Many men and women who have been in a relationship with a narcissist, borderline or psychopath describe taking a parental role in response to their disordered partner’s perpetually childish attitudes and behaviors. While this is superficially true, there’s much more to it.
Narcissists, borderlines, histrionics and psychopaths are immature. When you’re in a relationship with one of these personalities, you’re dealing with someone who is somewhere between a troubled toddler or a troubled teenager in terms of emotional and psychological maturity. Many of my clients who share actual children (under the age of 18) with narcissistic, borderline or sociopathic wives and husbands have watched as their children mature and and surpass their adult partners in terms of emotional and moral development.
If you entered into your relationship wanting an equal partner (a functional adult rather than someone who knows how to pretend to be a grown-up when practicing image management), you’ll eventually resent the parental role in which your disordered spouse thrusts you. In many cases, the targets of narcissists et al volunteer for this thankless position hoping things will magically change someday. This is especially true of people who have codependency issues.
Common rationalizations include: She’ll grow out of it once she becomes a mother. He had such a tough childhood. She just has low self-esteem. She’ll become more secure once she learns to trust me and experiences love. All of his exes were abusive. He just needed to be with someone who really appreciates him. She doesn’t mean the stuff she says when she’s angry. That was the alcohol talking. She’s just stressed about the wedding. She’ll feel more secure once I propose. I just need to be more patient, more loving, make more money, take on even more financial responsibility and not have appropriate emotional responses to being abused and he or she will treat me better.
Many codependents are aware of the disordered person’s issues going into the relationship. However, they believe they can help, rescue, save or love the narcissist, borderline or psychopath into becoming an emotionally mature adult who is capable of reciprocating love, kindness, generosity and respect.
This doesn’t happen. Ever. You’ll have just as much success trying to change a rattlesnake into a golden retriever.
Recently, a man emailed to inquire about couples counseling with his wife whom he believes is likely NPD. He explained he’s looking for a therapist “to convince his wife to be a good person.” I explained that neither counseling nor life work that way. He didn’t want to hear it. If a 40-something year old woman or man doesn’t understand that it’s not okay to be an asshole and doesn’t care how their behavior impacts those closest to them, there’s nothing I nor anyone else can do about it. That’s where the rubber meets the road and you have some choices to make. Namely self-respect or abuse; end the relationship or accept the disordered person for who they are — what some BPD apologists refer to as practicing “radical acceptance.”
Not all men and women who marry or date narcissists, borderlines, histrionics, sociopaths and psychopaths are codependent. Sometimes these emotional predators and bullies can fool people with good boundaries who are overall emotionally healthy. Many characterologically disordered individuals are high-functioning. That doesn’t mean they’re not every bit as toxic as their low-functioning counterparts (obvious human train wrecks). It means they’re better able to wear the mask of normalcy (being decent human beings) for longer periods of time when it suits them. For example, when they’re seeking social approval or are in the early love bombing or idealization stage of a relationship. Think Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.
Non-codependent people may get involved with the personality disordered, but they’re much quicker to end the relationship and less likely to agonize about ending it once the narcissist removes her or his human suit and reveals the alien lizard creature that lurks within. Here’s the difference:
Healthy Hal: I stopped seeing that woman I met on Tinder. She interrogated me about my female friends on Facebook and wanted to know why I hadn’t changed my relationship status yet on our third date. Psycho.
Codependent Connie: He says he doesn’t want a committed relationship, but I think he’s just afraid of intimacy because he’s been burned so many times. I try not to take it personally when he says he’ll call and doesn’t or shows up at my place at 2am after a night of drinking. He just doesn’t know what it’s like to be with a woman who really loves him.
Healthy people don’t tolerate abuse and call it love. Healthy people don’t want to have relationships with children in adult bodies. Healthy people don’t tolerate being manipulated and exploited and think it’s okay or normal. Healthy people don’t stay in relationships out of fear, obligation and guilt. Codependent people do.
So what’s going on in the Codependent – Personality Disordered pairing?
Mutual mommy and daddy issues.
Perhaps there are some codependents and personality disordered individuals who don’t have mommy and daddy issues, but for simplicity’s sake let’s agree that they’re the exception and not the rule. Narcissists and borderlines typically couple with codependents or other disordered individuals and tend to raise new generations of narcissists, borderlines, sociopaths and codependents.
The children of narcissists, borderlines and psychopaths who grow up to be codependent are usually parentified as kids. Parentification is a role reversal between parent and child in which the child becomes the emotional caretaker of the parent, or acts as the caretaker of other siblings instead of the parent. Parentified children can be used as a surrogate spouse (including co-sleeping with the parent as late as adolescence — ick, ick, ick!), confidante, therapist, mediator or peace keeper between the parents or the projected ego ideal for the parent (e.g., mothers who enter young girls in beauty pageants, parents who are obsessed with their kids being star athletes, cheerleaders, models, actors, etc.) in which they vicariously hope to achieve through the child what they weren’t capable of achieving for themselves regardless of whether or not the child has the aptitude or interest in these pursuits. If the parentified child doesn’t perform the way the parent wants, the parent withholds love, approval and acceptance. The child is rewarded or avoids punishment by participating in their parentification and, in some cases, emotional and physical incest.
In case it still isn’t clear: The parentified child receives “love” for participating in their own abuse. They receive “love” for taking on adult responsibilities and not showing anger, resentment or hurt while being abused and after being abused. Although, some especially abusive parents enjoy seeing their children’s hurt and terror, but the child better not show anger or hurt afterward, or in anyway hold their sick fuck parent accountable.
If you were a parentified child who is now a codependent adult, you probably learned very early in life that your emotional needs and overall well-being were secondary (at best) to your parent(s). In extreme cases, I’ve asked clients, “So what makes you happy?” They don’t know beyond finding ways to make their abusive narcissist, borderline or psychopath partner happy and avoiding disappointing or making them angry — all impossible tasks, by the way.
Codependents often confuse abuse and exploitation with love. You grew up making excuses for your parent(s) and do the same for your abusive adult spouses, boyfriends and girlfriends. Codependents are the people pleasing, rescuing, nice guy/nice gal, professional caregiver types who are the first to offer help, but rarely if ever ask for help or support for yourselves. In other words, you’re perfect targets for narcissists, borderlines, psychopaths and other abusive predators.
What are narcissists, borderlines, histrionics and psychopaths seeking in a relationship?
To go back to what I stated at the beginning of the article, narcissists, borderlines, histrionics and psychopaths aren’t looking for a parent in the true sense of the word — a loving, nurturing adult who implements rules, structures, boundaries and consequences. They’re looking for a parentified child — a servant, an enabler, an emotional wet nurse, housekeeper, cook, breadwinner, emotional (or physical) punching bag, day laborer, scapegoat and personal assistant who has neither power nor a voice in the relationship.
These perpetual toddlers, teens and tweens want the “perfect” mommy or daddy who will love them unconditionally, even when they’re cruel, selfish, self-absorbed, irrational, dishonest, unfaithful, financially irresponsible, abusive, violent or tries to have you arrested for telling them no or wanting a divorce (or what the personality disordered call domestic violence). They want a mommy or daddy to adore them all the time and give them never ending attention even when they’re ignoring mommy or daddy. For example, my narcissistic ex would spend hours on Facebook masturbating his ego (Like! Like! Like! Like! Oooh! Like! Ahh! Like! Oh! Like! Narc-gasm!) and expected me to sit there silently and adoringly watching him. If I went and did my own thing while he chased Likes, I was accused of “ignoring” him.
These individuals also want mommy or daddy to let them call the shots. In other words, they want mommy or daddy to let them, the child, be in charge of everything. Finances, reality, the actual children. Everything.
If you’re a codependent, you’re most likely attracted to narcissistic, borderline and sociopathic adult partners because of their similarities to your parent(s). In the love bombing or idealization stage, you get what seems like the unconditional love, adoration and acceptance you didn’t get as children or only under specific conditions (e.g., you sacrificed your well being, identity, individuality, childhood, and wants and needs for mommy or daddy’s ego demands and pathology). This is also why you fall so hard for the love bombing. Many of my clients state, “She or he seemed too good to be true. It felt like too much too soon.” But they wanted to believe so very badly and ignored their gut instincts and common sense.
Once you’re hooked and the narcissist’s mask falls away, you are, once again, face to face with your respective childhood monster. Parentified children may caretake their parents, but parentified children are not in control. Parentified children have no power. They have the illusion of power (e.g., If I can make mommy/daddy happy, do everything right and never disappoint make her/him angry, she/he will love me). This isn’t power. It’s magical thinking and a comforting lie parentified children and other abused children tell themselves. And, if you’re codependent, it’s the same lie you tell yourself.
Narcissistic wives or husbands expect their partners to sacrifice their own well-being and dance attendance on them. They behave like children, manage finances like children and demand to be indulged like spoiled children. Codependents comply hoping to go back to the idealization stage or to avoid their anger, emotional withdrawal or silent treatment. You may clean up the narcissist’s messes, subsidize the psychopath’s schemes and soothe the borderline’s never ending dysregulating emotions, but you’re not in control and you have no power.
The narcissist, borderline and psychopath will never grow up, but you can. And you do it by taking back your personal power. Pssst! Hint, hint: Boundaries and self-care.
Dr. Tara J. Palmatier, PsyD helps individuals work through their relationship and codependency issues via telephone or Skype. She specializes in helping men and women trying to break free of an abusive relationship, cope with the stress of an abusive relationship or heal from an abusive relationship. She combines practical advice, emotional support and goal-oriented outcomes. Please visit the Schedule a Session page for professional inquiries.
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