Relationships can be tough at the best of times, but pair a codependent and narcissist together and they become outright toxic.
It’s the classic case of opposites attracting.
But there’s a lot more which connects the two conditions than many people realize.
A codependent will go (unhealthily) above and beyond for the people they love, whilst a narcissist expects everyone else to go above and beyond for them.
So why do the two attract each other like moths to a flame, when on the surface they seem to be so incompatible.
Read on to find out more about where the two conditions come from, their similarities and how their dangerous dance often ends up in despair.
Where do codependency and narcissism come from?
Codependency isn’t a new term, but over time more research around the term has shown that it can stem from different types of dysfunctional upbringings.
Originally, the term was used for the partners of alcoholics as they were seen to be enabling or facilitating their partner’s addiction.
According to S. Wegscheider-Cruise (1984), an author and educator on alcoholism, a person was considered codependent if they were:
“in a love or marital relationship with an alcoholic, had one or more alcoholic parents or grandparents, or were raised within an emotionally repressed family.”
But as we learned more about it, it became clear that anyone who was raised in a dysfunctional family could develop codependency.
Now, it’s believed that codependency can be caused by families where there is:
- Abuse or violence
- Shaming and blaming
- Unrealistic expectations put onto children by their parents
Children in these families can grow up under a lot of pressure and stress, most often caused by their parent’s dysfunctionality.
As the child grows, they start to believe that they share a responsibility in the problems of the household. In some cases, their parents will blame them for things that are out of their control.
Even in adulthood, a child who suffered from codependency will still crave attention and approval, all whilst trying to suppress their inner feeling of unworthiness and guilt.
So are narcissists the opposite of codependents?
Surprisingly, there’s more in common between the two than is often realized.
With quite an overlap in some of the characteristics of what makes a dysfunctional family, Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD) seems to develop in people who have:
- Experienced abuse or neglect during childhood
- Had excessive criticism or excessive adoration from parents
- Been affected by cultural influences
Psychologist Dr. Eddie Brummelman explains that:
“Narcissism is nurtured by parental overvaluation — how much parents see their child as a special individual entitled to privileges.”
He goes on to explain that when parents give children inflated praise and put them on a pedestal, they’re encouraging narcissistic behavior.
The child grows up thinking they are superior to others, and that normal social codes of conduct don’t apply to them.
Alternatively, if the child comes from a home of neglect and abuse, they may adopt the ‘victim’ traits and believe they’re more important because they suffered as a child.
So even though the two conditions have very different outcomes, some of their origins are shared; dysfunctionality in the home.
What’s the difference between codependents and narcissists?
You’ve probably heard the two terms used hand in hand, but it’s not the similarities that attract codependents and narcissists to each other.
It’s their differences that draw them in and create a seemingly smooth connection, although the honeymoon period is often short-lived.
A codependent is the ‘fixer’ or ‘pleaser’ in the relationship.
Codependents are people who rely heavily on the approval of others and sacrifice their happiness to please their loved ones.
Some of the traits of codependency include:
- Having low self-esteem
- The constant need to please people
- Being in denial about their dependency habits
- Poor boundaries in all types of relationships
- Being overly caring to the point where they put others before themselves
- Poor communication when it comes to standing up for themselves or explaining their feelings
- Always want to be in control
Whilst codependents seek attention and reassurance from their partners, they don’t realize that by constantly taking care of them, they can end up holding the other person back.
As Ivy Blonwin explains for PsychCentral:
“A codependent mother feels the need to create a perfect Pollyannaish world for her child not as she imagines to ease her child’s pain but rather to ease her codependent pain at seeing her child suffer the normal bumps, bruises and hard lessons of childhood.”
For example, a codependent mother may overly care for her child, and instead of letting her child learn from their own mistakes and grow up to be independent, she’ll do everything for them.
Narcissists, on the other hand, have an intense love affair going on with themselves.
They are usually referred to as the ‘controller’ or ‘taker’ in the relationship.
You might have heard them being called:
- Insensitive and majorly lacking in empathy
- Attention seeking
- Arrogant and overconfident
They’re often shown in movies as being the smooth, charming characters who turn out to be controlling and even potentially dangerous once the unsuspecting victim has fallen in love( think Christian Grey from Fifty Shades of Grey).
Narcissists see themselves as better than others, often believing that the rules don’t apply to them, and what matters most is respect and conformity from others.
Their need to control and overrule others means narcissists are often very manipulative and they tend to leave a trail of toxic relationships behind them.
Do codependents and narcissists have anything in common?
So far, even though they may have had similar issues during their upbringing, their outcomes seem to be quite opposite.
Codependents are overly caring and hyper-focused on others. Narcissists care only about themselves and depend on others to boost their self-esteem.
Interestingly though, there are links between the two conditions.
For example, both might experience:
- The need to be in control
- Shame around their upbringing
- A lack of boundaries in relationships
- Denial about their behavior
- A need for validation from others
- A lack of sense of ‘self ‘
It’s also believed that narcissists can fall under the category of codependents, although codependents aren’t usually linked with narcissism.
This is because narcissists crave the attention and approval of others, just like codependents do, but codependents don’t share the same low levels of empathy and entitlement.
And, there are cases where a person might show traits from both conditions.
For example, a father who feels like his children should praise and respect him might inflict narcissistic tendencies towards them, but at the same time he might be codependent towards his wife and take on the role of the caring, overly supportive husband.
Even though their methods are opposite, their end goal is the same; to be loved and to gain the approval of others.
Why do the two attract each other?
So, given their similarities and differences, why do codependents attract narcissists and vice versa?
Isn’t it a match made in hell?
The truth is, they both thrive on what the other brings to the table.
The dance isn’t always a pleasant one, but their differing moves keep the overall momentum going, making it hard to stop and leave the relationship.
For the narcissistic, it’s someone who will praise them, pander to their needs, give in and care for them, all the while inflating their ego and sense of entitlement.
For the codependent, it’s the charm and excessive attention that is first given by narcissists at the start of relationships.
As Darlene Lancer, marriage and family therapist, explains:
“Narcissists are skilled manipulators. Some can be quite seductive, and not just sexually. They may be adept listeners and communicators or allure you with, flattery, self-disclosure, and vulnerability―just the opposite of what you might expect from a narcissist.”
Both play a game or ‘dance’ where they satisfy each other’s needs in the beginning until the traits of their conditions start to show and the problems start sneaking in.
During this dance, both partners start to reveal their true patterns of behavior. Once the narcissist is sure of the codependent’s love and attachment, they drop the charm and focus more on their sense of entitlement.
For the codependent, this can be devastating. In return, they ramp up their need for approval and sacrifice more of themselves to win back the attention of the narcissist.
It’s a dangerous dance but as the old saying goes, it takes two to tango.
In this case, the tango can end up being extremely toxic.
Even though one or both might not be happy in the relationship, they might struggle to realize what the problem is as they’re both so absorbed in filling their childhood voids.
Can narcissism and codependency be treated?
The good news is – both can be helped (not cured) with therapy.
The bad news is – a true commitment to change and a lot of hard work is involved.
Learning to manage narcissism or codependency takes time. These conditions are ingrained in childhood, and will undoubtedly play a massive role in how they see themselves and how they behave in relationships.
For narcissists, it may be a case of going through psychotherapy.
As therapist Elinor Greenberg explains in her article on Treatments of Narcissistic Disorders, once a narcissist has made spent time in therapy and has started understanding their behavior better, they then need to learn strategies to begin change:
“The old narcissistic strategies do not simply disappear. If you are holding on to the edge of a cliff with both hands, so as not to fall, you do not just let go because your climbing technique is inefficient or painful.”
She goes on to explain that even towards the end of therapy, narcissists will still struggle to have true empathy towards others. They must first learn how to have empathy for their younger self.
Therapy can also help them to:
- Learn how to understand others so they form better relationships
- Understand their own emotions
- Recognize issues with their self-esteem and where their narcissism stems from
- Work on attainable goals for the future
NPD is a condition that can’t be treated by medicine. For a narcissist to change, they must first be willing and open to changing their behavior, and with time and guidance, they can eventually begin to form better relationships.
For codependents, a therapist can help with:
- Making them recognize their codependent habits
- Understanding where their codependency comes from
- Learning self-love and self-compassion
- Realizing that they can ‘support’ their loved ones, instead of ‘saving’ them
During therapy, codependents will learn how to build healthier relationships, increase their confidence within themselves, and develop coping mechanisms that will help them even after finishing therapy.
Dealing with codependency in relationships
So now that you’ve got a better understanding of how codependents and narcissists form relationships, I want to share something with you that can help you identify codependency in your relationship.
The problem is, we can all have codependent or narcissistic traits from time to time; it’s not as black and white as you’ve either got it or you haven’t.
And in a relationship, it can be hard to ‘diagnose’ your partner or even yourself.
I learned this from an incredible free video on Love and Intimacy, by world-renowned shaman Rudá Iandê.
Rudá is a modern-day shaman who gets relationships. Drawing upon his own experiences and the life lessons he’s learned through shamanism, he’ll help you identify negative traits and habits you’ve formed when it comes to relationships.
He helped me understand why things went wrong in my previous relationships, and which red flags to look out for in the future. But most importantly, he made me value the relationship I have with myself.
So if you feel like you’re stuck in the dangerous tango of codependency and narcissism, or you’re concerned you or your partner may have codependency traits, this video will help you.
You’ll be surprised at how much easier the journey gets once you’re able to see where the problems come from, and it might even be the catalyst for real, powerful change.
Can a relationship coach help you too?
If you want specific advice on your situation, it can be very helpful to speak to a relationship coach.
I know this from personal experience…
A few months ago, I reached out to Relationship Hero when I was going through a tough patch in my relationship. After being lost in my thoughts for so long, they gave me a unique insight into the dynamics of my relationship and how to get it back on track.
If you haven’t heard of Relationship Hero before, it’s a site where highly trained relationship coaches help people through complicated and difficult love situations.
In just a few minutes you can connect with a certified relationship coach and get tailor-made advice for your situation.
I was blown away by how kind, empathetic, and genuinely helpful my coach was.