What It's Really Like To Love A Narcissist

Photo: Olena Yakobchuk / Shutterstock
couple touching heads

You might think that narcissistic people love only themselves — like Narcissus who fell in love with his own reflection in the classic Greek myth — but the very opposite is true.

The narcissist usually struggles with profound feelings of shame and low self-esteem. The grandiosity you see, the clamoring for admiration, is a way to keep all those painful feelings about themselves at bay.

How can I have anything to feel ashamed about when I'm so admired and beloved?  To bolster themselves and boost their egos, some narcissists crave admiration and envy. Others want you to fall in love with them.

RELATED: 6 Signs You're In Love With A SERIOUS Narcissist

If you're in love with a narcissist and the narcissist thrives on your desire, he becomes adept at arousing such feelings in you.

They can make you feel important and valued, lavishing affection on you so you'll feel special. He might bring thoughtful little gifts, pay compliments, and devote himself to your pleasure in bed. The narcissist strokes your ego and coddles you, sowing the seeds of your love.

I don't mean to suggest that this behavior is always conscious and intentional. Narcissists deceive themselves about their true emotional motivations, often believing they've genuinely fallen in love.

What the narcissist desires is the perfect kind of romantic love that seems like the answer to everything. Falling in love can feel like a drug, the most wonderful drug we humans know because it temporarily blinds us to our own faults and imperfections, to the dissatisfactions we may feel in other areas of our lives.

It makes us feel as if we're the center of the universe and we've got it all. Nothing feels better... while it lasts.

Perfect romantic love never does last, of course. Under the best conditions, it evolves into something more realistic and lasting, where two imperfect people discover one another's virtues and faults and grow to appreciate the goodness in each other — but also to accept the disappointments.

True narcissists can't tolerate such an experience. To be "real" with their partners means they must have a more authentic relationship with themselves, too, and with the shame and low self-esteem they so desperately want to evade.

So when romantic love begins to fade under the pressure of reality, especially if the partner begins to find fault, the narcissist falls "out of love."

If it's not a perfect, happily-ever-after kind of love, then it has no value. The narcissist believes the problem must lie in the other person. Someone better will be able to keep the flames of romantic love forever burning. And so he dumps you. Puts you on the trash heap and looks for ideal love elsewhere.

Over a lifetime, the narcissist will have many partners in love and perhaps many marriages, some lasting a few weeks, others a few years. You may know such people yourselves, but if you don't, look to the realm of celebrity for examples.

Because stardom offers the possibility of endless "love" and admiration from fans, that world beckons powerfully to the narcissist. If he achieves fame and then falls in love with another star, he may feel as if he's got it all. He may believe he's achieved the pinnacle of his existence, with celebrity admiration from fans and a perfect, enviable marriage — at least until reality begins to intrude and it all falls apart.

Then comes infidelity, estrangement, and an ugly public divorce. How many times have you seen that very cycle unfold on the covers of People magazine or tabloids in the supermarket check-out line?

Over the years, Charlie Sheen has given us the most visible and tragic example of the narcissist in love. In 1995, he married model Brittany Ashland and divorced only a year later. On the set of the movie Good Alice, he later met and fell in love with fellow actor Denise Richards. When they married, he appeared to have it all. They divorced three years later, and his third marriage to Brooke Mueller lasted only two years.

RELATED: What It Means When A Narcissist Says 'I Love You'

In more recent years, he's lived in a menage-a-trois with two women, one a former porn star, the other a model. He calls them the "goddesses." If you listen to his interviews, it's clear he desperately wants to believe and to convince us that he lives an enviable existence we mere mortals can't begin to comprehend. I'm not drowning in shame over the mess of my life and all the damage I've caused — I've got it all!

The truth was, all along, that he was not living a dream life. He was HIV positive and really struggling. Multiple women came forward to charge Sheen with not sharing his HIV status with them before having sex. Yikes.

When romantic love fails, the narcissist may try to "buy" love instead or turn to prostitution for a shallow and short-lived boost to his ego. Charlie Sheen's preference for the company of prostitutes is well known. Tiger Woods may struggle with a similar kind of narcissism, given his notorious history with call girls.

If you pay a woman for her company, she's unlikely to find fault with your behavior. It's her line of work to make you feel good, and with a celebrity like Charlie Sheen or Tiger Woods, the job description no doubt includes feeding his narcissistic need for admiration.

The celebrity realm includes many serial divorcers, and while we don't have the same access to all the painful details as we do with Charlie Sheen, many of them no doubt struggle with the same relentless need for love and uncritical admiration. Elizabeth Taylor, Mickey Rooney, Billy Bob Thornton, Larry King — these celebrities top the lists for most failed marriages.

While their press agents and the tabloid journals may sell us stories of idyllic courtship, fantasy weddings, and perfect married bliss, the divorce courts tell the true story.

The narcissist can't sustain a realistic, enduring kind of love because it depends upon an authentic relationship with him or herself, and that's the very last thing a true narcissist wants.

RELATED: 10 Ways To Spot A Narcissist On A First Date 

Joseph Burgo, Ph.D. has practiced psychotherapy for 30 years, holding licenses as a marriage and family therapist and clinical psychologist.