How is love defined?
Real love is not romance, and it’s not codependency. For Aristotle and St. Thomas Aquinas, it’s “to will the good of another.” In The Psychology of Romantic Love (1980), Nathaniel Branden states that “To love a human being is to know and love his or her person.” It’s a union of two individuals, which requires that we see another person as separate from ourselves. Further, in The Art of Loving (1945), Erich Fromm emphasizes that love entails effort to develop knowledge, responsibility, and commitment. We must be motivated to know another’s wants, needs, and feelings and provide encouragement and support. We take pleasure in their happiness and try not to hurt them.
When we love, we show active concern for their life and growth. We try to understand their experience and worldview, though it may differ from ours. Caring involves offering attention, respect, support, compassion, and acceptance. We must devote the necessary time and discipline. Romantic love can evolve into love, but narcissists aren’t motivated to really know and understand others (Ritter et al., 2010).
According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, narcissists “lack empathy and have difficulty recognizing desires, subjective experiences, and feelings of others” (p. 670). Research shows that they have structural abnormalities in brain regions associated with emotional empathy (Schulze et al., 2013). Hence, their ability to appropriately respond emotionally and express care and concern is significantly impaired.
Narcissists have s several hurdles to loving. First, they neither see themselves nor others clearly. First, they experience people as extensions of themselves, rather than separate individuals with differing needs, desires, and feelings. Second, they overestimate their own emotional empathy (Ritter et al., 2010). Third, their defenses distort their perceptions and interactions with others. They brag and withdraw to control closeness and vulnerability, project onto others unwanted, negative aspects of themselves, and they use denial, entitlement, and narcissistic abuse, including blame, contempt, criticism, and aggression, to ward off shame. Perfectionistic narcissists callously put down others and may attempt to destroy adversaries in order to sustain their illusion of perfection (Lancer, 2017). All these issues impair narcissists’ capacity to accurately take in another person’s reality, including that person’s love for them. In fact, narcissists emotional intelligence helps them manipulate and exploit others to get what they want, while their impaired emotional empathy desensitizes them to the pain they inflict.
Can we measure love?
Love is difficult to measure, but research shows that people feel love expressed by: 1) words of affirmation, 2) spending quality time, 3) giving gifts, 4) acts of service, and 5) physical touch (Goff, et al. 2007). Another study revealed that participants also felt loved by a partner who: 1) showed interest in their affairs; 2) gave them emotional and moral support; (3) disclosed intimate facts; 4) expressed feelings for them, such as “I’m happier when I’m near you”; and 5) tolerated their demands and flaws in order to maintain the relationship (Swenson, 1992, p. 92).
People who love narcissists are starved for many of these expressions of love. Sometimes, narcissists are remote, dismissive, or aggressive; other times, they show care and concern and are helpful. It’s not that narcissists are incapable of feeling or even intellectually understanding someone’s feelings. The problem appears to be rooted in childhood trauma and physiological deficits that impact emotional assessment, mirroring, and appropriate empathic expression. (Unconscious or unexpressed: “I love you, but”); Expressed: “I’m too busy to come to the hospital,” sounds pretty cold, but may not reflect the narcissist’s love for the person hospitalized. When the importance of a visit is explained to them, they might make the trip.
They may show love when they’re motivated. Their love is conditional, depending upon impact on the narcissist. My book Dealing with a Narcissist explains in detail how to navigate and beneficially use this in relationships with narcissists, addicts, or anyone highly defensive. Because narcissism exists on a continuum from mild to malignant, when it’s severe, selfishness and inability to express love become more apparent when greater demands are placed on a narcissist. Dating or long-distance relationships that have fewer expectations are easier.
Bottom line: Wondering whether a narcissist loves you is the wrong question. Although it’s wise to understand a narcissist’s mind, like Echo in the myth of Narcissus, partners overly focus on the narcissist to their detriment. Instead, ask yourself whether you feel valued, respected, and cared about. Are you getting your needs met? If not, how is that affecting you and your self-esteem and what can you do about that?
American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (5th ed.). Arlington, VA: American Psychiatric Publishing.
Branden, N. (1980). The Psychology of Romantic Love. Los Angeles: J.P. Tarcher, Inc.
Campbell, W.K, Finkel, E.J., & Foster, C.A. (2002). Does self-love lead to love for others? A story of narcissistic game playing, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 83(2), 340-354. Retrieved from https://pdfs.semanticscholar.org/5a8d/b3534f5398d42cfd0160ca14f92fd6bf05e5.pdf
Delic, A., Novak, P., Kovacic, J., & Avsec, A. (2011). Self-reported emotional and social intelligence and empathy as distinctive predictors of narcissism” Psychological Topics 20(3), 477-488. Retrieved from https://pdfs.semanticscholar.org/0fe0/2aba217382005c8289b4607dc721a16e11e7.pdf
Fromm, E., (1956). The Art of Loving. New York: Harper & Brothers Publishers.
Goff, B. G., Goddard, H. W., Pointer, L., & Jackson, G. B. (2007). Measures of expressions of love. Psychological Reports, 101, 357-360. https://doi.org/10.2466/pr0.101.2.357-360
Johnson, R. A. (1945). We, Understanding the psychology of Romantic Love. San Francisco: Harper & Row Publishers.
Lancer, D.A. (2017). “I’m Not Perfect, I’m Only Human” – How to Beat Perfectionism. Los Angeles: Carousel Books.
Lancer, D.A. (2014). Conquering Shame and Codependency: 8 Steps to Freeing the True You. Center City: Hazelden Foundation.
Ritter, K., et al. (2010). Lack of empathy in patients with narcissistic personality disorder, Psychiatry Research. Retrieved from https://pdfs.semanticscholar.org/2fe3/32940c369886baccadb14fd5dfcbc5f5625f.pdf.
Schultze, L., et al. (2013) Gray matter abnormalities in patients with narcissistic personality disorder. Psychiatric Research, 47(10), 1363–1369. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jpsychires.2013.05.017
Swenson, C. (1972). The Behavior of Love. In H.A. Otto (Ed.) Love Today (pp. 86-101). New York: Dell Publishing.
© Darlene Lancer 2018