it is you want and need and become your heart’s desire so that you then pour into them whatever it is they saw in you that they want.
They expect obedience and compliance in return and have no allegiance to any of the basic underlying parts of our definition of love because that is not what love means to them. Their focus is on getting their own needs met so some of the behaviors they engage in will violate your definition of love, but not their own.
3. THAT DOESN’T SOUND LIKE LOVE… WHAT DO THEY LOVE ABOUT ME?
They do not love you in the same way that you love them. Their catchphrase might as well be, “I love the way you love me,” because that’s what it usually comes down to. You are viewed as an “appliance,” and they love what you do for them.
Their idea of loving you is loving things such as the way they feel when they are with you, the way you may accept them for who they are, or the way you take care of them. They may think they love you, but try saying no to them. Think about how they act when you try to talk to them about how you feel. Do something that they don’t agree with. Have a differing opinion. How do they feel about you now?
What makes figuring out whether they love you so confusing is that this does feel like love to them and when you try to explain to them that you don’t feel loved, they may throw their hands in the air and insist they love you. They don’t know how to love you for yourself; you are a possession that they want to function properly. Their good feelings dry up if they don’t get from you what they need, which is why if you want to have a real conversation with them, they can’t be supportive or loving. If you need something from them that they think exceeds the value of what they are getting or if the attention is off of them and in the real-world, they don’t have the sustained ability to provide that kind of love-backed action.
4. WHY DO THEY START TO DEVALUE ME IF THEY THINK THEY LOVE ME SO MUCH?
Narcissists live in fantasy worlds where they would love to view themselves and the people around them as perfect and do not have to face their own flaws. When you have a difference of opinion or do something that makes them feel like they do not have control over you and their environments, you, as the appliance, stop “working” as well and making them feel as good about themselves.
They may start to feel criticized or threatened and they no longer see you as valuable as they once did. They may also start to get bored or fearful, and when they see your flaws it reflects back to them their own.
This is an inevitability in a relationship with a narcissist. No one can stay on the pedestal– it is not a pedestal built for a human with flaws and his or her own hopes, needs and desires.
5. WHY DO THEY ACT AS IF THEY LOVE ME ONE MINUTE AND HATE ME THE NEXT?
Narcissists lack something called “object constancy,” and cannot hold both positive feelings toward you and a negative attitude toward something you did at the same time. When you have wounded their self-esteem or disappointed them, they will forget they loved you or you have ever done anything good for them. At that moment, all they care about is that you are now an enemy because they feel attacked.
This is called “splitting.” They can only see people as all good or all bad. They also are low on emotional empathy so when they feel this way nothing is holding them back from being vicious and cruel toward you. When their anger dissipates and they can see you in a positive light again, it can be to them as if none of it ever happened.
6. HOW DO THEY FEEL ABOUT ME WHEN WE BREAK UP?
They may either idealize or devalue you, depending on how they saw you at the end of the relationship, because of their lack of object constancy. They are unable to put the entire relationship, much less you, in a proper perspective. So they may return to idealizing you and how great the relationship was. They may see you as their soulmate again, and imagine that something separated the two of you and there was just something that kept the two of you apart. If they are devaluing you, they will imagine that you have broken their heart and betrayed them, that they gave everything to you and you weren’t who they thought you were.
They may even go back and forth between the two. What won’t happen, however, is that they won’t include a realistic assessment of what they did to you in the relationship and why the two of you are not together. They are unable to see that they soil their relationships with one-sided, double-dealing behavior that can never sustain a healthy, long-term relationship.
7. WHY CAN THEY MOVE ON SO QUICKLY AFTER THEY BREAK UP WITH ME?
They don’t attach to you personally, they attach to the way that you make them feel or something you do for them, or they were never attached in the first place (as in the case of sociopaths). If they find a replacement for that, then there is nothing to miss. They can watch it all fall down around them, and as long as they have others near who can consistently reassure them of their greatness, they don’t truly miss any one particular person. The fault is never theirs; it’s yours. They may look back on your relationship, as they did a favorite possession, and think about how good things were in the beginning when you were new, but they may resent you for having stopped “working” so well so that now they have had to leave you in the past.
Each “appliance” may be a different color or model, but they’re there to keep the narcissist from feeling so empty. The narcissist cannot be alone. You are broken-hearted missing the connection you had with them. They are busy creating it with someone else because all they need is someone to adore them– or several someones. They have already put you aside because you didn’t function for them in the way they needed you to anymore.
8. CAN THEY EVER APPRECIATE THE LOVE I GIVE THEM AND STOP DEVALUING ME?
Let’s be honest. The answer is, almost certainly no. Let’s go through the reasons why.
(1) Many of us are already victims of narcissistic abuse, which means we are dealing with those on the end of the spectrum who are some of the most exploitative, deceptive and unempathetic of the group. They tend to see nothing wrong with their behavior. It benefits them and they get what they need. Their very disorder prevents them from recognizing they even have a problem.
(2) If they do become self-aware, some of those who are this manipulative use the information to just become better at either hiding it, hurting people or both.
(3) If they do decide to try to change, it’s usually only because something crisis-level happens and they have a deathbed-like epiphany, not because we want them to.
(4) They can’t just wake up one day and decide to change and be different. They need a therapist to help them sort through their own defense mechanisms protecting them from a deep sense of inadequacy, such as the object constancy issue. They have to work on replacing unhealthy behaviors with healthy ones. They adapted these ways of interacting with people over many years and can’t dismantle it overnight.
They aren’t going to suddenly start swapping out viewing people as a means to get narcissistic supply to individuals with our own needs and feelings, to suddenly start swapping out false realities with a real one. The entire foundation is rotten. This kind of real, lasting, sweeping change takes a very long time for even the most dedicated and motivated of people, and even then some of the behaviors are only manageable, not changeable.
Narcissists cannot and do not love you the way that you love them. Their love is conditional, immature, selfish and will always fade in and out, as they get offended by little things that you do that may have nothing to do with them but feel like personal attacks on their self-esteem. Their behavior during those times will continue to hurt you. It doesn’t matter if they say that they love you– this is what constitutes love to them, and they feel entitled to act this way. To them, you are the one who does not love and appreciate them enough when you do things such as “call attention to their shortcomings” (i.e., ask for mutual respect in the relationship through a mature discussion). You cannot teach them how to treat you, plead with them to do things differently, or expect them to make lasting changes. They do not understand your boundaries because they do not view you as a separate person.
Depending on their level of empathy and their willingness to deceive, manipulate and exploit, the ways in which they will hurt you can be just as devastating as that of a sociopath– sociopaths know that they don’t love you, they calculate how to get what they want from you, and they enjoy your suffering. It is just that the motivations vary and the degree to which they calculate what they are doing will not be as great among the former.
The purpose of this set of two articles is not to try to help you decide whether to stay with a narcissist. In fact, just the opposite. It is to help you to fill in the gaps in your knowledge so that you can use the information to let the narcissist go and move on. Having the information may help you by:
- Causing you to realize you are hanging onto a one-sided relationship;
- Avoiding falling prey to hoovers either because the narcissist promises to give you answers or he or she uses your definition of love to try to hook you back into a one-sided love;
- Allowing you to fill in the missing pieces in what happened in your relationship so you can put it in the past and move forward in recovery;
- Letting go of the narcissist so you can stop missing him or her by putting the narcissists’ own love in the proper perspective. Recognizing what the love actually was to them helps drive home that it wasn’t the relationship you thought it was. Although you can honor the love you had for him or her (it was real to you!), you do not have to remain a slave to loving someone who didn’t love you back in the way that you loved them. Release yourself so that someday when you are ready, you can be with someone who will love you the way you deserve to be loved.
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