Sunday, April 19, 2009

Guest entry: Domestic violence and narcissist personality disorder

posted by Antigone Kostas, MD (psychiatry resident)

The cycle of violence in domestic abuse: The abusive husband hits his wife and, while the wife may then leave, after many pleas from the husband that he’ll never do it again and that he truly loves her, she’s back with him, for a period of relative peacefulness (the honeymoon phase) - only to be hit again and for the cycle to repeat.

Why does the wife go back to the abusing husband? And who is the abusing husband? In his paper, “Dyadic Violence, Shame, and Narcissism,” Stewart Hockenberry, a psychologist, explores who these people may be and why this happens. He claims that in many situations it is the play between two different narcissistic characters—the Grandiose Narcissist and the Symbiotic Narcissist.

A narcissist is often a person "who is full of him/herself." Narcissists have grandiose views of themselves, often to oddly enough buoy themselves against feelings of low self-esteem. Characteristics of narcissists include using other people for their own gains and lacking empathy.

So, first, how does a narcissist develop? Hockenberry finds that, “Early childhoods are variously characterized by narcissistic injuries linked to abandonment, separation, lack of parent-child attunement, neglect, impingement, and abuse; each shares a unifying theme of profound, inescapable, and self-negating shame.” Thus the narcissist is very much the shamed, wounded child.

The grandiose narcissist hides his shame and feelings of inadequacy by “playing the big man.” Moreover, the grandiose narcissist, because of his shame and self-hatred, finds someone else upon whom he can “project his own frustration and thus dissociate from these feelings of self-hatred. By projecting these feelings onto someone else, the grandiose narcissist can triumph over his internal shame by ‘revenge.’”

In an abusive relationship this plays out usually after the honeymoon phase. During the honeymoon phase, the other person is “loved and idealized as long as domination and complete control of their responses can be assured.” However, when things do not go according to plan, the narcissist feels attacked and strikes back.

The example Hockenberry gives is that of a doting man on a woman who soaks up all the adoration and makes no complaints. As the story goes, this cannot go on forever and when the woman starts to point out needs of her own or to have a few complaints, the grandiose narcissist goes into a narcissistic rage—feeling attacked-- and is ballistic.

But who pairs up with the grandiose narcissist? Hockenberry counters that it is often a narcissist as well - a symbiotic narcissist. The symbiotic narcissist also has shame, but is instead self-deprecating, turning her anger/aggression inward and living by martyrdom. She often feels responsible for other people’s pain and anger - suffering becomes familiar and even natural.

The symbiotic narcissist was “raised in control-oriented, oppressive environments, in which at least one of the parents was intrusive or invasive of personal boundaries, [and] the individual attachments are tenuously maintained, often at the cost of considerable pain and suffering. Because of overwhelming needs for attachment and bonding, actual abuse and suffering are frequently denied or are seen in themselves as signs of attachment.”

So the grandiose narcissist seeks out those he can degrade when the situation feels out of hand, while the symbiotic narcissist eats up the suffering. Hence the cycle of attack/revenge and victimization/suffering continues.


Hockenberry, Stewart L., “Dyadic Violance, Shame, and Narcissism,” Contemporary Psychoanalysis, Vol 31, No.2 (1995).