“I love that you love me” is the likely refrain of someone with a Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD). If you only hear, “I love you,” that statement conceals the underlying one-sided message above of a narcissist who professes love for you.
The narcissist wants what benefits him or her, not mutuality, not loving another for their own sake, not loving another enduringly, not loving you as you love him.
Who is programmed to love?
In “Good Will Hunting,” the therapist Sean (Robin Williams) says that “love is when you care for someone more than yourself.” This may be an ideal that many folks can’t live up to, but it is on the opposite spectrum of what a narcissist is capable of feeling for another.
If you aren’t wired to feel empathy like someone with NPD and if the thickness of your cerebral cortex isn’t ‘normal’, you lack the ability to love another in good times and bad. It’s just not what such a mind has been programmed for.
In the movie, Will (Matt Damon) is trying to explain to Skylar (Minnie Driver) his unique intellectual genius in science and math. He gives the analogy of Mozart and Beethoven who look at piano keys and just think and feel the music in their minds that they will create. Their minds are wired to do this.
He asks Skylar if she can play music. She laughs and says, “I play chopsticks.” She is not programmed to play like Mozart. Though she is highly intelligent, motivated, and perseveres with a tireless effort at Harvard, no amount of lessons could satisfy this wish, if she had it, to be a musical genius because she isn’t wired that way.
However, in the world of relationships, she can and does love regardless of Will’s dark abusive past and fears of enduring attachment. He, too, regardless of his desperate yearning for love that is countered by his loveless parentage that makes him fear to love, is capable of it.
He gives up what could be an easy success for some satisfaction at an ambitious job at NASA to follow Skylar from his origins in the poverty of South Boston to California to find her at Stanford.
Why? Because he is capable of love despite his lifetime of severe hardships in relationships with many foster parents who harmed him emotionally and physically. He needs to be valiantly brave to try and have a loving relationship, but he is capable of it. We see how he is loved and loves his “Southie” male friends who Sean says would “lay down their lives for you.” This is love.
Will has been hurt, scarred, wounded by others but it doesn’t make him immune to loving another, it just takes overcoming great doubt and fear of renewed broken attachments. Will has the ‘will’ to love with his therapist’s and buddies’ loving support and so in this dramatic romance with Skylar, boy meets girl and love conquers all.
The general definition of pathological narcissism is the abnormal investment in the self (inordinate self-love) that leads to inequality in love relationships. The narcissist persists in his childhood fantasy that the world revolves around him. As he grows older if this fantasy persists due to innate or environmental factors or both, he wants, craves, admiration, but does not understand real love.
One of the major characteristics of normal love is when the loved one’s presence is not physically available, but the person still feels that the loved one is emotionally available.
When Skylar goes to California and Will stays behind out of deep fear, he finds her emotionally available presence within him which gives him the courage to drive clear across the country and seek her out. He is motivated by this belief. He is capable of this belief. He is correct.
As viewers, we are certain Skylar will sustain her love for Will even after he has rejected her due to her unfailing capacity for real love even in the face of his experiences and consequent fears of loves gone bad.
The good writer doesn’t spell out that she will greet him with open arms, but because of the great storytelling and acting, we come to trust in this and leave the movie with supreme satisfaction that love prevails.
When love heals the wounds of another
If on the contrary, Will only sought love to aggrandize himself instead of true mutuality quite unlike this particular character, he would not have trusted Skylar to live up to her promises to love because he would not have trusted himself to give it or get it.
In fact, we discover as the engrossed audience that both of these love partners are also healers of earlier wounds in the other, in Skylar’s case the deep loss of her father, and in Will’s case, physical abuse by multiple parents. This is normal love although it is extraordinary, so it holds our attention unfailingly.
More common is true love that is not capable of healing all the unhappy features of one’s past life, but mature adults come to terms with this and still give and receive love. This is wisdom.
The narcissist is not able to do so. His envy and aggressive wishes can be so overwhelming that he can not resolve the tension between who he is and may wish to be. So, he insists on being treated as if he is already what he imagines he is: superior and grandiose. Such a person has immense difficulty loving and will disappoint those who love him.
Can a narcissist overcome undue fear of humiliation and rejection and find and give love?
Since real love requires the ability for mutuality and reciprocity in relationships, can psychotherapeutic treatment of a narcissist bring about change to make these goals possible? This is highly debatable by clinicians who treat narcissists, primarily male narcissists, but women as well. This takes persistent emotional growth throughout treatment and one’s lifetime.
From my experience treating narcissists, I have seen narcissists change and find the ability to care for others, experience remorse for their cruelty to those who have tried to love them, and persistence in their ultimate desire to feel positive about their sense of self whom others can give love that is sustained.
I was told by a twenty-one-year-old former narcissist at the end of his treatment that he has never felt heard and understood before. He didn’t know who he was when we first met. He was molded by his parents to be a child prodigy and couldn’t reliably connect with others of status whom he longed to be a part of. In that state of mind, he could not find or give love.
But when this young man felt a new capacity for trust in me as his therapist who was relentlessly empathic and nonjudgmental despite his aggression and envy or because I understood and felt compassion for these features of his personality, he was awakened to new possibilities in life.
He no longer only sought friends of wealth and brilliance who ultimately rejected him as unworthy and was able to find others who accepted his strengths and weaknesses because he could accept his variable qualities as well.
I admit this change is unusual. Maybe his youth made him more flexible than most narcissists because of new powerful long sustained influences. He learned to trust.
Can a narcissist gain a more accurate sense of reality?
Maybe as it is suggested by other clinicians, that when men age, they mellow and retreat from the persisting need for self-aggrandizement. My experiences with such men are variable for sure.
Some older men want to sustain their lengthy marriages for example, and thus with empathic long-lasting treatment, their desire to hold onto their more normal partner motivates them to let down their powerful guard.
Their perception of rejection shifts to a more accurate sense of reality that they are not being rejected or minimized when their partner seeks some independence of her own and a wish to satisfy her own ambitions and not only build on her husband’s successes that she has become dependent upon.
Men who are capable of this shift struggle immensely to hold on to their sense of greatness and let their partner have their own successes as well. Many would refute my claim that this is possible, that their brains can’t tolerate the empathy required for this.
Maybe it’s my strong belief in the “plasticity” of the brain, where new neurons and brain structures can grow under the guidance of very well-trained therapists and other influences.
My belief that such structural changes can be sustained over time with strong reinforcements by deeply compassionate others who stick by the narcissist so that even those with aging brains can learn and thus recharge relationships that would otherwise fail or be unfairly compromised is what I hold onto.
Long-term relationships with a narcissist
This does not mean if you are in even a long-term narcissistic relationship you should necessarily share my hope that the narcissist can change.
Perhaps if you are a woman, for example, with over twenty years of a marriage that does not fulfill you and you feel emotional (not physically) hurt and injured the best advice is to leave this narcissistic partner and find a partner capable of mutual love if you can tolerate the shift.
This shift, for example, probably comes with the strain of a divorce that can lead realistically to needing a lot of courage to make a radical change in your life. Many clinicians would make that recommendation.
This would come with the realistic understanding that had you stayed in the marriage your partner’s incapacity to love you back in the way you want and need would be too hurtful for you to sustain as you have perhaps for decades. This immensely difficult choice is yours.
Short-term relationships with a narcissist
If however, you are just beginning a relationship with a narcissist and recognize the man or woman’s endless self-focus and quick infatuation with you that changes rapidly when any perceived flaws are picked up in you, leaving that relationship is easier because there is less at stake.
If you find you have such relationships over and over again, ask yourself what draws you to them. Again, seek guidance and make the best choice for yourself after introspection and careful self-examination. The choice is yours.
If you recognize you are a narcissist
Alternatively, if you have come to recognize you have narcissistic traits and an inability for actual mutual love with empathy that has repeatedly resulted in multiple social rejections and resulting loneliness, you may want to change. You may learn that concealed behind your external sense of superiority lies inner emptiness and a sense of inferiority.
If with the support of a talented therapist you come to recognize you are struggling in relationships because of these traits, you may become motivated to examine yourself and search for a responsive, steady partner to relieve you of the loneliness you have experienced for years.
This may seem like a most difficult choice—a willingness to face oneself more realistically, no longer adore your wish for perfection in yourself or the perceived perfect mate and bravely seek help so that you can enjoy the happiness that comes with real love.