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How Codependents Attract Narcissists


Reading time:

7 min


Published on:

Thu Apr 04 2024


Last updated:

Wed Apr 24 2024


Written by:

The Personal Development School

Why do codependents attract narcissists? How does it happen? 

It’s a typical dysfunctional relationship that develops more than people expect. But sadly, it’s also one that is harmful and destructive to both partners. It can apply to both family and romantic relationships. 

Let’s take a look at the codependent-narcissist dynamic and why it happens. 

How Codependents Attract Narcissists

The attraction between codependents and narcissists is like a perfect storm, where each individual's vulnerabilities and needs to reinforce the other's dysfunctional tendencies. 

Codependents are attracted to narcissists because:

Familiarity: Growing up in a childhood where their needs were neglected, codependents may feel a sense of familiarity and comfort in relationships where they are needed to fulfill someone else's needs.

Desire for validation: Codependency traits include seeking external validation to validate their self-worth, and narcissists often provide this validation, even though it’s manipulated.

Rescue fantasies: Many codependents have a strong desire to rescue or fix others, believing that by doing so, they can earn love and acceptance. Narcissists present a challenge for codependents to overcome. 

Fear of abandonment: Due to their fear of rejection and abandonment, codependents may cling to relationships, even if they are unhealthy or abusive, in the hope of salvaging them.

On the flip side, narcissists are drawn to codependents because:

Need for admiration: Narcissists thrive on constant admiration and validation, and codependents, with their people-pleasing patterns, are willing to provide the constant praise and attention they crave.

Sense of control: Codependents' lack of boundaries and assertiveness make them easy targets for manipulation and control. Narcissists love the power dynamics of such relationships, as they take advantage of the codependent's willingness to prioritize their needs.

Ego-boosting: The codependent's devotion and willingness to sacrifice themselves for the relationship serve as a constant ego boost for narcissists, reinforcing their sense of superiority and entitlement.

Avoiding intimacy: Despite their outward charm, narcissists struggle with genuine intimacy and vulnerability. Codependents, with their reluctance to assert their own needs and emotions, provide a haven for narcissists to avoid true emotional intimacy.

This toxic relationship between codependency and narcissism is complex and is deeply rooted in patterns and vulnerabilities. It can lead to emotional abuse, toxic patterns, and a lack of personal growth.

Now that we have an understanding of why and how codependents attract narcissists, let’s take a deeper look at each of them, where their behaviors originate from, the Drama Triangle Theory, and how to overcome these types of relationships.

A couple in a codependent-narcissist relationship

What is Codependency?

As we touched on in previous blogs, “Codependency is an unhealthy reliance on another person, becoming "dependent" on them to live their life. That dependency involves mental, physical, and emotional connections and support.” 

There are many signs a person is codependent: 

  • Constantly wants approval from their partner
  • Their self-worth and value only depend on what their partner thinks of them
  • They will take the blame or avoid conflict to keep the peace in the relationship
  • Obsessive about their partner's habits or behaviors 
  • Based on their lives, and their moods, on their partner’s 
  • Become guilty when they do something just for them
  • Have overwhelming fears of rejection and abandonment 
  • They put their personal and emotional needs second
  • They have attractions for people who need help
  • Don't think they're worthy of self-love, self-compassion, and self-empowerment

Now, let's take a deep look at what is a narcissist.

What is Narcissism?

You might have met a narcissistic person in the past because they tend to “be all about themselves”. After all, that’s their innate personality trait. 

There may have the following signs of narcissism:

  • They see themselves as highly important
  • Have grandiose ideas or visions of themselves 
  • They want plenty of attention and want people to admire them 
  • Come off as entitled
  • Have a lack of empathy
  • Have a tendency to exploit others for personal gain 
  • Manipulative behavior with a desire to control others
  • Can use charm or flattery to control others 
  • Have a constant need to expect special treatment or recognition
  • Can use charm or flattery to control others and maintain their own superiority.
  • They actually have a fragile self-esteem and insecurity beneath their outward confidence
  • Highly sensitive to criticism or rejection as there are deep psychological wounds present

While some level of narcissism is considered normal, it becomes problematic when it consumes and disrupts relationships.

This can lead to toxic patterns, emotional distress, and intimacy issues in the codependent-narcissist dynamic

People with severe cases of narcissism can be diagnosed with Narcissistic Personality Disorder. 

What is Narcissistic Personality Disorder?

Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD) is a mental health condition that affects a person’s identity, how they treat themselves and others, and how they view their self-esteem and confidence. 

People with NPD often have fragile self-esteem issues, which they mask by being arrogant or superior. They will go out of their way to manipulate and exploit others to maintain that confident and superior self-image. 

In these scenarios, they end up struggling with romantic or family relationships due to their inability to empathize with others' emotions.

So, what causes narcissistic personality disorder?

It's a very complex question to answer, but it lies in the same field of codependency.

Individuals who are codependent and narcissists (or those with NPD) have very different tendencies and personalities, but they are very similar in terms of where their beliefs and traits come from. 

codependenct-narcissist relationship

Codependent vs Narcissist: Similarities

Here are how codependents and narcissists are similar to each other:

Roots in Childhood Experiences: Both codependency and narcissism stem from childhood experiences, which can include dysfunctional family dynamics or trauma. For codependents, that may mean growing up in a family where their needs were neglected, or they had to focus on someone else's. Narcissists come from similar backgrounds, but instead of pandering to get someone’s love and attention, they develop coping mechanisms that seek external validation and admiration.

Distorted Perceptions of Self and Others: Both codependency and narcissism involve distorted perceptions of themselves and others. Codependents often have low self-esteem, think they’re unattractive, and don’t believe in their self-worth. That’s why they rely heavily on external validation and approval from others to feel valued. On the other side, narcissists have an inflated sense of self-importance and superiority and believe they are unique and entitled to special treatment. The effect is that they view others as inferior or tools to fulfill their needs.

Dependency on Validation: Healthy individuals tend to get validation from themselves. But both codependents and narcissists rely on others. Codependents seek validation by meeting the needs of others (such as partners, friends, or family). Narcissists, on the other hand, want constant praise, validation, and attention to maintain their grandiose vision of themselves.

Difficulty Establishing Boundaries: Both codependents and narcissists struggle with establishing and maintaining healthy boundaries in relationships. Codependents have weak boundaries, allowing others to take advantage of them. They tend to maintain peace and harmony in the relationship to avoid conflict. On a similar level, narcissists don’t care about others’ boundaries because they manipulate or exploit them to get their needs met.

Now, let's look at how the codependent-narcissist dynamic looks in family and romantic relationships.

Codependent vs Narcissist: In Families

There's often an imbalance in relationship dynamics and emotional validation in families with narcissism.

  • Narcissistic parents typically prioritize their own needs, seeking admiration and control, which can lead to neglecting their children. In response, children may adopt codependent behaviors as a survival strategy. They learn to anticipate and meet the needs of the narcissistic parent, often at the expense of their own emotional well-being and autonomy, setting up a lifelong pattern.
  • Codependency in these family dynamics leads to a constant need for approval, fear of abandonment, and difficulty setting boundaries. Children may internalize the belief that their worth is tied to pleasing others. As a result, they may suppress their own desires, emotions, and opinions, becoming hyper-vigilant to the needs of others in an attempt to maintain stability and avoid conflict.
  • As adults, the codependent patterns impact their relationships, work, and health and well-being.

Codependent vs Narcissist: In Romantic Relationships

In romantic relationships, the dynamics between narcissism and codependency can create a toxic cycle of dependency and exploitation.

  • Narcissists are often skilled at manipulating and charming others, drawing in codependent partners who are eager to fulfill their needs. The narcissist's inflated sense of self and constant need for admiration can be initially appealing to codependents, who may mistake it for confidence and strength.
  • As the relationship progresses, the narcissist becomes more dominant, and their increasingly unreasonable demands and behaviors become more controlling. In return, the codependent partner becomes enmeshed in a cycle of trying to please the narcissist, sacrificing their own freedom, needs, and boundaries in an attempt to maintain the relationship and avoid abandonment.
  • They may become hyper-vigilant to the needs and moods of the narcissistic partner, constantly seeking validation and approval.

This creates a cycle of dysfunction or abusive relationship, as the narcissist's behavior reinforces the codependent's belief that their worth is tied to their ability to meet the needs of others.

Codependents, Narcissists & The Drama Triangle

One of the most popular theories based on the relationship between a narcissist and a codependent is known as the “Drama Triangle”.

Psychiatrist Stephen Karpman created it and provided extensive insight into the codependency and narcissistic dynamics.

The Drama Triangle explained:

The Karpman Drama Triangle consists of three roles: the Victim, the Rescuer, and the Persecutor, with individuals cycling through these roles.

The narcissist is the Persecutor as they use control and manipulation over their partner.

The codependent takes on the role of the Rescuer, attempting to meet the narcissist's needs and maintain the peace.

However, the codependent may also adopt the role of the Victim, as they feel powerless and victimized by the narcissist's behavior.

Breaking free from the Drama Triangle requires both parties to recognize their roles and establish healthier boundaries. The codependent must learn to prioritize self-care and assert their own needs, while the narcissist must confront their insecurities and develop empathy for others.

How to Overcome the Codependent–Narcissist Relationship

Overcoming the codependent–narcissist dynamic in relationships requires cultivating self-awareness, setting boundaries, and prioritizing their own emotional well-being so both parties can embark on a journey towards healthier, more fulfilling connections.

The best way to approach this is to take inventory of your relationship dynamics, unmet needs, and communication patterns. From there, you can determine if your relationship needs work to break the codependency-narcissist dynamic.

We can help you embrace the journey of self-discovery and reclaim your sense of self through our Healthy Balance in Relationships: Ending Codependency & Enmeshment course. Sign up our All-Access Pass to take it!**

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