If you felt unloved during childhood, there are many reasons why you might attract partners with narcissistic tendencies in adulthood.

Our childhood experiences play a major role in how we navigate life and relationships as adults.

Specifically for daughters who felt unloved as a child, they may fall for partners with narcissistic tendencies. And there are many valid reasons for this.

“From the moment we were capable of understanding the world around us, we begin observing how people, particularly our caretakers, interacted with us and with each other, which become predictors of how we express and respond to love during our adulthood,” explains psychotherapist Susan Zinn, LPCC, LMHC, NCC.

This isn’t meant to place blame on our caregivers. Instead, she says this “increased awareness of our attachment style can help us take those first steps toward improving our relationships as an adult and developing a more securely attached relationship with those around us.”

Narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) is a mental health condition that typically features grandiose self-importance and a lack of empathy.

According to a 2021 study, only 1%–15% of the U.S. population lives with NPD.

But people who don’t have NPD can still express narcissistic tendencies, which include:

  • extreme need for validation
  • low empathy
  • a sense of entitlement
  • a desire to control, gaslight, or manipulate others
  • avoid taking responsibility
  • embody the “perfect” partner or relationship
  • move on quickly after a breakup
  • may push your boundaries or “love bomb” you

Just like feeling unloved as a child can affect women’s adult relationships, childhood trauma can lead to narcissistic tendencies as well. That same 2021 study suggests that NPD can be a result of negative developmental experiences as a child, like rejection or a hurt ego.

Falling for folks with narcissistic qualities is common for many reasons, especially for daughters seeking the love they may have lacked in childhood. So know you’re not alone, and your experience is valid.

Recognizing these signs can help you become more aware of potentially unhealthy or abusive relationships.

It’s also important to notice how your own tendencies impact your relationships.

Entering unhealthy relationships is never your fault, so try not to feel guilty or ashamed. Instead, try to focus on recognizing how your childhood could affect your adult connections.

Here are potential reasons why unloved daughters might fall for partners with narcissistic traits.

Your need to please others empowers them

“A person who has a deep fear of abandonment might constantly need validation in their relationship,” says clinical psychologist Brian Wind, PhD. “Another person might avoid getting too close to others out of fear of emotional intimacy.”

“Many women who grew up with trauma or neglect develop a fear of abandonment that goes on to look like chronic people-pleasing and focus on accommodating the other,” adds psychologist Justine Grosso, PsyD.

For a partner with narcissistic traits, she notes that this could align with their desire to feel powerful and in control.

You’re empathetic and caring

Empaths and highly sensitive people can be more susceptible to the charm of those who have NPD or narcissistic qualities, says Zinn.

“Someone who’s highly empathetic may desire validation and love from [them], potentially due to their childhood experience of not having their caregiver or parents meet their emotional needs,” she says.

Friendly reminder from Wind: Your empathy doesn’t make you weak.

“It’s not your fault for falling for someone with narcissistic tendencies,” he says. “[They] tend to go for people who are empathetic and caring, because they want someone who’s available for them.”

You’re used to being manipulated and controlled

“Women who were on the receiving end of gaslighting, coercive control, and other types of emotional abuse as children are conditioned to believe that these behaviors are normal, says Grosso.

She notes that these experiences can lead to the following:

  • low self-respect
  • difficulties with self-trust
  • a lack of knowledge around what healthy relationships feel like

As a result, she says that women may find themselves in relationships as adults that mimic these childhood dynamics.

You may accept verbal abuse as ‘normal’

It’s natural for us to internalize the voices of our caregivers, even when their messages weren’t always kind or loving. “If someone grows up being called names, criticized, and shamed constantly, they may deem this ‘normal,'” says Grosso.

Sometimes, this becomes a long-term pattern (that, rest assured, can be changed). “Starting with low self-esteem and self-compassion from childhood, a woman stays in relationships that fulfill this belief, leading to even less self-confidence,” she adds.

You mistake playing games for excitement

Grosso says it’s important to note that “game-playing” isn’t always conscious. “These behaviors are intermittently reinforcing connection, which is the most powerful type of reinforcement: anxiety about loss/abandonment builds up and is suddenly relieved by the romantic partner reaching out or responding to bids for connection,” she says.

Within this connection, she explains that there are elements of both pleasure and relief. “This anxiety-pleasure/relief cycle is romanticized as passion,” she says.

You experienced gaslighting as a child

According to Grosso, being invalidated or gaslighted as a child can lead to similar experiences in adulthood.

“This internalized process may lead women to minimize their needs and emotions and ignore their intuition about what constitutes healthy patterns of reciprocity, consistency, and reliability in their romantic relationship,” she says.

They engage in mirroring

“We naturally look for people who are familiar to us,” says Wind. And when you find someone with whom you share so much in common, you might feel like you’re soulmates.

But “a person with narcissistic tendencies tends to mirror you so that they appear to have the same interests and habits that you do,” he adds, noting that they may use mirroring as a way to get closer to you. And even though it may feel very real, this connection could be inauthentic.

The relationship starts off like a fairytale

Remember that we all put our best selves forward when getting to know someone. But people with narcissistic traits may present themselves and your budding relationship to be everything you’ve ever wanted and more.

“As humans we’re wired for connection, and for women who have experienced emotional abuse or neglect as children, it’s understandable to be caught up with someone who’s finally giving you what you’ve wanted for so long,” says Grosso.

Zinn’s advice? “If someone comes on too strong at the beginning, be wary,” she says. “We all love to feel lusted for, but mature love takes time and has to be nurtured and grown.”

They unconsciously remind you of home

According to Grosso, the child-caregiver relationship sets the stage for our adult relationships.

“Daughters who were raised by people with narcissistic traits may also be unconsciously picking a partner who is similar to their parents to try and get the validation they did not get as a child,” says Wind.

For unloved daughters, partners with narcissistic traits may feel familiar and remind them of home, leading them to relive these experiences through adult relationships.

No matter what your childhood looked like, it’s possible to form healthier relationships in the future.

First, remember that entering abusive relationships is never your fault. And on that same note, a mental health condition is never an excuse for abusive behavior.

Your next step is to work on increasing your self-awareness. “Many of us don’t even remember or realize the link between our childhood experiences and our adult relationships, so it’s important to start understanding how our experiences have affected our relationships,” says Wind.

Here are more tips on how to attract healthier, loving relationships:

  • Refine your list of red flags and deal breakers.
  • Learn more about narcissistic personality disorder and related traits.
  • End relationships with people who display these tendencies early on.
  • Practice self-love and self-compassion.
  • Join support groups for survivors of narcissistic abuse.
  • Improve your communication skills (e.g., sharing your needs, wants, concerns).
  • Talk to supportive and trusted loved ones.
  • Reach out to advocates like the Narcissism & Abuse Hotline.

“Practice emotional intimacy and being vulnerable by talking about your relationship to your partner,” adds Wind. He also suggests seeking partners who seem to have secure attachment styles, which may help you feel safer in your connection.

Seeing a therapist who specializes in childhood trauma and/or relationship issues can also help. “If unhealthy relationships [were] and boundaries weren’t modeled in your household growing up, therapy is a great option to help foster and develop the skills needed to have healthy and loving relationships in your future,” says Zinn.

How we received love as children can impact the way we receive love and navigate relationships as adults. So it makes sense that unloved daughters may tend to enter relationships with people with NPD or narcissistic traits due to their childhood experiences.

Some reasons include:

  • Your need for validation makes them feel powerful.
  • Manipulation, control, and gaslighting feels familiar to you.
  • You tend to accept verbal abuse as a norm.
  • You’re caring and sensitive.

Know that you deserve love, and it’s possible to enter healthier relationships as an adult. Practicing self-compassion, joining support groups, and speaking with therapists or hotline advocates can help you heal.

And a friendly reminder from Zinn: “If you’re feeling down, you can always put your hand on your heart, breathe through your heart, and remind yourself that you deserve healthy and loving relationships no matter what happened in your past,” she says.