Narcissistic personality disorder is characterized by a grandiose sense of self-importance, a need for excessive admiration, and a lack of empathy. Individuals with narcissistic personality disorder often have difficulty forming and maintaining close relationships. This raises the question of whether narcissists tend to have a particular attachment style, such as disorganized attachment.
What is narcissistic personality disorder?
Narcissistic personality disorder is one of several types of personality disorders. Personality disorders are mental health conditions that cause people to think, feel, and behave in ways that deviate from social norms and impair their ability to function.
Some key characteristics of narcissistic personality disorder include:
- Exaggerated sense of self-importance
- Preoccupation with fantasies of success, power, beauty, etc.
- Belief they are special and should only associate with other high-status people
- Need for excessive admiration
- Sense of entitlement
- Willingness to exploit others to get what they want
- Arrogant, haughty behaviors and attitudes
- Lack of empathy
These characteristics typically lead to problems in work, social, and relationship settings. Narcissists tend to pursue prestige, power, and admiration rather than genuine intimacy and mutual care in relationships. Their sense of entitlement, willingness to manipulate and exploit others, and lack of empathy for others’ needs often sabotage their relationships.
What are attachment styles?
Attachment theory describes how children form bonds with their primary caregivers, usually their parents, and how this impacts their development and relationships throughout life. According to attachment theory, there are four main attachment styles:
- Secure attachment – Children feel they can rely on their caregivers to be available and responsive when needed. This enables them to feel secure enough to freely explore their environments and develop autonomy while maintaining a sense of connection. Adults with secure attachment tend to have positive views of themselves and others.
- Anxious attachment – Children are uncertain they can depend on their caregivers to meet their needs. They feel anxiety about abandonment and desperately seek connection, which leads to ‘clingy’ behavior. Adults with anxious attachment tend to need a lot of reassurance in relationships.
- Avoidant attachment – Children conclude they cannot rely on others to meet their needs. They minimize their expression of needs and avoid intimacy to protect against disappointment. Adults with avoidant attachment desire a high level of independence and avoid intimacy.
- Disorganized attachment – Children have dysregulated, contradictory responses to caregivers’ behaviors. Their attachment figures were a source of fear or distress. Adults with disorganized attachment can have a mix of anxious/avoidant behaviors and difficulty regulating emotions.
A person’s attachment style as a child affects their beliefs about themselves and expectations in close relationships as an adult. Attachment styles exist on a continuum, so attachment patterns can change over time and vary by relationship. However, early attachment experiences tend to have a lasting impact.
Do narcissists have a particular attachment style?
Research on narcissistic personality disorder and attachment theory has shown that narcissists predominately display dismissing-avoidant attachment characteristics.
Dismissing-avoidant attachment style
Individuals with a dismissing-avoidant attachment style downplay the importance of close relationships and seek independence and self-reliance. They are often uncomfortable with emotional intimacy and struggle to depend on others.
Studies have found that narcissists similarly:
- Avoid intimacy in relationships
- View themselves as independent and immune to the influence of others
- Suppress their feelings and deny needing close relationships
- Have less intimate exchanges with romantic partners
- Perceive low partner support in their relationships
This dismissing-avoidant attachment pattern aligns with the narcissist’s grandiose self-image of not needing others and avoidance of emotional closeness to protect their fragile self-esteem.
Anxious attachment tendencies
Though avoidant attachment is predominant, research also shows that narcissists can display some anxious attachment characteristics:
- Heightened concerns about relationship partners’ availability
- Clingy behaviors to prevent partner abandonment
- Jealousy and possessiveness towards partners
- Excessive reassurance seeking
These anxious behaviors may be triggered when narcissists feel their relationship supplies of admiration, acknowledgment, and power are threatened. Their antagonistic behaviors can push partners away, heightening abandonment fears.
There is limited research examining narcissistic personality disorder and disorganized attachment specifically. However, some researchers hypothesize narcissists may develop disorganized attachment tendencies in certain close relationships.
For example, when a narcissist feels their status or self-image is threatened by a romantic partner, they may direct outbursts of rage towards that partner by denigrating, undermining or even physically assaulting them. Then later the narcissist may attempt to reconcile by idealizing the partner.
These drastic shifts between attack and idealization behaviors can indicate a disorganized attachment pattern. More research is needed to further investigate this hypothesis.
Why do narcissists develop avoidant attachment?
Narcissists adopt an avoidant attachment style for several key reasons:
- Early childhood environment – The dismissive parenting style of narcissists’ caregivers impacts their attachment. Dismissive parents are emotionally aloof and intolerant of children’s vulnerability and dependency needs.
- Temperamental factors – Narcissists may be biologically prone to introversion, aloofness, and heightened independence.
- Self-protection – Avoiding intimacy protects narcissists from revealing flawed aspects of self. Rejecting attachment needs shields against fears of inadequacy.
- Self-enhancement – Viewing themselves as superior lonewolves boosts narcissists’ grandiose self-image. Displays of self-sufficiency garner admiration.
In summary, through a confluence of environmental and temperamental factors, narcissists develop an avoidant attachment style well-matched to their disorder’s grandiosity and need for external validation.
How does anxious attachment develop in narcissists?
Though dismissive-avoidant attachment predominates, narcissists can develop anxious attachment tendencies in their romantic or other highly valued relationships for several reasons:
- Need for narcissistic supply – Relationships provide narcissistic supply of attention, affirmation, and prestige. Losing supply threatens their self-image.
- Fragile self-esteem – Below their grandiose bravado, narcissists suffer from fragile self-regard. Rejection can greatly destabilize their self-image.
- Lack of emotional regulation – Narcissists struggle to calm themselves down and positively cope when they feel rejected or insulted.
- Perceived loss of control – Narcissists desire superiority. Anxiety results when partners exert independence or question the narcissist’s status.
In these ways, narcissists’ disordered personalities generate intense fear of losing their tenuous grip on self-image, status and perceived superiority in their close relationships. This causes them to display anxious attachment behaviors.
In summary, extensive research demonstrates those with narcissistic personality disorder predominately display a dismissing-avoidant attachment style. This aligns with their grandiose self-image and protects their fragile self-esteem. However, some narcissists may develop anxious attachment behaviors when their relationships are critical for supplying narcissistic supply and maintaining perceived superiority. There is preliminary evidence that disorganized attachment patterns could emerge in these situations as well.