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What is good to know About Sexual narcissism (Part 2)

Narcissistic psychopathology is often considered a result of parental lack of empathy during development. Consequently, the individual does not develop the full capacity to regulate self-esteem. We can see them as used children in reference to the deep, early emotional betrayals thought to underlie narcissistic disorders. Narcissistic adults vacillate between an irrational overestimation of the self and irrational feelings of inferiority. They rely on others to regulate their self-esteem and give them a sense of value. Unfortunately, they are afraid to trust others. They feel misunderstood by everyone, including those who are closest to them.

So, narcissists don’t usually look the way we imagine. They are more likely to feel depressed and anxious than confident and self-assured. They experience debilitating anxiety and chronic feelings of emptiness or shame. They often don’t really know who they are. As hard as they try to feel seen and understood, they still feel invisible. Therefore, they will likely develop strong defense mechanisms to avoid such painful feelings.

As we said in the previous blog post, narcissism exists on a spectrum from healthy self-esteem to severe personality disorder. The essential issue is maintaining a stable and positive self-image. Their personality traits are maladaptive in some settings but highly adaptive in others and activated in specific rather than all contexts. When sexuality is the arena, this is what we could expect.

What does a sexual narcissist’s behavior look like?

Narcissists tend to view sexual and romantic relationships as opportunities to strengthen their own self and tend to look for sexual partners who explicitly please their sexual needs. They want to be perceived as a great sexual partner and extremely sexually attractive. In case these self-affirmative benefits are no longer provided, narcissistic individuals tend to disengage from sexual relationships quickly. All these behavioral efforts help narcissistic individuals to maintain the overly positive view they have about themselves. At the same time, these behaviors lead to a devaluation of the communal rewards of the sexual and romantic relationship (e.g., emotional intimacy, friendship).

Sexual narcissistic behavior often involves the following 10 signs:

Love Bombing. Sexual narcissists enter intimate relationships with charm, flattering comments, and profuse love to gain the other’s trust. They may rush sexual intimacy and even go to great lengths in the first sexual encounters to prioritize their partner’s pleasure. While the behavior may initially seem romantic and passionate, it inevitably turns one-sided, egocentric, unempathetic, transactional, and aggressive.

Prioritizing their Sexual Satisfaction. Sexual narcissists are preoccupied with their own satisfaction, ignoring the needs of others. When their partner does express a sexual need or preference, the sexual narcissist may ignore the request or accuse their partner of being controlling or selfish.

A Sense of Entitlement to Sex. Sexual narcissists expect to get what they want during sex, even when what they want is unreasonable or non-consensual. They often believe they deserve sexual favors and demand that their partners perform certain sexual activities and comply with their expectations. If the other doesn’t give in to their needs, they may retaliate with aggression, threats of having sex with someone else, or ghosting for a while as a punitive treatment.

The Expectation of Praise. To fuel their self-esteem, sexual narcissists will crave, expect, and even demand praise to meet their narcissistic supply. During sex, this may look like ordering partners to express sexual satisfaction or give compliments to the sexual narcissist. Typically, after intercourse, they show disinterest in their partner.

Overconfidence about Sexual Performance. Sexual narcissists often portray themselves and their sexual skills as unique and superior to others. While some sexual narcissists do have high sexual esteem and perceive themselves to be good lovers, others are only acting overly confident, grandiose, and arrogant about their sexual performance to compensate for an underlying weak sense of self-esteem.

A Lack of Empathy for a Partner’s Needs.  Narcissists can empathize but choose to use it only when it serves them. Sexual narcissists typically demonstrate a lack of empathy by ignoring their partner’s sexual preferences to prioritize their own. They may show great aversion to their partner’s weaknesses and faults, magnifying them. They could come to denigrate their partner, reacting abruptly and harshly when they demand attention to their needs.

Reporting they aren’t Sexually Satisfied.  Sexual narcissists tend to report low sexual satisfaction and blame their partners. They may judge or criticize their partner’s performance or suggest that sex has become dull and needs to change to meet their sexual needs. Sexual narcissists may hint (or even overtly threaten) that they will look elsewhere for satisfaction if their partner can’t step it up.

Hypersensitivity to Criticism. Sexual narcissists are hypersensitive to criticism about their sexual performance and bodies. When confronted with a suggestion to change positions during sex or move at a different pace, they may ignore or appear disinterested in the feedback. In reality, they experience it as a narcissistic injury. In some cases, perceived criticism will trigger narcissistic rage, which involves an outburst of aggression and violence.

Sexual Exploitation. Sexual narcissists often view people as objects to meet their sexual needs, which may mean doing anything necessary to reach that goal. Some sexual narcissists collect and threaten blackmail (by taking sexual photos or videos), tell their partners they would be “nothing” without sex with them, or guilt their partners into performing sexually.

Aggression or Violence. While aggression during sex for some may be perfectly healthy (e.g., for partners engaging in BDSM), it may indicate that someone is a sexual narcissist if they perform unwanted sexual contact, sexual coercion, or rape. Aggression may happen periodically due to narcissistic rage, or the sexual narcissist may prefer all sexual encounters to be just aggressive.

 

How to help partners on their way out (if this is what they want)

We all may engage with narcissists because they look charming and self-confident, and people generally are attracted by Alpha-like personalities. If we are solid, strong, differentiated, and emotionally mature, we can even enjoy a relationship with them. Many of them will do their best to maintain the relationship special, as they need to feel that their partner is also unique to be rewarded by that. Suppose the partner can scale back expectations, set boundaries, and use functional strategies to manage the narcissist’s unfavorable traits and manipulations. In that case, they do not have to rush to find an exit way. We, clinicians, can reason with them about the balance between what they get and what they don’t so that they can make a decision.

However, more and more people are asking for help because they want to break off the relationship but can’t. They often are stuck in a constant oscillation between feeling ready to leave and thinking they should stay. They wonder which strategy they didn’t try and what they need to change to bring the marvelous lover of the beginning back. In my experience, there are two sides of the coin to process in therapy: 1) explore what in the client’s past may have made them vulnerable to falling for, and remain with, an excessively narcissistic person, and 2) elaborate on the denial in seeing the real other, in their traits, weaknesses, and difficulty to change. In other words, it’s often a matter of facing reality, whether it is related to ourselves or to others. It is an unpleasant journey, as pain will come up, but it is worth the effort.

I believe it is useless to tell a client to break up with a partner, or worst, to support them “only” if they want to leave the dysfunctional relationship. The direction of a change can be processed only by the client, which can take time. Certainly, when there is emotional or physical abuse, sexual coercion, excessive jealousy and control, humiliation and gaslighting, withdrawal from friends and family, self-harm, persistent anxiety or depression because of the relationship, there is a ground for a change.

Elaboration of the past, acceptance of reality, focus on the actual needs, and sometimes giving a chance to the narcissistic partners to work on themselves are ingredients of the clinical pathway. But how to prepare a client for breaking up with a narcissist? Below are some suggestions I usually share with my patients during consultations:

  1. Your reason to leave. Having in mind the motivation to leave the relationship is crucial. It has to be personal, grounded on your reality, as the narcissist’s distorted perspective will challenge it. Once you announce the breakup, you will likely be met with overt or passive-aggressive rage or love bombing to win you back. Own your reality and forecast reactions; it will help during the potential counter-attack phase.
  2. Stop trying. Renounce hatred and the desire for revenge; give up the desire to be right or compensated. There is no point in showing your partner the evidence of their wrongdoing again: they will not change their reality. Instead, take stock of what you can learn from the situation. Put a different light on considering your partner. Egoism, manipulation, and cruelty are only half of the picture. You can’t save them, but they are not evils.
  3. Get yourself back. Feel your own pain and disconnection from yourself. Recognize the emotional exhaustion and treat yourself with self-protectiveness and compassion. Take control of your life and reduce your vulnerability when they come back. Reconnect with your support people and let them know you will need help to exit this difficult relationship.
  4. No contact. The narcissist feeds on your attention. Drastically reduce your supply: indifference works, not words. Respond silently to his inappropriate behavior or insults, being absent, postponing meetings, and blocking their phone number, email, and account on social media.
  5. No reminders. Get rid of things that remind you of your partner. Be mindful not to slip into thinking that things “weren’t as bad” because nice memories make it hard to remember the pain of the dark times.

The relationship with the narcissist really ends when the image of him/her as a valued interlocutor changes, when they’re not so great anymore in the clients’ minds. Also, when they stop looking for validation from the other and aim for self-validation. It can be a long process for some of them. Paradoxically, they felt seen and important for the first time in their life in that relationship. And it is painful to recognize that it was an illusion. In this sense, it is also important to recognize that a narcissistic partner is not the cause of all their problems. He/she is also a wounded child with suffering, shame, insecurity, and low self-esteem, and maybe this was the hidden link between the two partners.

Francesca Tripodi

 

References

Campbell WK, Miller JD. The handbook of narcissism and narcissistic personality disorder. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons; 2011.
Johnson, S. M. Humanizing the narcissistic style. W. W. Norton & Company; 1987.
Kampe, L., Bohn, J., Remmers, C. And Horz-Sagstetter, S. It’s not that great anymore: the central role of defense mechanisms in grandiose and vulnerable narcissism. Frontiers in Psychiatry. 2021; 12, 1-14.
McLean J. Psychotherapy with a Narcissistic Patient Using Kohut’s Self Psychology Model. Psychiatry (Edgmont). 2007 Oct;4(10):40-7.
McNulty JK, Widman L. The implications of sexual narcissism for sexual and marital satisfaction. Arch Sex Behav. 2013 Aug;42(6):1021-32.
Varga BA, et al. Narcissism, sexual response, and sexual and relationship satisfaction. Sexual and Relationship Therapy. 2022 May 3:1-21.
Widman L, McNulty JK. Sexual narcissism and the perpetration of sexual aggression. Arch Sex Behav. 2010 Aug;39(4):926-39.