Can a narcissist love?

Anyone who has ever loved a narcissist wonders, “Does he really love me?” “Does she appreciate me?” They are torn between their love and their pain, between staying or going, but they can’t seem to do either. Some use that they are loved; others are convinced that they are not. It’s confusing, because sometimes they experience the caring person they love, whose company is a joy, only to be followed by behavior that makes them feel unimportant or inadequate. Narcissists claim to love their family and partners, but do they?

how a narcissist loves

Narcissists can show passion in the early stages of dating. But that kind of passion, according to Jungian analyst Robert Johnson, “is always directed at our own projections, our own expectations, our own fantasies… It’s not a love for another person, but for ourselves.” Such relationships provide positive attention and sexual satisfaction to support a narcissist’s ego and self-esteem. For most narcissists, their relationships are transactional. His goal is to enjoy pleasure without compromise. (Campbell, et al.) They are playing a game, and the goal is to win. They are attractive and energetic and possess an emotional intelligence that helps them perceive, express, understand and manage emotions. (Dellic, et al., 2011) This helps them manipulate people to win their love and admiration. They boast of being respected, loved and gratified. Also, their good social skills allow them to make a good initial first impression. They can show great interest in romantic prospects and seduce with generosity, expressions of love, flattery, sex, romance, and promises of commitment. Amorous narcissists (Don Juan and Mata Hari types) are skilled and persuasive lovers and can have many conquests but remain single. Some narcissists lie and/or practice love bombing overwhelming their prey with verbal, physical and material expressions of love.

Narcissists lose interest as the expectation of intimacy increases or when they have won at their game. Many have trouble maintaining a relationship for more than six months to a few years. They prioritize power over intimacy and detest vulnerability, which they consider weak. To maintain control, they avoid closeness and prefer dominance and superiority over others. The game therefore strikes the perfect balance of meeting your needs and keeping your options open to flirt or date multiple partners.

A sudden breakup can be traumatic for your ex, who is taken aback by your unexpected change of heart: proposing one minute, then dating the next. They feel confused, crushed, discarded, and betrayed. Had the relationship continued, they would have eventually seen through the narcissist’s seductive guise.

Some narcissists are pragmatic in their approach to relationships and focus on their goals. They may also develop positive feelings towards their partner, but more based on friendship and shared interests. If they do get married, they lack the motivation to maintain their romantic facade and use defenses to avoid closeness. They become cold, judgmental, and angry, especially when challenged or when they don’t get their way. They are likely to support their spouse’s needs and desires only when it is inconvenient and their ego is satisfied. After devaluing their partner, they need to look elsewhere to prop up their inflated ego.

The challenges for a narcissist

True love is not romance, and it is not codependency. For Aristotle and Saint Thomas Aquinas, it is “willing the good of another”. In The Psychology of Romantic Love Nathaniel Branden states that “To love a human being is to know and love his person. (1980, p. 50) It is a union of two individuals, which requires us to see another person as separate from ourselves. Furthermore, in The Art of Loving, Erich Fromm (1945) emphasizes that love implies an effort to develop knowledge, responsibility and commitment. Pleasure in her happiness and trying not to hurt her.

When we love, we show an active concern for their life and growth. We try to understand your experience and world view, even though it may differ from ours. Caring involves offering attention, respect, support, compassion and acceptance. We must dedicate the necessary time and discipline. Romantic love can turn into love, but narcissists are not motivated to really know and understand others. (Ritter, et al.)

According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, narcissists lack empathy. They are “unwilling to acknowledge or identify with the feelings and needs of others.” (APA, 2013) Research shows that they have structural abnormalities in brain regions associated with emotional empathy. (Schulze, et al. 2013) Therefore, their ability to respond emotionally appropriately and express care and concern is significantly impaired.

Narcissists have several obstacles to love. First, they do not see themselves or others clearly. First, they experience people as extensions of themselves, rather than as separate individuals with different needs, desires, and feelings. Second, they overestimate their own emotional empathy (Ritter, et al). Third, your defenses distort your perceptions and interactions with others. They brag and withdraw to control closeness and vulnerability, project unwanted negative aspects of themselves onto others, and use denial, entitlement, and narcissistic abuse, including blame, contempt, criticism, and aggression, to protect themselves from shame. Perfectionist narcissists callously despise others and may attempt to destroy adversaries to maintain their illusion of perfection. All of these issues affect the ability of narcissists to accurately take in another person’s reality, including that person’s love for them. In fact, the emotional intelligence of narcissists helps them manipulate and exploit others to get what they want, while their impaired emotional empathy numbs them to the pain they inflict.

Can we measure love?

Love is difficult to measure, but research shows that people feel love expressed by: 1) words of affirmation, 2) spending quality time, 3) giving gifts, 4) acts of service, and 5) physical contact.. (Goff, et al. 2007) Another study revealed that participants also felt loved by a partner who: 1) showed interest in their affairs; 2) gave them emotional and moral support; (3) intimate facts revealed; 4) expressed feelings for them, such as “I’m happy when I’m around you”; and 5) tolerated their demands and shortcomings to maintain the relationship. (Swenson, 1992, p. 92)


People who love narcissists are hungry for many of these expressions of love. Sometimes narcissists are remote, dismissive, or aggressive; other times, they show interest and concern and are helpful. It’s not that narcissists are incapable of feeling or even intellectually understanding someone’s feelings. The problem appears to be rooted in childhood trauma and physiological deficits that affect emotional appraisal, reflection, and proper empathic expression. (Unconscious or unexpressed: “I love you, but”); Expressed: “I’m too busy to go to the hospital” sounds rather cold, but may not reflect the narcissist’s love for the hospitalized person. When the importance of a visit is explained to them, they may make the trip.

They can show love when they are motivated. Their love is conditional, depending on the impact on the narcissist. Narcissism exists on a continuum from mild to malignant, when severe, selfishness and inability to express love become more apparent when higher demands are placed on a narcissist. Dating or long-distance relationships that have fewer expectations are easier.

Bottom line Wondering if a narcissist loves you is the wrong question. Although it is wise to understand the mind of a narcissist, like Echo in the Narcissus myth, couples focus too much on the narcissist to their detriment. Instead, ask yourself if you feel valued, respected, and loved. Are you meeting your needs? If not, how is that affecting you and your self-esteem and what can you do about it?

© Darlene Lancer 2018

American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders Arlington, VA.: American Psychiatric Publications.

Branden, N. (1980). The psychology of romantic love. Los Angeles: J.P. Tarcher, Inc.

Campbell, WK, Finkel, EJ, & Foster, CA (2002). Does self-love lead to love for others? A narcissistic game story. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 83(2), 340-354.

Delic, A., Novak, P., Kovacic, J. & Avsec, A. (2011). Self-reported emotional and social intelligence and empathy as distinctive predictors of narcissism”. Psychological Themes 20(3), 477-488.

Fromm, E., (1956). the art of Loving. New York: Harper & Brothers Publishers.

Goff, BG, Goddard, HW, Pointer, L. & Jackson, GB (2007). Measures of expressions of love. Psychological reports, 101, 357-360.

Johnson, R.A. (1945). We, understanding the psychology of romantic love. San Francisco: Harper & Row Publisher.

Lancer, D.A. (2017). “I’m not perfect, I’m only human” – How to beat perfectionism. Los Angeles: Carousel Books.

Lancer, D.A. (2014). Conquering Shame and Codependency: 8 Steps to Unleash the Real You. Downtown: Hazelden Foundation.

Ritter, K., et al. (2010). Lack of empathy in patients with narcissistic personality disorder, Research in Psychiatry.

Schultze, L., et al. (2013). Gray matter abnormalities in patients with narcissistic personality disorder. psychiatric research47(10), 1363-1369.

Swenson, C. (1972). The Behavior of Love. In HA Otto (Ed.) love today (pp. 86-101). New York: Dell Publishing.

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