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Updated: Aug 1, 2021

How self-love can undermine our relationships

Excessive self-love or narcissism is the current plague of relationships and it's not simply about being selfish. We might be largely unaware of how self-centered we are in a relationship. We can talk at length but nothing seems to shift. Relationship conflict becomes more reactive while emotional needs seem to escalate coupled by the paradox of increasing withdrawal. Our lovemaking might be tender, even ecstatic, but lacks real connection. And as time goes by, an edge of menace or even abuse appears. One of the way forward in our relationships is by understanding the unique dynamics of how narcissistic relationships work. According to Dr. Stevens, there are nine types of narcissists: Craver, Special Lover, Power Broker, Body Shaper, Rager, Trickster, Fantasy Maker, Martyr, and Rescuer.

  • Craver: Is all about pure need - a bottomless well that can never be filled. This need is experienced as an aching hunger that is fleetingly satisfied as he or she finds it hard to hold on to the experience of being loved. Naturally, this can be taxing and frustrating for the partner. The craver's fundamental problem is an inability to soothe, nurture, comfort or sustain the self that manifests in clinging dependence in relationships. Their partners may feel that meeting their escalating demands and emotional needs are like pouring sand into a sieve. The craver's desperation can be so intense that they get their needs met in manipulative and even exploitative ways.

  • Special Lover: A 'true believer' in romantic love. Their emotional life is rich - full of feeling. Intimacy in the relationship is based on unguarded self-disclosure. They are very empathic in the initial phase. However, there tends to be an underlying theme of grandiosity - "Our love is unique. No one can love you like I can. You are in pain and I understand." Their relationship starts with idealization, then denial and eventually a realization of an undesirable reality. The intense romance gives way to bitter disappointment as they tend to harbor remarkable intolerance for any imperfection in the partner. Once admitted, usually reluctantly, this means the end of the lofty dream. It all eventually contributes to the growing instability of the relationship and often an explosive end.

  • Power Broker: They are in love with power and typically have 'trophy' relationship in which an attractive partner is displayed along with other tokens of status. Relationships are eventually troubled. This is partially due to them having an impoverished inner life with little to give in an emotional sense. Their partner feels a growing dissatisfaction and inevitable frustration. They themselves find it natural to use power in relationships and their partner experiences this as being very possessive and highly controlling - or simply abusive.

  • Body Shaper: It's all about looking good. However, all the assets are external. The values are familiar: fashion, image, glamour, youth, and beauty. This does not refer to say - an office worker on the way to the gym for a regular workout but refers more to a disturbance in personality. There is an excessive need for admiration. Characteristics include self-esteem linked to body image, an unrelenting perfectionism, and an obsession with the perfect body. They tend to externalize internal problems as if adding muscle bulk or looking more beautiful will solve emotional problems. Denial is the most common defense. It is a tendency to not want to see what might be less than ideal. This incorporates the futile struggle to fight the aging process as aging is the ultimate confrontation with reality. Similar to the Craver, their intensity and depth of need can be scary which can lead to both 'throw away' relationships and a deep dependence on an intimate other. Their emotional need can be smothering and controlling, which tends to lead to a growing crisis and eventually a sudden ending - with sometimes desperate consequences.

  • Rager: This is a common and somewhat narcissistic type of personality. There's a barely regulated rage that simmers below the surface. Unhappiness is expressed with increasing hostility. There are episodes of explosive rage with 'irrational,' perplexing or unexplainable causes. At times violence is a factor, but usually, it is verbal abuse that 'lashes out' at anyone nearby. Characteristically they are hypersensitive to any perceived insult - whether intended or not. Everything is taken personally and usually interpreted as an attack. What sparks the rage is the sense of hurt to the self - which is called the narcissistic injury.

Relationship with a rager can sometimes be exciting for the range of emotions and unpredictable behaviour as some of them can be very loving and generous with affection. However, warmth and scalding hot are on the same scale. The aftermath of even ugly conflict can be intense sexual encounters that feel all the more erotic because of earlier menace.

  • Trickster: They are charming, engaging, smooth and inviting. Unfortunately, this attractiveness is a veneer on a disturbed personality. Behind the 'trust me' messages there is only malicious intent. They have the personality of the 'con-artist' or worse. Their motives are deeply hidden and they tend to have a sense of limitless entitlement and exploitation of others. They are ruthless in relationships and are delighted in fooling their lovers or partners with sexual infidelity, fraud, or even criminal conspiracy. The impact on the victim is usually shattering akin to 'psychic vandalism.' The resulting damage is not easily repaired and may take years of patient building of boundaries, finding ways of better self-protection and perhaps eventually the capacity to trust again.

  • Fantasy Maker: They have elaborate fantasies. All of their excitement dwells in the realm of the inner world. The real world tends to intrude and this intrusion creates resentment. They have an external appearance of superficiality, flightiness, and emptiness. There may be considerable social anxiety accompanied by awkwardness. Think of them as - inner riches, outer poverty. Their grandiosity is located in their inner life. Their fantasy evokes a good feeling on demand which forms the basis of all kinds of addiction. Since reality is cold and harsh, they tend to avoid it as long as possible. They have a pervasive distrust of the outer realm which they find frustrating and withholding. Their need is so powerful that retreat is necessary and the inner world can always be counted upon to provide gratification. Rather than enhancing personal growth, their fantasy feeds their illusion of independence - the perfect escape for the perfectionist! They tend to thrive in isolation as people tend to intrude and potentially mess things up for them. Best way for these types to find their way back to reality is to shift loyalty from the realm of fantasy to the world we all inhabit.

  • Martyr: For them - suffering is all. Their personal identity is constructed around being in pain or being a victim or even a survivor. Pain justifies a pervasive self focus, with parasitic demands and potentially exploitive relationships. They tend to carry a lot of emotional baggage. Their past pain is never really past. It tends to contaminate present problems and makes it impossible to find any emotional clarity. In a way, there is never too much pain. Their pain is no ordinary pain but rather a narcissistic pain with grandiose features. Their only consolation, 'No one has suffered as I have suffered.' There may even be a transcendent dimension with a religious meaning - God sanctions the pain. Martyrs easily form relationships with someone who 'needs to be needed.' The victim story can be captivating and sometimes even controlling. It offers a way to exercise considerable power in a relationship or family. But the inevitable lack of balance can sour their relationships. It is not surprising that friends, partners, and family eventually feel manipulated and resentful. So when everyone leaves the martyr they have yet another reason for self-pity.

  • Rescuer: They are usually seen as virtuous and they tend to inhabit the 'high moral ground' of relationships. They tend to be helpful, considerate, and nice. Well, almost always. They find themselves drawn to unbalanced relationships and will over-function in the relationship and end up feeling exhausted and resentful. Eventually, they ask the question, 'Why aren't my needs being met?' The way the rescuer is narcissistic lies in their hidden grandiosity, 'It is up to me and only me who can really change things.' According to Dr. Arnstein, rescuers are like a 'loan shark' in relationships. What appears to be a gift always comes with strings attached. The strings gradually become more obvious and can include financial or sexual exploitation. The dark side is most obvious when there is a guru or messianic quality justified by extreme religious views. Rescuers find it difficult to step out of their roles. It is usually a role learnt in childhood - as the parentified child in a dysfunctional family.

Can you recognize yourself or your partner in these narcissistic types? Remember, these types are rarely pure in form. For example, a Craver can become a Rager when needs are blocked. Narcissism, like coffee, usually comes in blends :)

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