There was nothing Echo would ever say more gladly, “Let us get together!” —Ovid
We are all familiar with the story of Narcissus, the beautiful youth who fell in love with his own reflection in the pool. But we are less familiar with the story of his partner, Echo, the young nymph who was cursed by the gods to only be able to repeat, never initiate, speech. At one point, when Echo—whose heart was never deterred by her beloved’s self-absorption—came upon Narcissus and heard him uttering words of love, she naturally repeated his words. To the outside observer this would surely look like a mutual love fest. The truth, of course, was that Narcissus was talking to his own reflection in the pool and that Echo was merely being an audio version of that reflective pool. But even more interesting, Narcissus and Echo were themselves fooled by this house of mirrors: since from where she stood she couldn’t see the reflection in the pool, Echo thought Narcissus was talking to her, while Narcissus—his gaze transfixed by his own image in the pool—took Echo’s voice to be that of his beloved reflection, whose lips clearly moved to the same words of love.
It’s probably no coincidence that Narcissus is far better known than Echo. After all, seeking the limelight is what he’s all about. When you think about it, though, the character of Echo is no stranger to us either. The feminists see her in the supportive role of the traditional wife, the woman behind the man. And pop psychologists describe her as the codependent or the enabler—the selfless spouse who takes care, and unwittingly participates in the undoing, of her selfishly self-destructive partner (Narcissus ended up dying of starvation because he wouldn’t leave his reflection). But what’s less known about Echo and her contemporary versions is that even though she appears to be Narcissus’s opposite, she is actually every bit as narcissistic as he is. Traditionally, women in our culture were socialized to support and respect, if not obey, their men. They were supposed to attain high self- esteem not through an external achievement of their own but rather through the nurturing of others. In terms of child rearing, there may well be a biological predisposition for this in women—more so than in men. The point is that even as our society evolves, many women still make themselves feel good about themselves by making others feel good about themselves. In other words, their selfish need is to be selfless. Their narcissism lies in the fact that they need to be needed—regardless of whether or not the other person actually needs them. So their narcissism, while harder to detect, is just as pronounced as a man’s might be.
In Narcissistic Love, the couple’s dynamic often follows these gender-based forms of narcissism. The man is out there building Trump Towers, and the woman applauds and supports the effort by taking care of the home and by looking good in his arms. In a dating context, notwithstanding all the changes brought about by the women’s movement, the same assumption might be operating within the couple; that is, the man is the gifted, brilliant, important player—the lawyer, banker, architect, actor, doctor, or artist—whose work, mission, or schedule takes precedence over the woman’s, regardless of her work, career, or other overtly selfish desires. As upsetting as this might be to contemplate in this day and age, many women with significant achievements do not feel good about themselves—that is, they suffer from low self-esteem—if they are not needed by a partner or a child and if they are not socially pleasing to others.
These gender dynamics are not as rigid or fixed as you might expect, and as we shall see, they can flip. In addition, many people—men and women—follow a love path that takes them from a relationship in which they are the Echo to one in which they are the Narcissus, before finally ending up somewhere in the middle.
Step One: Recognizing Your Pattern
While we usually think of “pathological” narcissism as a form of excessive self-love, the truth is almost the opposite. Driven by unconscious low self-esteem or self-hate, the narcissist strives to feel good about himself by exaggerating and showing off his achievement, power, or beauty. In addition, the more consciously self-hating or low-self-esteem individual is just as much of a narcissist, for he too is self-involved in his relentless quest to feel good about himself. It is thus more accurate to think of narcissism as the self-centeredness resulting from our efforts to regulate our self-esteem. It is also important to appreciate that narcissism is not only a pathological condition but also a necessary and potentially positive aspect of psychological development. In motivating us to be productive or to please others, the drive to attain high self-esteem actually facilitates growth. Of course, when extreme, and under certain conditions, it does become a debilitating problem.
Similarly, narcissism plays an important positive and negative role in the phenomenon of falling in love. Since our self-esteem evolves from early childhood and onward out of the experience of being loved, when we fall in love it is immediately engaged. If our love is reciprocated we feel valued; if not, we feel inadequate. And because maintaining a high self-esteem is so crucial to our sense of well-being, our narcissism employs various defense mechanisms to that end. Chief among these and most relevant to the experience of falling in love is the defense of idealization. The emotional generosity we feel when we fall in love is made possible by the way we idealize our partner. This idealization enables us to ignore his imperfections, to believe we have finally met our soul mate, and to trust that he will not betray or abandon us. We often don’t really know this person when we fall in love and we have no factual basis to justify this attitude. But it nonetheless makes us feel valued, vital, and special—amid a vast sea of humanity in relation to which we are quite ordinary, unseen, and inconsequential. In short, idealization makes us feel good about ourselves, directly when we are idealized, or indirectly when we idealize someone else and bask in his reflection.
In lasting, more or less “healthy” relationships, this type of idealization is present sometimes—often dominating the early phases of a relationship, the “honeymoon” period, when we are also in love with love. But with time it is informed by the process of getting to know the other person. Diluted in some ways, enriched in others, it is influenced by the reality of the partner’s mind and body and by the accumulated history of our togetherness. While a kernel of the early idealization must remain if love’s to last, the intensity and expansiveness of the initial falling in love are ultimately inconsistent with lasting intimacy. This is so because if we cannot show our less attractive qualities and have them registered as such by the other person, we aren’t quite known to him and therefore are loved only superficially, which is what Narcissistic Love is all about. In the best-case scenario of Narcissistic Love we fall in love with something in the person, fixate our gaze on it and insist that’s the whole person. As a result, we don’t really get to know our partner up front, which often means we later find out he has some kind of a secret or unspoken life.
One of my patients, an attractive, articulate woman in her late twenties, nonetheless came across as somewhat fragmented or lacking in focus and self-confidence. In childhood, she was very close to her mother, but her father was absent, literally because at some point her parents divorced but also emotionally because he was, as she put it, “a nonentity.” On top of being quiet and withdrawn, he was also somewhat infantile and naive, often making stupid jokes or mumbling irrelevant things. Finally, he was also a “failure,” as he was unemployed during much of the patient’s childhood. None of this bothered the patient, she would always say. “Since I never had a relationship with him in the first place, I don’t have feelings about him one way or another.” But of course, as I would always tell her, her lack of relationship with her father was the most critical aspect of her relationship with her father. In other words, it’s not really possible to not have a relationship with one’s parent—at least in fantasy. At the very least, the parent’s absence is always a huge presence in the person’s mind and in his or her intimate relationships. For this patient, the absence made itself present in a series of relationships with idealized, narcissistic men.
Like many in her place, this woman would consciously and consistently choose men who were anything but her father: professional, smart, passionate, sensitive, and good listeners—in short, men who appeared to be perfect and whom, unlike her father, she could easily idealize. The problem is, not only is no one perfect, but also those who appear to be are usually even less perfect than the rest of us. For example, one of her relationships was with a young lawyer who worked as a legal-aid attorney in a public agency. He was assertive and smart, as you might expect from someone in his field, but also idealistic about his work, which involved advocating for poor inner-city folk. He was also very attractive in a boyish sort of way. He was affectionate and considerate and he enjoyed talking about family and relationship issues. Finally, he was fun-loving and always up for traveling and socializing.
The relationship started with intimate talks into the night, long daily phone conversations, open and frequent sexual exploration, and mutual proclamations that this was different from any other relationships they’d had. After a month they practically moved in together, though Kevin would occasionally go back to his place. Yet a couple of months later, Kevin started talking about needing some time to wind down on his own from his stressful, demanding job, as well as “needing some space.” This seemed reasonable enough to my patient, so they agreed they would spend less time together during week nights. Correspondingly, however, sex became less frequent and a few times Kevin couldn’t get an erection. But even then he continued to talk about their relationship, his anxieties, and his wish for the relationship to work out. “It really has nothing to do with you,” he said. “It’s my issue.” And he went further, saying his need for space was probably a reaction to having been raised by a smothering, overprotective mother. And he was interested in my patient’s feelings, wanting to make sure she didn’t personalize it.
Even though Kevin was pulling back, my patient continued to feel he was very special indeed. He took responsibility for his problems, validated her feelings, and, unlike most men, was truly communicative. So while she was constantly feeling his absence—even when he was there she was beginning to worry that he wanted to get away—she “decided” not to be needy but rather to help him gets his needs met. When they made plans she would sensitively ask if he was sure he didn’t want to do his own thing, and she would sometimes bring him dinner and then leave or would spend time with him on the weekends accompanying him while he ran his errands. In addition, when they spent nights together she would always accommodate his sexual requests. It wasn’t only that she wanted to make it easier for him to be with her; it was also that she truly enjoyed every minute she spent with him. “He is so knowledgeable and insightful,” she told me. “And he opened so many intellectual and emo- tional doors for me that it’s hard for me to imagine not being with him.”From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from If Love Could Think by Alon Gratch, Ph.D.. Copyright © 2005 by Alon Gratch. Excerpted by permission of Three Rivers Press, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.