Narcissistic People and Their Attachment Issues

Attachment issues from childhood can often have a negative impact on our adult lives and relationships, but when they are combined with personality disorders things can really kick up a notch. In a previous article we looked specifically at narcissistic personality disorder; and in today’s blog posts we look at how this disorder, combined with insecure attachment issues, can affect couples. Often the assumption is that things will never work out for these couples, or the advice to the non-narcissistic partner is to run away! But there is hope for both parties in these relationships, as therapist Teyhou Smyth explains below.

image for blog post narcissistic people and their attachment issuesYou may have heard the term “narcissist” and probably even know a few people who have traits of this personality disorder.

You may also know someone who meets criteria for the full diagnosis, though this is less likely, as narcissists make up less than 1% of the population.

To have a diagnosis of narcissistic personality disorder, one must have at least five of the following, taken from the DSM-5 criteria:

  • Has a grandiose sense of self-importance (e.g., exaggerates achievements, expects to be recognised as superior without actually completing the achievements).
  • Is preoccupied with fantasies of success, power, brilliance, beauty, or perfect love.
  • Believes that they are “special” and can only be understood by or should only associate with other special people (or institutions).
  • Requires excessive admiration.
  • Has a sense of entitlement, such as an unreasonable expectation of favourable treatment or compliance with his or her expectations.
  • Is exploitative and takes advantage of others to achieve their own ends.
  • Lacks empathy and is unwilling to identify with the needs of others.
  • Is often envious of others or believes that others are envious of them.
  • Shows arrogant, haughty behaviours and attitudes.

A quick review of these traits may leave you with an unfavourable impression, and herein lies the struggle when it comes to relationships for people with narcissism. A person who has narcissism does not set out to think or feel this way; it is a defensive mechanism that stems from difficult or unusual emotional circumstances in childhood.

Narcissistic Personality and Attachment

When we think about narcissistic traits and attachment, it may help to put it into a functional framework. A child who is belittled, disregarded, or given insufficient love or care by a parent may learn early on in life that to survive emotionally, they must be their own cheerleader; the ego demands it. This view deepens and becomes rooted into a personality structure in which an individual comes to view themselves as more important than others, and this is a compensation for not receiving the type of care required early in life. The ironic aspect of this personality structure lies in the over-compensation aspect. People with narcissism develop these defenses precisely because they have deeply rooted insecurities about themselves, their worth and lovability.

Attachment issues can stem from disordered care from parents, which means people with narcissism have anxious or avoidant attachment styles. The type of attachment a narcissist is hardwired with largely depends on their unique circumstances and how their narcissism shows up in daily life (grandiosity or vulnerability). Narcissistic people are vulnerable to the way others see them and rely on continuous external validation or “narcissistic feed.” One with anxious attachment and narcissism may feel the constant need to reaffirm for themselves that their partner loves them. A person with grandiose narcissism may seem aloof and have avoidant attachment, but the demand for adoration is a constant.

How Narcissism and Insecure Attachment Impacts Relationships

For anxiously attached narcissists, the drive to receive adoration can result in excessively charming behaviours. Excessive flattery, attention, and wooing is a commonly used tool that ensures the supply of validation continues to flow.

To a narcissistic person, this adoration is a key toward emotional survival; it is the recognition they always craved, and it feels imperative to keep it going.

While all this attention feels great to the person being wooed, it is often misinterpreted as being far more personal than it is. Rather than recognising the pursuit and charm as a means of personal gain for the wooer, it is mistaken for love.

The attachment between the narcissist and their source of admiration is not based on mutual adoration and security, it is based on a one-sided drive to feed a hungry ego. A narcissistic person loves to be loved but often does not have the tools to reciprocate that level of attachment and adoration. The amount of energy and attention the narcissistic personality style requires is all-encompassing and self-serving; there is little room for anyone else. This can cause major problems in romantic relationships.

The Let Down

When the newness wears off, and the admiration in a relationship becomes a bit stale, people with narcissistic personality may feel under-appreciated and begin to view their partner with critical eyes. No longer receiving the level of adoration and praise they once did, the hard-wired insecure attachment sends warning signals to the narcissist indicating that they are not being loved properly.

This is an ancient, painful construct for someone with narcissism, and it can result in intense feelings of disappointment, fear, and criticism of their unsuspecting partner, who may not even realise that there is a problem.

Narcissists who feel under-appreciated can lash out in relationships and may engage in gaslighting behaviours with their partners, or passive-aggression, to subconsciously throw their partner off-balance and reinstate their proper place of power in the relationship.

These behaviours sometimes work, but often drive a greater wedge between them and their partner, defeating the very purpose those behaviours were meant to facilitate.

Infidelity is often a go-to behaviour for people with narcissistic personality disorder and insecure attachment, since it provides the novelty of new adoration and a fresh supply of validation. It is important to reiterate that these behaviours often stem from a place of self-doubt, fear, and insecurity; narcissism is an avenue by which people with insecure attachment seek external validation.

Even though some of the behaviours and responses that narcissism displays are painful and ugly, they are borne out of a defensive response to early dysfunction.

Taking Care of Yourself

If you notice narcissistic personality disorder symptoms in yourself or your partner, there are steps you can take to reduce the impact on your life.

Recognising and acknowledging the symptoms is a great first step; and while it will not solve the issue, it can help you become more aware of the way these symptoms impact you and your partner’s life.

  • Put it in perspective: Keep in mind that narcissism is a mental health condition; it is not something that you or your partner went looking for. It is a condition that arose from difficult or unusual circumstances in early development.
  • Monitor thoughts, feelings, and behaviours: Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) is a helpful tool for observing the way narcissistic symptoms are impacting your life. There are endless ways you can use CBT skills to reduce symptoms and challenge underlying thoughts that feed into patterns of narcissism. Counselling is a good way to learn and practice those skills in a safe, confidential environment.
  • Communicate with your partner: Your relationship can improve, whether you have narcissistic traits, or your partner has them. It requires a willingness to be vulnerable with one another and share a common interest of balancing out the relationship and reducing the harm done by these defensive traits.

While there is no “cure” for narcissistic personality disorder, there are ways to mitigate the negative side effects on relationships and improve the attachment dynamic between couples. Self-awareness can be a difficult journey, but for people struggling with insecure attachment and narcissism, it can offer deeper, more meaningful relationships.

[This blog post originally appeared on Teyhou’s website ~ some content may have been modified for the UK & Irish context.]

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