A narcissist/codependent relationship is defined by a lack of healthy boundaries. Over time, both people in the codependent relationship lose a sense of separation, and enmesh into one unit. Due to their natural need for autonomy, each person acts out in dysfunctional ways to feel secure or restore their sense of freedom. Furthermore, because this kind of relationship is boundaryless, manipulation and control runs rampant. This leads to what is known as the narcissist/codependent relationship dance.
The narcissist/codependent relationship battlefield
Unable to find inner balance and confidence alone, the codependent develops an over-reliance on relationships to regulate themselves and define who they are. This is naturally a recipe for disaster, where a struggle ensues for that elusive sense of safety, security and love. By completely dissolving boundaries, the codependent hopes to fuse with their loved one and gain constant access to them. As a result, the codependent forgets where they end and the other person begins. This painful, dysfunctional way of relating lies at the heart of codependency.
Since intimacy means vulnerability, the potential of being hurt is too much for the codependent and their narcissistic partner, who react in ways that hinder their relationship.
Some traits of a narcissist/codependent relationship are:
- The codependent leans anxiously into the relationship, while the narcissist pulls away.
- The codependent directs their love outwards toward the narcissist, while the narcissist directs their love inwards toward themselves as grandiosity.
- The codependent is often wide-eyed and clingy, the narcissist is aloof and appears arrogant.
- The codependent tends to devalue themselves, while the narcissist over-values themselves.
The codependent is overly reliant on the relationship to regulate their self-esteem and sense of safety. Because they feel like they need others more than others need them, they tend to become over-giving and sacrificial, hoping it convinces the narcissist to meet their needs. The codependent usually puts up with the abusive and destructive behaviour of the narcissist, too terrified to lose them and face being alone. The relationship is all that is keeping the codependent from falling into their inner chaotic state, where paranoia, panic and emotional dysregulation await them.
Although it seems on the surface like the codependent is simply being nice and giving, there is a darker side to this personality. Behind their submissiveness, the codependent is passive-aggressively demanding. By sacrificing everything for the relationship, the codependent creates a hidden contract with their narcissistic partner; I will give to you unconditionally, and you will love me unconditionally.
The codependent leans on the narcissist no matter how badly they are treated. They grit their teeth and bottle up their pain at not being seen or ‘respected’ for what they do, smiling through thick and thin to maintain their ‘perfect’ appeasing front. In doing so, the codependent ensures that the narcissist both takes them for granted, and is never accountable for their actions. Even from their submissive position, the codependent’s behaviour gives them a feeling of control. By casting themselves as the ‘saviour’ who always comes to the rescue, the codependent hopes to gain the high ground in the relationship.
The codependent/narcissist relationship dance emerges
Such a boundaryless relationship is not sustainable. The need for safety comes hand in hand with a need for autonomy. A person requires firm boundaries to know who they are, and must defend the integrity of those boundaries if they are to grow and actualise. Yet the codependent is not equipped with healthy boundary setting. Something has to give. The result is a push/pull dynamic, as one person steps into the avoidant role, and the other into the anxious role.
To feel safe, one person leans toward the other for love. The other person, feeling engulfed, then pulls away to restore their sense of autonomy. The person who leans in then feels rejected and unsafe, and doubles down on their neediness, causing the other person to pull away even further. This causes immense hurt, and the anxious person finally gives up. The avoidant person, now feeling the pain of a void in love, grows anxious and leans in, and the cycle continues. This exhausting game is never resolved, since one person only feels safe with closeness, and the other person only ever truly feels safe with autonomy.
In this codependent dance, the partners can flip-flop between the anxious and avoidant roles, other times the roles stay firmly fixed. Narcissists generally remain on the avoidant side, while their partners tend to be anxious. Behind this dance is a fear of abandonment and fear of engulfment. The codependent relationship is therefore a classic breeding ground for narcissistic abuse, where the narcissist attracts a target with an anxious personality. Both are playing roles which betray their authentic selves. The narcissist’s false self is grandiose, and the codependent’s submissive false self worships the narcissist’s false self.
The codependent/narcissist relationship dynamic. As the power balance shifts, the avoidant becomes progressively more narcissistic, drunk on their power over their dependent partner.
A struggle for power
Due to their neediness, a codependent person is instantly at a disadvantage in the relationship power balance. Their partner is ‘high value,’ and they are the ‘inferior’ one. The codependent generally enters a relationship with low-self esteem, which creates the need to prove themselves to their ‘superior’ partner. This shifts the power balance in the narcissist’s favour, which allows them to take advantage of the desperate and needy partner. As these two people progress in an enmeshed state, a natural hierarchy ensues. One has the high ground, the other the low ground. Narcissists naturally thrive in such an environment, where the power imbalance gains them easy access to narcissistic supply. Yet the codependent partner is not innocent in all this. The narcissist exerts overt, hard power, while the codependent exerts covert, soft power.
Soft power includes people-pleasing, being submissive, charming or appeasing the other person, all of which obligate them to stick around. Hard power includes ordering the other person around, yelling, threatening, ridiculing, shaming, dominating and directly controlling the other person. Typically, a narcissist will use soft power at the beginning of their relationship with a codependent partner, then revert to hard power when they feel threatened or sense the other person has sufficiently lowered their boundaries.
At some point, the codependent will feel scorned and upset with the narcissist’s constant use of hard power and selfishness, and will apply hard power of their own while threatening to leave the relationship. The narcissist senses the end and reverts immediately to soft power. Once the relationship is restored and the codependent is appeased, the narcissist will switch back to being selfish and harsh. This is what lies at the core of the narcissist/codependent relationship dance.
In the case of long-term relationships, a codependent style will typically dominate, especially after a drawn-out power struggle, where the ‘house-broken’ person loses their willpower and comes to accept their role — unless they find a way out first.
Leaving the narcissist/codependent relationship dance floor
To end the narcissist/codependent relationship dance and recover from narcissistic abuse, a codependent needs two simple yet soul-shaking steps:
- Confront yourself.
- Confront death.
Codependence means you derive your sense of Self through another person. You don’t exist without the narcissist. Without another person to feed your energy through, you fall into an endless abyss, terror grips you, and you grasp even more. In such a state, the narcissist does not need to try very hard to keep you under their influence. You do most of the work for them. They just need to press a button here, make a backhanded comment there.
Since childhood, codependents have lost awareness of their divine nature; the place that provides you everything you need for a fulfilling life. This ‘Self’ springs from emptiness. Allowing yourself to die to this reality is where you find life.
The abyss is the source of everything, the place where wisdom, strength, love and self-esteem flow up. However, you still need scaffolding; a structure for those energies to express themselves. Here is where the ego comes in, as well as the Higher Self.
Ego: A representative in the world, a blueprint for who you are and how to be in society. It is your inner judge, for better or worse.
Higher Self: A reassuring presence which sees all, knows all, and can handle all. A container and a leader to bring order to the chaos you feel inside.
Codependents have an underdeveloped ego, and a weak sense of their Higher Self. Since childhood, they were strongly discouraged from developing these qualities by dominant and controlling figures. Delegating their ego structures and Higher Self to others therefore became natural. You can’t know what you’re missing out on if you have never had it.
When a codependent feels unsure, they ask another person what to do. When they need reassurance, they look to others immediately. This is what feeds the narcissist/codependent relationship dance. They never ask themselves what makes the narcissist the ultimate authority? Where does that person get such a godly gift from? And most importantly; Can I develop this gift for myself?
The answer is that every person has the potential to develop those gifts, and every person can develop them for themselves with enough support and courage — codependents included. Narcissists create the illusion of being a higher authority with the ultimate ego and leadership qualities. Then they convince you that you will never be that person. Bullshit.
Now, before you can develop these two crucial developmental components, you need to be standing on solid ground. You can’t install a light bulb while falling down an endless pit. You need a firm stage and a ladder. The paradox in all of this is that the abyss is solid ground. When the codependent focusses inside and allows themselves to fall while without grasping, they realise that they are still here. Everything is fine. In the abyss is something more. Much more. In solitude, in the dark night of the soul, the codependent comes to be comfortable with nothingness. That’s when the process of developing healthy structures can begin. Only then does the narcissist’s power fade.
The end of codependency, the beginning of living
Unless we stop grasping onto others and face our inner darkness, we can never grow to the next stage. We will remain fodder for a narcissist. Conquer yourself, conquer death, and you gain strong footing. From there, you can focus long enough to figure out what you need. When you trust the Self, the ladder toward your Higher Self develops naturally. This is what actualisation is about. Helping you from within is the True Self, with its infinite wisdom, strength, love and grace. Now that you are not distracted trying to please others, now that you are calmer and more focussed, you can finally hear what the Self has been trying to tell you all along; You are enough; You can handle this; You are infinite potential.
Achieve this initial milestone, and you have a chance of ending the narcissist/codependent relationship dance and recovering from narcissistic abuse. The act of falling will at times induce insane levels of fear, shame and confusion. The fall is likely the most difficult endeavour you will ever undertake. So get all the support you need. Therapists, friends, a loving group. But if you do not find the courage to let yourself fall, you will never make progress. It is scary, it is difficult, but once you catch on, you will see; it is infinitely beautiful. Awaiting you on the other side of codependency is a life worth living.
To overcome codependency and begin healing from narcissistic abuse, check out How To Kill A Narcissist.