Why Do Empaths And Narcissists End Up In Relationships? (Explained)

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It’s quite startling to realize just how often empaths and narcissists end up in relationships together.

Despite the fact that these two types of people are on opposite ends of the emotional care spectrum, they seem drawn together like moths to flames.

They both know that things are going to go really badly, but they just can’t seem to help themselves.

What Draws Them Together?

This is pretty much the ideal toxic codependency when it comes to relationships. Empaths and narcissists are basically unhealthy puzzle pieces for one another.

Empaths are generally incredibly kind, caring individuals who thrive on doting on others. They were often mistreated, neglected, and/or ignored in their youth, and try to offer others all the love, care, and attention they desperately needed and never received.

In turn, narcissists need to be worshipped and fussed over. They were usually also mistreated and/or neglected in their youth, sometimes even abandoned… but instead of turning that pain outwards into care for others, they turned it toward getting as much attention and affection for themselves as possible.

See the connection here?

These two are drawn together whether they want to be or not. They’re embodiments of unhealthy, toxic puzzle pieces.

What Keeps Them Together?

They both thrive on drama, but in different ways.

Quite often, the empath will feel most comfortable when they’re being treated badly, because that’s a situation they know well. They feel like they know what they’re doing when they’re trying hard to “earn” someone else’s attention and affection.

In turn, the narcissist’s sadistic streak thrives on this behavior. On one hand, they’ll have contempt for it. They’ll see their partner as weak and pathetic, and play with their emotions so they’re constantly sucking up and trying to get love and attention.

They’ll play a cruel cat and mouse game in which they’ll “love bomb” the empath with a bit of kindness to keep them engaged. Then they’ll withhold it again so their partner has to scramble to get care and love from them again.

All in all, it’s an incredibly unhealthy pairing that never ends well.

Sometimes the relationship ends early, either because the narcissist has gotten bored or the empath has had a nervous breakdown. In that case, the narcissist will basically walk away and never look back.

In contrast, the empath will berate themselves for ages, feeling that if only they had shown MORE love, MORE compassion, MORE care, then the person they convinced themselves that they loved would have stayed. And even more importantly, would finally have loved them in return.

In contrast, the narcissist is unlikely to ever think about them at all, post breakup. If they do, then it’s with a sneer of contempt for how weak and pathetic they were.

When narcissists and empaths manage to stay together long-term, it’s usually because they’ve developed a strong codependency. They feed off one another’s energy like twisted, symbiotic parasites. One thrives on adoration and unleashes cruelty, the other needs cruelty to trigger their adoration.

Heartbreaking, isn’t it?

The Empathic Trauma Bond

Are you familiar with the term “trauma bond”? It’s something that often develops in children who are abused by their parents.

In simplest terms, a type of emotional attachment is created via a cycle of mistreatment and false hope. Let’s use an example of a child being abused by a narcissistic parent.

The child will be hurt deeply by the parent, usually through emotional, verbal, or psychological cruelty. They’ll be devalued and told how worthless they are; that they’re a burden, or stupid, or a mistake. The child will be emotionally shattered. All they want is for the person they love to show them a tiny bit of kindness.

The child will do all they can to try to earn a piece of that parent’s love and affection. In turn, the parent may be cold and distant, even more insulting or cruel, so the child tries even harder. Eventually, that narcissist will turn around and love bomb the little one, which finally grants that poor child a moment of love and security.

Until it’s snatched away again, and the harmful cycle begins anew.

What should be a healthy, loving connection between parent and child ends up being a horrible game in which the narcissist toys with the child in order to get the attention and sycophancy they want.

In turn, the child develops an extreme hypersensitivity to their parent’s emotional state, so they’ll do just about anything they can for a bit of love.

These vulnerable people learn how to bond with those who are the very source of their emotional pain and betrayal, quite simply because they were forced to do so. They had to grovel and pander for small kindnesses because they were utterly dependent on their abusers for every aspect of their support and well-being.

They inevitably end up repeating this cycle with friendships and romantic relationships as they age. They’ll re-create circumstances they’re familiar with in the hope that this time, they’ll be loved and appreciated as they always wanted to be.

Many Empaths Recognize This, And Choose Narcissists Anyway

You may be surprised to discover that many empaths are well aware of this behavior, and choose to go down that road anyway.

Some refuse to sever ties with their narcissistic partners because they feel bound to them out of a sense of familial duty. They may have convinced themselves that their partners “really love them deep down,” so they keep tolerating abuse, even though they’re fully aware that they’re being damaged.

In fact, some even crack jokes about their narcissist, and how their relationship is just broken enough to keep things going. Because apparently that’s healthy?

It’s very difficult to witness this kind of situation and feel powerless to help them. When you care about a friend or family member deeply, and see how much they suffer with a narcissistic partner/spouse, you undoubtedly want to help them out of that situation.

Alternatively, if you’re the empath who’s fully aware of the fact that you’ve chosen to be with a narcissist, you may be constantly torn between different emotions.

For instance, you may absolutely despise how your partner treats you, but you desperately want to help them because you know that their narcissism stems from a place of deep hurt.

But they hurt you badly, and you want the hurt to stop, but you know it won’t…

…and so the spiral keeps spinning down, down, down until eventual collapse.

This spiral is also evident when it comes to empaths who are aware of their codependence, and want support about it, but don’t actually want to take action to end the situation.

Some people refer to this tendency as being an “askhole.” If you’re not familiar with the term, it’s a situation where someone will ask the same question over and over again, looking for a particular response. If they don’t get the one they want, they’ll ignore what’s being said… until the next time, when they’ll ask the exact same thing again.

They’re looking for reassurance and validation, not truth.

So you may be an empath who complains bitterly to your friends and family members about how horribly your partner treats them. Then, when and if your social circle calls you out on your unhealthy relationship, you may get furious with them. How dare they talk about your abuser that way?

Many empaths will defend their (horribly abusive narcissist) partner to hell and back, even though they’re causing them no end of grief. They’ll even say that they’re well aware that their partner is abusive, but staying with them is their choice, and should be respected.

Ultimately, they want to use their social circle as shoulders to cry on because they’re being treated horribly, but they want everyone to forget everything “bad” they’ve said as soon as their Stockholm syndrome kicks back in.

No matter what their narcissist does to them, they’ll have an explanation for it.

“He doesn’t mean to be cruel, but he had a horrible childhood…”

“Of course she needs a lot of attention, she has abandonment issues…”

“Yeah, he lashes out and puts me down a lot, but he has health problems…”

They’ll get fiercely protective of their partner/abuser if anyone else says something negative about them.

Remember that above all else, what narcissists want most in this world is to be adored. Their total self-serving, self-absorbed natures hide their unbelievable insecurity. This is why they need constant validation and worship from those around them.

When and if they come across someone who dislikes them, whom they can’t charm, or who really doesn’t care about them at all, that can wound them very deeply.

And so they turn to their empath pet, crying and “vulnerable,” and their empath kicks into high gear to protect them. They believe that if they protect the narcissist, then that’ll prove to them how much they love them, and they’ll get shown love in turn…

After all, everyone can be fixed, or healed, or “saved” with enough love, care, and compassion, right?


This Relationship Will Not Get Better

If you’re an empath who has repeatedly ended up in relationships like this, it’s up to you to change your behavioral patterns.

Your narcissistic partner will not change, no matter how much understanding, patience, love, and devotion you throw into that black hole.

They won’t change because they don’t see their behavior as abusive. Whether via genetics, neurological connections, or their own damaging childhood experiences, their wiring is such that they often see themselves as victims and martyrs.

They are incapable of experiencing empathy, and instead only see others as vehicles for fulfilling their own needs and desires.

Sure, most people can change, but that only happens when they have a deep-seated desire to do so. Why would someone put in any effort to change when they honestly don’t believe that they do anything wrong?

Exactly: not gonna happen.

First and foremost, it’s important for you to understand why it is that you keep being drawn to these types of people. It’s only by recognizing your own origin story that you’ll be able to change it.

This is where it’s really helpful to find yourself a good therapist. They can guide you with some great questions and exercises that will allow you to go back to where your own damage started.

When we address those old hurts at their source, it creates a trickle-down effect. We won’t magically heal overnight, but it’s startling how an epiphany about where certain behaviors began can affect them in the present moment. This can even be true several decades down the line.

Once a person has that kind of epiphany, they can break the cycle.

In fact, it’s much easier to do so. Where before, you may have seen your narcissistic partner as both a victim to be coddled and an inaccessible emotional well to draw from, they’ll now be viewed with clarity.

There may still be compassion present, since empaths have such caring natures, but you won’t feel that same need to receive love or appreciation from them. Nor will you be as affected by their barbs and jabs. It’ll be like watching a child throw stones at a mountain in an attempt to get a reaction out of it or hurt it.

When you get to that point, the narcissist will have no power over you. You’ll have the ability to free yourself from them, without the long-lasting pain of wondering whether you could have possibly done anything more to make them love you.

You’ll be able to begin anew, knowing that the unhealthy trauma bond cycle has ended. And you’ll never have a relationship with a narcissist again.

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About The Author

Catherine Winter is an herbalist, INTJ empath, narcissistic abuse survivor, and PTSD warrior currently based in Quebec's Laurentian mountains. In an informal role as confidant and guide, Catherine has helped countless people work through difficult times in their lives and relationships, including divorce, ageing and death journeys, grief, abuse, and trauma recovery, as they navigate their individual paths towards healing and personal peace.