Everything we’ve been describing so far might explain why you feel so frustrated. Yet in order to understand a bit more about how being involved with a narcissist (a non-individuated person) can be so crazy-making, it’s helpful to look a little closer at some of the dynamics. This chapter will try to illuminate the confusion generated by being involved with a narcissist.
Frequently, this dysfunction is explained away as what marriage or partnership requires for success. Inter-relatedness cannot happen because there is no emotional separation. You’ll assume you have affinity because all the appropriate markers are there. But the underlying feeling of closeness will be missing most of the time. A narcissist will hear about emotional relating from other people, will be able to speak the language of relationships, and have no idea that he is fundamentally different. You probably won’t either.
A narcissist doesn’t interact; she either acts or reacts. If you pay close attention to your own reactions when you are with her, you’ll be able to discern a particular feeling. It’s impossible to put into words, but it’s like dealing with a person behind glass: you can see her and talk to her but you can’t really touch her or be touched by her. If you’re used to being around narcissists, it might feel familiar and no warning bells will sound for you. A narcissist can strike the pose of any emotion, but the authentic experience will be missing. Instead, there are “simulated authentic emotions”—the motions without the actual emotions. This may be hard to detect, but it might be a persistent feeling of flatness or that something seems “off.”
Often a narcissist is busy reviewing her rule book, the “to do” list of actions appropriate to keep another person happy. “Just tell me what to do and I’ll do it,” is a common refrain of the narcissist. She is responding to you not in an engaged, interactive way, but rather in a “What am I supposed to do so you’ll get off my back?” kind of way. For the receiver in a primary relationship with a narcissist, life feels flat and dispirited because there is no “other,” no distinct individual with whom to return the relational volley with emotional authenticity. Instead, you become the stable backboard against which the ball bounces as he plays his best game. Step away from the backboard, start moving, and the problems begin. She’ll meet you with her intellect and her rules to try to do what she thinks might placate you in a given situation. Sometimes it works, or convinces you of her earnest allegiance, but essentially, the relating falls flat. The appropriate actions might be present. But it still feels disappointing or somehow off the mark because it is not authentic.
It’s easy to miss what is actually happening, because it has the markers of socially appropriate, or familiar, behavior. she’ll be frustrated if you are displeased with her rule-bound attempts to meet your desires. Her frustration can often hook you again and force you to return to your position as the “stable backboard” and the relationship pattern that works for her. When it comes to a “love” relationship, she may do what it takes to “show” love, but the actual feelings that motivate the motions are absent. She may say she loves you, she may think she loves you; she does not know that something fundamental is amiss and that love as most people know it is not possible with her. Often intimate relationships look picture perfect to outsiders; in that situation, the narcissist has been a careful observer and knows how to present as a caring mate. If the relationship is a romantic one, the situation can be deeply distressing. The words and markers of love may be present and you are likely to think it means you are loved.
Yet when you encounter contradictory behavior, you don’t feel the love, and you don’t feel “seen” or “gotten” or “understood.” This may make you wonder, “What is wrong with me?” This confusion can be deepened by the fact that a narcissist may profess that you are SO special to her. And you know you are special because she invited you to be the special one for him while she expressed disdain for so many others. What you didn’t know is that in agreeing to join this relationship you inadvertently joined her reality, excluding your own. You are now enmeshed, essentially one being on the unconscious level. In this position of mirroring you cannot feel love because love is the emotional exchange between two separate beings. Narcissist never feel respected or loved enough; they’re an empty vessel into which you pour your loving essence. But it runs right through with nowhere to land. They may present themselves as wanting closeness, but they’ll be clueless about how to foster it and will fail to do so. Again, you may think there is something wrong with you. You may try all sorts of tactics to get her essential attention, but you never experience the ahhhhh of contentment. Louise Kaplan, one of psychology’s experts on narcissism, points out, “If lovers do not appreciate one another’s separateness, love stagnates.”