When you're in love with someone, you hope they love you back. But when you're dating a narcissist, it's hard to know if they truly do love you. When they proclaim their affection for you, but act highly self-centered, the relationship becomes very confusing. Learn to discern between the various levels of narcissism, and find out the answer to the question: Can narcissists love?
The term narcissistic has become so common that it is often used casually to describe a person who is being self-centered at just one specific point in time. This is very different than someone who could be diagnosed with full-blown narcissistic personality disorder (NPD). In other words, there is a narcissism spectrum.
Traits of Narcissism
Someone may exhibit certain narcissistic traits but they are not truly a narcissist. Perhaps they need regular reassurance that they are doing a good job, fantasize about being famous, or quickly get defensive.
These qualities do not necessarily mean that the person has NPD. They could be explained by other issues such as anxiety, depression, or simply the human desire to make a positive mark on the world. In such cases, the person can give and receive love.
Someone who is actually diagnosed with NPD, can fall somewhere on the spectrum between mild and severe. Furthermore, to have the diagnosis, the person must believe themselves to be perfect, need to be constantly admired by others, and lack empathy (the ability to imagine and appreciate the feelings and experiences of others). These traits are pervasive in all areas of their life.
Someone at the low end of the narcissism spectrum has about four to five of the criteria for the disorder. They could consider themselves to be better than others, fantasize about unlimited success, be arrogant, seek constant admiration, and lack empathy.
In such a case, what the person probably lacks is compassionate love, or the ability to care for the well-being of humankind in general. This type of love is important for servant leadership; narcissists are known for aspiring and rising to positions of leadership, however, they are not successful when they are in those positions.
Someone with mild narcissism would be able to receive romantic love. Though not impossible, giving romantic love would be more challenging for them. Their struggle would lie in the ability to empathize with you. When someone has a hard time empathizing, they have a hard time understanding why an experience is difficult for you. When they don't understand, they don't know how to meet your needs. In such a case, more communication is necessary. You would have to state to your partner exactly what you need from them.
Someone at the high end of the narcissism spectrum exhibits all of the criteria for NPD. Throughout all aspects of their life they:
- Consider themselves superior to others
- Lack empathy for others
- Consider themselves to be very special and important, and therefore only other high-status people can understand them
- Fantasize often about unlimited success, power, beauty or love
- Have a strong sense of entitlement
- Exploit others to achieve their own goals
- Exhibit arrogance or haughty behavior
- Envy others or believes others are envious of them
- Seek out and expect constant admiration
Those at this far end of the spectrum are so strongly focused on themselves that they are able to receive romantic love, but not give it. They exhibit a love style that is immature and focused on getting their own needs and interests met. They tend to avoid commitments and show less care and concern for their partner.
How Does Someone Become Narcissistic?
Often times narcissistic traits arise from very low self-esteem stemming from childhood adversity such as severe poverty, abuse or trauma. Narcissists overcompensate for their low self-esteem by trying to present themselves to others as perfect and praiseworthy.
It has been argued that NPD (and all personality disorders) cannot be treated per se but rather, a person can learn to manage their traits in order to better fit in with society. Furthermore, any change in a narcissist can take a very long time and requires intense, frequent therapy.
Can Narcissists Genuinely Love?
The short answer is no. At the same time, it depends on what traits they exhibit and where they fall on the spectrum of narcissism. Someone who only has a few traits but not the disorder can find true love. For someone at the low-to-moderate end of the spectrum, genuine love is possible, but will be more challenging. It is impossible or nearly impossible for a severe narcissist to experience a relationship in which they are genuinely loving.
What Does This Mean for Me?
It is hard to think that the person you love doesn't love you back, and may never be able to. And it may seem impossible to know exactly how your partner feels about you.
Therefore, it can be helpful to think of love as an action, and for all intents and purposes, it is. You might not be able to know exactly how your partner feels but they could give you thoughtful gifts or spend quality time with you doing activities you both enjoy.
The more realistic and helpful question you can ask yourself is not "Do they love me?" but rather, "Do I feel cared for; and is this person meeting my needs?"
Looking to the Future
The answer to "can they love me?" depends on their unique personality and the type of love they are capable of showing. These are the things to consider as you ponder and evaluate your relationship.