The Surprising Reasons Women Get Hooked on Narcissists

Jul 11 2016

The Surprising Reasons Women Get Hooked on Narcissists

July 20th, 2016

Weiner, a documentary close-up of the 2013 mayoral bid of the New York politician whose 2011 sexting scandal cost him a congressional seat, begins with the redemption story of a man surrounded by loving family and enthusiastic staffers, jubilant as he soars in the polls and receives forgiveness for past transgressions. That is, until a neutron bomb lands in the middle of his campaign in the form of fresh revelations of Anthony Weiner’s online sexual activities.

Weiner appears a man of quick wit, boyish charm, and abundant energy that can be harnessed for good; yet one whose impaired conscience, ravenous need for attention, and shocking superficiality lead him to disaster as soon as the sirens of his appetite call. (They call often: one woman claims to have had phone sex with him up to five times a day, long after his claims of rehabilitation).

Most fully alive when he is working the crowds or gawking at himself on television, Weiner looks like a poster boy for what is commonly called a narcissist.

Such people may seem confident and self-contained, but this is an illusion: they require, and excel in finding, human accessories to mirror how they wish to see themselves. They need others to justify and defend their actions and to blindly serve them. Those close to the narcissist provide another function: they often suffer on his behalf. (I will use the term “he” for the purposes of this article, but note that there are plenty of female narcissists in our society). Because the narcissist is unwilling or unable to fully experience his own pain, he outsources the job to others.

But why would any rational person sign up for the task?

In “Weiner,” the fly-on-the-wall camera captures the reactions of Huma Abedin (still married to the ex-politician today) as she telegraphs alternating states of hope, sadness, shame, resignation, and contempt with mesmerizing intensity. The poised Abedin, who comes across as a competent, deeply intelligent woman—the daughter of intellectuals and the influential aid of Hillary Clinton—speaks with her body and eyes more than her voice, but on one occasion she looks up from her kitchen to deliver a chillingly flat assessment of what life has become. “It’s like living in a nightmare.”

The portrait of a famous narcissistic man is familiar enough, but rarely do we get such an intimate look at the woman at his side. Everybody wants to understand what’s up with her. “Was it love or ambition that made her stay with a self-destructive politician who betrayed her again and again?” asks the Washington Post.  “Is her torment a testament to her character, or evidence that something is lacking in her judgment?”

The ambition answer seems unlikely: Weiner is damaged goods, while Abedin may soon land a plumb job in the White House. Yet there she is, a seemingly rational person with abundant natural gifts, continuing a relationship with a man willing to upend the lives of those who trust and depend on him for cheap Internet thrills.

Is she co-dependent? Does she have low self-esteem? Did she have an unresponsive or abusive father? Does she stay with him for the sake of the child? Is she crazy? What could induce an intelligent, powerful, and striking woman stay with this guy?

Quite possibly she’s addicted to him. But maybe not for the reasons you might think.

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The Allure of the Narcissist 

Narcissistic men aren’t uniformly addictive. Plenty of women run and don’t look back. Yet for those with a particular combination of traits, these difficult men can be catnip and kryptonite all rolled into one.

Focusing on what’s wrong with such women has a long tradition—think of Sylvia Plath with Ted Hughes, Mary Richardson Kennedy with Robert Kennedy, Jr., or Whitney Houston with Bobby Brown. (Houston once told Oprah Winfrey that Bobby, rather than drugs, was main object of her addiction). In these extreme cases, each of which ended with a gifted woman dying prematurely, we hear lurid tales of the various psychological ills that prompt a devastating draw to Mr. Wrong.

Psychological, social and biological challenges surely exist in many cases. But what if it isn’t just the weaknesses or craziness of certain women that get them ensnared, but, perversely, what might normally be considered their strengths?

That’s the conclusion drawn by Sandra L. Brown, psychologist and author of a book on women who get involved with narcissists and their ilk. Through clinical study and intensive surveys, she has found that these women exhibit very similar personality traits. Strikingly, they are highly effective in most aspects of their lives. They tend to be well educated and powerful. They are attorneys and doctors, editors and professors, CEOS and clergywomen, therapists and nurses—“a formidable group of women who have knowledge, education, and strength,” as Brown puts it. Before they got involved with a narcissist, these women usually had high self-esteem and were doing pretty well in their lives.

So what goes wrong? One common thread is that these successful women often ran into a narcissist at a vulnerable point in otherwise fulfilling lives. A move, the death of a loved one, a divorce—any of these trying events can make an otherwise reasonable person seek something that distracts and consumes attention. Stanton Peele, co-author of the seminal Love and Addiction, has noted that social and economic class may have something to do with the addictive object people choose. For middle or upper class women, heroin would likely not be the first choice because of the stigma and dissonance with normal patterns of life. Love does not pose these obstacles. When solace is sought, the ministrations and attentions of a narcissist can be very compelling.

Brown’s research reveals that women inclined to form relationships with narcissists exhibit positive traits that can, unfortunately, flip into something destructive in the wrong circumstances. Elevated traits include empathy (they feel strongly for others); extraversion (they enjoy outgoing, fun-loving partners); a tendency to invest deeply in relationships (they try hard to make things work); competitiveness (they want to ‘win’ the battle with a narcissist); sentimentality (they are affectionate and focus on the sweet things he does); concern for the regard of others (they are motivated to please people they love); and excitement-seeking (they are naturally curious and don’t like boredom).

These traits, in moderation or directed into the right channels, are not problematic. But when they come into play with manipulative and self-centered men, the interlocking psychological systems can create a fearsome and painful bond.

Take empathy, for example.  In a rare moment of insight in the film, Anthony Weiner takes a stab at answering the persistent question that hovers: WTF is wrong with you?

“The same constitution I have that made me do the dumb thing,” offers Weiner, “made it possible for me to weather it without it gutting me.”

An uncommon insensibility to shame and guilt seems to be the “constitution” which enables Weiner to dive into risky activities that can and do cause immense harm to himself and others, all the while having a pretty good time and thinking fairly well of himself.  The ability to imagine and act on the knowledge of how his behavior would impact others seems to have gotten blocked. He has an empathy deficit.

If a person is short on empathy, he might seek out a person with an abundance of this quality to make up for it, which is what Weiner may well have done.

In Rebecca Johnson’s Vogue profile of “Hillary’s secret weapon” during the 2007 presidential campaign, the writer was struck by Abedin’s empathic nature. Johnson observed that Abedin seemed to be drawn to politics not out of wonkiness or the thrill of the horse race, but instead to “the way that politicians are uniquely invested with the power to help individuals—as with, say, the woman whose legs were badly broken by a piece of plane fuselage on September 11…” Political puffery, perhaps, but it’s not difficult to imagine that the same empathy that would make a person care deeply for the well-being of a stranger might also cause a woman to be over-empathetic to a man who comes to her with tales from Lake Woebegone to explain his destructive behavior.

Narcissists are talented performers and fakers. When their activities are revealed, they are adept at delivering sincere-sounding sob stories, complete with puppy dog eyes and little boy pleadings to be understood and cared for. A woman with a bleeding heart is in trouble. Brown notes that a man with narcissistic traits quickly picks up on a woman’s “hyper-empathy” and uses it to manipulate her.

It would be unfair to talk about this subject without raising my own hand. I’ve been involved with men with narcissistic traits, and I’ve thought hard about what made me attracted and hang in even after ample evidence of what I was dealing with. Part of it is a sort of cognitive and emotional dissonance likely enhanced by some of the traits Brown discusses.

When I discovered the bad behavior of narcissistic men—which often includes an astonishing level of deception—I had a difficult time absorbing the information. Once, upon finding out about a particularly traumatic sexual betrayal, I recall the odd sensation of my hands going numb and my speech becoming incoherent. Finally, I pushed the matter aside for a time because I could not, or would not, process it fully. When I could intellectually comprehend it, my emotions would confuse me, and vice versa. Couple this state of confusion with the incredible energy and articulateness of the silver-tongued narcissist, and my normal capacity to process and evaluate became strained. When I finally did process, the determination that has allowed me to write books and teach in foreign countries led me to focus on “making this right.” I wasn’t a quitter, was I?

When women (or men) eventually find that their frustration, anger and despair has lead them to leave the narcissist, they are often drawn back in by an intense dose of “love-bombing”—the extravagant displays of affection that are the narcissist’s calling card. Unlike heroin or alcohol, the narcissist mounts an active campaign to draw the addicted party back in which can last years—a phenomenon called “hoovering,” after the well-known vacuum cleaner. The narcissist, who has invested his time and energy into getting and keeping a rare source of validation and support, doesn’t like to give up. He’s not a quitter, either.

Partners can end up on a program akin to what behavioral psychologists call “intermittent reinforcement”: one moment is filled with adoration and excitement, the next with denigration and callousness. The cycle is exhausting and disorienting, perhaps influencing reward systems in the brain that make the activity more compelling—the kind of thing encountered at blackjack tables. The person with the addictive pattern (and it could be both in this case) starts letting go of other meaningful activities and emotional connections, the things that Stanton Peele has observed are essential to overcoming and preventing addictive love relationships.

Howard M. Halpern, author of How to Break Your Addiction to a Person, points out that “many basically rational and practical people find that they are unable to leave a relationship even though they can see that it’s bad for them.” Unfortunately, the price of staying with an unreformed narcissist, for all his charm and excitement, can be high. To have trust, you may have to agree that anything goes. This, in turn, sends self-respect down the toilet.  The anger and resentment which give you the energy to keep from dissolving into a puddle of pain end up robbing you of the ability to enjoy life.

Cultural Catch-22

Narcissistic people tend to be, like Weiner, imprisoned in childish fantasies and unable to grow up. Unfortunately American society has a way of excusing and often rewarding their arrested development (see: Donald Trump). Surrounded by enablers, these big babies run companies, make laws, become celebrities, and leave a trail of destruction in their wake. They even become president.

Women, of course, have been historically conditioned to care for men on the domestic front. Until fairly recently, most had little choice but to stay with them. Now that women are able to hold lucrative jobs and achieve social and financial independence, why are they not finally relieved of the burden of supporting narcissists? I think there’s a catch-22 at work: women’s’ success gives them more ways to prop up narcissists, who often rely on others for money and status as well as nurturing. The Huma Abedins and Hillary Clintons (also married to a narcissist) may be caught up in the chaos of a cultural transition as the transformation in gender roles and romantic and sexual relations brings narcissistic men and powerful women together in new and highly fraught entanglements.

Women may radiate power and competence in their careers, but the nurturing and hyper-empathetic echo of thousands of years may still call in their personal lives, which can go wrong with narcissistic men. Such men may enjoy associating themselves with the power of a successful woman, but their undermining behavior suggests that they may also be disturbed by it and want to control it or even destroy it. Mastering such women enables them to deny their dependency.

The institution of marriage and the conditions of work and achievement in our society have not caught up with the transformations among the sexes that have taken place over the last half a century. As women become more secure in their power and men more evolved and comfortable in their relations with them, perhaps we will reach a stage in which couples like Abedin and Weiner are less common.

On an individual level, the women who choose narcissists as addictive objects may have a bit of good news: those traits which were channeled toward the relationship in unhealthy ways can be re-channeled towards yourself to begin to heal. Empathy and determination turned in your own direction can help restore the person with whom you have the most important relationship—yourself.

Lynn Parramore has written about economics and culture for ReutersAl-jazeera AmericaSalon and AlterNet. She’s a senior research analyst at the Institute for New Economic Thinking. You can follow her on Twitter: @LynnParramore.

  • natriley

    As a gay man, I have a different take on Weiner. He shares a common fault of straight people, they aren’t honest about their sexual lives. Had he simply said, yes I talk dirty with women, he would have created a fuss but then it would have been over. It is no more interesting than being married to a man who likes pornography. I’m pretty sure Huma Abedin would have adjusted. Hillary has certainly adjusted to bigger sexual scandals. The second Weiner accepted the idea that his behavior is an addiction or even wrong, he created a far greater problem, he would have to pledge to stop it. As might be expected of a public figure he is willing to lie about his life, but he had no clear sense of his limitations. He seemed to think he could easily stop enjoying his fun. In fact, this pleasure was important and he could find no way to convince himself that it should stop. Gay men readily describe their sexual preferences and happily reject those who say they should change. And this usually has an added benefit, couple go into relationship knowing about their partners habits.

    • mw

      I’m a gay man myself, with pretty liberal views. Um, Anthony Weiner’s behavior has nothing to do with him not being ‘honest’ about his “sexual preferences.” It has to do with him showing a lack of understanding in regards to how his own actions can and do affect others. While he can come across as likeable, he also presents himself as a vain and superficial individual. One who comments, upon seeing tv footage of himself engaged in a heated verbal argument with a citizen over his indiscretions, that he doesn’t like the shot cause is makes it look like he has a bald spot. Sorry, but this doesn’t have to do with straight people being hung up on conventionality. It has to do with him being dishonest and deceitful, and seemingly unable to really see his own complicity in this. Sending a pic of your junk is not really the point. It has to do with his lack of empathy and inability to conduct himself, knowing that being in the public eye naturally exposes one to greater scrutiny. Gay or straight, the issues presented here cannot be blamed on straight peoples’ “common fault.”

      • natriley

        I’m puzzled when you say he is “dishonest and deceitful” are you agreeing with me that he should tell the truth and say “yes, I like talking dirty with women.”

  • Taffygrrl

    This article could not have come at a better time for me. The narcissist in our life may not be a romantic partner; it can also be a friend. I’ve been experiencing all of this, right down to the “love bombing” when I have started to walk away. It’s easier to understand a thing (and run away from it) when you can name it. Thank you very much for writing this.

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  • Pascal Angenent

    This is the first article on this site that makes me cringe. When you say that you will be using the male pronoun but side-note that woman can be narcissist too you are essentially betraying a kind of gender bias. Could be easily avoided by using “the narcissist” instead of “he”. Also I find an inappropriate amount of judgement here on a persons sexual behavior and experience. Almost as if you think that everybody holds and agrees with a certain puritanical view of sexuality. Just my 2 cents on this (sensitive) topic for me.

  • rostomic