“The Human Magnet Syndrome”: a book about dysfunctional attraction
We often tend to assume that, in love relationships, the rational and objective calculation of costs and benefits plays a very important role. That, although it is true that love has no meaning without emotions, there is always the capacity to take control of the situation and to act according to what is healthiest for us.
Certainly, in many cases this is something that is usually fulfilled, but it is very important to keep in mind that this is not always the case. Many people get totally involved in dysfunctional love relationships from which they can not get out and whose disadvantages and obvious negative aspects are not able to perceive. In fact, the propensity to fall into these kinds of harmful relational dynamics is largely regulated by one’s personality style.
Ross Rosenberg’s “The Human Magnet Syndrome: Why We Love Those Who Hurt Us” is a book that explains precisely why feeling pain from a love relationship does not always lead to estrangement or break-up, and how, despite the influence of context and cultural environment, the fit between two particular personality types can fuel the emergence of these problems.
Interview with Ross Rosenberg, psychotherapist, writer and lecturer
Ross Rosenberg is known by thousands of people, both for his videos published on YouTube (a platform on which he has over 75,000 subscribers) and for his book “The Human Magnet Syndrome”. The latter is a work that has already sold more than 65,000 copies and has been translated into several languages, including Spanish.
On this occasion we interviewed this interesting author to explain more about the book, the ideas it presents about love and related psychological phenomena, such as loneliness and personality.
The book talks a lot about the bond that tends to hold together pathological and codependent narcissists. How would you summarize the way of being of each of these two profiles?
Codependency is both a relationship and an individual condition that can only be resolved by the codependent himself. Many codependents are attracted to and maintain long-term, breakup-resistant relationships with pathological narcissists. Most codependents are people who are considerate and respectful of the needs and desires of others, above their own. They are pathologically kind, responsible and self-sacrificing people whose altruism and good deeds are rarely rewarded.
While some codependents resign themselves to this apparently permanent role, others try to change it, though without success. These people focus on opportunities to avoid, change and/or control their narcissistic partners. Despite the inequality in their relationships and the consequent suffering, they do not end them. Co-dependency is not only limited to romantic couples as it manifests itself, to varying degrees, in most other interpersonal relationships.
Although pathological narcissism is not a new term, I use it in this book to represent a person with one of the following four disorders. Pathological narcissists are people who meet the diagnostic criteria for: Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NDD), Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD), Antisocial Personality Disorder (ADD) and/or addicts. Despite the many differences among these four disorders, they all share the characteristics of personality, thinking, and emotions of the narcissistic type.
To varying degrees, all pathological narcissists are selfish, demanding, and controlling. They are exploitative people who rarely or selectively repay any kind of generosity. Pathological narcissists are only empathetic or sensitive to others when doing so gives them a tangible reward and/or makes them feel valued, important and appreciated. Because narcissists are deeply affected by their personal shame and loneliness, but unaware of it, they also do not end their relationships.
Although active addicts are included as one of the four disorders of pathological narcissism, their narcissism may be specific to addiction. In other words, when they are sober and in recovery, their true personality type will surface, which can be any possibility.
How do pathological narcissists and codependents usually behave in therapy?
The degree of attachment trauma is predictive of the type of adult psychopathology. The child with deep attachment trauma who is deprived of positive emotional strength is likely to become an adult with one of the pathological narcissistic personality disorders (NPT, Borderline or TAP). The extreme shame that accompanies any of these disorders requires the child to emotionally dissociate, forget and/or not think about it (attachment trauma). The memory of the trauma would be a breakdown of the psychological protection that the brain built for self-preservation. The way the brain defended itself against attachment trauma will inhibit its ability to understand, recognise and feel bad about (empathising with) the damage caused to others. Therefore, adult pathological narcissists are likely to avoid or not be good candidates for psychotherapy.
This pathological narcissist as a psychotherapy client will blame others for his problems. If they are forced or coerced into attending any type of therapy, their participation will depend on them not experiencing a narcissistic injury. In other words, they can seek and/or continue psychotherapy as long as they are not blamed or held responsible for the harm they cause to others, which would unconsciously activate their internal shame. Positive results from any treatment are rare for narcissists.
On the other hand, the codependent adult was that child who was able to make his narcissistic father feel good about raising him, so he will have experienced a milder version of the attachment trauma. His ability to adapt to his parents’ pathological narcissism will make him the “trophy child” who is subject to much less psychological damage (trauma). These children will not need dissociative psychological defenses. They will become co-dependent adults, who will not only remember their attachment trauma, but will be able to accept and address their own shame. This type of person is able to recognize their mistakes, feel bad about them (have empathy) and have the internal psychological resources to resolve them with the help of a psychotherapist.
Between the pages of this work a comparison is drawn between the phenomenon of co-dependence and alcoholism. In what aspects of daily life are these similarities expressed?
A basic explanation for why codependents often lack the emotional strength to break up with their narcissistic partners forever is what I refer to as “codependency addiction. Like addicts who are chemically dependent, codependents compulsively seek out the company of a romantic partner to quench the intense emotional pain that has tormented them throughout their lives. When codependents first encounter the narcissist, they experience withdrawal, a blow of intense pleasure and euphoria, which immediately numbs their battle with shame and loneliness. Codependents are prone to this addiction, as it is their drug of choice.
Although this euphoria is indescribably pleasant at first, it cannot be sustained for long. After prolonged exposure to this “drug”, a tolerance develops. From this point on, more of the drug is needed to provide the same amount of euphoria. This parallels the moment when the relationship with the narcissist begins to shift into one of conflict, dismay and disappointment. Like other drug addictions, there is a transition to the moment when the drug is no longer taken for the pure experience of euphoria, but to eliminate the pain felt when it disappears.
Despite the growing consequences, the codependent “addict” does not dare to stop taking the drug, since doing so would trigger his main symptom of withdrawal: pathological loneliness. Most codependents describe this as the most painful of all emotions. The intense distress it causes, like other withdrawal symptoms, creates irrational desires to reconnect with the narcissist, their main drug of choice. Despite the broken promises, as well as the damage and abuse they endure, they voluntarily return to what they knew was intolerable. If the relationship is irreconcilable or too risky to return, the codependent seeks other possible “sources of drugs. Therefore, for a codependent, the addiction needs to be addressed; because if it is not addressed, there is a high probability of relapse.
In short, how is this type of dysfunctional romantic union created between these two profiles, the narcissist and the codependent?
Through the use of metaphors and analogies, my essay “Codependent, Don’t Dance” explains why opposites, codependent and pathological narcissist, are attracted to each other:
It can be said that for the “dance of codependency” to take place, it requires the participation of two people: the narcissist who takes control, and the codependent who accommodates the dance partner. These dancers, codependent and narcissistic, are opposites, but they are synchronized and fit together perfectly. The codependent is unable to disconnect emotionally from the other, and is consumed as he attends to the desires of others, while the selfish, self-centered, controlling part of the dance partner sees his role of domination reinforced and tends to continue with this relational dynamic.
What is it that makes this kind of dysfunctional romantic relationship (narcissistic – codependent) so difficult that it causes discomfort in objective terms, but also makes it so complicated that it leads to a break-up?
In relationships based on Human Magnet Syndrome, break-ups to end are not common, due to the pathological loneliness of both parties. Because both the codependent and the pathological narcissist are burdened by their own shame, they need to be in a relationship where this shame does not arise. For the codependent, this comes in the form of conscious pathological loneliness: the main symptom of withdrawal from codependent addiction. The codependent’s loneliness reminds them of their shame, which is essentially their belief that they are fundamentally damaged people.
The narcissistic experience of pathological loneliness differs in that it does not emanate from within. Your loneliness is caused by another person, who deserves to be punished and/or manipulated in his role as caregiver, sacrificer and invisible lover. If the relationship breaks down and both individuals have not made significant progress in mental health treatment, they will fall prey to the forces of Human Magnet Syndrome. They will fall in love with another “dancer” who initially feels like a “soul mate” but will soon become their “cell mate”.
The Human Magnet Syndrome would describe a phenomenon by which a couple tends to stay together for reasons that escape the rational analysis of the situation being experienced, because of biases. Should we strive to promote logic and rationality in relationships, or would it be better to accept that we can never coldly analyze these emotional ties and devote ourselves to fighting only the most harmful and destructive biases?
Logic and rational thinking are no match for the Human Magnet Syndrome. The cause of this is based on the hierarchical stratification of attachment trauma, the nucleus of shame, pathological loneliness, addiction to co-dependency and finally the problem known as “co-dependency”. This graph shows it.
Since the trauma of attachment is unconsciously stored in a part of the brain that conscious thought does not have access to (the limbic system, or specifically, the amygdala), the only way to cure codependency is to access these traumatic memories and integrate them into the conscious experience. With such integration, logic, education, and other rational cognitive processes are extremely important in the treatment of codependency. In fact, they are specifically listed in my 10-step Treatment Program for Self-Love Deficit Disorder (codependency). All stages, especially 1 – 4, require rational analysis.
Another way to illustrate the futility of rational analysis is the concept of “addiction to co-dependency”. All addictions, especially this one, are driven by an insatiable urge and compulsion to seek a specific “drug” that is believed to be the answer to all problems, but predictably is a destructive force that undermines everything the person values and loves.
The book talks about the Continuum Theory of the Self, which acts as the theoretical and conceptual foundation of the Human Magnet Syndrome. However, this theory explains a phenomenon that occurs in all relationships, not only in those that have narcissists and codependents among them: we feel attraction for people who are very different from us in certain aspects. How does this interest in the opposite of us manifest itself?
As I described earlier, the interest in “opposite” lovers is unconscious. The only element that is conscious is the feeling of chemistry, which is experienced as a perfect romance and happiness. In the midst of this experience of “true love” or “soul mates”, both lovers feel more similar than different. The temporary cessation of the severe pathological loneliness and the core of shame results in emotions of intense joy and optimism (limerick), and the belief that they are perfectly matched lovers and that they are made for each other. Conscious thinking cannot compete with the unconscious and omnipotent force of the Human Magnet Syndrome.
This unconscious interest is the matching of relationship models, which are the direct result of their experiences of attachment trauma, and how each of them managed. The relationship model is an instruction manual that unconsciously guides all people, healthy or not, in their choice of romantic partners. It specifies and instructs relational behavior through patterns and roles. It also represents the unconscious processes responsible for the pairing of “opposing personalities”, along with the comfort and ease of the dance partner. When these psychological and relational processes combine, lovers believe (and feel) they have finally arrived at a sanctuary, where loneliness and basic shame no longer follow.
According to most developmentally and psychodynamically oriented mental health professionals, people tend to replicate the experiences of parent-child childhood in their adult relationships. Suffice it to say that childhood attachment creates an instruction manual for all future relationships. It is the director of interpersonal preferences, conscious and unconscious, also known as instincts in relationships. It teaches people the various “rules” for their relationships.
The relationship model unconsciously forces one to gravitate towards an attractive and apparently secure person. In psychodynamic terms, the emotional energy of the once traumatized inner child, which is repressed or blocked from memory, directs the attraction and courtship process. The “traumatized child” communicates clearly with his adult self through what people call “intuition” and reflexive somatic (bodily) responses. An example of positive somatic messages would be the “butterflies” in the stomach. Negative ones may be experiencing nausea or back pain.
When in the company of a romantic interest that has a compatible relationship model, people instinctively experience a sense of familiarity and security. Sadly, nothing could be further from the truth. A person’s patterns of attraction are driven, almost exclusively, by one person’s relationship model: the Human Magnet Syndrome.
Any co-dependent, including myself, can attest to this conclusion. I was a psychotherapist who claimed to be intelligent, educated, and good at his job, yet twice I fell prey to pathological narcissistic wives. Despite the terrible consequences and humiliation I suffered due to the choice of my first wife, I made the same mistake with my second marriage.
Finally, what kind of readers do you think will especially enjoy this book?
My book was written for both the general public and professionals. During the six years that I presented the Human Magnet Syndrome material (over 100 times), my presentation style became progressively more neutral (enjoyable and understandable to both groups). The most common and predictable case is to have at least 25% of my professional audience members in tears. Professionals do not bother with my use of simpler terminology, as they benefit from the material both personally and professionally. According to anecdotal evidence, at least half of the 60,000 books sold of Human Magnet Syndrome in English were purchased on the recommendation of a psychotherapist.
Considering that most psychotherapists began their careers as co-dependents, this book makes a lot of sense to them. I know this from the 80 seminars I have given on the subject, the 600 reviews of my books, and the tens of thousands of comments on my YouTube videos.