Do you know the story of Narcissus and Echo? I think we have all heard of Narcissus before, right? Greek mythology depicts him as a man who falls in love with his own image. What many people don’t realize is that Echo has a part to play in the story too. Having been cursed by the gods, this wood nymph could only repeat the last words she heard spoken by another person. So as Narcissus leans over the water and tells his reflection “I love you”, Echo repeats “I love you”. Narcissus however, is convinced it is his own reflection talking back to him.
The Narcissist and Their Echo
Just like Narcissus needed Echo to reflect his own words back at him, so does the narcissist need an echo around to reflect their brilliance back at them. And much like Echo, the narcissist’s target ceases to truly exist. We have to note though, that Echo initially does get something out of the echoing, and it is not until Narcissus is lost, that she despairs and becomes undone.
I think that, when looking at the relationship between a narcissist and their enabler, a similar thing is true. Although the enabler may seem like a passive and submissive partner, they may in fact “get something out of it.” I have sometimes wondered if some enablers are not in fact “passive narcissists.” What I mean is that they may not actively seek out and abuse victims, they do get a certain satisfaction from the offering up of targets to their more outwardly abusive spouse.
“The more malignant their narcissism is, the more active their disregard of others’ concerns can become, wantonly crossing boundaries and exceeding reasonable limits with a disturbing sense of entitlement. But whether their disregard for others is active or passive in character, it can engender substantial abuse and exploitation in their relationships.” (from Narcissism and Relational Abuse – Both Active and Passive)
I want to make clear that not everyone who is married to a narcissist will feel like this or act like this. I am referring quite specifically to partners who do not only enable abuse by accepting it, but in fact contribute to the abusive environment, either by echoing the narcissist or creating situation where the narcissist can get their narcissistic supply.
The Enabling Parent As a Passive Narcissist
The most obvious situation where this complex symbiotic dynamic can be observed, is between an abusive and an enabling parent. The spousal relationship between these two may seem far more unbalanced than you may initially think. Unlike a spousal abuse situation, where the second parent is a fellow victim of the abuse, there is a more sinister partnership at play here.
As we discussed in An Understanding of Enabling, the enabling parent is the person who creates the ideal circumstances under which the abusive parent can get their narcissistic supply filled. So how does that translate to their partnership. If the children, or possibly other family members or people from the community, are served up as the narcissist’s prey, what is happening inside the head of the enabler.
For a long time I thought my own father was simply handling out of self preservation. Like the situation that I described above, I thought he was a fellow target who was simply trying to deflect some of the abusive attention off himself. The more I speak to spousal survivor’s though, the more I hear them say they did anything to deflect attention from their kids, and onto themselves. Better they suffer than their children. In our family, that was most certainly not the case, and my father often had a part to play in the most intensely abusive situations. A more subtle role than my mother, but a role nonetheless.
It could be small things, like getting us to do something by inserting a “well, you know what your mother will do if she sees this,” or by telling us to “just tell her she is right, it makes things easier.” Those instances can still be explained by an attempt to keep the peace, keep my mother happy and avoid the rage and drama. However, I realize now, that he was far more actively controlling us. Like when he would be giving us “the death stare” when my partner or I would confront an issue with my parents (it is that really focused look that says: drop dead NOW). And how about the time when he told me that my mother did not want to sit down for a conversation to work out our differences, because “my communication skills are too good?” It seems that my father did a lot more than enable the abuse, he manipulated the situation to maximize it. All while keeping the reputation of calm, loving father. And when he felt one of us pulling away, he would draw us back in with pleading tears.
Echo Without Her Narcissus
As much as Narcissus is no-one without his reflection and the repeated words of Echo, so too is Echo nothing without Narcissus to copy. So too does a passive narcissist need someone who is actively toxic to feed off of. They need the narcissistic supply as much as the toxic parent, but find a way to let someone else do the dirty work.
And should their Narcissus ever leave them, they will fade away into non-existence.
Nothing but a voice bouncing around in our head.