How do the victims of narcissist partners get their life sucked out of them?

Because narcissists don’t think or feel like we do, it’s really not possible to establish a mutual relationship with them. And because we can hardly help but expect them to respond in ways similar to our own, their dissimilar reactions can confuse and surprise us— at times, deeply upset us as well.

This post, a companion piece to my recently published “9 Quotes That Paint A Clear Picture Of The Narcissist” will focus not on the narcissist but on their unwary victims. Largely employing their own words, it will center on the injured parties’ so disheartening and disillusioning experience in trying to construct a satisfying relationship with an individual whose self-serving egocentricity ultimately renders such a union impossible. The quotes from these victims are taken from a lengthy series of online forum comments excerpted in Narcissism Book of Quotes: A Selection of Quotes from the Collective Wisdom of over 12,000 Individual Discussions.(link is external) And this is a resource (readily available on the Web) that I heartily recommend to anyone who’s had to deal with a narcissist (particularly as a spouse).

So how do the narcissist’s victims (more commonly women than men) get emotionally entangled with such difficult individuals in the first place? Simply put, narcissists “preview” themselves in ways every bit as attractive to their potential “prey” as—later on—they reveal themselves as fraudulent. And I’ve had to be highly selective in limiting my choice of quotes to those best describing how trusting individuals can unwittingly walk right into a situation that cannot possibly deliver on its all-too-alluring promises.

But before allowing the hapless victims to speak for themselves in characterizing their experiences of betrayal, I should emphasize that virtually all my quotes pertain to those narcissists relatively far out on the narcissistic continuum. Many narcissists meeting sufficient criteria to warrant the diagnosis of Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD) aren’t quite so brutal in handling those committed to them as, frankly, are those portrayed in these quotes.

Anyhow, let’s start by considering the sampling of quotes immediately below on the process of getting “hooked” by the narcissist (which, like the rest of the quotes presented here, are anonymous):

“If some man were to say to your daughter: ‘Here’s the deal, sweetie. For several months or so, I’m going to pretend to be everything you ever wanted. I’ll shower you with attention, affection and all manner of stuff to make you feel special. Then, once I know you’re depending on me as your significant other, and have made a commitment, I’m going to quit pretending and be who I really am. I’m going to start treating you really badly. I’ll say insensitive things, I’ll lie, I’ll cheat, I’ll be really cruel, possibly humiliate you in public. Hey, I might even beat you. Your job will be to figure out what happened and do everything in your power to restore the relationship to what it was, until you either die, try to kill yourself, or collapse and get sent to the hospital, which will be pretty funny because there’s no chance whatsoever I’ll ever pretend to be that ‘nice guy’ again—and by the way, it WAS a pretense. So what do you say, sweetie? Do we have a deal? Several years of hell in exchange for a few months of fantasy.’

“If your daughter whipped out the pen to ink the deal, you’d smack her and say, ‘What are you, NUTS? This guy’s a lunatic!!!’ Right? But that IS the deal. That is the contract. If that contract wouldn’t be nearly good enough for your daughter, why would it be good enough for you?” [Here, the discussant is addressing others on the Forum woefully “bitten” by the “vampire narcissist.”]

  • [And, to further clarify the dynamics of this hypothetical scenario, consider the words of another discussant]: “The abuse doesn’t happen because the victims volunteer for it. The abuse happens because the abusers lie, manipulate and speak in mixed messages, and out of love and a sense of fairness we trust them.”

  • [Moreover] “We loved these men and why wouldn’t we? In the beginning they make us feel so special and comfortable and loved. It’s later when . . . our minds are reeling because we know something is ‘off’ but can’t put our fingers on it that we start searching around and find ourselves here [on the Forum]. Then all the pieces start to fall into place. People with NDP are master manipulators, subtle and strong at the same time. You have been brainwashed.”
  • [And it’s all because] “The one you married, the terrific guy, was the false self. When you finally realize that the horror he became is the real self, then you understand NPD and you understand the nightmare for all of us.”

So much for the beguiling charms of the narcissist in the victim’s pre-commitment phase—vs. the truly disturbing reality of living with such an individual post-commitment. What do those duped have to say specifically after they’ve fallen for the bait? Quite a lot, actually. Above all else, those victimized in such a relationship emphasize their experience of being devalued—especially since they were made to feel so special and important during the period that they were wooed into commitment. But before introducing these quotes, I’d like to expand on a term that these so-disappointed individuals regularly employ in stressing how they came to feel used, manipulated, or exploited by their narcissistic partner.

This term—namely, narcissistic supply (NS)—was originally psychoanalytic jargon. But it’s been adopted with increasing frequency by lay people to help convey their distressingly felt objectification on the part of their “soul-sucking” partner: that is, exploited, diminished, and even dehumanized, As a result, the pejorative designation “narcissistic supply” has now entered the linguistic mainstream (cf. “anal compulsive”). What the term so well pinpoints is the fact that narcissists can only value others to the extent they bolster their self-image.

Focusing on the narcissist’s insatiable appetite for attention and admiration, NS refers to anything in the environment that feeds the narcissist’s hunger to feel superior to others. And probably the most commonly used NS in the narcissist’s arsenal is their typically co-dependent, enmeshed, self-sacrificial partner. It’s no wonder that these routinely manipulated individuals describe themselves as “bled” or “sucked dry” by the self-absorbed narcissist, who initially so convincingly attached him/herself to them.

So, once narcissists have secured the relationship with their significant other, what invariably surfaces is their incessant drive to denigrate them, to assert superiority over them. As treasured as they may get their prospective spouse to feel prior to getting their commitment, that’s how devalued they make them feel once winning them over. This is a central theme in the testimony of so many disenchanted individuals who become the primary NS for their narcissistic partners—a subservient, demeaning role they never realized they’d signed up for. Here are a few examples of their pitiable experience:

  • “NPD is actually quite simple. When they want supply (adoration/veneration) they put on the whole show to obtain that supply. As the supply wanes, because no one can sustain all the time that high-octane adoration the N requires, then N begins to get uneasy and devaluation sets in, followed by confusion and bewilderment on the part of the spouse/partner, who thinks s/he has done everything ‘right.’”

  • “ . . . And when they withdraw the ‘caring’ and the ‘loving’ [note the words in quotes—for the commenter realizes just how spurious such “love” and “caring” really were]and start on the devaluation stage, then the contrast is so appalling that we are wrecked, unable to understand (at this stage most of us had never heard of NPD), so naturally we thought we were at fault in some way.”

  • “My N husband] is not exactly malicious. He doesn’t set out to hurt me just for kicks. . . . He hurts me as little or as much as it takes to achieve his goal: to make me dependent on him . . . obey him, give him all the NS he demands. . . . So, while his primary goal isn’t to hurt me, it becomes a goal if that’s what it takes to get NS out of me.”
  • [And the final result of such constant devaluation? Of all the quotes I examined, none of them states the ultimate impact of such long-term abuse more powerfully than the following]: “Why don’t we go? For any combination of reasons. Take a look at the ‘you’ before or at the time you started going out with the N—and the ‘you’ later on. Never was anyone less equipped to get out by that stage—your self worth is in the gutter, you feel a failure, a deep sense of being a nothing—the things the N said to you, the insidious drip-feed of negatives, their behaviour that says so much about how little they respect or care for you. Then of course we really do have to face some of the nastiest [thoughts]—the what ifs, the depression, the self-hatred (how COULD I have put up with this . . . what must he have thought of me, knowing I allowed him to do these things), the loneliness, sense of failure.”

The psychological harm reported by so many of those “sucked dry” by their narcissistic spouse is truly lamentable. The descriptors I probably encountered the most include: “hurt,” “confused,” “lost,” “sad,” “empty,” “misunderstood,” “humiliated,” and “degraded” (cf. “devalued”). Here’s a sampling of quotes that reflect the protracted trauma of those “held captive” in such an intense—and intensely disturbing—relationship:

  • “I . . . became lost in HIS world, started walking on eggshells and worrying if I said or was behaving the right way for him. He was so methodical in his control over me . . . [and when] he would throw a bone at me (usually some old flowers on their way out) . . . I like a jerk would get so excited that he thought a little about me with the award of almost dead flowers. So sad.”

  • “It was the losing of myself that caused me the most anguish. I could feel it, like a brainwashing, like a vampire, and he claimed he didn’t know anything was wrong, didn’t know what I meant when I said I was sad all the time and couldn’t trust a word he said.”

  • “Narcissists install a mental filter in our heads a little bit at a time. Before we know it, everything we do, say, or think, goes through this filter. ‘Will he get upset if I do/say/think this? Will he approve/disapprove? Will he feel hurt by this?”

  • “The N will suffocate all that is good in you, will twist your psyche until you don’t know who you are yourself, eventually your own face will not seem your own in the mirror. Yes, it gets that bad, believe me.”

  • “They screw up the issues so we get confused. Then they re-prioritize everything for us by getting angry, so we have to look at them first, we think and we worry about them first. It becomes all about them. Everything else, especially ourselves and things once important to us, become [secondary].”

  • “We cannot accurately predict what response we will get on any given day. And without the ability to predict—without a stable system on which we can rely—we wind up tying ourselves into knots trying desperately to please and walking on eggshells hoping to avoid this unpredictable wrath” [and the narcissist’s over-reactive rage is a theme prevalent in so many of these comments].
  • I learned that ‘kicking you when you’re down’ is a standard characteristic of the N

  • “I have a very strong supportive network who keep reminding me that I am a worthwhile human being. They have told me, however, that the years spent with him have altered me, made me nervous and anxious and questioning my capabilities. It’s insidious and you never even realize you are changing.”
Of all the oppressive, crazy-making features of the narcissist, the one perhaps most frequently cited is their exasperating dishonesty. And such untruthfulness has at times led their no-longer-so-gullible victims to describe them as con artists. Here’s a highly selective sampling of such complaints:
  • “The lies, the flirting, the lies, the comparing, the lies, the ambivalence, the lies, the belittling, the lies, the teasing, the lies, the built up promises, the lies, the setting up for disappointment. Did I mention the lies?” [!]

  • “I had never known a real con man in my life. I thought only the stupid or elderly got suckered.”

  • “They memorize body language and can spot a person who might feel a little vulnerable a mile away.”

  • “My ex-husband used to tell HUGE lies about me. Lies that always made ME look bad and HIM look like a martyr (when the opposite was true). I didn’t realize this until AFTER we separated and, Boy, was it devastating! I thought that I knew ALL the horrors, to find out there were even more. . . . I didn’t think I could take the pain!”

  • [And, particularly, note this striking observation on the narcissist’s incorrigible habit of prevarication—which is in line with the substantial literature linking the so-called “pathological liar” with the narcissist]: “N would [even] lie when the truth would save his neck.”

The controversial Dr. Sam Vaknin, creator of this forum on narcissism and himself a self-confessed NPD, has written profusely—at times, brilliantly—on the subject. In his article “Pseudologica Fantastica,” he freely admits:

  •  “I lie. Compulsively and needlessly. All the time. About everything. And I often contradict myself. Why do I need to do this? To make myself interesting or attractive. In other words, to secure narcissistic supply (attention, admiration, adulation, gossip).”

It should be added that because narcissists are so driven to prove themselves, they often accomplish great things in science, the arts, and the humanities. True, in the world of business and politics, they can not only be incredibly mercenary but astonishingly bankrupt morally. Still, when their ambitiousness is expressed creatively, they can “gift” us with a Beethoven, or Wagner, Tolstoy, or Picasso—or even a Sam Vaknin (!).

But where it becomes almost impossible to admire a narcissist (which is, of course, what they most crave—typically, to compensate for their deepest, hidden feelings of self-doubt) is in the context of intimate relationships. And the many quotes up till now should make it blatantly obvious that this is hardly an area in which they can be viewed favorably. Below, I’ll summarize some other distressing characteristics of the narcissist regularly alluded to by their victims:

  • Because they’re not genuinely interested in others, they’re poor listeners. Though it can seem that they’re listening attentively, they’re unable to accurately repeat back what was said to them.
  • Calculating how every situation might benefit (or disadvantage) them, there’s almost always an ulterior motive behind what they say or do.
  • They can be extremely mean-spirited (as in taking an almost perverse delight in raining on another’s parade).
  • They’re untrustworthy: As one discussant bluntly puts it: “Don’t tell them anything you aren’t prepared to get shoved up your butt later . . . or down your throat, or in your heart in the form of a dagger. And of course there are those things you tell them that you have to be prepared to have TWISTED into things they can shove…”.
  • Despite their self-confident, better-than-thou exterior, they often betray feelings of weakness, insecurity, inferiority, jealousy, and cowardice. One commenter even sums them up as “emotional cripples.”
  • If they’re far out on the narcissistic continuum, they can’t be changed—and certainly not by their partners. Here’s the most pointed (and painful) description of the futility of even trying to alter their behavior: “What I, and others on this board, have learned from dealing with N bullies in our personal lives applies to terrorists. There can be no appeasement, no attempting to reason with them, no attempt to “fix” them, to unseat their deep-seated hatred, shame and envy. Sounds terribly harsh to the uninitiated, but not recognizing that can only lead to our own destruction.”

The one consolation for victims of the narcissist’s “dagger” (or “vampirish teeth”) is the hard-won insights they eventually gain, which makes it possible for at least some of them to repudiate a relationship that’s been so toxic to them. Again, in their own (sadder-but-wiser) words:

  • “Looking back on ALL the Ns I’ve ever known and merged with, I see there WERE signs within minutes of meeting the N that they were grossly selfish, immoral, sex-addicted or [that] something was definitely ‘off’ [about them]. I didn’t honour my intuition, gut feelings and instinct. The truth is that I had almost no experience setting healthy boundaries.”

  • “Staying with an N, or making contact with an ex-N, is like putting your hands directly on a hot stovetop to warm them. It will “work” for five seconds before it scalds you.”

  •  [And finally, this most affirmative statement of the emotional cleansing possible from leaving such a degrading relationship]: “I was with my husband for ten years and was completely and utterly devoted to him. Brainwashed, totally. He was my guide, my life and he almost destroyed me. Now when I think of him I feel absolutely nothing, zero. No hate, no pity, not an ounce of love—just nothing. And it’s wonderful.”

And with those encouraging words, I’ll end this lengthy post. But for those wanting more advice on dealing with their narcissistic spouse, whether male orfemale, and whether they’re still in the relationship or have already left it, there are many books listed on Amazon that take up this thorny subject. Moreover, toward the end of Narcissism A Book of Quotes(link is external), there’s also a section on “reclaiming sanity.” So if you’re still trying to figure out how best to deal with such a personality-disordered person—whether that individual be your son, daughter, father, mother, spouse, friend, employee or boss—by all means, continue reading. 

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Leon F. Seltzer, Ph.D., holds doctorates in both English and Psychology. Formerly an English professor at Queens College (CUNY) and Cleveland State University, he now lives in Del Mar, California, where he has maintained a general private practice since 1986. With clinical specialties in anger, trauma resolution (EMDR), couples conflict, compulsive/addictive behaviors, and depression, he has also taught some 200 adult education workshops on these subjects. In addition, he has served as consultant to both corporations and publishers. The author of The Vision of Melville and Conrad, he has also written numerous articles in the fields of literature and psychology. He is probably best known for his professional guide book Paradoxical Strategies in Psychotherapy, which describes a wide array of seemingly illogical therapeutic interventions. These powerful techniques can help therapists effectively resolve difficult individual and marital/family problems when more straightforward methods have proved unsuccessful. An active blogger for Psychology Today, as of 1/1/15 his more than 250 posts--on a broad variety of psychological topics--have received over 8 million views.