It is no accident that narcissistic and sociopathic personalities will seek, and often successfully attract, partners who have their own issue: a tendency to dread the idea of disappointing or displeasing them.
This is admittedly a generality, but it’s a pattern I’ve observed in my clinical experience, and it makes sense. The exploiter, who regards others as existing principally to satisfy his or her wants on a continual basis, must by definition find in a mate someone who is highly motivated—and especially, highly afraid not—to satisfy him or her.
Thus one often finds the pairing of an exploiter complemented by a partner who is prone, perhaps compulsively, to look inward to himself or herself as the cause of the exploiter’s dissatisfaction.
Clinically the goal is to encourage the over-accountable, overresponsible partner to examine this aspect of himself or herself. This is necessary given the fair assumption that sociopaths and narcissists are unlikely to genuinely reform their characteristically manipulative, selfish ways.
I’m often surprised in my work by the tenacious investment exploited partners make in solving the needs and complaints of their self-centered mates. Of course they’ll never succeed, but as long as they continue owning the exploiter’s blame for the latters’ discontent, they can keep trying, keep striving to be a better mate—to become, finally, the good-enough mate the exploiter has claimed to deserve all along.
Let us emphasize the futility of this scenario—the exploiter really doesn’t want a satisfying or, for that matter, even a perfect, partner; rather what he or she wants is a partner who, in his or her insecurity, will continue to accept on some level blame for the exploiter’s unending, habitual exploitation.
The exploiter, in other words, is looking much less for the perfect partner than the perfect scapegoat. For this reason the sociopath and many narcissists will recruit these qualities in a partner—qualities, for instance, of high self-doubt, high guilt, high fear of incurring others’ wrath or displeasure, and a strong tendency to self-blame.
Moreover individuals possessing these qualities will tend to be drawn to individuals who seem to be their counterpart in many ways—for instance confident, self-assured, powerful-seeming, unself-doubting, and perhaps unself-reflective. They may harbor the fantasy that the latters’ seeming strength and confidently entitled attitudes may prove a salutary complement to their self-questioning, self-doubting natures.
And this is certainly possible—this complementarity can theoretically work—in situations uncomplicated by sociopathy or narcissistic personality.
But when the more confident partner is a sociopath, or narcissist, this complementarity of personalities becomes a set-up. The less confident partner, whose tendency is to self-destructively accept the exploiter’s blame for the latter’s rages, discontent, abuse and general misery, becomes the perfect foil, the perfect dupe, for the sociopathic or narcissistic partner, who has it made, so to speak.
Again and again I encounter wonderful, thoughtful, emotionally generous individuals who are trapped less by their exploitative partners than the intolerable idea of themselves as failed mates. The result is their often intensified efforts to be found satisfactory by, and to obtain validation from, the exploiter.
The exploiter is, of course, incapable of appreciating his or her partner’s devotion. But even if not, he or she would intentionally withhold such recognition anyway; his or her object, remember, rather than to uplift his or her partner, is calculatingly the opposite—to engender hopelessness and depression in him or her.
On and on the cycle goes, until the vulnerable partner, just as the exploiter has sought, finally feels so low, incompetent and disempowered that he or she can’t seriously imagine a different future.
By now a form of despair has set in—the despair of expecting to be found just as wanting in future relationships as the present. Dangerous resignation follows this hopelessness—again, exactly the outcome the exploiter wants.
(This article is copyrighted (c) 2008 by Steve Becker, LCSW.)