Notes From Kristen

The Four Biggest Myths About People in Relationships with Narcissists

I’ve previously written about the characteristics to which narcissists are attracted.  The partners tend to be easygoing and give others the benefit of the doubt. They also tend to be known as caretakers and have other strong positive qualities from which the narcissist can draw resources.

Yet negative stereotypes persist about the survivors of narcissistically abusive relationships.

Here are four big myths about survivors that I’d like to dispel, including one that’s controversial.

Myths or Facts concept with business woman hand drawing on blackboard

Myth #1. The partners are more gullible than everyone else. 

Partners of narcissists do not enter into relationships with them because they are unable to discern truth or are easily manipulated, and narcissists do not target individuals because they are less intelligent than others.

Robert Hare, one of the world’s leading experts on psychopaths says in his book Without Conscience, “Everyone, including the experts, can be taken in, manipulated, conned and left bewildered by them. A good psychopath can play a concerto on anyone’s heartstrings” (p. 207).

In addition, partners are known for giving others the benefit of the doubt.  Sometimes this is seen as being “gullible,” but it’s actually a strength to be able to see through to everyone’s human qualities and not be immediately judgmental.

Unfortunately, an unscrupulous person knows how to take advantage of someone who wants to believe that all people are essentially good. Partners have to learn a different way to manage this tendency in themselves after their relationships with narcissists end so it cannot be used against them again.

“Keep in mind that innocence has nothing to do with ignorance or naivete. It’s simply the well-intentioned belief that all human beings have some good in them– the trust and love that you wholeheartedly gave to someone else… Moving forward, you will never see the world like that again. That’s not to say you’re hypervigilant and jaded. It just means that you’re going to view the world and the people around you in a more realistic light. Instead of automatically projecting your own goodness onto others, you let their actions speak for themselves,” writes Jackson MacKenzie, author of Psychopath Free.

Myth #2. The partners are weak-minded.  

Partners of narcissists are not psychologically weak and easily brainwashed.  Narcissists use some of the same psychological tactics in their relationships that are used by a wide array of people and entities, including casinos, cult leaders, corporate advertising departments, and police officers who are seeking confessions from suspects.

The tactics work for a reason.

These tactics include intermittent reinforcement, “love-bombing,” managing down expectations, and gaslighting, all of which have detrimental effects on the human brain.

In addition, narcissists customize and target each partner’s specific vulnerabilities and insecurities, which everyone has.  More on this below.

Myth #3. The partners have low self-esteem. 

Again, narcissists look for highly successful and accomplished people that radiate confidence and happiness outward from themselves.  These are the people that can either provide the attention and affection the narcissist craves or the narcissist can parade around in front of others to boost their own status or both.

Narcissists are not attracted to individuals who have low self-esteem, which can make someone inwardly-focused, self-conscious and anxious. Narcissists lack the empathy to be understanding or to have the patience when their partner does not make them the center of attention.

Their primary partner must be an initially giving person who does not need the narcissist, although the narcissist knows how to behave to create a dependency in the partner on the narcissist.

Many partners have healthy self-esteem when the relationship begins, but over time it is eroded by the relationship itself.

Sandra L. Brown, who counseled women who were coming out of relationships with psychopaths, writes in Women Who Love Psychopaths, “Many women say he seemed to be initially attracted to her because of her self-acceptance and inner strength and yet it was the very thing he targeted in her to take her down with. This is accurate. Her self-acceptance is a challenge to him or the psychopath would consistently pick emotionally weak and dependent-oriented women, which psychopaths don’t tend to pick” (p. 147).

This is why, after the period of devaluation has occurred in the relationship, narcissists sometimes refer to partners as being “needy” and “argumentative.”

All of a sudden, just by being yourself– the person they used to praise, or by wanting the same love from them they used to give you at the beginning, or by expecting them to be accountable for their horrible behavior, you are now asking more of them than they believe they are required to give you. You, however, are expected to keep giving at the same levels as before. 

They demand that you let go of the past if you want to remain in the relationship with them.

If you don’t, they will find someone shiny and new– or so the threat goes.  Or discard you for the one whom they haven’t devalued yet and who hasn’t yet felt the confusion and pain of their pathological behavior.

This is how they make us believe the problem is us.  And this is how our self-esteem is eroded one incident at a time over a period of months or years.

By the end of the relationship, partners may not even resemble the strong, confident people they were at the beginning, but that is a shift because of the relationship.

Myth #4. They’re co-dependent.

I realize this is a controversial thing to say.

First, I’d like to point out that if you are in therapy or on your own working through what happened in your relationship and have determined that the codependency literature speaks to your experience, this is not what I mean.

Its use at the individual level by the person applying it is not what I’m referring to as a “myth.”

When I say that it is a “myth” that partners of narcissists are co-dependent, what I mean is that it is a stereotype that all men or women that get into relationships with them across the board were co-dependent before they got there.  It’s inaccurate and inappropriate for outsiders to apply that term to survivors as a whole simply because they have been abused by narcissists.

When this term is used in the case of abusive relationships, it often implies the partner is mutually interdependent on the narcissist from start to finish and that’s how and why they got into the relationship to begin with.

The idea is that the partner is enacting a learned pattern likely due to childhood abuse or previous narcissistic relationships. This is a dangerous assumption to make about partners of narcissists because, first, not all survivors of these relationships fit this pattern.

Just as the loss of self-esteem can result because of a relationship with a narcissist, the development of codependency can also result.

Shahidi Arabi writes, “Codependency was a term historically used to describe interactions between addicts and their loved ones, not victims and abusers. Dr. Clare Murphy asserts that abuse victims can actually exhibit codependent traits as a result of trauma, not because they are, in fact, codependent. Contrary to popular myth, anyone can be victimized by an abuser – even one with strong boundaries initially, because covert abuse is insidious and unbelievably traumatic.”

This is because that what narcissistic abusers do is set up a dynamic of love-bombing followed by devaluation through the construction of a persona that doesn’t exist.  They then provide intermittent reinforcement of the positive traits to keep partners hooked for as long as they can.

To label one codependent merely because they were in an abusive relationship is like saying that they were wet because they took a bath.

Ultimately, some partners may have been codependent prior to entry into the relationship and some may not have been. Yet because there is a tendency to apply it as a blanket statement, the purpose seems less helpful and therapeutic and more of a way to imply that the partner is complicit in the abuse somehow.

The fault of the abuse always lies with the abuser.

*  *  *  *  *

These four myths are all inaccurate because they imply that all or most partners have these characteristics or that the reason narcissists select the people they do is because these tendencies or characteristics are present.

The truth is that narcissists can target and use individuals for their both their strengths and their weaknesses to maintain control.

This can happen in both positive and negative ways.  Both are abusive.

First, they will always mold themselves to become the perfect partner to the person they want by learning about the partner’s insecurities and meeting those needs.

For example:

  • If you are vulnerable to flattery, especially about a specific aspect about yourself, they will ply you with excessive praise
  • If you your most recent partner cheated on you, they may mirror that experience and divulge a similar story that may or may not even be true, but is used to make you feel heard, understood and trusting
  • If you are feeling particularly anxious about your biological clock, they may do a lot of future-faking about marriage and children
  • If you felt neglected in previous relationships, they will give you a lot of attention and check in often to make you feel like the most important person in their world

Then, during the devaluation stage of the cycle of narcissistic abuse, when they turn on you, they will:

  • Denigrate what they used to praise you for
  • Say something with contempt to the effect of, “No wonder your past partner cheated on you.”
  • Mock your desire for a family
  • Withhold their attention and give you silent treatments, pretending you don’t even exist

It’s a hit job on your weakest link.

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Kristen Milstead

Instagram: fairytaleshadows

11 thoughts on “The Four Biggest Myths About People in Relationships with Narcissists

  1. Thank you for writing this. So many people want me to believe that I was weak with low self esteem and that I was a co-dependent. I don’t believe it. I was conned. That’s all it comes down to in my opinion.

    1. You are welcome. Yes, I think that misunderstanding is one of the biggest tragedies and it can do a lot of harm. Thank you for reading. -Kristen

      1. Thanks Kristen – this is so very true. However when you realise your weaknesses and vulnerabilities are being used against you – you start to see a red flag – especially if it happens time and time again.

        In my case I had a previous boyfriend who had committed suicide when he was in his 20s. It was being used against me by my narc, by saying they would commit suicide on multiple occasions if I did not comply to their wishes. I already new that was a form of control and new I needed to get away – but that as we know is easier said than done, especially when it started to happen on more and more occasions.

        The first time it happened I could not believe someone could be so callous to use something like that against me. But after it happened several more times I started to desensitise to it and realised it was being used as a ploy to get me to bend to their will. In the end I just started to overlook and ignore the comment, until I could summon up the courage to just leave.

        I agree with all that you have written. The only thing that perhaps we as empaths or codependents are guilty of is our boundaries not being strong enough. However, when “NO” is never accepted or respected by the narcissist no matter how firm you are, you really are only left with 2 choices – give in or walk away. But when that happens enough times, you are really only left with one choice and that is walk away with no contact.

        In some ways we are all lucky there is Quora and that narcissists are so predictable in their patterns. If I had not come across narcisscism in my newsfeed I would still be none the wiser. And this is how I found your inciteful blog.

        Thank you for all your information and what you write. Although you have had a very bad experience I’m sure, we are not sent things we cannot handle. May you gather much strength for yourself and wisdom to help others from your experience. This will help you the most when your focus is outward.

        Have Faith in your abilities and stay strong and focussed!

  2. Hi…
    This one came into my world of ‘owning’ my part…the magical thinking/ trust /lloyality stuff…..just when the Heart break was shifting into extreme sense of Lostness and NOW What?

    So thanks for a kick up the self esteem ‘Butt!

    I keep wanting to ask forums….what was it like ‘waking up’….ie: It Is Not me! And how that went or goes for others who almost drown???


  3. I appreciate your kind words, and thank you for sharing your story. Isn’t it amazing how alike they behave? I am trying now to look at what I went through as an opportunity to improve myself and maybe help others too, and I’m so glad I’ve gotten to talk to others like you in this process. Thank you, Karen.

  4. Really powerful and somewhat of a relief. Since my ex fiance abruptly threw me away a little more than a year ago, I too have processed the hundreds of thoughts, feelings, extreme emotions and revelations that led me to fully realize and comprehend I had been in a relationship with a narcissist.

    I have walked the line between feeling culpable, responsible, ignorant, naive, ill-equipped, and essentially entirely mistaken about who I thought I was deep down — to feeling more alive, self-sufficient, confident and unshakably certain that I didn’t necessarily have to be a weak woman with self-esteem to have been manipulated and emotionally abused. I wasn’t a blind idiot that people pitied, I was strong-willed, outspoken, unafraid to show myself — and it still happened. Yet I did (and still do) believe in the quality of basic goodness in all of us – including him. I *did* give the benefit of the doubt even when my intuition wasn’t on board. I *did* believe some of the things that he used to spew at me, and I felt like I needed to be a better person for him, for HIM, not for me. It is still very difficult to explain this dynamic to others who don’t have this firsthand experience.

    Like many in my extended circle, I didn’t know what a narcissistic sociopath was before last year. When I began my blog (, I intended to share the experience and the story of what I had been through – as I almost didn’t survive it, which was the most traumatic moment of my life. But along the way – through blogs, research, reading stories and experiences of others – the pieces began to come together into a deeply layered picture- and my revised goal became learning about myself. Maybe, I thought, that by sharing it, others would be able to identify as I had, before it was too late for trauma like mine.

    Thank you so much for this info. Your site is one of the most clear and helpful resources.

    1. Hi Rachel: You are so welcome. Thank you for sharing your story. A lot of what you wrote sounds very familiar to me– the emotional turmoil, believing in the basic goodness of people and not knowing what narcissistic sociopaths are, and wanting to share the story of the experience to learn about myself and help others. It’s a life-changing experience that so few can really understand. It sounds like you have come a long way in your journey. Stay strong and keep writing! -Kristen

  5. Thank you for this article, I’ve lived through 13 years of being lied to, cheated on, lied about, freeloaded off of, conned and neglected. It ended with him stealing $70 000 from our joint account and telling me it was none of my business and calling me a con artist and all I cared about was money. He justified it saying other people do it!
    I was so hurt, confused, frustrated, tired and angry I told him to piss off. It took months to find out about, and realise all that was done without my knowledge over the years and how much I did and paid for all those years. He still got 40% of everything even though he paid for so little, it’s the minimum court will award a partner! This included my super, he had none!
    He never paid for even one week of groceries, nor anything towards the mortgage, I paid for everything except his clothes and registration. All this while he ran a dud business that never made enough money (on paper) to contribute. He built and sold Rally cars from which I never saw a cent. I was told when I pleaded for a holiday that it was a waste of time and money yet his rallying was not!
    I did the yard work, cleaning, shopping, bookwork, worked full time, saw my own three children through the last years of high school and all three through university ( they were not his children thank goodness) had three grandchildren of my own and cared for my very large family (I have 8 siblings, mum and dad still alive, aunt to 30) and also visited his family.
    It was the shear fact I was kept so bloody busy with all I was doing I didn’t get time to think and if I did question anything I was made to feel like crap or so confused I didn’t bother.
    Believe it or not I found time to exercise everyday as well, running, walking and strength. I paid for him to do Jenny Craig and I did up healthy eating plans for him and encouraged him to stay healthy.
    How in the hell did I manage all that and work full time teaching teenagers all day. I remember anytime I felt exhausted he would start on about being down and having a black dog day. How he felt like riding off and forgetting everything on the brand new Harley he bought with his money from the sale of a rally car or sail off on the yacht I paid for through the mortgage because all he ever dreamed of was sailing (I get seasick). It was to make me work harder and put me off the scent he’d probably been off riding all day and not working. I was accused of having affairs I didn’t have, turns out it was him having them I’ve now found out.
    I have been so angry I could burst, so frustrated that when I did talk to him after the separation he was so detached like he never did anything wrong and I did everything wrong. He believed I should pay for him to get his life back in order! He told his mother I ruined him financially, mentally and emotionally, can you believe it.
    His mother married a millionaire 18 months after we got together and she apparently got her hands on his money as power of attorney just before he stole the money off me. She bought him a commercial property for cash and bought a big new home with a wing for her, one for the husband and one for him and the daughter. He had a new supply and I’m left in huge debt!
    All I hope for now is Karma but I’m not sure I believe in it!
    Where I go to from here is anyone’s guess but I don’t believe I was weak. Who the hell could do all that for 13 years and still keep going!
    I’d just like to be able to tell him exactly what I think of him and know that he understands how I feel, but that’s never ever going to happen is it!

    1. Hi Therese: I feel the pain in your words, and also the strength behind them. You are absolutely right– you are not weak. I’m so sorry about what you have been through. It is frustrating to know that we cannot have the closure from them of having them comprehend the magnitude of what they do. I hope things are getting better for you and you are taking care of yourself. Thank you for taking the time to leave a comment. -Kristen

  6. I am a man who was targeted by a female vulnerable/covert narcissist half my age. She only wanted my destruction. My marriage, my life, my feelings didn’t matter. My boundaries were weak and i have paid dearly. This is something i never knew existed and will leave a scar forever.

    1. Hello: I am so sorry about what happened to you. I know the feeling of devastation well, but please know is possible to recover and find new life again. Thank you for leaving a comment. -Kristen

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