Loving a narcissist is painful. They have so many manipulation tactics that trick you into believing that they love you (i.e. mirroring, future faking, love bombing, breadcrumbing), but somehow they always find a way to hurt you.

Narcissists hurt the people that they love because they have insecure attachment styles. Generally speaking, people with insecure attachment styles sabotage relationships, have a hard time trusting others, avoid emotional or physical intimacy, lack empathy and feel threatened by anyone who tries to get close to them.

When insecure attachment styles are combined with the emotional incompetence that narcissists have (i.e. they’re incapable of regulating their own emotions), the people that narcissists claim to love get manipulated, abused, and hurt. This article is going to explain these attachment styles to you so you can better protect yourself from narcissistic abuse.

Narcissists Hurt the People That They Love Because They Have Insecure Attachments Styles

The term “attachment styles” is used to describe the different ways that we interact and behave in relationships. This term originates from the work of John Bowlby, a psychiatrist, and Mary Ainsworth, a psychologist, who introduced the Attachment Theory in the 1950’s. This theory focuses on the relationships we have with our primary caregivers as infants.

During their work in the 1950’s, Bowlby and Ainsworth identified three attachment styles, secure, anxious, and avoidant. Since then, mental health professionals have added disorganized attachment style to the list and established that the attachment styles we develop as infants follow us into adulthood.

If you didn't know already, people who have a "secure attachment" have a secure attachment style, but those who have an anxious, avoidant, and disorganized attachment have insecure attachment styles.

In our article “Why Do Narcissists Push You Away?” we conducted a survey among 400 survivors of narcissistic abuse to determine which attachment style they believed the narcissist in their life had. We are going to quickly show you the results of that survey (see below) and then unpack the different insecure attachment styles for you.

A survey among 400 survivors of narcissistic abuse to learn which attachment style the narcissist in their lives had.

Anxious Attachment

Generally speaking, people with an anxious attachment style are needy, anxious, and have low self-esteem. It is an incredibly confusing attachment style to have because they want to be close with others but are afraid that people don’t want to be with them.

Anxious attachment styles are developed through childhood upbringings with emotionally unavailable, unresponsive, and inconsistent primary caregivers. For example, if you believe that the narcissist in your life has an anxious attachment style, they might have had primary caregivers who were inconsistent with them. 

Meaning that sometimes their primary caregiver was responsive, and other times they might have been distracted or just not readily available. This most likely caused the narcissist in your life to feel anxious and insecure because of how inconsistent their childhood upbringing was.

6 Signs of Anxious Attachment

The sign that really popped out as a possible reason that narcissists hurt the people that they love was having difficulty setting and respecting boundaries.

In a recent collaboration we had with Andre O’Donnell, a licensed psychotherapist, about setting boundaries, he stated:

A quote from Andre O'Donnell a licensed psychotherapist

Narcissists disrespect boundaries because they impede their insecure pursuit of validation, admiration, reassurance, power, and control, also known as narcissistic supply.

A narcissist feels entitled to having the world revolve around them so boundaries are both offensive and a foreign concept to them. As you can imagine, this often leads to a narcissist hurting the people they claim to love simply because they are incapable of respecting the boundaries of others.

If you have had troubles setting boundaries with the narcissist in your life, click here for a free guide that we created with the guidance of Andre O’Donnell, a licensed psychotherapist, about setting boundaries that actually work!

Avoidant Attachment

People with avoidant attachment styles are the complete opposite of those with anxious attachment styles. Instead of wanting to be emotionally close, they persistently avoid connecting with others. They are the type of people who rely on themselves, crave freedom, and find emotions to be difficult.

If the narcissist in your life has an avoidant attachment style, they likely had a childhood upbringing with unavailable primary caregivers. For example, their primary caregivers may have rejected their thoughts, feelings, emotions, and needs.

As you can imagine, this type of emotional neglect causes a ton of damage on one’s self-perception and cognitive development. It most likely taught the narcissist in your life that their true self wasn’t good enough to be loved and accepted by others.

6 Signs of Avoidant Attachment

Being uncomfortable expressing their feelings and feeling threatened by anyone who tries to get close to them were the two signs that really popped out as possible reasons that narcissists hurt their loved ones.

This is because narcissists are so emotionally incompetent that they are incapable of using healthy forms of regulation to manage their thoughts, feelings, and emotions. A simple example of a healthy form of regulation would be journaling or talking to a therapist.

 Instead, narcissist rely on abusive behaviors such as narcissistic rage and projection to invalidate, devalue, degrade, and humiliate the people around them (i.e. their loved ones) so they can figuratively point their finger at them and think to themselves "I'm not the inadequate, unlovable, unwanted, worthless, and weak one, they are!"

You should definitely read our articles Why Do Narcissists Go Into a Rage? and Why Do Narcissists Use Projection?to learn more about this but narcissists use narcissistic rage, projection, and many other abusive/manipulative behaviors to manage their thoughts, feelings, and emotions. But sadly, these behaviors cause a narcissist’s loved ones to get hurt.

Disorganized Attachment 

Disorganized attachment style is a combination of anxious attachment and avoidant attachment. Someone who has a disorganized attachment style, may have a hard time trusting people. They often alternate between clinging to their others and distancing themselves from them.

In a short clip (see below) Dr. Karen Kuemerle-Pinillos, a PhD Level Clinician and Licensed Clinical Social Worker, speaks to us about how narcissists want to form deep connections with others but can’t. This information is relevant given the tendency to alternate between clinging to their others and distancing themselves from them that those with disorganized attachment styles have.

 Dr. Karen Kuemerle-Pinillos, a PhD Level Clinician and Licensed Clinical Social Worker, Speaks About a Narcissist’s Inability to Form Deep Connections With Others

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If the narcissist in your life has a disorganized attachment style they most likely had a primary caregiver who ignored their thoughts, feelings, emotions and/or had chaotic behavior that was scary and traumatizing (i.e. a narcissistic parent).

6 Signs of Disorganized Attachment

Sabotaging relationships, even when they want them seems to be the obvious sign that we would point out but we actually wanted to zero-in on having a hard time responding and/or connecting to other people’s emotions and alternating between clinging to their partner and distancing themselves from them.

You see, having a hard time responding and/or connecting to other people’s emotions is essentially a lack of empathy, which is one of the key characteristics of narcissistic personality disorder (NPD). In a quote (see below) one of our community members shared her story with us about her narcissistic ex’s lack of empathy.

Insightful Quote From One of Our Community Members:

“I was raped before I met the narcissist I dated for four years and one of my triggers is when someone puts their hands on my neck. The first time the narcissist kissed me, he placed his hand on my cheek/neck area. I freaked out and started crying then explained why. He used the whole situation against me later on in the relationship, ‘Oh so I can’t talk to other women but it is okay for you to think about some guy you f*cked when I first kissed you?’

Alternating between clinging to their partner and distancing themselves from them highlights the push-pull dynamic of a narcissistic relationship. 

For example, in the beginning stages of many romantic narcissistic relationships there is a love bombing phase. Once the narcissist senses that the person that they are abusing is hooked, they will begin the devaluation phase. 

Once they sense that the person that they are abusing can't handle the abuse of the devaluation phase anymore, they will use intermittent reinforcement, the delivery of a reward at irregular intervals, to pull them back into the relationship and develop a false sense of hope that things are getting better.

Narcissists will repeat this cycle throughout the entire relationship and it causes a lot of harm to the people that they claim to love. 

What Should You Take Away From This Article?

The insecure attachment styles that narcissists have are the reason that they hurt the people that they claim to love. 

We briefly mentioned this throughout the article but insecure attachment styles are the product of abusive/unhealthy childhood upbringings. In our article How Are Narcissists Made?there is a lot more information about this that could answer many of the questions that you may have about the abuse that you are experiencing!

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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:

Fraley, R. Chris, and Glenn I. Roisman. “The development of adult attachment styles: Four lessons.” Current opinion in psychology 25 (2019): 26-30.

Narcissistic personality traits in adulthood: The role of experience of childhood parenting, attachment orientation and emotional regulation