The Complexities of Dating the Children of Narcissists

When dating someone who grew up with one or both narcissistic parents, it's important to understand the underlying dynamic of your relationship. Of course, not every child of a narcissistic parent develops a narcissistic personality. Some researchers (Winnicott, McWilliams, et al.) have noted that having at least one narcissistic parent can be suggestive of a narcissistic personality, but it is not a necessary prerequisite. That said, certain unique challenges can arise when you are in a romantic relationship with the adult who that child has become.

If you are dating or have been raised by a narcissistic parent, you may want to pay attention to the following signs. If recognized, they can be dealt with, and this can be done within the relationship. I will discuss five of them.

1. Using and Being Used

A narcissistic parent often builds relationships with their children by using their children as a narcissistic extension of themselves. A narcissistic parent doesn't see the child for who he or she really is. Instead, they use the child for their own needs.

Troy Steiner and colleagues (2021) discuss evidence supporting the idea that the brains of narcissists display activity in regions related to negative affect and emotional conflict when looking at their own image compared to images of friends or strangers. This highlights how narcissists are vulnerable to their appearance. Such a parent might exploit the child's appearance for their own gain. The child can then develop a distorted self-image, causing feelings of shame and emptiness.

Unfortunately, such a child can later unintentionally project their insecurities onto a partner. They might express dissatisfaction with their partner's appearance as well. They might, for example, insist that their partner change their wardrobe or have plastic surgery, or they might demand compliments and struggle to cope when their looks are rejected on a specific day or occasion or when their partner is in a specific mood. This can naturally strain the relationship. It does not necessarily mean that they are unquestionably dissatisfied with their partner's looks. Instead, it means that they carry the learned dissatisfaction to their adult relationship.

It can also indicate that their dissatisfaction is actually meant to express something else, that they either lack words or emotions to grasp and indicate to their partner. What that is exactly can be explored and discussed by the couple or in therapy.

2. Dating for Gains or Aiming for Gains

It can be challenging for children of narcissists to fully enjoy relationships and experience unconditional love. They struggle to love their partner for who they are and be loved on the same grounds. For them, the relationship has value when they gain something concrete out of their partners, whether it's through social status, adoration, or financial interest.

The reason for such behaviors can stem from the person's upbringing. As a child, they had to compensate for a parent's lack of self-worth and emotionally provide for their parent's lack of confident inner balance. They also had to deal with a parent expecting to gain from them. Rothstein (1986) states that what predominates in such relationships is self-oriented motivations on the part of the parent rather than a wish to nurture in a "phase-appropriate manner."

As a result of the children of narcissistic parents being raised with the expectation to give more than they receive, they might expect to receive more than they give in their adult relationships, even during times of stress. For example, when the partner loses a job, during pregnancy, after birth, during illness, or the loss of a relative, and so on. As a way of coping with not getting what they want or not getting enough of what they want, they might withdraw or seek attention elsewhere to compensate.

The lesson here would be to learn and understand that giving is not synonymous with sacrificing, taking is not synonymous with using, and gains can be reciprocal, not mutually exclusive.

3. Disregarding Feelings and Ignoring Wishes (of Both Themselves and the Partner)

Narcissistic parents tend to ignore their children. Such parents often hold onto the notion of an ideal child rather than accepting their child for who they are. The child's feelings and wishes are disregarded and deemed to be without value. When grown up, such adults might then do the same to a partner.

Let's take an example. Imagine a child who wants to play the piano. Her mother never fulfills this wish, even though she has the resources and the time. She just doesn't see the value in it for herself (and the father prefers not to interfere).

The child then learns that the family norm is to disregard the wishes of the people one loves. They might also learn to disregard their own desires. Naturally, if they don't see value in satisfying their own desires, then they won't see the value in satisfying or letting you satisfy your desires. They might devalue or ignore your wish if they don't see the value in it for themselves.

An important realization here would be that a relationship thrives when both partners' wishes coexist, when wishes are not suppressed but rather expressed and acknowledged, and the partners would be better off helping each other fulfill their desires instead of stifling them.

4. Difficulty Reciprocating Interest or Reading Emotions

A grown child of a narcissistic parent might not ask how you are unless you ask them first or even assertively express that you need attention. They are used to feeling unimportant, so it is no wonder that they make others feel unimportant, too. This can unintentionally make the partner feel unimportant or overlooked.

The narcissistic parent has an image of how their child should be and not how they are. They ignore the real child in the here and now, and the child is expected to behave in accordance with the projected, and not the real, image of the child. Narcissistic expectations dictate that the child will synchronize with the parent's moods and interests, forsaking their own emotional fluctuations, inclinations, or hobbies. Even when angry or confused, the child must always accept the parent because a narcissistic parent demands that the child "love me more than anybody else."

They might not read facial expressions well. Thus, they don't see when a partner is upset, angry, or sad. It does not necessarily reflect a lack of empathy. This behavior might stem from the fact that a child of a narcissistic parent might not have experienced said parent taking a genuine interest in them. Just as with the example above of the parent ignoring the child's wish to play the piano, the parent ignores the child's moods, feelings, and interests, instead replacing them with their own. This is what Kohut (1977) called a failure to serve as a "responsive-empathic self-object for a child."

In this case, patience, compassion, and understanding go a long way and teach the partners what the other partner is experiencing emotionally right now and what reaction they can expect from the other party. Sharing feelings in real time helps that, too.

5. High Expectations and Demands (and Dissatisfaction With Success)

Children of narcissistic parents often have high self-expectations and strict self-discipline. Such children were expected to meet the bar, get top grades, or excel at sports. Their parents used them to compensate for something that the parents never had or never experienced. They now demand the same of a partner. These people rarely offer commendation to their partners. Instead, they push their partners to meet certain expectations and do not offer praise or validation, even when the partner succeeds.

Alan Rappoport (2005) notes that narcissistic parents expect their children to be responsible for them. The parents cast excessive responsibility onto the child, and that's why the grown child expects others to be hyper-responsible as well. They do not show satisfaction with a partner, just as their parents did not show satisfaction with them.

As the partner, you can separate out your own wishes and goals. You can also learn to commend yourself. You can help your partner by highlighting your successes and insisting on acknowledgment and appreciation. Verbal appreciation can have a profound effect on relationships.


One of the most prominent narcissism researchers, Heinz Kohut (1978), maintained that narcissistic parents idealize their children just as they idealize themselves. In an adult relationship, the child then unconsciously wants a partner to become the idealized parent. A key challenge for the child of a narcissistic parent is to disidentify from the partner's internal image of the idealized parent. Only then can they see the partner for who they are and not for who they want them to be.

Taking on the idealized image can be very tempting for you. It can portray you as a better version of yourself, almost perfect. To your chagrin, you will discover over time that you are not allowed to show your flaws or weaknesses because you are expected always to uphold this unrealistic image. Unfortunately, you probably cannot meet your partner's high demands. This is one of those cases where the advice "just be yourself" works best.

It's worth noting that since narcissistic parents pursue perfection for their children, your partner might be unconsciously pursuing perfection for you. This is not because they don't love you. It is because they don't know any other way to build a relationship. For them, building an elusive notion of perfection is the only way for the relationship to hold together.

English psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott (1953) introduced the concept of "a good enough mother" as a condition for a child to grow in a loving environment, and it can be successfully applied in any relationship. What could help you as a couple is to learn the advantages of "good enough" as opposed to "perfect." Exploring and understanding what's good as opposed to what's perfect—having the patience and courage to identify and appreciate the authenticity of yourself and your partner without sacrificing it—can teach you to cherish and revitalize the imperfect yet extraordinary bond that you share.

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Greetings! My name is Boris Herzberg and I am a psychoanalytic therapist, relationship consultant and ICF coach working online.
I help individuals and couples come to terms with their relationship to self and each other and explore ways to move towards a new way of living or being.

I work in a psychoanalytic paradigm but I would describe my therapy approach as adaptive, because I see each person as a unique being and thus work in a holistic way - with people, not with problems.

Psychoanalyst (East-European Institute for Psychoanalysis)
Life-coach (MCI - Master Coach, Israel)
Psychologist (Moscow Institute of Group Therapy and Supervision)

11 years of counselling and coaching

Experience with more than 1700 clients in personal sessions and groups (+600 in educational formats)

Author of the book "The path to yourself. Practical guide to self-development". Contributing author for Psychology Today

Lecturer for self-actualization, relationship building, self-confidence strengthening and overcoming emotional crises (more than 60 offline and online events)

Born in 1980, have lived in 3 countries, married, loving father of 3 amazing kids and faithful servant to 2 wayward cats

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