Narcissist and Codependent Toxic Compatibility in Relationships

The relationship between codependent and narcissistic individuals can be complex. This dynamic is sometimes referred to as a “codependent-narcissist relationship” or a “narcissistic-codependent cycle.”

The dysfunctional beliefs and behaviors of codependent and narcissistic individuals often complement each other in a highly unhealthy and toxic manner. This co-dependent dynamic is often described as a “dance” where each partner’s issues exacerbate the other’s.

What often begins as a passionate and intense romance can evolve into an abusive dynamic where the codependent partner continually gives and sacrifices while the narcissistic partner exploits and drains their emotional and psychological resources.

I miss you messaged used as a bait, manipulations in relationships, control and dependence
Narcissists often seek out codependent partners because the qualities and behaviors of codependents align with the narcissist’s emotional needs and desires.

Narcissism is a personality trait characterized by an excessive sense of self-importance, a lack of empathy for others, and a constant need for admiration and attention. As such, it is not surprising that narcissistic individuals are often attracted to those who will willingly give up their own boundaries, needs, and feelings to please their partner.

The dysfunctional nature of narcissism is attractive to those who want to fix and rescue others. 

Codependency is a personality trait characterized by excessive reliance on others for approval and a strong desire to please and take care of people, often to the detriment of their own needs and boundaries.

Codependents often have low self-esteems and seek validation from their partners. Narcissists, in turn, thrive on the constant admiration and attention they receive from their codependent partners. This creates a symbiotic relationship where the codependent reinforces the narcissist’s sense of superiority.

This attraction may also come from an underlying similarity between narcissism and codependency.

Before we continue, it’s crucial to acknowledge the complexity and nuance in both narcissism and codependency. These personality traits and behaviors exist on a spectrum, and not all individuals with these traits fit a one-size-fits-all description.

Throughout this article, narcissism and codependency are discussed in general terms, but these personality traits can manifest differently in various individuals. This complexity makes it essential to consider each person as an individual and approach these topics with sensitivity and an understanding of their multifaceted nature.

The Allure of Narcissists for Codependents

Narcissists often exude confidence, charm, and charisma, especially during the early stages of a relationship. This can be incredibly appealing to codependents, who may be attracted to these qualities and the perceived self-assuredness of the narcissistic partner.

Additionally, during these early stages, narcissistic partners often idealize their codependent partner. They shower them with affection, admiration, and attention (known as “love bombing”), making the codependent partner feel special and loved.

Narcissists tend to present a facade of grandeur and charm. Codependents, who often struggle with low self-esteem, are drawn to this perceived self-confidence and assertiveness.

Codependents seek validation and approval from others to boost their self-esteem and self-worth; Narcissists are skilled at providing this validation and making their codependent partner feel special and valued.

Codependents have a strong desire to care for and help others, and narcissists often exploit the codependent’s willingness to give and sacrifice.

Over time, a narcissist’s true colors will emerge as they start to criticize, manipulate, and belittle their codependent partner.

When this happens, the codependent partner will try to rescue the narcissist from their emotional turmoil or destructive behavior. They may view the narcissistic partner as someone in need of their support and love, and find purpose in trying to “fix” them.

Codependent individuals pride themselves on their willingness to sacrifice their own needs and well-being to meet the needs of others.

This behavior feeds the narcissist’s ego and sense of entitlement, making them more demanding and manipulative. They may also engage in victim-playing and bask in the codependent’s need for caretaking to gain admiration and attention. 

According to self-verification theory, people seek confirmation of their existing self-concept and beliefs about themselves, whether positive or negative, because it provides a sense of stability and predictability.

This theory can apply to codependent-narcissistic relationships as codependent individuals may have internalized beliefs about themselves as being unworthy, inadequate, or in need of constant validation.

When narcissist devalues them, it confirms these negative beliefs and creates a sense of stability for the codependent partner.

They may feel like the world makes sense and is predictable because it aligns with their existing self-concept.

The codependent’s negative self-concept is reinforced by the narcissistic partner’s behavior, creating a vicious cycle of emotional abuse and dependency.

The Dance Metaphor

The “dance metaphor” is a useful way to explain and illustrate the dynamic and attraction between codependents and narcissists in relationships. This metaphor portrays the codependent-narcissist dynamic as a complex and choreographed dance that consists of specific steps and cycles.

Psychotherapist Ross Rosenberg suggests:

“As perfectly compatible dancing partners, the narcissist dancer is the “yin” to the codependent’s “yang.” The giving, sacrificial and passive nature of the person who is codependent matches up perfectly with the entitled, demanding and self-centered traits of the individual who is narcissistic.”

The dance metaphor illustrates the cyclical and often destructive nature of codependent-narcissist relationships. This cycle tends to repeat itself, with the partners oscillating among idealization, devaluation, and reconciliation.

Throughout the dance, the codependent partner may gradually lose their sense of self and independence.

They become increasingly focused on meeting the needs and expectations of the narcissist, growing increasingly resentful overtime.

Rosenberg writes that codependent partners “pretend to enjoy the dance, but really harbor feelings of anger, bitterness, and sadness for not taking an active role in their dance experience.”

This metaphor helps to highlight the destructive nature of codependent-narcissist relationships where each partner validates and enables the other’s dysfunctional beliefs and behaviors.

While the intoxication might feel alluring at first, this dynamic quickly becomes a toxic pattern that can be incredibly challenging to break.

How Relationships Between Codependents and Narcissists Turn Toxic

Codependents and narcissists are easily drawn to each other as both partners may feel like they’ve found someone who can fulfill their needs.

The codependent feels needed and valued by the narcissist, while the narcissist appreciates the constant admiration and attention provided by the codependent.

The initial stages of the relationship may feel like a dream come true for both partners. However, this seemingly perfect match often turns toxic as the relationship progresses.

Here’s how:

The People Pleaser and the User

Codependents are people-pleasers who have difficulty saying no. They tend to swallow their feelings and needs out of fear of offending or upsetting others, which they believe might lead to abandonment.

They have a strong desire to take care of others, often to the detriment of their own needs.

This is perfect for a narcissistic individual who feels entitled to constant admiration, validation, and attention.

In the beginning, these traits can create an initial attraction, with the codependent satisfying the narcissist’s need for admiration, and the narcissist appearing to meet the codependent’s need to care for someone.

Lack of Clear Boundaries 

Codependents often have weak boundaries, allowing others to intrude into their lives and manipulate the relationship in their favor.

Narcissists may take advantage of this lack of boundaries, further blurring the lines between the two partners.

Without clear and established boundaries, the codependent is susceptible to manipulation and emotional abuse, as the narcissist encroaches on their emotional and physical autonomy.


After the love bombing phase, narcissists tend to shift from idealization to devaluation. They begin to criticize, manipulate, and emotionally abuse the codependent partner.

This devaluation can be emotionally devastating to the codependent, who may struggle to understand what they did wrong to deserve this treatment.

The codependent may try even harder to regain the narcissist’s approval, perpetuating the toxic cycle. They become enablers, attempting to meet the narcissist’s needs and support them.

Growing Resentment

Over time, as the relationship progresses, the codependent may become increasingly resentful of the one-sided nature of the relationship.

As the narcissist’s true nature emerges and they begin using manipulation and emotional abuse to maintain control, the codependent may feel hurt, confused, and desperate to regain the initial affection.

They may start to feel that their efforts to please and care for the narcissist are not being reciprocated or appreciated. This growing resentment can lead to emotional distress and frustration in the codependent partner.


The ongoing cycle of giving and sacrificing, paired with emotional abuse and manipulation, can lead to burnout for the codependent.

Over time, the codependent partner may experience physical and emotional exhaustion, a loss of self-identity, and a sense of hopelessness in the relationship.

This state of burnout further solidifies the toxicity of the relationship and can be detrimental to the codependent’s well-being.

Similarities Between Codependents and Narcissists

While codependents and narcissists are typically seen as opposites, there are certain similarities between them, particularly in terms of their underlying emotional needs and behaviors.

In fact, some argue that codependency can be considered a form of narcissism because of their similar drives (Rossiter, 2004). From this perspective, one could argue that the attraction between narcissists and codependents is their underlying similarity. However, this view is theoretical and has not been scientifically confirmed.   

Here are some of the similarities between codependents and narcissists:

Tendency to Seek Dysfunctional Relationships

Codependents and narcissists can both find themselves in dysfunctional and unhealthy relationships.

They both have difficulties with intimacy, boundary setting, and open communication and often depend too heavily on others for their self-esteem.

While these difficulties may manifest differently in narcissists and codependents, they nonetheless affect the quality of both of their relationships.

Dysfunctional Family of Origin

Both narcissists and codependents may have experienced challenging or dysfunctional family dynamics during their formative years, which can contribute to the development of their respective personality traits and behaviors.

These individuals may have grown up in families with a range of issues, including addiction, mental health problems, conditional love, abuse, or neglect.

Children respond differently to dysfunctional family dynamics. In response to the challenges they faced in their families of origin, both codependents and narcissists may develop certain coping mechanisms.

Codependents may develop a caretaking role to maintain family harmony or cope with the dysfunction, while narcissists may develop grandiosity and an excessive need for admiration to protect their vulnerable self-esteem.

In both cases, dysfunctional family backgrounds can have a lasting impact on individuals, influencing their self-esteem, emotional regulation, and relationship dynamics. These unresolved traumas can affect their behavior and relationship patterns in adulthood.

Low Self-Esteem

Both codependents and narcissists often struggle with low self-esteem and rely heavily on external validation to feel good about themselves.

Codependents need approval and validation from others to maintain their self-worth, and tend to struggle with low self-esteem because of their reliance on outside sources to confirm their sense of self.

Narcissists tend to use grandiosity and arrogance to compensate for their underlying feelings of inadequacy and constantly seek admiration and attention from others to validate their own pompous egos.

Unstable Boundaries

Codependents and narcissists often have difficulty setting and maintaining healthy boundaries in relationships.

Both can have a strong desire to please others, even when it’s detrimental to their own well-being. For codependents, this may manifest as an inability to say no, while for narcissists, it can involve disregarding others’ boundaries in pursuit of their own desires.

In relationships, these boundary issues can contribute to a cycle of enabling and control where the codependent partner is enabling the behavior of the narcissist by not setting clear boundaries, while the narcissistic partner is seeking to control the other by disregarding their boundaries.

Need for Control

Codependency and narcissism are both marked by a need for control, but their motivations and methods differ significantly.

Codependents often seek control in the sense of wanting to maintain harmony, care for others, and avoid conflict. They may believe that by controlling or managing the needs and emotions of others, they can create a stable and secure environment.

Narcissists also have a strong need for control, but it’s usually driven by a desire to maintain power and dominance in their relationships. They want to be in charge and have things their way, often disregarding the needs and boundaries of others.

In both cases, the need for control can lead to imbalanced, unhealthy, and sometimes toxic relationship dynamics where the codependent partner is sacrificing their own well-being to maintain control, while the narcissist is exploiting and manipulating the other to maintain dominance.


Feeling disappointed can be a similarity between codependents and narcissists, although the causes and manifestations of this disappointment differ significantly in each group.

Codependents often experience disappointment in their relationships because they have unrealistic expectations of themselves and others.

When their efforts to please are not reciprocated, when they are mistreated, or when their partners do not meet their expectations, codependents may feel deeply disappointed.

Narcissists, on the other hand, can also experience disappointment, although it often arises from a different source. Their disappointment typically stems from perceived slights to their ego or failures to receive the constant admiration and attention they crave.

For both individuals, these feelings of disappointment can contribute to a cycle of frustration and unhappiness in their relationships.


A core feature of narcissism is the belief in their own superiority and specialness. They see themselves as unique and exceptional individuals who deserve unconditional admiration and validation from others.

Codependents, on the other hand, may seek to feel special by taking on a caretaking or “rescuer” role in their relationships. The feeling of being special can stem from their desire for external validation and the belief that their self-worth is contingent on their ability to meet the needs of others.

Both codependents and narcissists may have a strong desire to feel special, but they pursue this feeling for vastly different reasons and in vastly different ways.


Narcissists are known for their manipulative behavior, which is often motivated by a desire to maintain power and control in their relationships.

However, codependents may also engage in manipulation – although, their intentions and methods often differ drastically from those of narcissists.

Codependent manipulation is typically driven by a desire to maintain harmony in relationships or to meet the needs of others. For example, they may use passive-aggressive tactics, such as guilt-tripping, to influence the behavior of others or get their partners to meet their own unmet needs.

Narcissists will use tactics such as gaslighting, emotional abuse, deceit, and playing mind games to maintain dominance and undermine their partner’s self-esteem.

While both codependents and narcissists can resort to manipulation in their relationships, their motivations and methods are distinct. Yet, manipulation, regardless of the motivation behind it, can have negative consequences in relationships.


Empathy is a quality that can vary widely among individuals, including both codependents and narcissists.

Codependents often have a strong capacity for empathy. They are typically very attuned to the emotions and needs of others, and they may go to great lengths to provide care and support.

However, some have argued that codependents do not display true empathy, but rather a “merging strategy” (i.e., wanting to create a moment of intimacy). This may appear empathetic, but can be considered an “intrusion of boundaries” (Rossiter, 2004).

As such, some argue that codependent behavior is a form of projection – they perceive others as needing help and will sacrifice their own needs and feelings to step in, even when they are not asked to.

Empathy is generally lacking in narcissists. They may struggle to genuinely understand or connect with the emotions and needs of others. Instead, they tend to be more focused on their own desires and needs.

However, this has been contested by some, as we will discuss in more detail below.

Do Narcissists Feel Emotions and Real Empathy?

Whether narcissists feel emotions and real empathy has been debated for many years. One recent review of over 500 studies on this topic found that individuals diagnosed with narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) have cognitive empathy but lack affective empathy.

It’s crucial to emphasize that narcissistic traits and narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) exist on a continuum, where empathy, emotional regulation, and behavior can vary widely among individuals with such characteristics.

According to the aforementioned study, NPD is associated with low affective empathy. These individuals often have more pronounced and rigid narcissistic traits and struggle to empathize with other people’s emotions. 

However, researchers argue that they do have cognitive empathy. This allows them to feign concern or understanding when it serves their interests, such as gaining admiration or maintaining control in a relationship.

While individuals with full-blown NPD typically struggle with genuine empathy, those with low-level or subclinical narcissism may still be capable of empathy to some extent.

Julia Simkus edited this article.


  • Bacon, I., McKay, E., Reynolds, F. & McIntyre, A. (2018). The Lives Experience of Codependency: an Interpretative Phenomenological Analysis. International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction, 18, 754-771.
  • di Giacomo, E., Andreini, E., Lorusso, O. &Clerici, M. (2023). The dark side of empathy in narcissistic personality disorder. Frontiers in Psychiatry, 14:1074558.
  • Happ, Z., Bodó-Varga, Z., Bandi, S.A. et al. (2023). How codependency affects dyadic coping, relationship perception and life satisfaction. Current Psychology, 42, 15688–15695.
  • Rosenberg, R. (2014). The dance between codependents and narcissists. Counseling Today.
  • Rossiter, S.K. (2004). Narcissism and Codependency. Wright Institute Graduate School of Psychology Doctoral Thesis.

Saul Mcleod, PhD

BSc (Hons) Psychology, MRes, PhD, University of Manchester

Educator, Researcher

Saul Mcleod, Ph.D., is a qualified psychology teacher with over 18 years experience of working in further and higher education. He has been published in peer-reviewed journals, including the Journal of Clinical Psychology.

Olivia Guy-Evans, MSc

BSc (Hons) Psychology, MSc Psychology of Education

Associate Editor for Simply Psychology

Olivia Guy-Evans is a writer and associate editor for Simply Psychology. She has previously worked in healthcare and educational sectors.

Anna Drescher

Mental Health Writer

BSc (Hons), Psychology, Goldsmiths University, MSc in Psychotherapy, University of Queensland

Anna Drescher is a freelance writer and solution-focused hypnotherapist, specializing in CBT and meditation. Using insights from her experience working as an NHS Assistant Clinical Psychologist and Recovery Officer, along with her Master's degree in Psychotherapy, she lends deep empathy and profound understanding to her mental health and relationships writing.