The New York Times #1 best selling author Gary Chapman helped change millions of couples’ lives with his book “The Five Love Languages.” Chapman explains the fact that different people feel loved in different ways – some prefer acts of service, others gifts or physical touch, while some people prefer quality time or my personal favorite words of affirmation.
But, what about narcissists? Do they follow the rules of these love languages or do they have their own set of rules for feeling “loved?” If you have ever had a toxic partner, parent or friend you probably gave and gave and gave and GAVE and it never felt like enough. You probably felt like the finish line was always moving and you were always losing. You tried gifts, time, touch, attention, flattery but it never seemed to work. And, despite putting enormous effort into the relationship, you were probably told to try harder and to do better.
What you missed is that it was never supposed to work. In fact, the love language of the narcissist is to get you to do all the work of the relationship. They feel “loved” when you are proving your love and loyalty. They believe you are invested into the relationship when you invest more into them than you invest in you. They believe you care when they see you exhausted from the endless trying. They feel cherished when you feel weary.
The narcissist has a love bucket with a hole in the bottom. What they need from you and others is to use your attention and energy to fill the bucket. The narcissist feels “loved” watching people work to fill the bucket. The problem is there is a hole in the bottom of the bucket so no matter how hard you work, how many compliments you give or sacrifices you make the bucket never fills up. Yet, if you take a break from the exhaustion or ask the narcissist to help fill up your bucket you will quickly experience “the flip.” The narcissist will flip the situation to make you feel bad.
“Gosh, you are so lazy. I just asked for you to do one little thing” or “You need to get some realistic expectations. No wonder your last boss fired you. You’re too high maintenance.” Maybe they say “Who would have thought someone as strong in their faith as you are could be as selfish as you are. Don’t you have rules about giving to others?” or “I’m so tired of having to do everything to make this relationship work. Being with you is exhausting.”
When this happens trying to love the narcissist makes you feel like you are going crazy! You are doing everything in your power to make the narcissist happy and then the narcissist says you are selfish, high maintenance, too sensitive or lazy. In reality the narcissist is accusing you of the very character traits the narcissist is exhibiting. Remember, love to a narcissist means you doing the work of the relationship and them avoiding the work of the relationship (and, the work of their own growth!) If they don’t feel “loved” because you stop filling up the bucket they feel it is their right to flip things on you so you take up the work of the relationship again. Their love language says, “If you love me you will be unselfish so I can be selfish.”
This works because narcissists are smart enough to use this tactic on really great people – empathetic souls, caretakers, people dedicated to being a good person, partner, or family member. These people want to be kind, caring, loyal and forgiving so they keep trying to fill the toxic person’s bucket. They aren’t dumb, but they are good! And, because they are good and would never do this to someone else they miss the fact that someone else is constantly asking them to do all the work of the relationship. They miss the PATTERN of what is happening to them.
Remember the old expression “You can’t see the forest for the trees?” It means you can’t see the whole picture because you keep getting caught up in the details of specific incidents. Toxic people want to keep you worried about the specific incidences so you miss the pattern of their behavior. They want to keep running you into trees so you don’t see the forest. An example of a tree would be pointing out your behavior in a certain incident. “if you hadn’t been late (or talked to another human or said something I don’t like, etc.) then I wouldn’t have had to get mad, cheat on you, break something, or some other type of punishing behavior. The tree is the one specific circumstance that they keep you focused on. The pattern of all the trees put together as a forest is “If you don’t do what I like then I get to punish you until you start doing what I want again.”
This process is obviously incredibly confusing and painful for the person trying to love the narcissist. It’s like driving a motorcycle through a forest without a helmet, trying to stay on the path, being thrown off the bike and hitting your head against every tree. A few incidences of hitting your head against the tree means your mind focuses on surviving rather than using your creative capacity to thrive. So of course you focus on trying to avoid the next tree vs seeing the pattern of the forest.
Meanwhile, the focus on missing the next tree, the next fight, the next bad mood means you are completely focused on the needs of the narcissist rather than the needs of your own life. When a narcissist sees this, and yes they can see it, they feel “loved.” Never mind that the partners, children or friends of the narcissist are completely exhausted – that their nervous systems have been in such a state of hyper-vigilance that anxiety has become as normal as a companion as the sound of their own voices.
People hope pointing out the pattern and helping the narcissist see they have a hole in the bottom of their bucket will create change in the narcissist. This is unfortunately operating off the belief that the narcissist wants to change – that the narcissist can love someone so much that the narcissist will want to stop being selfish. Partners or children of narcissists hope that with the right conversation or intervention the narcissists will want to stop always getting their way. The hope is that the narcissist will want to start taking responsibility for bad behavior rather than flipping the blame on others. I’ve seen a lot more hoping for change than actual change.
Pop culture and our society enforce these beliefs. Our movies, songs, and ads convince us if we become more lovable that we will make someone else better at loving. We think with the right book, retreat or therapist we can patch the hole in the bottom of the bucket. So, we do the work of searching for the solution. We beat ourselves up trying to become more understanding, more patient, more forgiving, more well….everything.
And, with all that work you once again play into the love language of the narcissist. The only thing that ends up changing is that you work even more and hope even harder. The narcissist feels “loved” because you keep working to make the relationship work, but they certainly don’t give you any credit and they don’t change, because while you see love as connection they see love as control.
It’s time to forgive you. To recognize you could never be so lovable or perfect that the relationship would have been different. And, it would never have been different because your (very healthy and rational) goal is to not become exhausted from trying to prove your love and watching you keep trying to prove your love is how the narcissist feels loved. Your actions, your efforts, your hope wasn’t wrong. You were doing everything “right” when you were working and working. You simply thought that, eventually, if you worked hard enough it would payoff. You thought if you worked hard enough you could get back to a place of rest within the relationship. Yet, because you were never able to rest the narcissist felt like the relationship was working.
The missing piece of the puzzle was the pattern. The pattern that it was always one person’s job to do the work of the relationship and it is the other person’s job to avoid doing the work of the relationship. Because the love language of the narcissist is always more.
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