Enabling the Narcissist: How and Why It Happens

Being fundamentally dependent on others for the self-assurance and definition they lack, narcissists don’t get very far without enablers. An enabler supports the narcissist’s larger-than-life persona, extreme sense of entitlement, and abusive behavior by

  • unquestionably accepting her version of reality,
  • not standing up to her abuse,
  • hiding or cleaning up her messes, and
  • acting as an apologist for her.

The Enabler’s Delusions

Narcissists often have enablers in their family, such as a partner, parent, child, and/or sibling. They may also have enabling friends, coworkers or employees, and other members of their social network. People become enablers of narcissists for different reasons, from misguided care-taking, to self-doubt, to fear, to a desire for power. Often they become enablers gradually without understanding their situation. A narcissist’s partner in particular may feel confused by that partner’s brainwashing messages, believing some or all of the following:

  1. I am causing him to act this way.
  2. I am the unfair/angry/cruel one.
  3. If I weren’t so stupid/selfish/needy/unattractive he would love me.
  4. He doesn’t really mean to hurt me/the kids.
  5. Deep down he loves me/us but doesn’t know how to show it.
  6. All relationships are difficult like this.
  7. Things will get better when we get married/have kids.
  8. If I change, he will be happy with me.
  9. If I am more loving/lovable he will stop acting so angry.
  10. If our children act/do better, he will be happy with us.

Oftentimes enablers see abusive dynamics in a relationship as normal because they grew up with demanding, selfish, neglectful, or abusive caregivers. Enablers of narcissists may come from narcissistic homes or other environments in which they learned to subjugate their needs and feelings, such as in service to an alcoholic or mentally ill parent.

Enablers may delude themselves into thinking that they alone can understand and fulfill their difficult but special partner. They may see their partner as somehow a great catch and believe they need to do extra work to keep him/her. Perhaps their partner feels a bit out of their league—more intelligent, good looking, charming, educated, wealthy, or successful than they are and therefore worth the high maintenance they need to do. Similarly, a narcissist’s favored child may be under the delusion that s/he is the only one who can manage that parent’s happiness. Such children often construct their identity around the demands of the parent, constantly working to please and appease.

No Way Out

Frequently, enabling partners of narcissists stay in their relationships even when they realize they are being abused because they don’t see a way out. Their abusive mate is likely to have undermined their independence and support network by

  • eroding their self-confidence,
  • burdening them with excessive responsibilities and problems,
  • isolating them from family and friends,
  • draining their finances,
  • alienating them from their children, and
  • threatening to leave them with nothing.

The Enabling Covert Narcissist

In some cases an enabler may be a covert narcissist impressed with the apparent confidence or success of a more overt narcissist. Such an enabler may admire the other narcissist and feed his/her self-esteem and identity by living vicariously through that partner. Or the more covert narcissist may derive satisfaction and social attention and approval from managing the overt narcissist’s difficult and selfish personality. In such a relationship the narcissistic enabler may present him- or herself as the long-suffering good, kind, loyal, patient victim who deserves better but below the surface is just as exploitive and controlling as his or her counterpart. In a sense the overt narcissist enables the covert partner through positive or negative association. As parents, both narcissistic partners enable each other by overlooking and/or supporting their negligent and abusive behavior toward their children.

Trauma Bonding

Typically a narcissist manipulates an enabler through alternating abuse and special treatment. The enabler falls into a pattern of avoiding attack while also seeking rewards such as affection, praise, sex, or money. In this dynamic the enabler experiences trauma bonding with the abusive narcissist, becoming emotionally and physically addicted to the roller-coaster of positive and negative reinforcement.

Enablers Versus Flying Monkeys 

“Flying monkeys” are enablers who also perpetrate the narcissist’s abuse on targeted victims. Like the flying monkeys in The Wizard of Oz, they assist in the narcissist’s dirty work and carry out abuse by proxy. Often children or other relatives in the narcissistic family, flying monkeys may be narcissistic themselves. There is a fine line between enabling and acting as a flying monkey. Often enablers cross that line to avoid being targeted themselves or because they are invested in believing the lies that justify the narcissist’s abuse of others, particularly scapegoated children. For such children, the betrayal of the enabling parent may be harder to accept and forgive than that of the narcissist because the enabler is the “safe” parent who should know better.

Julie L. Hall is the author of The Narcissist in Your Life: Recognizing the Patterns and Learning to Break Free coming December 3, 2019, from Hachette Books. Preorder your copy now.