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Love bombing: Can a narcissist ever truly love somebody else?

‘They think they’re in love, but what they’re in love with is what the person can do for them,’ says counsellor and psychotherapist Jennifer Haskins

There is a widely-held belief that people with narcissistic personality disorder, a clinically recognised personality disorder listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, deliberately use manipulation tactics in the early stages of a romantic relationship in order to simulate affection and lure in a new love interest.

This phenomenon, commonly known as love bombing, puts an overwhelming focus on the praise and affection given to the romantic interest, while neglecting the core mechanisms at work for the person with a complex clinical condition who is perpetually faced with a disparity between reality and their self-perception.

According to counsellor and psychotherapist Jennifer Haskins, everybody has an intrinsic need to protect themselves, and a person with narcissistic pathology is operating from a place of self-preservation. “When people do what others consider an awful act, if you actually look at the core of that act, it usually stems from self-protection of some type or survival, and the survival instinct is our most basic instinct,” she says.

The Dublin-based psychotherapist, who has done extensive study in the area of psychology and relationships, says the vast majority of individuals operate at a very low level of self-awareness, and people with narcissistic personality disorder are often misguided about how they feel about their partner once a relationship has been established.


“They think they’re in love with the person, but what they’re in love with is what the person can do for them, and the amount of control they can have over the person. Their driving factor is manipulation and control to get what they need to bolster their ego all the time, so it’s always about bolstering their ego and propping them up.

“Essentially, the person that they’re in a relationship with is a crutch or a platform for them to display how wonderful they are. But their love can seem like love to them, so they actually think it’s love when it’s just a [subconscious] need they have to be able to manipulate somebody.”

This lack of self-awareness, combined with an innate need for self-protection, makes it difficult for a person with a narcissistic structure to engage in self-inquiry after the breakdown of a relationship, says Haskins, who also runs Dublin-based matchmaking agency Two’s Company. “Because of their self-protective mechanisms, even if they have relationship after relationship after relationship breaking down, it will never be about them. It will always be that everybody else was the guilty party, and the one who was wrong.

“It’s not natural for a narcissist to actually hold the mirror up to themselves and say, ‘What is it about me’? Because the actual disorder is a complete self-protection mechanism that is always outward and always somebody else’s fault,” she adds.

Narcissistic supply, a term derived from psychoanalytic theory, is used to describe the pathological need for validation from others. While there are various ways a person with narcissistic personality disorder can get their supply, it is quite specific in the context of romance.

A 2018 study on narcissism and mate value by Oakland University found that a narcissistic person’s perception of their romantic partner plays an instrumental role in their own self-image

According to Haskins, a person with a narcissistic structure seeks out two brands of individuals – people with low-self esteem who may be easy to control, or high achievers who may boost their status in society. “They generally like people with codependency characteristics, low self-worth or self-esteem issues. Someone who has been hurt in past relationships, empaths and sensitive types.

“However, they also like to be in relationships with high achievers and successful individuals as this elevates their profile. It can give them a place in society which boosts their ego as well. It’s like someone who wants to be in the company of somebody famous, somebody that could be well known in society, or somebody that could be a high achiever who has done well for themselves.”

A 2018 study on narcissism and mate value by Oakland University found that a narcissistic person’s perception of their romantic partner plays an instrumental role in their own self-image; and, ultimately, people with narcissistic personality disorder see their partner as an extension of themselves.

Closer to home, Haskins says a relationship between two narcissists can work due to a mutual understanding that it is symbiotic and transactional on both sides. “They understand each other and it can operate on the basis where there’s just a familiarity there, they’re just mirroring back. An awful lot of the time, humans will attract other people into their lives who — maybe not in the exact same way — will mirror back things that maybe we need to work on, so a lot of time we will attract relationships into our lives to help us evolve and help us grow,” she says.

“They’re not aware of any of this,” she adds. “All they know is familiar behaviour because they’re both looking for the same thing from one another, so it can be very much a mutual feeding dynamic.”

While these interactions portray an image of the narcissist as cunning and devious, the Dublin-based relationships expert says it’s important to note that people can change their patterns. “You don’t just come into this world with these personality traits. You come into this world with a blank slate and then it’s what happens to you after that that makes you develop as a particular type of person and develop your personality.

“The human brain will operate on the programmes that we give it, and when we’re young these programmes are literally programmed into our subconscious mind through our experiences, and then we’re operating out of them for the rest of our lives unless at some point — and it’s usually through trauma — that somebody will actually then seek help and go: ‘This is not working for me, what can I do?’ And then, through self-inquiry, they start to look at themselves and see that they’re not the personality, they’re not these patterns of behaviour, they’re not a programme and they can be reprogrammed.”

Filomena Kaguako

Filomena Kaguako is a contributor to The Irish Times