Counseling Today, Online Exclusives

The dance between codependents and narcissists

By Ross Rosenberg March 12, 2014

We therapists live for moments when everything “clicks” and our clients arrive at an understanding that had eluded them until that moment. There is nothing more rewarding than when a well-placed analogy or metaphor creates the breakthrough moment. When spot-on, the resulting “lightbulb” reaction or “aha” moment is priceless.

dancersOf all of the metaphors I use in psychotherapy, the “dance” has been the most provocative and powerfully impactful with my clients who are codependent. It has helped them understand their predilection for choosing “dance partners” who are ultimately controlling and harmful. It has also assisted them in coming to terms with their seemingly magnetic attraction to narcissistic romantic partners. Over time, the dance metaphor developed into one of my favorite psychotherapeutic techniques because it helped to facilitate perception of rigid thought patterns, break down systems of denial and enable emotional and intellectual understanding of dysfunctional relationship dynamics.

The dance metaphor works because it almost perfectly aligns with what we know about real dancing partnerships. For example, compatible dancers are well matched in their approach or roles: one always needs to be the leader and the other the follower. The leader always navigates the dance with precision, and the follower acquiesces seamlessly. These two choose songs to dance to that they know completely and intuitively. They are exquisitely attuned to the other’s dancing style, moves and idiosyncrasies. To an onlooker, it appears that they dance with ESP, each knowing and predicting the other’s moves before they happen.

Individuals who are codependent “dance” so well with individuals who are narcissists because their pathological personalities or “dance styles” are complementary. In other words, they are perfectly matched partners. Their well-matched dance preferences bond them together in a resilient and lasting partnership, even if one or both partners are unhappy, resentful or angry. As well-matched dancers, they perform magnificently on the dance floor because they instinctively expect each other’s moves. They dance effortlessly with each other, as if they have always danced together. Each knows his or her role and sticks to it. But it is dysfunctional compatibility that is the driving force behind this dynamic dancing duo.

As perfectly compatible dancing partners, the narcissist dancer is the “yin” to the codependent’s “yang.” The giving, sacrificial and passive nature of the person who is codependent matches up perfectly with the entitled, demanding and self-centered traits of the individual who is narcissistic. Like human magnets, codependents and narcissists continue their rocky and seemingly unstable relationship because of their opposite dance roles or, as I refer to them, their “magnetic roles.” The lasting bond created by these perfectly matched human magnets or dysfunctional dancers is interminably powerful, binding them together despite myriad consequences or shared unhappiness. Although their rollercoaster relationship provokes more anxiety and disconnect than happiness, both seem compelled to continue the dance.

These perfectly matched dancers always seem to nail their dance routines, which is to be expected because they have been practicing their passive and predictive dance moves their whole adult lives. The dancing skills of someone who is codependent are distinctly connected to the person’s reflexive dysfunctional agility — the ability to be attuned to the cues, gestures and self-serving movements of their narcissist partners. In almost every facet of their life, individuals who are codependent pride themselves on knowing what people want and need, almost before their friends, family members or partners know it themselves. Hence, the codependent person is adept at anticipating his or her narcissist partner’s moves, while still experiencing the dance as a positive experience.

Conversely, “dancers” who are narcissistic are drawn to codependent partners because they are allowed to feel dominant, secure and in control in an activity that brings them much attention, praise and appreciation. They habitually choose or fall in love with codependent dance partners because they are given open and tacit permission to be the center of focus, lead the direction of the dance and, ultimately, determine where, when and how the dance will proceed. In other words, the narcissist’s grandiosity, entitlement and need to be in control are not only allowed by his or her codependent partner, but also paradoxically make the partner feel safe and secure in the dance.

The dance metaphor has been instrumental to my work with codependent clientele because it helped them understand their persistent dysfunctional attraction pattern to hurtful and selfish narcissistic romantic partners. It also helped them in breaking their perpetual and reflexive patterns of choosing dance partners who initially felt perfect but eventually revealed themselves to be so wrong — even harmful — for them. As a relative who sadly is a narcissist once told me when explaining the nature of relationships: “The soul mate of your dreams is gonna become the cellmate of your nightmares.”

Therapy that utilizes my dance metaphor consistently provokes a deeper understanding of dysfunctional relationship patterns.  Over time, my clients have developed the confidence, insight and feelings of personal efficacy and power to break free from their dysfunctional relationship patterns. Released from their propensity to fall in love with narcissists, these “recovering” codependents are finally able to fall reflexively, if not magnetically, into the arms of a loving, desirable and emotionally healthy dance partner.

In 2007, following an inspiring breakthrough therapy session with one of my clients, I decided to consolidate all of my ideas about the codependent/narcissist dance phenomenon into an essay titled “Codependency, Don’t Dance.” The essay flowed from me with ease because I had been contemplating and talking about these concepts for more than five years. I would later realize that the ideas had been marinating in my mind ever since I made the promise to myself that I would put an end to my own penchant for dating, falling in love with and marrying narcissistic women. I have no doubt that if I hadn’t figured out how to change my own dysfunctional dance pattern, the dance “light bulb” never would have appeared above my head.

The essay was an immediate hit with my codependent clients because it seemed to galvanize their understanding of their own dysfunctional and self-defeating relationship choices. It represented my own truism about the psychotherapy process: You can’t change a long-standing dysfunctional pattern until you first understand what it is and where it comes from; the deeper the understanding of the internal processes, the more apt the therapy experience is to yield positive results.

Since writing this essay, it has become the most requested piece of my written work and is also included in my book, The Human Magnet Syndrome: Why We Love People Who Hurt Us. I’m honored and grateful that the essay has helped thousands of people to analyze and, ultimately, understand their seemingly mysterious and habitual relationship patterns with narcissists. What follows is an excerpt of the essay:

 

When a codependent and narcissist come together in their relationship, their dance unfolds flawlessly: The narcissistic partner maintains the lead and the codependent follows. Their roles seem natural to them because they have actually been practicing them their whole lives; the codependent reflexively gives up their power and since the narcissist thrives on control and power, the dance is perfectly coordinated. No one gets their toes stepped on.

Typically, codependents give of themselves much more than their partners give back to them. As “generous” but bitter dance partners, they seem to be stuck on the dance floor, always waiting for the “next song,” at which time they naively hope that their narcissistic partner will finally understand their needs. Codependents confuse caretaking and sacrifice with loyalty and love. Although they are proud of their unwavering dedication to the person they love, they end up feeling unappreciated and used. Codependents yearn to be loved, but because of their choice of dance partner, find their dreams unrealized. With the heartbreak of unfulfilled dreams, codependents silently and bitterly swallow their unhappiness.

Codependents are essentially stuck in a pattern of giving and sacrificing, without the possibility of ever receiving the same from their partner. They pretend to enjoy the dance, but really harbor feelings of anger, bitterness and sadness for not taking an active role in their dance experience. They are convinced that they will never find a dance partner who will love them for who they are, as opposed to what they can do for them. Their low self-esteem and pessimism manifests itself into a form of learned helplessness that ultimately keeps them on the dance floor with their narcissistic partner.

The narcissist dancer, like the codependent, is attracted to a partner who feels perfect to them: Someone who lets them lead the dance while making them feel powerful, competent and appreciated. In other words, the narcissist feels most comfortable with a dancing companion who matches up with their self-absorbed and boldly selfish dance style. Narcissist dancers are able to maintain the direction of the dance because they always find partners who lack self-worth, confidence and who have low self-esteem — codependents. With such a well-matched companion, they are able to control both the dancer and the dance.

Although all codependent dancers desire harmony and balance, they consistently sabotage themselves by choosing a partner who they are initially attracted to, but will ultimately resent. When given a chance to stop dancing with their narcissistic partner and comfortably sit the dance out until someone healthy comes along, they typically choose to continue their dysfunctional dance. They dare not leave their narcissistic dance partner because their lack of self-esteem and self-respect makes them feel like they can do no better. Being alone is the equivalent of feeling lonely, and loneliness is too painful to bear.

Although codependents dream of dancing with an unconditionally loving and affirming partner, they submit to their dysfunctional destiny. Until they decide to heal the psychological wounds that ultimately compel them to dance with their narcissistic dance partners, they will be destined to maintain the steady beat and rhythm of their dysfunctional dance.

Through psychotherapy, and perhaps a 12-step recovery program, the codependent can begin to recognize that their dream to dance the grand dance of love, reciprocity and mutuality is indeed possible. Through therapy and a change of lifestyle, codependents can build (repair) their tattered self-esteem. The journey of healing and transformation will bring them feelings of personal power and efficacy that will foster a desire to finally dance with someone who is willing and capable of sharing the lead, communicating their movements and pursuing a mutual loving rhythmic dance.

In conclusion, it is my belief that all codependents, if motivated and committed to a healing and engaging psychotherapy process, are able to stop their insanity-inducing dance with narcissists. Through a nonwavering belief in one’s self-worth and commitment to the ideal of healthy and resilient love, we all can finally experience personal and relational joy. The quote that best captures my philosophy of the codependency recovery process comes from George Eliot:  “It’s never too late to be what you might have been.” Or, as I might say it, “It is never too late to dance with the partner of your dreams.”

 

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Ross Rosenberg is a licensed clinical professional counselor, certified alcohol and other drug abuse counselor and national seminar trainer. He is the owner of Clinical Care Consultants and co-owner of Advanced Clinical Trainers and the author of The Human Magnet Syndrome.

7 Comments

  1. kathleen

    wow, Dr. Rosenberg – your article hit so close to home for me!! How I wish you could be a fly on the wall when I am with my daughter and son-in-law. If you were able to observe them I’m sure you would wonder how I am still sane (if I am); I moved to be near my (married) daughter when she had my only grandchild. I have been on a nightmare rollercoaster ride ever since. I had NO idea my son-in-law was a sociopath until I moved here and been privy to his bad behavior both with my daughter and myself. He has a false sense of ‘entitlement’, he’s arrogant and he lives a parasitic lifestyle. He is 45 – with maybe a maturity level of a 9 year old at best. My daughter does the ‘co-dependent’ dance – but also I believe she has some type of mental issue(s) – and she makes a ‘perfect’ partner for her sociopathic husband as he preys on her vulnerability and weaknesses and seems to be brainwashed by him. She has no mind of her own anymore. It is scary and sad at the same time. What to do to help her? what to do? any comments, Dr. Rosenberg? A worried Mother

    Reply
  2. fleta carol

    Dear Worried Mother,
    You are so right to be concerned! As a survivor of both a romantic relationship with a narcissist and being the mother of a sociopathic son, I totally sympathize. As you probably know, there is no hope that the narcissist will change. There is, however hope that he will disappear if he does not continue to get his “supply.” If your daughter is totally in the dark about her role as his “supply,” there is not much you can do except try to educate her about narcissistic relationships when she is open to such a discussion. Otherwise you just have to take care of yourself and not let yourself be abused by the narcissist. There also seems to be some validation of this experience as you move past it and are able to share with others. That there is a grandchild involved is certainly an added consideration. My own healing took the form of reading and digesting as much material as I could on these individuals, then making a final and total break from both who were in my life. Good luck to you!

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  3. Laine

    My previous partner is definitely a narraccisst. We have known each other for about five years and out of this relationship have two children. Although I am not a licensed therapist I have read that this behaviour stems from upbringing which I see very much in his mother. My ex-mother inlaw went through a difficult time in her marriage and to this day lives in a polygamous form of marriage. Through her personal journey she has been fixated on her children and feigns stress and illness when she needs her children, I see it as emotional abuse and unfortunately she has succeed in intervening in our lives and has made it seem like my children would be better off with her. Actually she is fixated on my eldest child and barley acknowledges her other grandchild.

    My ex on the other hand is a whole different story. He bounces in and out of my life like a ping pong ball. As such when I started reading on narcissism I’ve made certain changes the biggest of which was putting distance between. I suffered physical abuse to which today I live with the mental and physical scars. When putting distance between us I suffered what I like to think of as withdrawal symptoms like a drug addict. I felt in needed his attention and would cal and text and stalk his social media pages. He would respond making me feel smaller then I already felt. Then as days and weeks went by I slowly started to get me back. I began to realise that I was the one who was gonna make me feel better. Don’t get me wrong it hasn’t been easy but I feel much stronger then I did then. That fear and depression was removed once I realised how codependent I was.

    Things are better then before but they could get better. He has said and done some monstrous things even now he tries to pull me back in, and almost always he uses our children to get a foot in the door. It starts with simple conversation starters like how are things going with you. I realise what I am doing may be fuelling his need but with the consideration of my children how do I deal with him without dancing to his tune?

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  4. karen dahl

    it’s is great to have an explanation for what I have been through. i couldn’t understand why things were happening to me the way that they did. I didn’t know what I had done to produce them nor how to manage them because they were so over-powering. Every day I feel blessed to be alive because I was so close to losing my life and having my children killed as well.
    It’s not like it is a new paradigm. It’s that now we have words and explanations to accompany what is unfortunate and unproductive human behaviour. Hopefully we can evolve beyond a stage of narcissism, co-dependency, borderline personality disorders, drug dependency and so-on. To know is to have power. To have power is to make changes for the better. Thank you

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  5. cc Rose

    Great article. I agree with the codependent/narcissist attraction. From what I can tell; some people become narcissists when they are injured by narcissists; others become codependent when they are injured by narcissists. In any case I believe codependents are attracted to narcissists because it is what is familiar, (familiar as in like family), thought they aren’t aware of the dynamics. Until they become so abused they become bitter and hurt and wake up. Then they see all.

    At least in my case, after a long painful marriage I discovered that my spouse had narcissistic qualities (but not NPD) — oddly detached; never entirely happy to be in the relationship and showed it in many ways, sometimes said so; lack of empathy, remorse, cruel in disagreements; never able to say I’m sorry; not able to care for your emotional distress; gaslighting (i.e.; if you’re unhappy with something I did something must be wrong with you) and (you can’t make me responsible for your happiness — I agree that we cannot make anyone responsible for our happiness, but narcissists can make their spouses hella unhappy by their uncaring, unnurturing and inconsiderate ways. It is possible to be very unhappy with a close family member’s cumulative behavior and still be responsible for your own happiness and a mostly happy person.

    If however, you have experienced the trauma of being unnurtured, undesired, unsupported, unprotected in childhood having a family member treat your way can be trauma after trauma experienced in your adult life (I also did not realize I was experiencing trauma till I read a blot entry about emotional trauma). And I realized how I often felt was how I felt when my mother died; pit in the stomach, numbing, fear. But I am resilient and could do a lot of self-talk and pick myself back up and function pretty highly despite all of this.

    There is also what I call the dodging and weaving — there is no possibility of having a rational disagreement or solving a problem because they crawfish, slip, slide, evade, dismiss, denigrate, deny, lie (to themselves and you); anything to avoid accepting responsibility for something they did or for hearing what you are trying to convey to them. They have to retain power. They don’t need you, and if you have a problem, so what? It’s your problem. First they claim their inability to respond is because you are out of control, you were too angry, and that is why they can’t hear you. Then you learn to speak very responsibly and without anger (such as Nonviolent Communication) and they still can’t hear you or care about you.

    I should have known, but I didn’t know any better. Most recently my spouse took 4 years of “Compassionate Communication” classes in which the NVC principle was taught. Sounds good right? No. Because he refused to use it at home. I learned it from reading the book and trying to employ it at home (since that is what he related to). It’s a great system — if you use it. He used it like a power ploy — he wouldn’t use it unless I also went to a year of the classes (no matter that I used to be a crisis counselor and already employed active listening, closed-loop communication and was already using NVC with him at home. Could never tune in, and when I asked him to the answer was no. In our last counseling session, I asked him to use NVC because he was being unkind and not listening. He said “no I don’t think I’m going to”. I got up and walked out. That was the end.

    I should have known before marrying (but those of us who grow up in family systems like this don’t know any better — we think we need to be forbearing of these flaws and that they — sigh — will try to change (yeah right!). We are empathetic with their shortcomings and give them the benefit of the doubt. So he broke up with me in the middle of a vacation to France. It was very painful to continue the vacation, but I did (classic co-dependent). Later, when we became friends again and dated again (also classic co-dependent) he told me that I had broken up with him and he had torn up all of my pictures. He acknowledged that he broke up with me, but he said somehow he had also convinced himself that I had broken up with him!

    At the time, I could not understand how someone could be so confused like that. This kind of cognitive dissonance was commonplace during the 18 years of our marriage. Says two different things at the same time and doesn’t see the incongruence.

    Now I know that narcissists need to not be wrong like they need the air they breathe. If they feel wrong they will disintegrate. So they can never allow themselves to see that they harmed anyone or culpable for something. They have a lot of black/white thinking. If you say you would like a behavior to change, taking care to say it is only the thing they DID that hurt them, not THEM — they say you are saying they are a BAD person. You can preface it by saying something you did also that was not that great; just to even the score before bringing up something that you aren’t happy with. No matter they don’t see that you are trying to be generous. They never see your generosity.

    Another thing that should have tipped me off (and classic co-dependent for me — I should have run for the hills) when he pursued me and kissed me for the first time; a passionate kiss; he also said to me that he wasn’t sure he could sustain an attraction to me because I was two years older. Talk about confusing. (More cognitive dissonance — is this common for narcissists?) I told myself; OK I just felt this really passionate kiss, but you’re telling me this. It doesn’t make sense. And so went our marriage. 17 years like that of mixed messages. I have since learned that narcissists can also have avoidant attachment styles, and in his case it was so.

    Initially he was not openly narcissistic. He hid it out of a lifetime of being obsequious and showing obligatory deference to his (narcissistic) mother. Only until he went to analysis, 4 days a week, for 6 years, did he come out of the other side an identifiable narcissist with a strong sense of entitlement; lack of empathy and so on. Even though he identified with Alice Miller’s “The Drama of the Gifted Child”. He was aware he was injured by a narcissist. But he cannot see that he is one. However after 6 years of talking about himself 4 days a week to an analyst (and never going to counseling with me to work on our marriage) he was now able to be himself. And himself was not pretty.

    My friendships fell apart after I married and so did my relationships with my family. Some of it was brought on by a real-life natural disaster, which can be like a death — all of the worst in people can come out. LIke they say, you really find out who your friends (and family) are when times are tough. But as I began to see my spouse’s narcissim, I also saw that several members of my family are narcisstic (though none of them malignant narcs and perhaps not even diagnosable NPD, but quite narcissistic nevertheless. The deep pain I felt in my rmarriage and the behaviors I finally recognized as narcissistic (and abusive) all of a sudden became evident in my family system — AND — one of my former best friends. Same behaviors I spoke of above.

    One father mean and unloving as a baseline; rejecting me at every turn; the other charming and irresponsible; like a child; unable to care for himself or his property or possessions. Both quite willing to cut you out of their life if you should do what they don’t approve of or so much as mention something you are unhappy with that they are doing. Of course I accepted that because I needed them and that’s what I thought that good daughters needed to do to have their fathers’ love. One of them has cut me off twice now, and when his 8 brothers and sisters didn’t back him up in a family disagreement, he cut them all off too. Everyone must forebear and forget what these men do for the relationship to be mended. Narcissists don’t mend. They refuse. They are haughty.

    My absolute best friend in college and after — now I can see was a classic NPD. Exciting, beautiful, exhibitionist (she once stripped naked as a mixed group of friends were walking around campus and just jumped into the water — just like that), irresponsible (only held down a job for 3 years of her life — otherwise she lives off of her parents, lovers, etc); charming and kind, but also extremely self-absorbed. Uses boyfriends and men for free drinks and free living. Dare not get in a disagreement with her — she also walked! She says she is a conflict avoider. I say she is a reality avoider.

    With all of these relationships, it’s like this: you get tired of them putting you last and being undependable. You speak up or snap and fuss at them when the last straw was broken and they drop you out of their life like a hot potato because they can’t bear that you were upset with them.

    The reason I write this is that I have not seen anywhere online the discussion of how it can be a very lonely place when you see the narcissism all around you and start to set your boundaries. First you do it unskillfully — by fighting back, cursing and screaming when they won’t consider your needs, pointing out how horrible their behavior is, trying to advocate for your needs to be met. This is when they drop you.

    Then you are alone. And you learn a thing or two about communicating and communicate to them in a loving way what you needed and how what they did was hurtful to you. And they couldn’t care less. Or at least behave as though they don’t. After all, they don’t have a clue what you are talking about. They pretend as though they’ve done nothing. The father who currently shuns me at least will accept a call now. When I discuss what he is doing the only thing he says is “honey I have no idea what you are talking about” despite the fact that he has not spoken to me in 5 years, won’t return my calls, does not call etc. This is the lying, manipulative, crazy-making behavior of the narcissist.

    Yes we are talking fathers, siblings and best friends. I never knew that people could do that — just drop a family member or friend as though the bond was never there and just say “next” in their lives. I suppose the bond was not really there. I’m sure they care. But they can’t let on that they do. To do so would cause them to fall apart.

    One thing having narcissism all around you will cause you to do is ask — am I a narcissist too? Did I deserve to be dropped like this? Am I somehow an horrible, unlikeable person?

    And then you remember, wait a minute! I had LOTS of friends in high school and in college. I wasn’t the most popular girl, but I always had a lot of friends who thought I was nice. I had good family relations. When people suffer I feel for them. I try to comfort them. When people are mad at me I listen. I try to mend the relationship. I will not rest if a friend or family member is unhappy with me, until it is resolved. This is not narcissistic behavior. I feel empathy.

    I have seen it said that someone’s world can fall apart when they marry a narcissist. That certainly happened to me. Because then I saw and fought the narcissism all around me. And they walked. I failed to make new strong relationships because I was in constant trauma and just on the ropes, fighting for my everyday survival and functioning. fI became an unhappy woman; and was certainly unattractive as an unhappy woman.

    Now I have let these people know that I love them but I’m moving on. I see now that I have not yet found my family; my tribe. And confident that I will once I get myself righted.

    I want to study more about narcissistic family systems. I hope that a lot more research will come out in the coming decade. I hope there will be groups where adults can find close friends or even adopted family members who want to provide each other the nurturing they didn’t get as children. Because having an empathetic therapist is nice, but it doesn’t give you the security of being LOVED and WANTED by a close friend or family member. And that is what we who have been injured by narcissistic parents need.

    Yes, you can give yourself a certain amount of love, but I believe the damage is biological — neurological and hormonal. Many of us have experienced emotional trauma all of our lives an need to undo it. And once we do hopefully we will be in close, connected relationships where the other can also let you know that they love you, they cherish you and they want you. The relationship is loving and mutual. No power games. They are there for you when you need them too. It’s mutual and delightful.

    Reply
    1. Ziad

      Couldn’t agree more, Rose! Your words have spoken volumes of my own bitter suffering with two a borderline ex-wife, then a narcissist girlfriend, then a borderline with whom I broke up recently and decided to learn why I always fall in this recurring pattern of relationships. I therefore started my self-help journey by consulting my psychotherapist and reading on codependency and dysfunctional relationships. I have to admit it’s still at the very early stages but I am happy I managed to take the steps I have taken so far.

      I trust talking and sharing will help us retreat and advance ourselves. Let me know if we can have a conversation about it over Skype or otherwise.

  6. mws

    I continue to be amazed that a professional would recommend a 12 step program for anyone with any type of emotional vulnerabilty. Please be careful. I am reading about co-dependency (a dated term, imo) with a grain of salt, as I probably am drawn to narcissists. But we need to evolve and change our lingo. It is 2015. We are living in a new Harm Reduction culture. Co-depedndency is a made up “disease” that reminds me of being overly empathetic, but it is a term derived from 12 step culture which we need to move on from. It is no longer 1935.

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