When compassion is absent in a relatonship

Welcome back to the ongoing series that explores compassion, neuroscience, and romantic relationships. In this second installment, ‘When Compassion is Absent in the Relationship,’ we continue our journey focusing on the emotions and behaviors demonstrated by a partner with a narcissistic personality disorder. If you missed the first blog post, no worries; each part can be read independently while collectively providing a comprehensive exploration.

Narcissistic Personality Disorder and the brain

Turning to the neuroscience behind narcissistic personality disorder, which is still in its infancy, it appears that many brain regions have been correlated with the condition. A short list includes areas of the brain that are also associated with the processing of compassion, such as the:

  • Amygdala 
  • Mesolimbic dopaminergic pathways (reward system)
  • Regions of the prefrontal cortex (e.g., vmPFC)
  • Anterior insula
  • Temporoparietal junction
  • Anterior cingulate cortex 

These are just a few areas that function differently than non-narcissistic individuals. 

From the work of neuroscience researchers, we now understand that narcissistic personality disorder reflects functional, neurochemical, and structural aberrations across several neural networks and systems of the brain. Looking at what this means from a neuropsychological stance helps us understand the ‘why’ behind their behavior, thought patterns, and personality. Most impacted by these brain anomalies are functions associated with morality, prosocial interactions, connection,  emotion regulation/ processing, and self-concept. Collectively, these functions represent the core of social engagement, and if a partner has deficits in each of these areas, the stage is set for problems in the relationship.   

The barrier of narcissism in personal relationships

Those closest to people with a narcissistic personality disorder (e.g., partner) find it challenging to develop channels of mature communication or a sense of safety, respect, and security within their relationships. It can be painful to engage in the typical behaviors of a partnership, such as attempts to contribute to the growth of your mate, only to realize the symptoms of their condition serve as intimacy blockers. Some individuals have risked their safety (e.g., through support, love, kindness, or arguments) to help their partners with narcissistic personality disorder understand that their behaviors are hurtful or abusive.

Here are a few characteristics commonly displayed within a relationship with a person with narcissistic personality disorder: Poor self-identity, entitlement, inauthenticity, need for control, intolerance of the views/opinions of others, emotional detachment, envy, lack of compassion, lack of empathy, grandiosity, views most others as beneath them, competitiveness regardless of the social context (e.g., in conversations, they may need to ‘one up’ others), lack of awareness or concern regarding the impact of their behavior, emotion dysregulation, exploitative, selfishness, antagonistic, arrogance, hypersensitivity (self), insensitivity (others), rage, and a need for the approval or attention/admiration of others.

The impact of prosocial moral emotion deficits in narcissistic relationships

I firmly believe the prosocial moral emotion-processing deficits of narcissistic personality disorder are responsible for most of the suffering endured by their intimate partners. Although narcissists have difficulty with moral emotions in general, their neurological limitations significantly hinder prosocial moral emotion-processing abilities most. 

Prosocial moral emotions refer to the emotions tied to detecting distress in others, compassion, affective empathy, respect for and adherence to social norms, and the ability to see the innate value in others. Without access to this complex set of moral functioning, in conjunction with cognition, a person will operate on a primitive and self-focused level of social interactions. 

Regardless of intellect, the world could easily become filtered through basic dichotomous concepts, such as powerful-powerless, winner-loser, and superior-inferior. In addition, positive emotions associated with the well-being of their partners will be of minimal value to them. In contrast, control, punishment, gaslighting, and maintaining the dominant position within the relationship are more central to their functioning. Here is a short list of moral-based emotions that are typically absent or minimal in a relationship with a partner with narcissistic personality disorder:

  • Compassion
  • Guilt
  • Remorse
  • Empathy
  • Gratitude
  • Sympathy
  • Appreciation
  • Accountability
  • Honesty
  • Cooperation
  • Loyalty

Insights from partners of individuals with narcissistic traits

Over the years, several themes have run through their correspondences when survivors have written me through the website neuroinstincts (often to ask how they can make it work). They described a shift within themselves from ‘content and confident’ before the relationship to feeling ‘not good enough,’ a loss of sense of self, loneliness, and emotional distress.

Their affective empathy led them to feel a lack of genuine care from their narcissistic partner. Many shared that their boundaries were trampled or disregarded as if they were unimportant. They also observed that although their partner held a superior position within the relationship, that individual also demonstrated insecurity, a hypersensitivity to perceived threats, and made claims of being victimized by the person they were antagonizing.

In the next post (Part 3), we will explore the profound impact of limited compassion in relationships with partners exhibiting narcissistic personality disorder.

Dr Rhonda Freeman is a clinical neuropsychologist specializing in relationships. 

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