When it comes to relationships, we don’t always make the best decisions for ourselves. Our hearts tend to overrule rational thoughts and as a result, we often find ourselves drawn to people who just aren’t right for us. What’s more, if you’re an empathetic person, there could be a scientific reason why you make the wrong relationship choices: empathetic people – empaths – are often attracted to narcissists.
If you’re loving, caring and attentive – always putting others before yourself – chances are you’re an empathetic person. Whilst that can work to your advantage in so many areas of your life, when it comes to picking men, it could be the very thing holding you back.
According to Business Insider, empaths are naturally attracted to narcissists, and this can be a recipe for disaster when it comes to relationships. In fact, the combination is usually a toxic one, drawing two people – who are poles apart – together for all the wrong reasons.
Narcissists tend to be selfish by their very nature; they’re attracted to people they’ll get the greatest use from. Often, this means they pursue and target empaths because of their good nature.
Empaths are the opposite of narcissists. While people with narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) have little to no empathy and thrive on the need for admiration, empaths are highly sensitive and in tune with other people's emotions, so narcissists hone in on empaths because they know they’ll get something out of it.
Empaths absorb feelings from other people easily, like an “emotional sponge”, which is an attractive trait to a narcissist as they see someone who will fulfil their needs in a selfless way. According to Judith Orloff, a psychiatrist and author of The Empath's Survival Guide, this is a toxic attraction destined for disaster.
Both narcissists and empaths regard relationships in very different ways, says Orloff. Empaths by nature are caring, loving individuals, and whilst they look for the same traits in a potential partner, narcissists use this to their advantage. They want a caring, loving person who is entirely devoted to them, but they don’t possess any of those traits themselves. They’ll trick empaths into falling for them by presenting a false version of themselves. They may appear charming, intelligent, and even giving at first, “until you don’t do things their way, and then they get cold, withholding and punishing." Orloff adds. It can sometimes take a while for their true colours to show, but their mask will soon start to slip.
So what does that mean for empaths?
Shannon Thomas, a therapist and author of the book Healing from Hidden Abuse, told Business Insider that empaths work hard for harmony, whereas narcissists are looking to do the opposite. They enjoy chaos and like to know they can pull people's strings.
"Empathetic people have the tendency to understand that we're all human, we all have defects, and they're willing to be patient with someone else's personal growth," Thomas adds. Falling for a narcissist can prove incredibly destructive, but this goes against an empath's instincts; they believe they can fix people and heal anything with compassion. They’ll stay in the relationship much longer than they should do, in the hope they will change. While a narcissist might show signs that they’re willing to change and have moments where they admit fault, it’s usually short lived and they never tend to see it through.
According to Thomas, the push and pull nature of the narcissistic relationship can generate a trauma bond between the victim and the abuser, where it can feel almost impossible to leave the relationship, no matter how much damage it’s doing. There’s always that glimmer of hope the narcissist will display the same attentiveness as they did at the beginning of the relationship, but according to Orloff, the good qualities don’t last very long.
“[…] narcissists are full of contempt, and they see most people as below them. Once they start to notice their partner's flaws, they no longer idealise them, and they start to blame them for not being perfect.” Orloff adds.
Toxic relationships are hard to walk away from. It can be difficult to even recognise that you’re in one, particularly for someone who has a caring, empathetic nature; empaths will always see the good and hope the person they love and care for will eventually see the error of their ways.
So how do you recognise the warning signs?
Being in a relationship is a two way street – the two of you should want to be there for each other – but if the other person is taking advantage of you and ultimately making you unhappy, it’s not a healthy relationship.
Thomas says: "When you meet people or are in relationships with them, you have to be very careful that you're not doing their work, or wanting their growth more than they do," she said. "You have to see what they actually do to get better."
So, know your boundaries and recognise when to say no. If you don’t, you open yourself up to vulnerability and narcissists will always take advantage.
"Empaths don't have to become hard or hard-hearted to be able to be healthy," Thomas says. "It's important to recognise that not everybody needs to be in our lives. We're going to come across people who we realise might not be healthy for us, and you have to be okay with letting them go," she explains.
You don’t have to change your personality to choose the right men, but the important thing is to set your own limits and understand what it is you actually want. Having a relationship should bring joy to your life, not sadness. Don’t try to make someone else happy at the risk of jeopardising your own self-worth.
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