I-Thou relationships versus I-It relationships
The philosopher Martin Buber (1878-1965) published a very influential essay in German, Ich und Du (1923), that has since been republished in English many times under the title I and Thou, which aptly captures the essence of what narcissistic relationships are like. Buber is not specifically writing about narcissism. However, I have found his work to be very useful when considering what is actually going on below the surface of relationships where one partner has an untreated narcissistic personality disorder.
Buber distinguishes between “I-Thou” relationships, where each member sees the other as an equal partner in creating what occurs between them, and “I-It” relationships in which one person has control, and the other person is treated more like an object that is acted upon (the “it”). There are normal “I-It” relationships that are not narcissistic. In these, the “I-It” structure is meant to benefit the person who is the object of the other person’s attention.
An example of a healthy “I-It” relationship would be the relationship of a competent physician and an ill patient. The built-in inequality is for the patient’s benefit. The doctor is supposed to be more knowledgeable and is expected to take control, ask useful questions, listen carefully, and suggest treatments. The patient has a more passive role in the interaction, except when they have questions that they would like answered or are giving feedback about how the treatment affected them.
In the narcissistic “I-It” relationship, narcissists try to maintain control over their partner and expect their needs and wish to be prioritized over their partner’s.
Narcissists unfairly blame their partners
Not only will you find yourself in the “it” position in a relationship with a narcissist, but your narcissistic partner will also try to convince you that you are to blame for everything that goes wrong. They will claim that you are defective and that devaluing you and ignoring your opinions is justified. No matter how well they make their case and how much you want to give them the benefit of the doubt, what is actually happening is that you are being emotionally abused and unfairly blamed.
Narcissists are unwilling to apologize or take responsibility for their mistakes for reasons that actually have very little to do with you. The real reasons for their behavior stem from their disorder and events in their childhood. Your behaviors might trigger their rage, but you are not the cause. The damage happened long before they met you.
Learn to ignore the rationalizations of their abusive behavior
You will be told ridiculous and insulting things about yourself that are all intended to support their opinions and right to devalue you. If they are angry with you, they will try to make you feel stupid. If you disagree with them, they will try to make you feel stupid and wrong. Do not pay attention.
I will say it again: It is not really about you at all. They would eventually say these things even if you had three Ph.D.s, were incredibly attractive, and had just won the Nobel Prize.
Intimate relationships with people who have narcissistic personality disorders eventually become exhausting and debilitating. The non-narcissistic partner ends up playing defense. Over time, the partner’s sense of well-being and trust in their narcissistic mate will be eroded by the constant bickering and devaluation. If you would like to not be driven crazy by nonsense, when the devaluing starts, take this as a signal that it is time to leave. The best long-term romantic relationship with a narcissist is the one you decline to have.
Martin Buber (1923). Ich und Du. Leipzig: Insel Verlag.
Martin Buber (1937). I and Thou. transl. by Ronald Gregor Smith. Edinburgh: T. and T. Clark
Originally Appeared On: Psychology Today Republished with permission