Relationships can be complicated. A big part of my job as a therapist is to pinpoint distressing patterns in relationships and help my clients overcome them through fair fighting skills, healthy communication, empathy, and compromise. All that stuff is hard work to learn, let alone implement daily when our emotions run hot and your freakin’ husband left that stupid kitchen cupboard open again! You can love someone so much but let the smallest detail get to you. Like I said, relationships are complicated. :)
Now back to this “codependent-narcissist trap” idea. This book details the dichotomy of those relationships that survive around conflict, drama, substance use, and dysfunctional interactions. It explains the relationships that are so unhealthy but continue to exist despite how toxic they are, in which one person is deemed the “codependent" (others-oriented) and the other is deemed the “narcissist” (self-oriented). Both of those words have pretty negative connotations so I prefer to use the terms “giver” and “taker” in my sessions. The narcissist is typically the manipulator, the social butterfly, the substance user, the abuser, the workaholic, or any other type of person who dominates the relationship in some way. The codependent is described as the enabler, the nurturer/caregiver, the people pleaser, or the one who lacks all self-esteem. Surely, not every relationship can fall under those two black-and-white, all-or-nothing categories?
You are right! The Human Magnet Syndrome proposes that these qualities lie on a spectrum, where the outermost areas of the spectrum are the most dysfunctional and the innermost area is where the healthiest, most balanced relationships land. Rosenberg calls this spectrum "The Continuum of Self." The reason I use this theory so much is because I can see this dichotomy in various relationships—marriages, parent-child relationships, friendships, coworkers—and to make things even more complicated, where you lie on that spectrum can change from relationship to relationship depending on the other person you are in that particular relationship with! Clear as mud, right? I told you, it’s complicated! I’ll explain more on this later. First, let’s get to understanding the characteristics of each side of this spectrum.
Codependent / Giver
The most common and drastic scenario I have seen of this is when a spouse warns their partner, “If you keep ______ (you name it: using substances, not coming home at night, cheating, forgetting about your kids to focus on work, etc.), I’ll leave.” Usually the spouse appeases the codependent for a short period of time until they get back into their old routines (continues using, cheating, etc.), ultimately leaving the codependent to follow through on their threat. However, that spouse knows all along that the codependent won’t leave. And so the pattern continues.
Narcissist / Taker
In therapy I usually try to determine which partner lands on which side of the spectrum, as well as how severe they may be and what type of repairs the couple uses to reach the middle “balanced area.” It rarely happens, but sometimes I find two of the same “type” in a relationship. If there are two narcissists together, their relationship is usually defined by extreme high conflict and explosive arguments; whereas two codependents together may describe their relationship as pretty boring, low key, and emotionally unsatisfying. Thus, there is normalcy in a codependent-narcissistic relationship, depending on where each partner sits on the spectrum. The further inward on the spectrum towards “neutral / balanced,” the healthier the relationship. Oftentimes couples will use “repairs” to achieve that balance, which means they engage in their dysfunctional codependent or narcissistic behaviors, they gain awareness of how they impacted their partner, and they settle it through communication, compromise, and compassion.
The amazing thing I have recognized through my practice that isn’t discussed in the book is that a person can shift from one side of the spectrum to the other depending on the relationship they are in and where their partner lies on the spectrum. Just a couple of common examples: A female who has a history of unhealthy relationships with narcissistic men may begin dating a lifelong friend who has always been nice and treated her well (i.e. further outward on the codependent side). That female may describe her newfound romantic relationship as “too easy” and she may become demanding or entitled; therefore, catapulting herself over to the narcissist side of the spectrum for that particular relationship.
Another example of changing roles on the spectrum is a parent-child relationship. Typically children are on the taker side of the spectrum while the parents are on the giver side by helping them navigate the younger years and taking responsibility for their kids’ actions. Later on, that child may grow up to seek approval from a narcissist and care for that person the way their parents had always cared for them. Sometimes it can be seen as a way they show their love. For instance, I worked with a couple years ago where the wife always kept a package of Tollhouse cookie dough in the fridge and baked 2 cookies every night for her partner before bed because he “liked something sweet after all the salt I’d make him for dinner.” If she didn’t follow through, she felt like a failure and as if their night was ruined. Her self-esteem would be shot for days and she would constantly try to appease her spouse. Upon probing more into their marriage patterns and their histories, it became evident that she felt the most love in her childhood when her mother would comfort her with a sweet treat after a hard day. No doubt, this wasn’t necessarily something she thought was an issue in the beginning, but ultimately she found out that if she missed a night of cookies, her spouse would still love her when their heads hit the pillow.
Now how does this information apply to normal relationships—the ones that aren’t on the verge of divorce or destruction? It’s mainly for awareness, to help us understand our relationship patterns and to overcome some of the slight dysfunctions by learning new, helpful relationship tools. When I first discovered The Human Magnet Syndrome, I approached my husband with it and said, “I think I might be the narcissist!” He politely agreed, just gently enough that I wouldn’t become offended. (Gosh, this man knows me too well!) I like to think that our relationship constitutes a “normal” relationship where we can have awareness of how we are impacting one another and can repair our relationship through healthy communication.
My husband, being on the giving side of the spectrum, may happily take these tasks on, and often times would do them without question early in our courtship. But now it takes something as simple as one comment from him indicating how it is impacting him negatively for me to gain awareness, give an apology if necessary, and further discuss what I meant with him for further understanding or compromise. I may not always accept his comment right away but when he sets a boundary and stands up for himself, he is centering himself on the spectrum. That gives me the opportunity to join him there. Essentially, we make repairs. Healthy couples do that on the daily. We are all imperfect and, I especially, tend to put my foot in my mouth but we can still achieve balance together.
So where do you see yourself and your spouse on the spectrum? How do you achieve balance? I hope this has given a little food for thought and adds to the health of your relationship the way it has ours!
Attached is the psychoeducational worksheet I threw together to better explain this spectrum to my clients in one sitting. You can reach the file by clicking the "Download File" button to the right of the image. It’s much easier to show them this than to have them read a book (although the book is very insightful and gives way more examples for further understanding—I’d highly recommend it!). Go ahead and have a look, print it out, and talk about it with your spouse. I’d love to hear any insights that come from your conversation!
Thanks for tuning in! Until next time!