I often get asked, “How do I know if this person is a malignant narcissist or just an emotionally unavailable jerk?” All narcissists are emotionally unavailable to some extent, but not all emotionally unavailable people are narcissists.
Sometimes, the lines can be blurred, especially since malignant narcissists can also just put on an act and fake empathy for a short period of time. However, throughout a long-term relationship with someone, the distinctions become clearer than ever as the mask tends to slip. Here are the five key areas of difference between someone who is just emotionally unavailable and someone who is both emotionally unavailable and a malignant narcissist:
1. Lack of empathy and capacity for change
Emotionally unavailable people lack the psychological equipment that would make them likely candidates for a long-term relationship at that specific time. There is variety in this group: emotionally unavailable people can include those who are simply gun-shy and brokenhearted in the early stages of their healing, as well as garden-variety jerks and players. However, if they are not narcissists, emotionally unavailable individuals are still capable of connecting and empathizing with others. They will still be able to consider your point of view. They may still feel remorse or guilt for hurting someone (although it does not necessarily stop them from engaging in unsavory behavior, depending on how selfish they are). They do, however, have the ability to evolve given that they are willing to work on their relationship patterns and healing.
Narcissists, on the other hand, lack the core empathy that would make them candidates for just about any form of nourishing connection long-term. In patients diagnosed with Narcissistic Personality Disorder, there has actually been research that shows gray matter abnormalities in parts of the brain related to empathy. With a true narcissist, after the honeymoon period is over, you witness an appalling, chilling indifference in response to your emotional needs and desires that borders on inhumane. They are unable to even consider anybody else’s feelings and do not care who they hurt in the process of getting what they want.
2. The origins of their behavior
Emotionally unavailable people may have become emotionally unavailable from a wound incurred from a past relationship or a recent break-up. This wound can usually be addressed with professional support and appropriate grieving methods. Or, they may just not be the commitment type; some are just naturally perpetual bachelors (or bachelorettes) and nothing you can do can change that.
Narcissists suffer what is known as a “narcissistic wound” in childhood. There is still no clinical verdict as to what causes their disorder, but there are some theories: one of which suggests that they may have suffered maltreatment by their parents and anotherthat shows that being taught an excessive sense of entitlement at an early age can lead to narcissistic traits. As a result, a narcissist’s behavior is hardwired and very difficult to change in adulthood because they never outgrew their infantile sense of egocentrism.
If they are high on the spectrum and are malignant to the point where they also have antisocial traits, they are also unlikely to evolve because their behavior rewards them. Many malignant narcissists may not derive benefits from traditional talk therapy because they are unable to admit that they have a problem in the first place. Their lack of willingness to change may result in only further manipulation in the therapy space.
3. Why they create "harems" and love triangles
Emotionally unavailable people can create “harems” unwittingly, in the sense that they may date multiple people at once to keep themselves safe from commitment or rejection. This doesn’t make their behavior justifiable, but their reasoning is different from that of a malignant narcissist. They may have a hard time committing to one person or to commit to anything besides a casual arrangement because they’re scared of being hurt or because they are not at a stage of their lives where they want to be with just one person. Any deception that is involved on their part is still wrong and shouldn’t be tolerated, but it doesn’t bear the same intentions as a narcissist who manufactures love triangles.
Narcissists create harems and manufacture love triangles because it gives them a sense of power and control. The different members of their support network, which are usually made up of their primary partner, exes, so-called “friends,” – all of them serve as sources of narcissistic supply — objects from which they can obtain praise, admiration, resources and an infinite number of ego strokes. They gain excitement from their different admirers competing for their attention. Making their various “fangirls” or “fanboys” jealous of each other makes them feel desirable and on top of the world. They enjoy provoking their harem members and getting unlimited attention from all of them; it’s all just a big game for them.
4. Their level of malice and sadism
Emotionally unavailable people usually aren’t out to harm others, though they very well can do so despite their best intentions. Many believe that by managing expectations early on, they are doing their “fair share” of telling the truth and not leading people on (though those on the receiving end may not feel so). Others, however, obscure the truth deliberately to get what they want in the immediate moment (for example, using someone for sex while pretending they want something more). Regardless, when you express to an emotionally unavailable person how much they’re hurting you, they are usually able to leave you alone, move onto someone else or distance themselves due to guilt. They may boomerang back occasionally, but it’s usually out of selfishness rather than outright malice.
On the other hand, malignant narcissists on the high end of the narcissistic spectrum gain pleasure from taking people down. Research has shown that those who are high in dark triad traits (such as narcissism, psychopathy, and Machiavellianism) actually take pleasure in seeing sad faces. It all feeds into their grandiose sense of power and superiority. They use “cold” or cognitive empathy to assess the weaknesses and strengths of their victims, but their empathy does not extend to affective empathy, which would allow them to consider or care about the harm they inflict. According to researchers Wai and Tiliopoulos (2012):
“Individuals high on the dark triad traits appear to exhibit an empathic profile that allows them to retain their ability to read and assess others’ emotions, and subsequently utilize this sensitive information to formulate strategies with which they can acquire what they want, while their lack of affective empathy may lead them to overlook or ignore potential harm inflicted to others in the process.”
Hurting someone is like emotional fuel for malignant narcissists, especially since they “suffer” from perpetual boredom. Like sadistic puppeteers, they enjoy pulling the strings of their loved ones and warping their reality. It’s actually a fun sport for them to demean, criticize, blameshift and aggravate someone. A relationship is never “over” for them, because they never like losing any of their toys. They’ll get bored with their new source of supply and go on the hunt for more, or they’ll reach into their toybox and find an older toy to play with (in other words, you!).
5. The idealization, devaluation and discard cycle
Emotionally unavailable people idealize you because they want to fast-forward you into getting what they want (usually sex) or, sometimes they’re not even aware of the extent of their own emotional unavailability. For example, an emotionally unavailable person who is still in the midst of heartbreak may be so enthusiastic about finding someone else after a break-up that they overestimate their interest. When they withdraw, it’s not so much as a manipulative tactic as an indicator of their inability to be emotionally intimate with you, and a recognition that perhaps they aren’t ready for a serious relationship after all.
Malignant narcissists, on the other hand, idealize and love-bomb their victims deliberately to groom, manipulate, and control them. They feed their victims empty flattery and excessive praise at the onset to ensure that their victims trust them. They are the types that will declare their love for you within the early stages of dating.
Once their victims are sufficiently hooked, they take great pride in devaluing their victims and mistreating them, subjecting them to put-downs, rage attacks, gaslighting, verbal, emotional, and sometimes even physical abuse. They also eventually discard their victims in horrific ways – that is, unless their victims discard them first, in which case, it becomes an elaborate power struggle to hoover them back in so they can devalue them further. The cruelty of the discard is staged in such a way that it is used to diminish the victim completely. They are also known to stalk, harass and bully their victims even after the ending of a relationship. As usual, it’s about power and thrill-seeking for them. They enjoy the ability to make their victims pine for their affection. They like the effect of intermittently feeding their victims enough crumbs to keep them longing for the whole loaf of bread. Meanwhile, they’re satiating all of their desires with other partners on the side and feasting on your resources.
The bottom line
Emotionally unavailable people have the ability to evolve and the capacity to empathize. Malignant narcissists, on the other hand, often do not, and some of them actually enjoy putting others down to derive a sense of power. At the end of the day, however, if these types of toxic individuals are not treating you with respect or engaging in any form of abusive behavior, neither one is a good candidate for a relationship. Unless an emotionally unavailable person is willing to work on his or her own behaviors, they won’t be satisfying you in the long-term either. It’s time to become more emotionally available yourself by cutting off contact with anyone who isn’t giving you the happy, consistent and healthy relationship you deserve.
This article has been adapted from a chapter in Power: Surviving And Thriving After Narcissistic Abuse by Shahida Arabi