An Addict First? Or a Narcissist First?

The 5 questions you have to ask yourself if someone close to you lives with both

If you are in a relationship with someone who struggles with addiction, and is a narcissist, you may find it difficult or impossible to figure out what, precisely, you should be doing, thinking, or feeling.

Let’s address the addiction first: It’s likely that your understanding of this individual’s addiction evolved over time because many addicts are very good at hiding their behavior. Once discovered, close friends may make an effort to see such addictive behaviors through the lens of the disease model, which requires empathy and understanding. It also calls on you, as a close partner, to be as supportive as possible to help a partner in his or her struggle to recover.

But what if you’ve come to realize that your partner is also a narcissist? Dealing with that recognition in a healthy way requires a different response than the one prompted by the disease model. In fact, empathy and support are actually not helpful in dealing with a narcissist.

Deep down, is every addict also a narcissist? And is every narcissist actually an addict? These are the difficult questions that the partner of a narcissist and addict has to explore and answer for him or herself.

The Link Between Addiction and Narcissism

In a provocative study, “Narcissism as Addiction to Esteem,” Roy Baumeister and Kathleen Vohs argued that narcissism is, in fact, more like an addiction than a life-long personality trait. They applied the cycle of addiction—cravings, increasing tolerance, and withdrawal—to narcissism and found that, indeed, “craving to feel superior and the indulgence of those cravings may be the defining feature of narcissism,” and narcissists appear to be “constantly on the lookout for new and greater triumphs that bring them greater glory.” Finally, the authors address withdrawal: “When narcissists receive something other than the admiration they crave—indifference, criticism, disrespect—they exhibit considerable distress.”

Seeing narcissism as having the hallmarks of addiction also explains the instability of the narcissist’s relationships, which, they note, may be a function of depleting the supply of admiration he or she is getting from the source: They “tire of their partners when self-esteem benefits are no longer forthcoming.”

In his book, The Narcissist You Know, Joseph Burgo includes the “Addicted Narcissist” as one type of Extreme Narcissism. He notes that while all addicts aren’t narcissists, “addictive and narcissistic personalities have many features in common,” including a “pronounced lack of empathy for the people around them,” which is a function of the stronger relationship the addict has to his or her drug of choice, as well as relying “on their drugs to boost self-esteem at the expense of the people around them.” According to Burgo, a deep-rooted sense of shame is at the core of both narcissistic and addictive behaviors.

What should your stance be if your partner is both an addict and a narcissist? How do you balance empathy and understanding for the guy with the hidden bottles of alcohol he can’t stop drinking with your understanding of your partner’s impaired empathy, essential emotional disconnectedness, and basic disregard for your feelings?

This is where the terrain gets rocky and unstable. Burgo is careful to state that “If you’re emotionally involved with an Addicted Narcissist, you need first of all to recognize that you can’t possibly ‘save’ him on your own.” He points out the possible dangers of this dynamic:

These are tough words to read if you’ve been ensnared in the painful, horrible mess of a relationship with someone who is both an addict and narcissist. But I believe Burgo is right to underscore that you must examine your own motivations and ask yourself the tough questions: “Why am I here?” and, “Why do I continue stay?”

Impulsivity: Another Link?

There’s no question about the role impulsivity plays in addiction, although there’s disagreement about whether it’s a failure in self-regulatory processes, or a function of the drug or substance producing both a lowered sense of consequences and a heightened sense of pleasure. One thing that has intrigued researchers about narcissists is that they are ultimately playing a losing game, and prone to self-defeating behaviors.

I realize that if you are struggling with your feelings for a narcissist, you’re not seeing him or her as losing or, more directly, caring about potentially losing you, but bear with me: While it’s true that initially, narcissists make a good impression on people, it’s also true that their relationships almost always fail in time, and that the initial high regard with which they’re held will eventually turn to disdain. They win what they need—adulation, a sense of superiority, a feeling of power—but only in short bursts. Then they have to start over. Needless to say, psychologists want to know why narcissists engage in the activities that keep them from getting what they want.

Simine Vazire and David Funder decided to look into what caused these self-defeating behaviors, asking was it a function of conscious cognitive and affective processes or something else. They honed in on impulsivity and conducted a meta-analysis of the existing literature. They posited that impulsivity was the cause. If so, that seems to make the kinship ties of narcissism and addiction even more evident. But their assertion about impulsivity was taken on by another team of researchers led by Joshua Miller, W. Keith Campbell, and others whose take was different, positing that it wasn’t impulsivity per se but the fact that narcissists only pay attention to the possibility of reward, not the potential downside, aided and abetted by their antagonistic interpersonal qualities.

As a layperson who has had the misfortune of being connected to an addicted narcissist, the takeaway here isn’t pinpointing whether it’s impulsivity or something else; it’s realizing that while the addict may be able to curb their impulse to grab their drug of choice, the narcissist will remain with his or her lack of attention to consequences and impaired empathy.

What’s Possible—and What’s Unlikely

I turned to Craig Malkin, a therapist and author of Rethinking Narcissism (and a Psychology Today blogger) for answers to the question of how to deal with someone who has addiction and narcissism issues. “When someone has narcissistic personality disorder and a substance abuse problem,” he said, “it’s not enough for them to beat their drug addiction; they also have to beat their addiction to feeling special.”

That change, Malkin says, is about learning to open up to and depend on loved ones and friends in healthy ways. “To the extent that you can’t depend on people, you’ll depend on other sources to soothe yourself, like feeling special (narcissism) or watching pornography or getting drunk. But addiction makes us all more narcissistic—willing to lie, steal, cheat, and even exploit others to get our high.”

If you really want to know if your partner can change after substance-abuse treatment, Malkin says, you need to ask yourself these five questions:

As your partner overcomes his or her addiction, are the two of you still feeling distant?

Does your partner announce that they’ve made “the most progress of anyone at AA” instead of sharing with you their vulnerable feelings, like sadness, or loneliness, or fear?

Does your partner show a pattern of exploitation, entitlement, and empathy impairment (triple E), the hallmark of pathological narcissism, even after they stop using?

Does their emotional sharing feel empty or shallow, fueled largely by 12-step jargon instead of genuine remorse or sadness for the pain they’ve caused?

Are they secretive about their treatment experience, as though “you couldn’t possibly understand what it’s like unless you’ve been there?”

“If your answer to any of these questions is ‘yes,’ then it’s likely your partner’s narcissism is a core problem and they’re using 12-step programs to feel special in a new way instead of turning to you for mutual care and comfort,” Malkin explained. In that case, he says, “Recovery is merely another way the narcissist self-soothes—one of many—instead enjoying true emotional intimacy.

“You should view their narcissism as you would any severe addiction,” he says. “It takes a lot of work to break an extreme addiction to feeling special, and you have to decide if you’re willing to stick around while your partner does it. In this case, ‘slips’ mean a return to arrogance, self-involvement—perhaps even emotional abuse.“

But being armed with the knowledge that your partner faces two addictions—not just one—is empowering, Malkin says. “It makes the decision about when to leave that much easier. If your partner is only getting help for their drug addiction, and not their narcissism, there’s no hope of change.”

The decision to leave an important relationship is never easy. When you learn that someone you love and care for is addicted, your first impulse may be one of empathy and support. But it’s important that you look carefully at what, precisely, your partner is addicted to: Is it a substance or activity, or feeling special, or both?

Peg Streep

Full article:

Author: thelastchardonnay Counseling individuals, families, and couples, EFT relationship specialist, clinical researcher, Supreme Court certified family mediator, qualified parenting coordinator, adjunct professor, and medical/healthcare marketer. Join me as I blog through compilations of key descriptions, components, professional and personal accounts, articles, shared experiences, clinical criteria, victimizations, and behavior patterns in persons with high-functioning alcoholism, substance addictions, complex and covert Cluster B personality disorders, and the subsequent emotional abuse of those close to them. My goal and purpose is to create awareness, share knowledge, information, and education. I hope to provide clarity to anyone who may be feeling baffled and confused, or who may not understand what it is they’re seeing or experiencing in their life, or in the lives of someone close to them. Most importantly as a counselor, therapist and abuse survivor, my hope is for those readers to know they are not alone in their journey of discovery and the process of learning, identifying, and healing from the trauma of emotional and psychological abuse. Instagram: @galvindebbie Facebook: Deborah Galvin, MSW @deborahgalvincounseling Twitter: @galvindebbie LinkedIn: Deborah Galvin, MSW

17 thoughts on “An Addict First? Or a Narcissist First?”

  1. This is such a great post and so interesting – I have never seen these connections discussed before (narc – addiction – impulsiveness). As I mentioned in comment on holiday post, my ex was a Narc and Alcoholic, but I never thought of the two aspects as connected. Also, my ex never thought she was an alcoholic, so there is that. My sister, on the other hand, doesn’t drink at all.


    1. It is fascinating. A narcissist and addict cannot admit to anything they see as inferior or imperfect so none of them admit they’re alcoholics/addicts or narcissists. As you read and learn (as was my experience) they all operate with the same playbook, the same moves and maneuvers. If you want to read about something equally fascinating, take a look at the connection between latent homosexuality and narcissism. Most all latent homosexuals are narcissists, but of course not all narcissists are latent homosexuals. Substance addiction is almost always present with a lantern homosexual. There’s not a ton of information out there that’s new because it’s now more accepted to come out and be who you are. Because a narcissist may see that as inferior or imperfect, they will likely never completely come out and be who they really are subconsciously. It’s a sad existence and unfortunately they leave a long trail of betrayal within their lifetime.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. That is interesting. I think my sister is a latent homosexual. I don’t believe my ex is. But, wow, that would even complicate a romantic relationship with a narc even more. Was “your narc” a latent homosexual? (sorry, don’t answer if that is too intrusive to ask). But, it is curious – some of the stars/celebrities that seem so narcissistic, we’ve learned were homosexuals.


  3. Or, maybe sister is just cold, and hates men, so she seems like a lesbian. She’s only six years older, so you couldn’t call it “molestation” or anything, but she did some things growing up that would suggest she is not homosexual. I guess I don’t know, and probably shouldn’t be speculating.


      1. It makes a lot of sense though. Also, I’ve known some friends of friends, or brothers of friends, or friends for all I know, who were late to come out of closet, and alcoholics. And, actually, my ex’s father seems to be a narcissist, and my ex thinks he is closet homosexual. Never has come out. His son, my ex’s brother, is homosexual and also an alcoholic.


  4. Yes. Fortunately, in my case at least, it was so pathological and absurd – the lying alone, even small, unnecessary lies, eventually gave me confidence it wasn’t my psychosis. It helped when I finally let friends and family in – I kept a lot of the craziness contained, for various reasons for a long time. And, my ex had a big problem with me seeing family – made me feel like there was something weird or unhealthy about how close I am with them.


    1. Yes, that’s what they do after the love bombing phase ends, they isolate so they can manipulate more easily. Unfortunately, I never once caught mine in a lie, probably because I never looked closely at anything. I didn’t think I needed to question anything. You were very fortunate to have had that as a red flag and an eye-opener. I was completely caught off-guard. Many later reached out to share their knowledge of the past I didn’t know and help me put the puzzle together and for that I’m eternally grateful.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. yes. but don’t get me wrong, I put things together after several years – after she lied and told me she slept with my best friend AFTER he died. I cried for an entire week straight. She later admitted she made it up, of course she did, it was absurd. Bare in mind, this isn’t a street junky, she is a professional, a mother, and someone nobody sees coming. And, like my sister, masterful at manipulating people’s perceptions. Getting away was the only way I could compete, they’ll win every time. With my sister it is just sadness and resentment, with my ex i felt in danger – she could have and would have destroyed my career – or anything she wanted to.


      2. This makes me so sad. She sounds like the covert narcissist type. You will never see them coming. They condition you to accept psychological and emotional abuse and you don’t even realize it’s happening. Its called trauma-bonding. It’s similar to Stockholm Syndrome. It takes a lot of time to heal from that level of abuse.

        Liked by 1 person

  5. Exactly. I never saw it coming, had no guards up – had never even heard of it. I’m not a very easy person to get the best of, I don’t think, but she worked me over. It is hard to hold your own when you don’t even know a game is being played,and also when you play against someone who follows no rules, and isn’t truthful. People who are untruthful, especially smart ones who are deeply so, have advantage.


    1. That’s the biggest tragedy is that it comes from someone trusted and very close. It’s the worst kind of attack and betrayal because it isn’t expected because you aren’t aware of their true nature, and that it’s all pathological. Perhaps that’s where the phrase, “Keep your friends close and your enemies closer” truly originated. Someone dealing with a pathological narcissist.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. It’s like living with a “possessed” person….Lots of screaming,disrespecting, name calling, accusing,blaming….Sometimes it’s like co-staring in The Exorcist.
        ..sometimes I’m living a “Cartoon” Life… There I am expected to let him “slide”on everything he does….


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