I come from a narcissistic family. The various roles associated with this kind of dysfunctional family were assumed by each of us. But I doubt any of us were initially aware of this.
With this kind of upbringing, you go forward in your life driven by the modeling you observed by your parents and siblings.
My understanding of what a man should be was based on my self-centered, emotionally distant, bullying father.
Naturally, I married a narcissistic man. I chose a man who was like my father, because he was my role model for a mate.
Just like with my family, I wasn’t aware until much later what he was. Our marriage was doomed from the get-go.
I spent a few decades while married confused about what was right and wrong, because my husband was constantly contradictory. His moral compass was all but non-existent. I was baffled by his betrayals and infidelities, compounded by his sense of entitlement to do whatever he chose. I thought that if I could just explain things to him better, he would get it. He would see that what he was doing to me was wrong.
After we divorced and I researched narcissism, I learned that relationships with anyone having this personality disorder are destined to fail. Narcissists can’t change their ways. This would require them to face some early family trauma that they’ve neatly swept under the carpet. They can’t face that they need fixing, so relationships with them will never work.
Avoid Relationships with Narcissists
I wrote about the 9 signs that you may be dating a narcissist, based on the American Psychiatric Association’s criteria. Someone displaying five or more of the following clinical characteristics has Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD):
- Has a grandiose sense of self-importance (e.g., exaggerates achievements and talents, expects to be recognized as superior without commensurate achievements).
- Is preoccupied with fantasies of unlimited success, power, brilliance, beauty, or ideal love.
- Believes that he or she is “special” and unique and can only be understood by, or should associate with, other special or highstatus people (or institutions).
- Requires excessive admiration.
- Has a sense of entitlement, i.e., unreasonable expectations of especially favorable treatment or automatic compliance with his or her expectations.
- Is interpersonally exploitative, i.e., takes advantage of others to achieve his or her own ends.
- Lacks empathy: is unwilling to recognize or identify with the feelings and needs of others.
- Is often envious of others or believes that others are envious of him or her.
- Shows arrogant, haughty behaviors or attitudes.
In my dating life, after my divorce and before meeting Cosmo, I fell prey to narcissists a few times. I didn’t make the connection right away. But I knew that things didn’t feel right or good with these men. At some point, I sat down and started making notes about why I was drawn to the wrong kind of men.
Suddenly, everything began to make sense. So I began purposefully dating men who went against the grain for the kind of men I usually went for. Men who were NOT sarcastic or distant or afraid to talk about their vulnerabilities. Fairly quickly, I found myself attracted to men who were actually kind to me, and good for me.
What Happens in a Narcissistic Family?
More recently, I came to understand the dynamics of the narcissistic family, and how everyone plays a part.
In an article on Good Therapy, Dan Neuharth, PhD, LMFT, described this dynamic:
“People with narcissistic qualities tend to view life in black-and-white: a world of only losers and winners, victims and victimizers. They loathe feeling like losers or victims. In the case of parents with narcissism, they often shunt those roles onto their children.
Why? Because people with narcissism need to be fed. A person with extreme narcissistic tendencies is like a balloon with a hole, endlessly leaking esteem, always needing a refill. Such a person’s air supply: attention. And who better to provide attention than the captive audience of one’s children?
If you had a parent with narcissism, you may have been trained to focus not on your own feelings and needs, but rather on those of your parent. Parents with narcissism may wheedle, confuse, or bully you into attending to them, ignoring their lies, and tiptoeing around their vulnerabilities. They generally need your life to be about them. Some people with narcissism, feeling empty at their core and lacking a healthy sense of self, may steal from your very relationship with yourself.”
Psychotherapist Glynis Sherwood suggests that if the narcissist in the family is a parent (therefore, in a dominant position), their behavior sets the tone for the entire family:
“If you grew up in a narcissistic family system, you probably felt unsupported, neglected or abandoned. You were likely told – directly or indirectly – that you had to put your narcissistic family member’s needs first, or got accused of being ‘selfish’, and punished or ostracized if you didn’t. Your narcissistic parent may have had a substance abuse problem or other addictive habits.”
The Cast of Characters in the Narcissistic Family
Digging a little deeper, in a narcissistic family each one typically plays a specific role. In playing these roles, the narcissistic family is able to continue to exist and thrive, although dysfunctionally. Each person’s dysfunction feeds the others.
According to journalist and author Julie L. Hall, along with the narcissist herself or himself, the other roles in these families include:
Usually the partner or spouse of the narcissist, this player supports the narcissist(s) and cleans up their messes. They cover up and make excuses, allowing the narcissist to continue with their poor behavior towards the rest of the family.
Named after the flying monkeys in the Wizard of Oz and often a child or children in the family, these players “assist in the narcissist’s dirty work and carry out abuse by proxy. The most manipulable members of the family become flying monkeys, who may be narcissistic themselves.”
As you would expect, this player is the narcissist’s favorite but, “Roles and rules in the narcissistic family are fluid and changeable, and the narcissist parent may reassign the part of golden child to another if it suits his/her shifting moods and motives.”
“The child targeted as scapegoat functions as a projection screen for the narcissist’s self-hatred, rage, and disappointments. Blamed for family problems, this child is fair game for abuse from flying monkeys too.
This child may be the strongest, most aware, and/or most empathetic child, the one who questions the family system and perhaps stands up to the narcissist in defense of others. Unlike the golden child, the scapegoat is least invested in upholding the family system because s/he recognizes its injustice and benefits least from it.”
What About Dating and Relationships If You Came From a Narcissistic Family?
Do you see yourself and your family in the above descriptions?
So, what should you do? How do you move forward and have a happy, healthy love relationship?
Being aware that your family was, or still is, toxically narcissistic is the first step. Beyond this, here are some steps to come to terms and deal with it:
- Research and learn about this kind of family dysfunction. You’ll find plenty of information online.
- Talk with people about it – trusted family members (maybe extended family members who know about, and are empathetic to, your history), or a therapist or psychologist.
- Look for groups that may focus on this family dynamic. If it’s an online forum, join (perhaps anonymously) and join in on conversations.
Then, just like anyone who hopes to find true love and a healthy, long-lasting relationship, do the initial soul-searching work. Think hard about the things that are really important to you, and what kind of person will be your ideal partner.