Why compassion is an obstacle in a narcissistic relationship

This is part three of a four-part compassion and relationships series. This time, we’re stepping deeper into the challenging world of narcissistic relationships where compassion often gets lost. We’ll touch on the science and share examples from real life. I hope this will raise awareness and allow us all to extend compassion to people struggling in similar relationships. 

Callous or cruel reactions: A glimpse into the narcissistic response

Feeling a lack of compassion can be one of the most distressing emotional experiences for those involved with someone demonstrating pathological narcissism. A partner may anticipate receiving concern from their narcissistic mate who has caused them harm, however instead they may receive responses such as hostility, gaslighting, blame-shifting, victimization claims, minimalization, manipulation, shutting down (silent treatment), or denial. There will be no compassion.

There are many reasons for these difficulties, with the leading cause associated with the underlying neurobiology of the condition. Studies in this area are minimal, and we need more to adequately describe why compassion abilities are faulty for people with a narcissistic personality disorder. However, given what we know now, it appears that areas of the brain associated with compassion and empathy are similar to those that function atypically within this disorder. Although oversimplified, it is a start in understanding why compassion is not an emotional state we tend to see within this population.

My hope is that through more research there will be more impactful interventions for narcissistic personality disorder. Even through this brief set of posts, we see that there are many areas, from a neuroscience stance, that will need to be addressed to truly make a difference in the symptoms of this disorder. To help individuals with pathological narcissism would allow them to lead a more fulfilling life and ultimately help us all as a society.

Real-world examples

Here are two common compassion-related experiences (examples) for intimate partners of narcissists; both are anchored in the neurobiology of the condition.

Part 1: Anger or Dysregulation often Substitutes Compassion

When their partner is distressed due to their (narcissist’s) behavior, a response of anger would not be uncommon. The responses could range from rage, taunting, or anger to shutting down. Emotion dysregulation is likely because people with narcissistic personality disorder are hypersensitive to threats to their fragile sense of self. Under such conditions, they may demonstrate a lack of control over their emotions or a response incongruent with the situation.

Threats’, to the person with narcissistic personality disorder, can be as minor as using an unfamiliar word, leading them to feel ‘less than’ at that moment. It could be:  

  • their partner attempting to hold them accountable
  • making a request (e.g., “Don’t forget to pick up diapers”)
  • their partner sharing their great day
  • leaving the relationship (e.g., viewed by them as rejection, making them look bad, & appearing to take control)
  • giving a criticism, boundary, opinion, or any demonstration of autonomy.

They process perceived threats before all else, and many will punish partners for causing them to experience negative emotions (vulnerability). This is why many partners of narcissists disclose that they must walk on eggshells and be very careful in how they communicate. Their mates often appease in an attempt to survive peacefully within the interactions. They may also try desperately to learn what triggers the threat system of their narcissistic partner.

Part 2The Absence of Concern for their Partner’s Pain

When their partner is distressed, the person with narcissistic personality disorder may not detect this emotional state. In addition to processing social encounters from a threat standpoint, as described above, they are highly self-focused. The pain of their mate does not register with them from a caring stance.

We all have self-referential processing abilities (neural networks). However, through affective empathy and compassion, we can shift toward the distress of the other and the distress the suffering of others creates within us, particularly if this ‘other’ is close to us (e.g., our partner, child, parent, or pet). Narcissists tend not to shift away from self-referential processing. This lack of shifting, coupled with their inability to feel the pain of their distressed partner, often leaves them unable to demonstrate the compassion needed in that situation.

In instances where compassion would be the emotional state expected, many survivors have reported their narcissistic mates have laughed at their pain, accused them of ‘acting’ for “attention”, determined them to be “too sensitive,” or simply had no response to the distressed state of their mate at all. Some partners of narcissists have shared that they must “explain” why they feel hurt or frightened by callous, dangerous, disrespectful, or aggressive behavior. Even after extensive explanations, it is rare that they receive the emotional support or remorse experienced within a non-narcissistic relationship.

Let’s go to the final portion (Part 4) of the series.

Dr Rhonda Freeman is a clinical neuropsychologist specialising in relationships. 

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The Transformational Power of Male Compassion

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