When we hear the word intimacy, most of us think of relationships involving sexual intercourse. However, these types of relationships are actually a small aspect of the spectrum that intimacy embodies. Intimacy refers to the ability to form and maintain healthy relationships with a significant amount of compassion and depth. Intimacy applies to each and every relationship we form throughout our lives, not just sexual relationships. Now that the definition of intimacy is clear, let’s dissect why narcissists avoid intimacy.

The emotional stability of a narcissist is nonexistent. They have the ability to appear admirable from a distance. But once you take a closer look, with a clear understanding of narcissism, their emotional instability becomes shockingly lucid.

To truly be intimate with another human being, it requires a significant level of vulnerability, trust, and emotional stability, which are all things that narcissists lack. Narcissists avoid intimacy because its requirements trigger their underlying fear of abandonment. Their shortcomings pertaining to emotional instability and a crippling self-loathing aura, causes them to view intimacy through a perilous lens.

If Narcissists Avoid Intimacy, Why Do They Seek Out Romantic Relationships?

A narcissist’s reasoning behind intimacy avoidance can be very confusing when it comes to romantic relationships, especially for those who have experienced a romantic relationship with a narcissist themselves. The beginning of many narcissistic relationships starts with a very intense phase known as love bombing

This phase is so seductive because a narcissist will figure out what the victim’s definition of a perfect relationship is, and then use that information to morph into their “Mr. or Mrs. Perfect.” Narcissists are extremely charming, charismatic, and intelligent. Combine those attributes with their manipulative behavioral patterns, and you can see how destructive this phase could be for victims of narcissistic abuse.

love bombing phase

While this phase is extremely enticing, it has a pretty dark underbelly. The love bombing phase is a narcissistic version of studying before a massive exam. During this phase they’ll get to know their victims thoroughly. 

  • What motivates them
  • Who’s important to them 
  • What they’re insecure about
  • Vulnerabilities they have 
  • What makes them happy & sad 
  • What their aspirations are 

The information that they learn during this phase will be weaponized against the victim in the future, which brings us to our first answer to why narcissists seek out romantic relationships if they despise intimacy. 

What Does Narcissistic Supply Have to Do with Intimacy Avoidance?

I’ve mentioned in many of our articles that a helpful way to understand narcissism would be to define it as the projection of one’s own emotional instability onto another. I believe this because narcissistic behavioral patterns are designed to erode their victim’s emotional stability. By successfully doing so, they acquire a surplus of narcissistic supply. 

Narcissistic supply is essentially what narcissists get from other people. In our previous articles narcissistic supply has been depicted as the confusion and emotional instability they subject their victims to in order to gain a falsified position of superiority. However, narcissistic supply also quite often manifests in qualities like validation, admiration, gratification, and acknowledgment. 

Narcissistic supply

Where narcissistic supply and intimacy avoidance intersect, is breadcrumbing. Narcissists love to have their egos fed with validation, admiration and so on, but aren’t capable of the authentic intimacy required to acquire this level of gratitude and sincerity from another human being. 

So, during the love bombing phase, they learn what makes their victim happy. But eventually they get tired of appearing to be authentic, however they can’t just leave, they need their narcissistic supply. Therefore, the next step is to learn how much abusive behavior their victim can endure before they have to be who they were in the love bombing phase. 

So, they push and push and push until the victim can’t take it any longer, then they strategically drop moments of empathy, which is known as breadcrumbing. After long periods of abuse and neglect, the smallest gestures mean the world to the victim. Breadcrumbing traps so many victims of narcissistic abuse inside the relationship because it manipulates them into a false sense of hope. 

breadcrumbing

For the narcissist, this is a win-win situation. They get to keep their narcissistic supply, and they’re able to remain in the limelight by preserving their public image, which leads us into societal norms.

Do Societal Norms Play a Role in Intimacy Avoidance? 

This is quite a peculiar part of the narcissistic realm that I touched on in How Can a Narcissist Move on So Quickly?. Because narcissists have an insecure need to fit in and look good to others, they must conform to societal norms. 

Whether we like it or not, in the current era we live in, being in a romantic relationship is strongly encouraged. So, even though narcissists avoid intimacy, they seek out romantic relationships to suppress their insecurities.

Where the concept of narcissists conforming to societal norms to fit in, and suppress their insecurities manifests, is when victims of narcissistic abuse summon the courage to leave the relationship. 

You would think that because a narcissist despises intimacy, they would just take a breakup or divorce on the chin and move on. But instead, they’ll just double down on their narcissistic behavior with manipulative tactics like flying monkeys and hoovering. 

Flying Monkey

A flying monkey is a person a narcissist manipulates into helping them traumatize the victim. Sadly, flying monkeys tend to be those who the victim is most likely to confide in. We’re talking family members, close friends, and even authoritative figures like doctors, therapists, and law enforcement. The point of enlisting flying monkeys is to cut off the lines of support that the victim has to remain in control and force the victim back into the relationship. It’s quite a complex manipulative tactic so, be sure to check out How to Deal With Flying Monkeys: Helpful Tips From 431 Survivors.

flying monkeys

Hoovering

Hoovering is like breadcrumbing on steroids. It happens when a victim of narcissistic abuse creates a significant amount of distance between themselves and the narcissist. This could be by leaving the relationship or using protective techniques like setting boundaries or gray rocking. To hoover someone, a narcissist will say things like the following:

  • I miss you so much
  • I’ve changed
  • Really? You’re going to leave me just as I started to go to therapy to get better for you?
  • I didn’t realize how much you really meant to me
  • Let’s get married
  • I’ll never love someone as much as I love you

Those were just a few examples, but the concept is spot on. Hoovering is a tactic to provoke a false sense of hope within the victim that their abuser is finally changing for the better, and they’ll be the same happy couple that they were during the love bombing phase.

How Does a Narcissist Weaponize Intimacy?

After studying the work of Dr. Douglass Weiss, pertaining to intimacy anorexia, I found some shocking correlations between his work and narcissism. Intimacy anorexia is a relationship disorder where one partner will withhold emotional, spiritual, and sexual intimacy from the other. 

While combing through Dr. Douglass Weiss’s work, I couldn’t help but see the uncanny resemblance intimacy anorexia has with narcissistic behavior. 

There were small connections between the two disorders like victim blaming, controlling behavior, and financial abuse. 

But for me, the turning point was when he connected many of the behavioral patterns of intimacy anorexia, with an attachment issue because at its core, narcissism is also an attachment issue. 

On paper the correlation between intimacy anorexia and narcissism was eye-opening, but I had to conduct a more in-depth study of my own… 

I asked all 67 survivors of narcissistic abuse the same question. “Did your abuser ever withhold things along the lines of affirmation, sex, or praise from you?” 

Why Are the Warning Sign in Narcissistic Relationships So Hard to Acknowledge?

 A very common mistake people who don’t understand narcissism make, is victim blaming. On some level it’s understandable, if they don’t understand narcissistic behavioral patterns, they surely wouldn’t understand why someone wouldn’t just leave the relationship.

As people learn more and more about narcissistic behavioral patterns, the complexity of the whole dynamic becomes clearer. But an interesting part about narcissistic relationships is their ability to mimic healthy and/or normal relationships.

Of course, there is the love bombing phase where everything is magical and happy. But even after that phase fades away, those in narcissistic relationships will still do things along the lines of going out to dinner, going on vacations, and have movie nights.

So, when it comes to intimacy avoidance, the victim of narcissistic abuse first thought is not,

“Oh, they’re doing this to control me… they are doing this because they despise intimacy”

rather it’s

Oh, what have I done wrong… how can we fix this… are they mad at me…”

Do Narcissists Use Intimacy Anorexia on Purpose or Is It Instinctual? 

Narcissists have a long list of shortcomings and destructive behavioral patterns, so, an argument could be made that their lack of empathy and intimacy avoidance is instinctual.

With that being said, it’s important to remember how manipulative and intelligent narcissists are. A common misconception is that narcissists don’t have any empathy. Narcissists have empathy; they just choose not to use it.

I’ve come across many people who’ve suffered narcissistic abuse who felt like their abuser used empathy and intimacy avoidance as a manipulative tool. One of the most prominent examples would be when a narcissist uses breadcrumbing to drag the victim back into the relationship. 

What Should You Take Away From This Article? 

Intimacy avoidance, intimacy anorexia, and an astonishing lack of empathy are very common in narcissistic relationships. On some level we all want to be wanted. But in a narcissistic relationship, want to be wanted is weaponized and used against the victim. 

I had a very narcissistic boss, I’m not even sure what kind of narcissist he was but if I had to guess, it would be malignant. I was 19 working construction in the summer, and my boss was brutal. As the young, new kid, I expected to get stuck with the annoying jobs, but he took it to a new level. There was a lot of horrible stuff but the one that I want to talk about is cleaning the porta potties without any protective gear…100 workers, 2 porta potties, not protective gear… he would shame and ridicule me whenever I would ask for gloves or a mask with the most outrageous homophobic comments ever. 

Everyone would laugh and pile on… but where it got really horrible is when he wouldn’t pay me on time. Every time I would have to go ask for my check and he would coerce me into giving him some extra time because he was strapped on cash but really needed someone with my talents. He would tell me that I wasn’t like everyone else, I was going places, I was his favorite… you name it, he said it. He made me feel so wanted just long enough for me to forget why I confronted him in the first place. Then it was right back to bullying and narcissistic abuse. So yeah…. I’d say narcissists use empathy to manipulate their victims.”Antonio 

The phenomenon of narcissistic abuse is incredibly confusing and destabilizing for anyone unlucky enough to be caught in these abusive cycles. If you or a loved one is stuck inside a narcissistic relationship whether it be intimate, in the workplace, or in a family setting, be sure to check out How to Support Someone In a Narcissistic Relationship to give yourself the best chance of breaking the abusive cycle. 


All of the content that Unfilteredd creates is for educational purposes only and is not intended to be a substitute for clinical care — please visit here for qualified organizations and here for qualified professionals that you can reach out to for help. This article has been reviewed by our editorial board and has been approved for publication in accordance with our editorial policies.

References:

Interviewing 67 survivors of narcissistic abuse

Intimacy Anorexia Podcast

Solomon, Marion F. “Narcissism and Intimacy: Treating the Wounded Couple.” The Family Journal, vol. 2, no. 2, Apr. 1994, pp. 104–113

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