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?
Narcissistic Parents and Romantic Relationships
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.
Narcissistic Parents Effect on Our Unconscious
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 intelligence that 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 & Dependencies
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.
Assessing Your Love Commitments
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.