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.
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 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 that these tendencies or characteristics are present.
The truth is that narcissists can target and use individuals for 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.
- 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.