I have been a relationship counselor for 44 years, specializing in how the bond with our primary attachment figures impacts our adult intimacy dynamics. Our childhood experiences and development define our capacity to know what Love IS (and is not).Because of my childhood and later life relationships, I have experienced many kinds of physical and emotional trauma this lifetime from those who behaved like narcissists – self-absorbed people who never cared to own or repair their hurtful impact on me.
Many children who have attachment figures with narcissistic traits behave similarly in their relationships when they grow up. Others adapt by acting in the opposite way. They can become self- sacrificing in their relational style – often called co-dependent.
When highlighting distinctions of personality traits like narcissism and codependency, the behavior characteristics are on a spectrum – from mild to moderate to severe. The severe range describes a person who has no flexibility to behave any other way. People on the mild spectrum are more open and skilled to change their behavior when someone reports they are being adversely impacted by their choices.
At times, all of us are driven by subconscious defense strategies that can manifest reactive traits – especially when under duress or threatened. If you frequently change to please the other person and sacrifice your True Self in the process, you are probably on the codependent spectrum.
If you don’t want to be challenged and you believe the other person is always the problem, you are probably on the narcissistic spectrum. There are many other factors when it comes to our reactive patterns, including our insecure or secure attachment style.
The reason to focus on healing your codependent or narcissistic behaviors is that you can experience “secure attachment” in your relationships. The goal is to create a successful long-term partnership where you care for each other’s feelings and needs, with mutual respect and love.
This kind of relationship allows you to grow together through practicing secure bonding. It is a high priority for both partners to reduce threatening behaviors that cause the other person distress or insecurity.
All couples react to each other. Secure functioning couples care about their impact when they do. Both partners want to optimize positive feelings, safety, and pleasure in most of their interactions.
In a healthy relationship, there is a ME (with my specific needs), a YOU (with your specific needs), and a WE – the third point of the triangle that includes both of US. The relationship, as the third entity, has its own unique needs to thrive. It needs attention and care as much as the two individuals do.
In the more extreme side of the narcissistic spectrum, there’s a ME. Maybe there’s a YOU when I feel like it, or when it’s good for me. The WE is non-existent, except when it benefits ME.
In the excessive co-dependent spectrum, the ME is neglected. My focus is mostly on YOU. I may not be aware that there is a WE because neither of us have felt the benefits of being inter-dependent in each other’s care.
The common attraction between the two types is because the narcissistic personality is hardwired to primarily care for their own needs first. The codependent focuses most of their attention and care on the more self-absorbed partner.
In childhood, the codependent may have learned to abandon their own feelings and needs to avoid being rejected by their parent or primary attachment figure. In choosing adult partners, it feels familiar to be in the “one up, one down” position learned in their early life relationship roles.
If the dominate feeling in your relationship is insecurity, this is not a healthy dynamic. Do you or your partner have behavior traits that block feeling a secure bond of mutual understanding and sensitivity?
Don’t give up your personal power to know what feels safe and secure to anyone else, you get to have your own clear criteria. There are many helpful guidelines that can empower your inner wisdom. You can learn to communicate your need for love to someone who is open to learn with you.
I have healed myself from most of the impact of other people’s narcissistic aggression and indifference. And as a recovering codependent, life offers plenty of tests to achieve mastery. The key is to not abandon my own sense of protection and wellbeing for myself when I feel unsafe or insecure with another person.
It’s up to me to effectively use my voice and actions to do what feels true to me in a relationship, while also caring about my influence on others. Relationships feel harmonious when there is a “good enough” shared reality about caring for each other – loving feelings that sustain over time.
I say with confidence that one can break the cycle of tolerating narcissistic behaviors without involving the other person’s cooperation. It’s much easier when both people want to rewire their reactions through a mindful practice of healthy attachment that works for both parties. This requires a fluid communication about what each person’s “Me, You, and We” needs are at any given time.
Understanding co-dependent and narcissistic behavior traits in yourself and others, you can make wise choices about the health of your personal relationships. Severe behaviors such as sudden withdrawal or threat between any two people at any age can generate insecurity, drama and sometimes trauma.
The difference between childhood and now is that your adult awareness can choose between insecure bonding…or healthy secure love.