Surviving the Narcissist – Your Background

This is an article I wrote recently on the roll that one’s background plays if they suspect they are in a relationship with a narcissist.  It doesn’t apply to everyone’s situation, but can help explain whey one might (unconsciously) pick out a narcissist to be in a relationship with.


After she had spent most of the first hour talking about her narcissist, I asked Carol (not her real name) to tell me about her family and childhood years.

She explained that she was the only child born to working class parents; her mother was a nurse and her father owned a small-engine repair business.

Her parents fought constantly and it was usually her mother that “won” these fights. The fights were about money (her mother’s spending) and how unhappy/miserable her mother was with her life.

As a child, Carol recalled always feeling responsible for her mother feeling upset. Consequently, she always tried to please her mother, i.e., trying to get good grades, being quiet, being “good”, taking tap/jazz (she remembers Mom talking about how beautiful the girls were in a dance class she saw once. Later, she was crushed when she took dance and her mother refused to or always had excuses for not coming to her performances).  None of this worked, as her mother remained perpetually unhappy and frequently mad.

As she got older and into middle-school, she was encouraged by her teachers to be more independent. Carol developed a reputation for good grades and being a hard worker. She was asked to be in different groups and selected to be in “talented and gifted” classes. Carol was proud of these accomplishments but her independence and success in school made her mother jealous. He mother complained about having to drive Carol to school early for practices or pick her up after school late due to meetings/practices or competitions. She said her mother was always complaining about how much she did for Carol, how much she had sacrificed for her. Carol said she loved her mother and felt sorry for her mother always being so unhappy but nothing ever seemed to help. No matter how many A’s Carol brought home or how many people complimented her mother on how smart and polite Carol was, her mother was unhappy and angry and increasingly critical of Carol.

Her only refuge at home was her father, but only when he was not drinking.

In high school, Carol and her mother fought frequently and intensely. Nothing Carol did was good enough or right in her mother’s eyes. Her academic success continued but other significant changes occurred that blunted these accomplishments.

Her father withdrew from interacting with her. Hugs stopped. He didn’t come to her games/performances anymore. He didn’t ask her about her day. He barely talked to her. Further, his drinking increased, which in turn lead to more attacks by and fights with her mother. His obvious alcoholism was now undeniable evidence of his neglect of her and the misery of her life.

Carol developed into a beautiful young woman, attracting the attention of many young men. Carol’s mother now began accusing her of being sexual with any or all these young men. The terms “whore” and “slut” were frequently thrown at Carol. Her mother also used this situation as an opportunity to once again, point out how ungrateful Carol was and how disrespectful she was being to her mother – by slurring the family name with her selfish sexual pursuits.

Carol’s response to the young men’s’ attentions was to withdraw. She felt very insecure about her body and emerging sexuality….and withdrawing was easy. Further, in a perverse way, withdrawing helped her feel closer to her mother. She felt withdrawing was what her mother really wanted her to do and perhaps, eventually, would be proud of her. Carol fantasized that when that day came, she would be vindicated! None-the-less, the arguments between Carol and her mother continued. Often, Carol would find herself becoming speechless in response to her mother’s attacks, running to her room and crying herself to sleep. Despite all this, Carol still hoped her mother would be proud of her someday.

After she turned 16, Carol put off getting her driver’s license. She described having a lot of anxiety about getting her license and being able to drive; all the possibilities for accidents, all the things she had to watch out for. Besides, if she asked her mother to drive, despite her mother’s complaining, she could show her mother how responsible she was by being where she was supposed to be and being ready to go when her mother arrived to pick her up, etc.

Carol began to suspect there would never be any satisfying her mother. But what accompanied this awareness was frustration and resignation rather than anger and resentment.  She was alone in the world and had to put up with her mother if she was to survive.

Carol went on to attend college, 30 miles from her home. She lived at home during these years and majored in communications. After college, she obtained an “Executive Assistant” position at a firm about 3 hours from her home.


At the time Carol came in for therapy, she had been dating a young man for 4 years. We will call him “Bob”.  She said she was attracted to him by his good-looks and British accent (she’s apparently always had a “thing” for men with foreign accents). He was gainfully employed, drove a nice car, seemed stable and very attentive to her. They lived in the same city, about 45 minutes away from each other.

Initially, the attention was wonderful. This guy seemed to truly be interested in her, without any complaints or criticisms (so different from her mother). Then, red flags began appearing. He began texting and emailing her multiple times per day. He always wanted to be with her, daily, if possible. He was always asking her about her day, what she was doing, who she was with, what they said, what Carol said back to them, etc.

Bob declared his love for Carol within about 6 weeks of dating. Carol was both thrilled and yet a bit uncomfortable. It seems way too quick. But, that put her closer to her ultimate dream of getting married and starting a family. She could fantasize visits home with Bob and their son or daughter, and perhaps most importantly, a happy mother and (sober) father. A dream she had long been dreaming.

Bob’s behavior, while attentive, soon began to seem intrusive.  Carol tried to just relax and just enjoy the attention but she began noticing how she bristled when she saw him calling or again text or email from her. Not wanting to create a problem by saying something, she just began to respond with one-two word answers and waiting until she had received 2 or 3 messages before responding.

This was not to be ignored, as Bob quickly brought these actions to Carol’s attention. He wanted an explanation as to why she had changed and more importantly, why hadn’t she told him what was bothering her? He had been open and honest with her. Why was she ghosting him? Why couldn’t she be open and honest with him? What was she hiding?

Strangely, if felt like times she recalled with her mother…trying to explain something, fearful of the rejection, feeling confused and frustrated; never being able to satisfy the other person. But Bob was different and much more important. She was in her late twenties now (the clock was ticking!!!).  Bob seemed to love her. She didn’t want to regret letting a “good one” get away.  She was very afraid there may not be another after him.

But Carol noticed something else. Bob had a habit of turning her answers around on her. Carol would be talking about a conversation she’d had with a co-worker. When she told him what she had said, Bob would ask immediately why she said what she said. He seemed to be looking at not only what she was saying but how she was thinking. Then, the inevitable question, “Why’d you say that?” This would put Carol on the defense. It seemed like she was always on the defense now with Bob (she had always been on the defense with her mother.).

Once, Carol asked Bob to sit, cuddle and watch TV with her. Bob made an excuse, citing office work he had to do on his computer. After this occurred 3-4 times, Carol complained.

Carol: “You always have work to do. I miss you. Can’t you just take a break this evening and come sit with me?!”

Bob: “What are you getting so mad about? After all, I am working so we can do fun things, have nice things.”

Carol: “But all I want is to sit and watch TV with you a little. We never do that anymore. You are always too busy!”

Bob: “I’m not the problem here. You are. You are so needy. It is just like with my texts and emails. Here I am reaching out to you and you give me the cold shoulder! And why can’t you just tell me what you are thinking or feeling instead of blaming me by suggesting I will get mad. No, if there is anyone here that has a problem, it is you. The shit I put up with, with you!”

Carol was confused, speechless, and tearful; “What did I do wrong?”

On another occasion, Bob asked her, “How many men have you slept with?” Immediately, Carol was scared to answer but hoping to show vulnerability and trust, she answered honestly. Bob became angry. He accused her of being “loose” and having betrayed his fidelity to her. Carol withdrew and cried herself to sleep that night. While they had had sex by that time in the relationship, it had not been frequent (nor that remarkable!). After this conversation however, Bob stopped initiating. If Carol brought it up, he always had an excuse as to why that night he couldn’t but promised he would in the near future.


Many times, when working with a spouse or partner of a narcissist, the question, “Why do I stay?” comes up. Let’s look at the role of Carol’s background in her decision to stay.

When I posed that question (“Why do you stay?”), she initially cited finances. Bob had been paying some of her bills. When pushed, Carol admitted she didn’t need him to pay any of her bills but it was comforting to have him in her life, “Because what happens…I don’t know….. if my water heater goes out?”

I challenged her on this; what would she do if her water heater went out. After a lot of “I don’t knows”, she concluded she could call her girlfriend, her dad or even her boss to find out what they would do. When pushed further, she thought she could call an appliance repairman to look at it and probably could buy one if she had to.

Carol next cited marriage and kids as her reason to say. I asked her, with some surprise, “Would you really want to marry him (in light of the fact that in 4 years they had dated, she thought they averaged having sex about 4 times a year)?” “No but what if he’s the last one who is interested in me?” she responded. I challenged her on that…and she admitted other guys had “hit” on her with some frequency.

I proposed she stays because Bob is much like her mother and despite the negativity of that primary relationship, he is familiar. Carol gave this theory and the relationship serious thought. She eventually concluded it fit. About 12 months later, she broke up with Bob.

Not every narcissistic relationship is like this one but, as a therapist, I look for similarities between the relationships with each parent and the relationship with the narcissist. In this case, there were strong similarities between Bob and Carol’s mother. As Carol began to see the similarities between Bob and her mother, she naturally began to pull away from Bob. But this was a slow process (12 months).

Often I find, especially in narcissistic relationships, a person has sought out and established a relationship with a person who is similar to their parents.  This selection process is unconscious to the person; they have no idea they are searching for/selecting a toxic person. What they are aware of this that the interactions with this new person feel “right” or comfortable. What they are actually feeling comfortable with in this new person is the narcissism their parents displayed when they were a child.

As children, we can’t leave the relationship with our parents.  As adults however, we can leave but often people find reasons not to leave. People will select what is familiar, even when it is toxic, over the unknown (as in breaking up with the person and living alone).

If you are in a relationship with a narcissist, I encourage you to spend some time looking at your parents’ personalities and relationship. If one of them was narcissistic, look for ways you find yourself interacting with your partner as you did with your parents. This would be important information to share with your therapist.