If your parent is or was a narcissist, your early experience can affect the way you experience love in your adult life.
We form attachments to our main caregivers, and we become conditioned with the messages of our family of origin, and these become the rules that we live by. When we are small, we assume that all families are like ours. Only when we get older do we start to make comparisons and wonder why there are differences. Early relationships, especially with the opposite sex parent, can make a psychological blueprint for us. Later in life we apply this blueprint to our adult partners and act out the same pattern. This pattern is largely unconscious and often unhelpful. We have a pervading sense of “why does this always happen to me?” Or perhaps “why are all men/women like that?” That’s because we don’t see other people as they are; we see them as we are. There are several ways that this kind of subconscious pattern can play out.
- We choose a partner who is like our parent. We then find ourselves committed to a partner who dominates and controls us in the same way that our parent dominated and controlled us. Clearly this is not good news for the relationship.
- We choose a partner who is the opposite of our parent. Wary of being controlled and dominated, we choose a weak, indecisive or needy partner who is no challenge to us. In the long run, we find ourselves doing all the work in the relationship and feeling resentful.
- We become a people pleaser. Children of narcissists often take this role because it would have kept our father or mother happy when we were small, and our characters were forming. We then approach every adult relationship is if it is our job to make the other person happy in every way possible. Usually we come to resent this, because the relationship is out of balance, and then we make complaints, or even leave the relationship.
- We play the role of a victim. This can follow on from choosing someone like our parent, or from too much people pleasing. We reach a state where we complain and whine about the relationship but act as if we have no responsibility for it or ability to change it or to remove ourselves.
- We look for the perfect partner. Our narcissistic parent always knew best, so unconsciously we think that there is always a “right answer”. There is no right answer and no perfect partner, we can only use our best judgment, which is discouraged by narcissists. The result is we will always fail in our quest.
- We become a bad chooser. As we see in the above example, we are never sure of our choices because as the children of narcissists we have never learned to trust our own judgement.
- We allow our parent to interfere in our partnership or marriage. This might be always having Sunday lunch at the parent’s home, or parental criticism of your partner or your parenting, because they always know better than you. I have even heard of narcissistic parents visiting the adult child’s home during the day – because they had been allowed to have a key – and moving the furniture because they thought it would look better. Adult children of narcissists are often poor at personal boundaries because they were not allowed to have them when they were small.
- We engage in controlling behaviour, like our parent. Sadly, we can normalise controlling other people, crossing their boundaries or interfering in their choices, because it was done to us and we have normalised it. It is very damaging to a relationship.
- We see our narcissistic parent in our partner. If we have successfully broken free of a narcissistic parent, it can make us very wary of others. Sometimes we transfer the behaviour of our parent onto other, and we think that we are being controlled when perhaps they were simply stating a preference. This is not helped if we don’t trust our own judgment.
- We become ultra-independent. As we negotiate our adult relationships, we start to break away from unsuitable partners and from our parents. It’s very easy then to get the idea that we can’t allow anyone near us, because we are afraid of being engulfed.
If you recognise your parent and yourself in these descriptions, you might be interested in my book Raised by a Narcissist, which is about narcissistic parents and their children, available from Amazon (August 2020). If you think your parent was a narcissist, you might also join my Facebook group Adult Children of Narcissists.
Alan Chatting is an author, coach and psychotherapist. For more on narcissism click here. To work with Alan, click here. Alan’s website is here.