The notion of love gleaned from narcissistic parents

What did you learn about love in childhood? The topic of love is hot stuff.  Will we love ’til death do us part? Is unconditional love even possible in romantic relationships? Did I learn how to love in my childhood?

Adult children of narcissistic parents learned a distorted notion of what love is about. I call it “the legacy of distorted love.” They learned that love is either about “what I can do for you” or “what you can do for me.” Many adults raised by narcissistic parents choose love partners based on this distorted meaning, which sets them up for dependent or codependent relationships…or no relationship at all. Dependency is an unhealthy leaning on the other, while co-dependency is taking care of the other to the exclusion of taking care of the self.

This distorted notion of love in a narcissistic family comes from the lack of healthy hierarchy in the parent-child connection. In a normal family, there is a clear hierarchy where the parents are on the top and in charge of the children. It is their role to guide, direct, teach and nurture. In a narcissistic family, the narcissistic parent is in the middle and the rest of the family orbits around them, which confuses the normal connections. The children are often put in the role of care-taking the parent, or tiptoeing around them so as not to upset them. The emotional needs of the children are not met. It is common then for adult children of narcissistic parents to try to fill their emotional void and emptiness with inappropriate love relationships. It is like their relationship picker is broken. This is all they knew. Oftentimes the love relationship becomes a re-enactment of the relationship with the narcissistic parent and can result in a cycle of relationships that end in disappointment again and again. Psychologists refer to this cycle as “repetition compulsion” but it can be stopped with sound recovery work.

We tend to choose relationships largely on an unconscious level and are attracted to the familiar (from childhood). If the unfinished business from the past is not worked out, it is common to experience the “repetition compulsion.” We all have an intuitive voice, a deep sense of intelligencethat calls out the warning signs or red flags, but it is often accompanied by a special brand of “deafness.” In the desperate search for love that did not exist in childhood, it is easy to ignore the waving flags in hopes of having significant needs met.

Healthy relationships are based on interdependency, where both partners move back and forth in  care taking, but mostly operate as independent adults. This is neither dependent nor co-dependent, but loving a person for who they ARE rather than for what they do for you. We must all be cognizant of our own unmet needs and attempt to fulfill ourselves. Recovering from a childhood with a narcissistic parent means working on building your own solid sense of self and learning to re-parent the child within.

Determining what love is and how to overcome the legacy of distorted love, is a major recovery task for adult children of narcissistic parents. It may be wise to understand that unconditional love may only exist in God’s love for us and a parent’s love for a child and is not likely to exist in romantic connection. That’s OK, once accepted, because it causes us to continue to work hard on our love relationships and not only correct mistakes, but also keep learning and growing together.

If you are assessing your love commitments or wondering “what is this thing called love?”…here are some tips.

  • Ask yourself how you feel in the presence of this person?
  • Does this person bring out the best in you?
  • Is there reciprocity in the relationship?
  • Is the relationship filled with kindness, compassion and empathy?
  • Does the relationship add to your soul life?
  • Are you giving and receiving with grace?

One final thought: Remember that the antithesis to narcissism is empathy. Make it a warm day with your loved ones by expressing empathy for their feelings. Chocolates and flowers aside, this is the greatest gift we can give each other.

Additional Resources:

Survey: Is This My Mom? Use this to assess if your parent has narcissistic traits. It is applicable for men as well.

Research: Interview You?

FB Parties for Adult Children of Narcissists:

Authors’ Books and Kindle – Click for Amazon Reviews

© Copyright 2013 Karyl McBride, Ph.D., All rights Reserved.
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Dr. Karyl, LMFT, is a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist in Denver, Colorado with almost 30 years in public and private practice. She specializes in treating clients with dysfunctional family issues. For the past seventeen years, Dr. Karyl has been involved in private research concerning children of narcissistic parents, with a primary focus on women raised by narcissistic mothers. She has treated many adult children of narcissistic parents in her private practice. The author holds a B.A. from the University of Wyoming in elementary and special education, an M.A. from the University of Northern Colorado in counseling psychology, an Educational Specialist graduate degree from the University of Northern Colorado in school psychology, and a Ph.D. from The Union Institute in clinical psychology. Dr. Karyl also has extensive clinical experience in the fields of trauma, sexual abuse, domestic violence, divorce and step family therapy, marital and family therapy, specialized trauma treatment in Eye Movement Desensitization Reprocessing (EMDR), and individual adjustment issues related to anxiety, depression, and life transitions. In addition, she does forensic consulting and has served as an expert witness in numerous civil and criminal cases involving children and sexual abuse. She has nine years experience conducting sexual abuse investigations with law enforcement and has conducted training for law enforcement in the area of sexual abuse investigations. In 1996, she was invited to present her doctoral research at the International Police Research Conference in Ljubljana, Slovenia. Additional information on services provided and background experience can be found on Dr. Karyl’s private practice website at Dr. Karyl is available for workshops, talks and media appearances on the topic of maternal narcissism. Contact Dr. Karyl for more information.


  1. It’s true that a narcissistic parent can lead to codependent children. My belief is that narcissists are codependent, too, with very little sense of self or boundaries, and extreme shame and dependency upon others’ adoration. Where the parent love-bond is insecure, it affects the entire family. Often men of over-involved mothers become grandiose narcissists. Where the mother is a narcissist, often the father turns to a daughter for closeness. She not only is feels unnurtured and unseen by her mother, due to over-involvement with her father, she’s full of self-doubt and has unsatisfactory relationships with men. They’re either unavailable, abusive, or not good enough. Thank you for your important work in this field. I see many codependent clients hurt by shame due to a narcissistic parent or partner.
    Darlene Lancer, LMFT
    Author of “Codependency for Dummies”

  2. Hi Darlene , I can so relate to what you say , and a lot of other people (John Bradshaw/Bob Earllle Peter Charad , John and Linda Friel )
    Yet what I dont hear is HOW TO STOP being like this ??

    I Intellectualise EVERYTHING , and re read / over analyse etc , to the enth degree

    I am a recovered alcoholic of 15 years , and until recently , STILL felt as if I was NOT part of Life
    These feelings inside ,those that turn me inside out every day still persist and it continues to do so without let
    Now I see the Narcissism/Co Dependent stuff I have always had
    Any Ideas ? Tips ?

  3. I’d like to add some constructive criticism concerning narcissim vs. empathy. I don’t think that empathy is the opposite of narcissm. All empathy means is that one is able to comprehend what another person is feeling. That says nothing about how they use that information. A narcissistic person could very well be empathetic which makes them more effective at using people for their narcissistic supply. I think the antithesis of narcissism would be compassion. Compassionate people not only relate to what the other person is feeling, but they have benevolent intentions towards them. This is not to be confused with sympathy. Sympathy is impotent, it’s just feeling sorry for somebody. Compassion takes action to relieve suffering.