The Codependent/Narcissist Dance
By Ross Rosenberg, MEd, LCPC, CADC
The inherently dysfunctional “codependency dance” requires two opposite but balanced partners: a pleasing, giving codependent and the needy, controlling narcissist. Like a champion dance partnership, the dancing roles of both are perfectly matched. The leader or taker needs the follower or giver in order that the dance appears effortless and flawless.
Typically, codependents give of themselves much more than their partners give in return. As generous but bitter dance partners, they find themselves perpetually stuck on the dance floor, always waiting for the next song, at which time they naively hope that their partner will finally understand their needs. Sadly, they never do.more
Codependents by nature are giving, sacrificing and consumed with others’ needs and desires. As natural followers in the dance, they are passive and accommodating to their partner. Although narcissists are typically selfish, self-centered and controlling, when paired with a codependent, they are enabled to become champion dancers. As natural leaders and choreographers of the dance, their ambitions are focused only on fulfilling their needs and desires while ignoring the same for their partner.
Codependents experience their narcissistic dance partner as deeply appealing, especially because of their boldness, charm, confidence and domineering personality. Narcissists are delighted with their partner choice as they exude patience, deference and a yearning to help them find greatness and recognition. With this matchup, the dance sizzles with excitement — at least in the beginning.
Narcissistic dancers control or lead the dance routine because they are naturally and predictably attracted to partners who lack self-worth, confidence and self-esteem. With such a well-matched companion, they are able to control both the dancer and the dance. Similar to their codependent partner, this dancer also is deeply attracted to a lover who feels familiar to them: someone who lets them lead the dance while, at the same time, allowing them to feel in command, competent and appreciated. The narcissist dancer is most comfortable when they are either encouraged or allowed to dance boldly and decisively while garnering attention and praise from others.
Having little to no previous experience with mutually and reciprocally affirming dancers, codependents anxiously reject invitations by healthier individuals. Without self-esteem or feelings of personal power, they are actually afraid of dancing with a mutually giving and unconditionally loving partner. Dancing with such a person would feel confusing, uncomfortable and awkward.
When a codependent and narcissist meet each other, the dance unfolds flawlessly. The narcissist effortlessly maintains the lead while the codependent automatically and willingly follows. Their roles seem natural to them because they have been practicing them their whole lives. The dance is perfectly coordinated: the pleasing partner naturally and reflexively gives up his or her power and the needy partner thrives on power and control. No toes are stepped on.
The magnetic-like attraction that brings and keeps codependent and narcissist dancers together paves the way for a dancing experience that is explosively pleasurable while feeling strangely familiar. To illustrate, the selfish and controlling narcissist effortlessly leads the dance while the codependent intuitively and reflexively predicts and follow his moves.
The accommodating dancer confuses caretaking and sacrifice with loyalty and love. And why should they think otherwise? This has been their lifelong experience in relationships. Although proud and even boastful of their unwavering loyalty and dedication, they end up feeling unappreciated and used. This codependent dancer yearns to be loved and cherished, but because of her dance partner, her dreams will never come to fruition. With the heartbreak of unfulfilled dreams, codependents silently and bitterly swallow their unhappiness, while dancing furiously toward the finals of the dance competition.
The codependent is convinced that she will never find a dance partner who will love her for who she is as opposed to what she can do for them. Over time, codependents are stuck in a pattern of giving and sacrificing, without the possibility of ever receiving the same from their partner. They, however, pretend to enjoy the dance while harboring deeper feelings of anger, resentment and sadness. Over time, their low self-esteem and pessimism deepens, which later morphs into feelings of hopelessness. But they continue to dance, not for the joy of it, but because dancing with a narcissist is familiar and natural for them.
Since familiarity breeds security, the meaning of love for the codependent dancer is distorted into exciting but dysfunctional dips, twists and turns. The blue ribbons and trophies may accumulate, but love, respect and thoughtfulness often do not follow. Such familiarity creates the paradox of the dance: remaining secure with what you know, but what doesn’t feel good, versus risking the unknown so that a relationship with a loving and respectful partner can be an actuality.
After many songs, the codependent’s enchanting dream-like dance experience predictably transforms into drama, conflict and feelings of being trapped. Even with the selfish, controlling and antagonistic nature of her dance partner, she dares not stop the dance routine. Despite feeling deeply unhappy, she remains committed to her partner while helping him achieve his glorious dancing ambitions. For most codependent dancers, remaining with the narcissistic partner is preferable to being on the sidelines where they predictably feel worthless and lonely.
Codependent dancers were taught the codependent/narcissist dance routine early in life. Hence, their dancing choices are connected to their unconscious motivation to find a person who is familiar — someone who reminds them of their parents, who abandoned, neglected or abused them when they were a child. Their fear of being alone, their compulsion to control and fix at any cost, and their comfort in their role as the martyr who is endlessly loving, devoted and patient, is an extension of their yearning to be loved, respected and cared for as a child.
Codependents cannot bear a prolonged period off the dance floor because of the wave of self-doubt and loneliness that predictably follows. Being alone is the equivalent of feeling lonely, and loneliness is an excruciating, if not impossible, feeling to bear. Like withdrawal from a drug addiction, they are unwilling to cope with the resulting deep and throbbing pain of loneliness and feelings of worthlessness, which is indicative of the childhood trauma they endured.
Although codependents dream of dancing with an unconditionally loving and affirming partner, they submit to their dysfunctional destiny. Until they decide to heal the psychological wounds that ultimately compel them to dance with their narcissistic dance partners, they will be destined to maintain the unsatisfying and potentially dangerous steady beat and rhythm of their dysfunctional dance.
Through psychotherapy and, perhaps, a 12-step recovery program, codependents can begin to recognize that their dream to dance the grand dance of love, reciprocity and mutuality is indeed possible. Codependents can heal the childhood trauma responsible for their codependency. The journey of healing and transformation will bring them feelings of personal power and efficacy that will foster a desire to finally dance with someone who is willing and capable of sharing the lead, communicating their movements and pursuing a mutual, loving, rhythmic dance.
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