I was once obsessed with the question, “Can a narcissist fall in love?” I couldn’t stop thinking about it. Out of all the questions we have, isn’t that one of the key questions about narcissists that we want to try to answer?
If we could crack this one, it feels like everything else might fall into place. It gets to the very core of everything we endured in the relationship. The relationship. That is, after all, why we were there: love.
The Ultimate Question Concerning Narcissists is About Love
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.
There’s a kernel inside that question of whether narcissists can love that starts to unlock the doors to almost every other question we have about the relationship: narcissists and rejection, narcissists and pain, narcissists and betrayal, narcissists and closure, narcissists and moving on, narcissists and empathy, narcissists and what it means to be connected to another human.
The universe could make sense and we could stop feeling like we are living in a funhouse where up is down and down is up.
Defining Love in the Alternate Universe of the Narcissist
Why do they say they love us if they sometimes treat us as if they want to destroy us?
How is it that we sometimes feel as if their love for us is soul-shatteringly powerful, like electric fire, but then they deny and reject every genuine attempt at communication and vulnerability?
Why do they treat us as if they can’t live without us one minute and as if we don’t even exist the next?
What is the purpose of going through such elaborate motions of trying to prove they are in love with us only to carry on double lives in secret that jeopardize that bond and negate all that energy spent?
Why do they act as though we are the one true love of their lives and then replicate our 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. They don’t exploit the bonds they have with others in ways that ensure only their own needs are met.
What is Love?
Let’s start at the beginning.
It feels almost elementary to define love, but if we don’t define what we mean, then we can’t really talk about whether narcissists were actually loving us or not.
Is love something you feel or is it something you do? Ideally, there should be some evidence of both. We do certain special things for people for whom we feel certain special things.
Focusing on the feelings versus the actions will provide a different emphasis, however. How love feels emphasizes the two people as individuals, separate and distinct from one another, and is happening internally for each. What they do because of love emphasizes the connection between the two people and should demonstrate something external that will be shared between them even when the feeling ebbs and flows.
How Do Narcissists Experience Love?
Researchers have found that some narcissists are capable of feeling the biological emotions that are associated with love in their brains. Here are some examples of what the researchers 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
The Narcissist Brain “on Love”
Rhonda Freeman (2017), a neuroscientist who studies narcissists and psychopaths, has a theory about what happens when narcissists fall in love that seems to bear out what Rosenberg suggests about the intensity of their infatuation.
The brains of narcissists are hypersensitive to rewards and they are constantly seeking stimulation. “This suggests to me that their reward system is extremely activated by their new target,” says Freeman. “During this time, many victims of abuse describe lavish gifts, attention, and compliments unlike ever received from past partners. This has become such a common phenomenon that survivors of these relationships have termed this occurrence, love bombing. The neurochemistry of love (e.g., norepinephrine, oxytocin, dopamine, vasopressin, and endogenous opioids) flows in abundance making it an exciting time and a perfect setting for a deep connection.”
But as we’ve already established, love is more than just what we can feel and this helps to explain the contradictions in the narcissist’s behavior.
How Do Narcissists “Do” Love?
My guess is that if I asked you to stop for a minute and think about what love looks like, 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.
These are all things that demonstrate that a bond has been established. Freeman goes on to explain in her theory that after the idealization stage when all of the dopamine, oxytocin and other neurotransmitters in the brain released during the early infatuation return to baseline, the person who the narcissist has targeted will have formed an attachment and is invested in the relationship.
Normally, this is when the deeper stage of the relationship would take place, but the narcissist never attaches to the relationship. As he or she returns to baseline, he or she may begin to resent the partner and see them as responsible for their boredom.
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 a narcissist has a very superficial version of what love is and there is nothing we can do to keep them from acting this way.
What Does It Look Like When the Narcissist Loves?
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.
Once we understand how a narcissist views the world and their capacity for love, however, we can understand that these two things are not incompatible in the universe of the narcissist. The two statements can be reworded in this way:
- A narcissist partner can feel love for you.
- A narcissist partner is capable of intentionally and knowingly causing you pain.
In a narcissistic relationship, the two can be true only by taking into account what a narcissist means.
Once we stop trying to put their idea of love into our own framework for living life and understand that this is how narcissists perceive love, we can stop waiting for them to answer questions they are never going to be able to answer. They will never be able to answer them in terms that we will understand. Any answer they give will never fit into a framework we would understand.
As I began to accept this, some of my anxiety started to disappear. 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. Then came grief and some of the other emotions associated with letting go. I stopped wanting something that was impossible.
It began to open the door to answering so many more questions about narcissists and love, 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 we think of as love. The way they behave in relationships is not the way relationships work.
Why is it important to consider whether narcissists can love you? 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. This video helps to explain more about that.
A Note on Types of Narcissists
Not all narcissists are the same, and I explored the different types of narcissists and distinguished between them in another 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 and narcissists lower on the Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD) spectrum. This type of narcissist also has some of the traits of Anti-Social Personality Disorder (ASPD). They argue that the former type 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.
Freeman, R. (2018, September 19). “Neuroscience Behind Idealize, Devalue, and Discard.” Retrieved February 4, 2019, from https://neuroinstincts.com/neuroscience-behind-idealize-devalue-and-discard-rhonda-freeman/
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.