The stereotype of the narcissist is that of the good-looking, glittering, bragging extrovert. But there’s another type, one less familiar to the public but very familiar to science: the shy narcissist. And being in a relationship with such a person is an ordeal of its own.
“Kohut spoke of these two types of narcissist,” says Amina Taiber, a clinical psychologist and until recently the science-committee chief at the Israel Association for Self Psychology, founded by psychoanalyst Heinz Kohut.
“The shy narcissist, like the self-important one, has a large hole in his soul that’s difficult to fill, but unlike the braggart he doesn’t know how to accept the admiration that he requires in large quantities,” Taiber says.
“It’s like the child who yearns for compliments, but when the teacher praises him in class he blushes. One is more outer directed and one more inner directed, but both experience very painful neediness."
And with their partner their hidden needs increase.
“What does a narcissist need? To be told that he’s God – that’s what motivates him all the time,” Taiber says. “He needs his wife to tell him ‘you’re the best thing in the world.’ Such a statement is likely to embarrass the shy narcissist, but deep inside he needs such admiration just as much.”
So what can the partner do?
“Kohut said the couple relationship works when each partner goes crazy in turn,” Taiber says. “As long as the partner can absorb the vulnerabilities of the other and help him with them, the relationship can be balanced and work. If not, they can go for therapy.”
Narcissism develops, unsurprisingly, based on the relationship with one’s parents, notes Orna Reuven, a clinical psychologist and fellow at the Tel Aviv Institute for Contemporary Psychoanalysis.
“In the psychoanalytical perspective, during emotional development in childhood there’s a transition of energy from self-love, which is healthy and positive, to love for the people who take care of me, usually the parents. The problems begin when there’s a failure to form a good relationship with the caregiver,” Reuven says.
“If no one in the world protects me, I feel I have to manage on my own and invest all my love in myself. This child grows up to be the man who, when his wife praises another man they meet at a party, regresses to become the little abandoned boy who feels unloved – and he defends himself,” Reuven adds.
“Suddenly you have a large peacock who spreads his tail and says ‘He’s talented? He’s a loser, I’m wonderful and smart, I’ve never failed,’ and immediately a quarrel begins. The partner isn’t an analyst, she’s not supposed to understand that inside the peacock there’s a terrified child. These are moments when a great distance is created between the two.”
In analytical jargon this belligerence is called “narcissistic anger,” and many therapists experience it when they try to create contact with the sensitive patient, “the hurt child” inside the narcissist, and foster a healing relationship.
Reuven notes that a generous helping of self-love is vital in order to function as a partner, a parent and a person in general.
“When parents are impressed by their child, they’re also impressed by the wonderful things the child received from them,” Reuven says. “If you’re incapable of being pleased with yourself, you can’t give to anyone else. Self-love is extremely important; the question is when it becomes rigid and problematic.”
In other words, when love for oneself negates any other love.
It turns out that narcissists don’t necessarily marry people like themselves, at least according to a study published in Personality Disorders: Theory, Research and Treatment, a journal of the American Psychological Association. In the study, the researchers examined the married lives of narcissistic newlyweds.
Using questionnaires, they followed 146 newlywed couples over four years, checking the degree and nature of the subjects’ narcissism, as well as their satisfaction with the relationship. The researchers found only scant evidence that narcissists tend to marry other narcissists.
Nor did they find the opposite; narcissists don’t tend to marry weak, neurotic “victim types." Meanwhile, narcissistic women experience less satisfaction and more problems with the relationship as time goes on.
For men, narcissism doesn’t interfere with the relationship, and even helps in certain cases. The researchers note that men tend to be more narcissistic than women, so there may be some degree of normalcy in a man with a high level of narcissism, whereas in a woman, narcissism is seen as extremely negative.