NARCISSISM, AFFILIATION, AND POLARITY  

            The most intense and romantic human relationships occur because each partner finds in the other a confirmation of his own personal values. A person feels affiliation with the traits and character of the person he loves or who loves him.

The feminine personality[1] experiences affiliation in a manner similar to a sports fan: "we win, they lose." He feels enlarged by being part of a person whom he idealizes, who somehow extends him. He becomes like a company that benefits from being acquired. We could call this process upward affiliation.

            The masculine personality experiences affiliation by possessing someone who loves him and who gives him value, and more confidence in his own independent self as a moral motivator of others. We could call this possessive affiliation.

            Sometimes this process goes a little further. The feminine personality may covet the qualities of his ideal to the extent that he wishes to be like the ideal. In a similar way, the masculine personality may want the feeling qualities of his beloved to become integrated into the processes of his own personality. We call this process narcissism. The narcissist attempts a kind of face-off, and sometimes approaches relations with favored others with a lot of histrionics and infatuation .

            Narcissism is generally perceived to be a gay-male phenomenon, with great negativity. It's the sugar-daddy-bald-legged-old-man-and-handsome stud (Wilde-Bosie) syndrome. Erich Fromm in “The Art of Loving” compared it to symbiosis. But actually its main appearance is in the conventional heterosexual world in what George Gilder called “the sexual princess problem,” something that drives the divorce rate.

            Narcissism, at its worst, can grow to be very destructive. Criminologists tend to associate it with a kind of sociopathy in which a person exhibits a totally unrealistic apperception of his own importance, and then engages in such anti-social behaviors as stalking, murder (along the “O.J.” pattern ¾ “if I can't have you, nobody else can”), or even terrorism. More commonly, the narcissist will notice a certain emptiness in his relations with ordinary people around him. He doesn't really care (in the sense of inner excitement and willingness to prioritize) about someone whose appearance doesn't turn him on. This emphatically does not mean he expects sex or even physical intimacy with someone who attracts him, but it does make him critical of someone who does not.

            In traditional heterosexual marriage, there is a convenient opportunity to outgrow the affiliation and even outright narcissism that made the couple fall in love in the first place. That is, beget and raise children. Parenting gives a couple something to do to build a relationship like nothing else. But in some marriages and in most gay couples, both partners need to exercise continuous creativity in the love and power dichotomy to outgrow initial romantic infatuation.

            A greater problem occurs when a relationship starts where one partner is narcissistic and the other is not. It is very difficult to maintain momentum in such couplings, beyond platonic friendship; and even that can fail if the “superior” partner perceives the other's offering as a fake, or if the other appears to feel ashamed of or guilty about his intentions. The narcissist finds himself in a position of expecting a “quality” from another Mr. Right that he cannot, either due to factors beyond his control or due to a laziness defect deep within his character, match.  He then finds settling for something more “realistic” as motivated by just not being alone, and finally he must choose between remaining alone on his “road less traveled” or settling into some kind of ascetic or charitable spiritual or religious discipline.

 This whole imbalance issue reminds one of the unspoken social ukase, to allow one's innermost feelings and drives to be molded by others into a practical, balanced, but deepening sexuality that keeps one alive and in touch with the real needs of others. After all, many marriages and partnerships form and last with very little affiliation, let alone narcissism. We call this societal expectation aesthetic realism, as it was known in the 1970s.

 Of course, it is incorrect to use this notion to justify a “moral” condemnation of homosexuality, since this process works with many gay couples in practice. To make it work, both partners need to enter their pairing with a certain pre-existing balance, and a desire to find daily good living in their relationship instead of a highly individualized expression of idealistic values. Narcissistic love seems on the one hand individualistic in that it seems to give the person absolute control over his erotic choices (at the fantasy level, at least), and yet at the same time collectivistic, in that is seems to relate to a collectively defined aesthetic idea. Indeed, “realism” in family relationships is held by some as an inevitable step in individual growth. (Oh, how those grade schools marked “progress of the pupil as an individual” and “progress of the individual as a member of the group.”)

            Narcissism, after all, has its selling points. It reminds one of the mediocrity of much of the human scene, of how conventional life often deteriorates into false submission ¾ even timidity ¾ and recklessness, and of how it tolerates premature degradation of individuals. Indeed, today narcissism is a good motivator for physical fitness, good health habits, and the avoidance of tobacco, excessive alcohol, and recreational drugs. It takes a narcissist to appreciate the full potential of another person if (and only if) that potential partner's gifts really are extraordinary. But at some point, one needs to look beyond one's own bellybutton.

Furthermore, discussion of affiliation, narcissism and balance in relationships depends on just what one means by “relationship.” If being “married” is one's expected goal, the imbalance of a pairing seems a much bigger issue than it is for someone who allows himself or herself to have many “significant others” without full sexual relations.

            None of this is said with the intent to moralize. We just want to describe what really happens in uncontrolled experiments. But narcissism and affiliation bear a definite relation to moral thinking. Moral systems that emphasize collective welfare, egalitarianism, or security may emphatically reject narcissistic and affiliative processes, particularly for objects chosen by individuals. Conservative morality, with an emphasis on simple moral "truths" easily seen in the Bible (as fundamentalists read it), emphasizes anchoring the individual's sexual psyche in conventional gender obligations and monogamous marriage, to the extent that individuals see affiliation as just a temptation. Fidelity to these obligations is supposed to ensure a fair amount of justice, and homosexuality becomes an unacceptable distraction.

Liberal morality (sometimes appearing to be based on situational thinking or on rejection of simple readings of the Bible) becomes focused on egalitarianism and accepts homosexuality as long as it follows, in its own way (gay marriage), the “everybody's beautiful” myth. Objectivism accepts certain imbalance in opportunity and wealth and puts all the responsibility for the choice and process of affiliation back up on the person, as long as the person is totally responsible for himself and realizes he needs a bit of charity to grow as a real sovereign individual.  Narcissism, taken as a whole, is frowned upon in general because, if carried out by most people, it would tend to make society more “Darwinian” and leave average people (assuming the culture no longer lets them “hide” behind marriage) with no one who will care about them.

The public perception that homosexuality (particularly among young men) is fundamentally narcissistic undermines sincere attempts by gays to gain legal recognition for committed relationships, for the right to adopt and parent, and even to serve in the military. On the other hand, love and power generate more than a zero-sum game: If you care about someone you choose by your own standards (however narcissisticly) it becomes easier to care about others who do not immediately appeal. Even so, if someone has never learned to care about others with narcissism, he will become a suspect “single” viewed as a bit creepy (as in a passage in Joe Babcock’s Salinger-like novel The Tragedy of Miss Geneva Flowers,[2] where the first person teenage narrator speculates on what it would be like to be 40 and still enjoys only his ephebophilia.)

Are “unbalanced personalities” more likely to be narcissistic? Perhaps they would see a narcissistic object choice as more expressive of individuality. On the other hand, a balanced personality might find more individual satisfaction in procreation (propagating his own biological substance and proudly accepting as a parent what one bears from his genetic lottery) and might see “hero worship” as a kind of collectivism!

One can look at narcissism as a catalyst for a chemical reaction, as explained in those hated high school chemistry courses. It is helpful in stimulating creative expression in relationships but it does not constitute creativity in itself. The creative challenge is in finding something special to love or to value in a partner, and to perform as the one person that can both recognize and develop those special gifts. It is not sufficient just to care about another person when that person can make one feel turned on. We need to keep our social preoccupation with “looks” (whether in a gay male context or not) in the proper perspective.

ãCopyright 1997 by Bill Boushka and High Productivity Publishing

References: See Paul Rosenfels, George Gilder, Marshall Kirk and Hunter Madsen in both bibliographic pages.

Paul Rosenfels Community Site link.

Review of Rosenfels book

See related article on the Cultural War

See my 2003 article on same-sex marriage debate. 

Sam Vaknin’s site on narcissism

Here’s a good example of narcissism.  You can only kept as a member of this site if existing members approve of you as one of the “Beautiful People.” I need not apply.

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[1] Paul Rosenfels. Homosexuality: The Psychology of the Creative Process with Introduction by Dean Hannotte. New York: Ninth Street Center, 1972/1986.

[2] Joe Babcock. The Tragedy of Miss Geneva Flowers. Minneapolis: Closet Case Books, 2002.