‘Our relationship seemed so perfect at first, how can it have gone so wrong?’
‘How can I possibly leave them? No matter how bad it is, they’re my soulmate’
‘I no longer know what’s true or real anymore’
‘I can’t end it and I can’t stay. I’m trapped in limbo’
‘I just feel like I’m constantly walking on eggshells, waiting for the next explosion’
Are you in a relationship that doesn’t feel quite right? Maybe because your partner seems like two different people at times? Or because there is constant drama and conflict? Does it feel like things are never quite safe, secure or settled — as if a happy, calm relationship is always just out of reach?
Or maybe you are really struggling to get over someone — much more so that you would in a ‘normal’ break up — even though the relationship was damaging, draining and dysfunctional? Yet somehow, you can’t seem to move on. It’s almost as if you are bound to the person, unable to stop thinking about them or obsessing over them, even years later.
Or maybe you are in a rocky on-again-off-again romance? One that’s so confusing and consuming it has taken over your whole life, keeping you trapped on a rollercoaster of highs and lows? Maybe it’s even at the point where the bad days far outweigh the good, yet you use the good days as ‘evidence’ that the relationship is fine.
There are various reasons why an unhealthy dynamic can develop between two people, including love addiction and attachment styles. It is not always because one person is necessarily abusive. The truth is that, in any relationship, we can unintentionally hurt or disappoint each other. Sometimes because we are unaware of our partner’s thoughts and emotions, or because we have conflicting needs that we’re not managing to negotiate, or we have different expectations about boundaries. Mostly, people hurt each other in relationships accidentally and due to emotional immaturity. So although the word ‘narcissist’ is used very frequently, true pathological narcissism isn’t actually very common.
However, if someone frequently makes you feel unhappy, scared and stressed, or makes you question your reality, or makes you feel as if you are walking on eggshells, then it is possible that you are experiencing narcissistic abuse.
Narcissistic abuse is a dynamic that develops in a relationship with someone who has levels of the personality trait, narcissism. Although this post focuses on romantic partnerships, this dynamic can occur in any kind of relationship, including with family members, friends, religious leaders and work colleagues.
Essentially, narcissistic abuse is a relationship where one person puts their needs at the centre of everything and manipulates the other person in various ways to get what they need (or simply believes that they’re entitled to). Depending on the relationship, this abuse can be mental, emotional, physical, sexual or financial. It also tends to escalate over time, putting the abused person increasingly at risk. Typical behaviours can include:
— Explosions of temper
— Criticism and putdowns
— Controlling behaviour
— Mind games
— Frequent drama
— Lies and reality distortion
So why don’t people ‘just leave’? That is a question that we will aim to explore, as there is no one simple explanation. But first, let’s dive deeper into what we mean by the term ‘narcissist’.
Narcissism is a personality trait and in actual fact, we’re all somewhere on the narcissistic spectrum. Lots of us can have narcissistic traits, such as vanity, self-absorption and self-centredness, and exhibit these at times. Some people have more of these traits than average and might be egotistical. It doesn’t necessarily make us mentally ill, disordered or abusive. In fact, a certain amount of narcissism can even be healthy or useful.
Clinical narcissism is different, as it is a mental health issue that can cause real problems for the person dealing with it. You can get more information in our post Why narcissism might be more complex (and subtle) than you think. But to summarise, people who score excessively highly on this personality spectrum might have some key characteristics. Five or more of these traits would meet the criteria for a diagnosis of NPD (Narcissistic Personality Disorder). This is because the more traits a person has, the more they move from having a few narcissistic tendencies, to actually existing in a rigid state of being that impairs their functioning and relationships. However, it is important to know that someone can be narcissistically abusive without having full-blown NPD.
The key traits are:
— An inflated sense of self-importance and entitlement
— Need for constant admiration and praise
— Expect special treatment due to perceived superiority
— Exaggerate achievements and talents
— Negative reactions to criticism
— Preoccupied with fantasies about power, success and beauty
— Tendency to take advantage of others
— An inability or unwillingness to recognise the needs and feelings of other people
— Arrogant behaviour
However, the trouble with this list of traits is that many narcissistic people can conceal them very well, meaning that they can be hard to spot. For instance, right now it’s possible that you are imagining the stereotypical idea of a narcissist — perhaps a flashy, over-confident, attention seeking person who is always taking selfies. While it’s true that narcissism can show up this way, it can also be a lot more subtle.
For instance, a narcissistic partner might seem shy, withdrawn or vulnerable at first. Or they might come across as highly altruistic, devoting their time to their church, charity work or helping friends. Or they could appear devoted to personal growth, going to all the right self-help seminars and using all the right buzzwords (perhaps sharing their knowledge and helping others to hea)l. In other words, they probably won’t be wearing a t-shirt announcing their issues. This means that it can be easier than you think to be drawn into an abusive relationship.
But what every narcissistic person has in common is that they have developed a ‘false self’ in order to get their needs met for continuous ‘narcissistic supply’ (attention, admiration, sympathy, support, validation and love). Of course all of us need these things, but for a narcissist it is more like a burning, addictive drive. And when they don’t feel seen, heard or validated, they can collapse and struggle to function. This means that they end up seeing other people as resources to use, rather than real human beings to connect with.
What causes this personality structure to develop? It is thought that it arises in someone’s younger years, due to growing up in an abusive, dysfunctional or emotionally distant home (although this might not be obvious to outsiders and the child might even seem pampered or adored). In essence, the narcissist’s idealised false self is developed as a coping strategy, a way for them to get their neglected emotional needs met (for instance, through praise, attention or admiration). This coping strategy then continues into adulthood until it becomes their entire way of being and of relating to others.
And while many of us have different personas in different situations, for a narcissist, the false self is all that they have. It is a mask that conceals a deep sense of shame, emptiness and lack of core identity that’s much too painful for them to face. In fact, facing it would feel like falling into a terrifying void. So their mask is not just for other people — it is for them as well.
This means that when you are in a relationship with a narcissistic person, you are in a relationship with a paper-thin, unstable construct. Tragically, the person that they initially presented to you — often charming, romantic and intoxicating — isn’t really real at all.
Of course, the risk is that you will eventually see through this mask, which is why narcissists tend to develop ways to keep partners confused, hooked and under their control. As they are terrified of abandonment, they will do almost anything to prevent it happening. This process is what we call narcissistic abuse.
Leaders of cults can be highly narcissistic, creating a community centered wholly around themselves. And within romantic relationships, narcissistic abuse can sometimes be understood as a ‘cult of two’. In other words, a relationship where one person’s needs and wants become totally dominant at the expense of the other’s.
So rather than developing a healthy relationship where both people’s needs are met, the narcissistic person treats their partner as a source of supply. They exploit them for time, energy, attention, admiration and resources, often to the point where their partner becomes a shell of themselves. And while all of this is going on, the narcissist will also be keeping their partner drained, disorientated and dysregulated in various ways. It is almost like a sleight of hand where you are too distracted by the ongoing emotional drama to notice that you are being exploited.
Effects of narcissistic abuse can include:
— Feeling that you are always walking on eggshells
— Feeling that you can longer make independent decisions
— Feeling that you are living in a fog of confusion
— Becoming increasingly isolated
— Low self-esteem
— Nightmares or insomnia
— Depression, stress or anxiety
— Fatigue or a weakened immune system
— Minimising or making excuses for your partner’s behaviour
— Hiding your partner’s behaviour from others
— Feeling frightened of your partner
To understand this kind of abuse better, we have to look at how it tends to start. Because it is not always obvious at first that you are being drawn in by a narcissistic person.
Relationships with narcissistic individuals tend to begin with a whirlwind of manipulation tactics to draw you in. These can include magnetic charm, ‘mirroring’ (reflecting back your interests, passions and beliefs to you to seem like your ‘soulmate’) and ‘love bombing’ (romantic gestures, exciting dates, flattery, professing undying love and wanting to spend every minute with you).
If someone is more of a covert narcissist, then this early stage might involve playing the victim with sympathy bids, sob stories and various crises that you need to ‘rescue’ them from. Or if the narcissist has more of a hero persona, then they might present themselves as a rescuer who will solve all of your problems.
All of this can be highly intoxicating, especially for people who have experienced abuse, abandonment or emotional lack in their childhood. In fact, a narcissistic person can often sense when people are carrying deep emotional wounds and gravitate towards them, sometimes unconsciously. Yet it is important to remember that they are doing this because they are deeply wounded themselves.
At the beginning, things can feel idyllic or magical, as if you have finally found the kindred spirit that you’ve been looking for. The narcissist might seem as if they are the one person who will fill the hole inside of you, healing the pain of your past and giving you a level of love that you might have lacked before. But sadly, this honeymoon period never lasts. In fact, it is important to realise that this stage — known as ‘love bombing’ — is actually the precursor to the abuse cycle (followed by building of tension, abusive behaviour, reconciliation, calm and building of tension again). Love bombing is the part where you are drawn in and hooked, where you invest in the new relationship and put your hopes into it.
As the honeymoon period begins to fade after a few weeks or months, there will be a shift in your partner’s behaviour. They may lose their temper out of the blue, grow distant and critical, or reveal controlling or selfish traits that they hid at first. In other words, the mask starts to slip. Often this is followed by profuse apologies, then a temporary return of the narcissist’s affection and charm (the calm stage). This is essentially a mini burst of love bombing designed to ‘hoover’ you back in, but it will never be at the same level as the beginning.
Yet people often don’t leave their new partners at this first major red flag, for a number of reasons. For instance, they might have become addicted to the love bombing and desperately want to maintain it. Or they might convince themselves that these difficulties are just a temporary blip (and often the narcissistic person will have excuses for the sudden bad behaviour, such as ‘stress at work’).
Or they might recognise that they are with a damaged person but be convinced that they can ‘heal’ or ‘rescue’ them with their love. In fact, if you had a toxic or narcissistic parent then the whole situation might unconsciously feel like ‘home’ to you. In a sense, trying to fix the narcissist feels like a chance to finally heal the wounds of your childhood.
But it is not a temporary blip, nor can a narcissist partner be healed or rescued with your love or understanding. Instead, you are now in a cycle of abuse that is set to continue indefinitely and even escalate to the point of danger. And as time goes on, your partner will use increasingly sophisticated tactics to keep you hooked and confused. The aim is to stop you from ever seeing the truth — that your needs are not being treated as equal and that the perfect honeymoon phase is never coming back.
Instead, what has happened is that you have entered a toxic, high intensity relationship that can mimic intimacy and a soulmate experience, but which is actually anything but.
Being in a narcissist abuse dynamic means being in a constant, draining stage of hypervigilance. This can cause you to become physically and mentally dysregulated, perhaps developing fatigue, stress, anxiety, depression, insomnia or even a chronic health condition.
With this being the case, why can it feel so hard to leave?
Usually it’s because narcissistic people have a powerful ‘toolkit’ of tactics that they use to control their partners and keep them disorientated. But once you begin to recognise what these are and why they are being used, you can begin to break the spell. Here are a few:
One of the first things a narcissistic person might do is try to keep you away from other people. While this is a control tactic, it can also be driven by genuine jealousy, insecurity and paranoia.
A narcissistic person can isolate you in many ways, from claiming that ‘I just want you all to myself’, to criticising your friends, to insinuating that your family doesn’t like them. They might also keep tabs on your movement or have a knack for creating huge dramas out of nowhere when you try to go to a social event without them.
As the situation worsens, they may become more open with their tactics, ‘forbidding’ you to see certain people or accusing you of having an affair. Eventually, it can just feel much easier not to socialise at all — or only to socialise with your partner’s friends. Before you know it, you might have no one in your life apart from them.
Another device for isolating you is via character assassination. In other words, your partner secretly telling family, friends or neighbours that you are ‘crazy’ or even the one abusing them. As well as alienating you from others, this tactic can lay the groundwork for people not believing you when you try to finally tell them about your abuse.
Gaslighting means making you question your own reality or sanity. While a narcissist might sometimes do this intentionally, at other times they might not even be self-aware of their behaviour. This is because they live in such a distorted reality of compartmentalisation, projection and fantasy that they often believe their own lies.
Gaslighting can take many different forms, with the classic example being a person acting in an abusive way then claiming it never happened. For instance, saying they never shouted at you when you know they did. Or minimising the incident by saying that you’re ‘too sensitive’ or it was ‘just a joke’.
Another example is flipping the narrative. For instance, your partner repeatedly flirting with others in front of you then, when you bring it up, accusing you of doing the same thing to them. Or they might try to deflect, for instance, changing the topic from a serious thing they did to a trivial thing you did.
At other times they may simply say that you are ‘insane’ or claim that you are the one abusing them. For instance, if you finally get angry at your partner for their behaviour, then this will be used against you as a ‘sign’ of your irrationality.
In the words of domestic abuse expert Lundy Bancroft, author of Why Does He Do That?: ‘Abuse can make you feel straitjacketed. You may develop physical or emotional reactions to swallowing your anger, such as depression, nightmares, emotional numbing, or eating and sleeping problems, which your partner may use as an excuse to belittle you further or make you feel crazy.’
This means bringing a third party (or third parties) into your relationship to make you feel insecure. This can include criticising you to the third party or making you feel that you need to compete with them for your partner’s time and attention. Although this person can sometimes be an affair, flirtation or ex-partner, they can also be a friend or family member of the narcissist.
Usually the abusive partner will limit communication between you and the third party so that they can remain in full control of the situation. They might also turn you against each other so that there is no danger of you getting close and sharing truths. Playing this game can be an ego boost and source of supply to a narcissistic personality, plus it can give them the sense of control that they desperately crave.
When the third party is a flirtation, they might also serve the purpose of being a potential ‘parachute relationship’ — in other words, a person who has been ‘groomed’ to be the narcissist’s next partner, should things not work out with you. This means that they won’t have to risk being alone.
Other abuse tactics might include threats of suicide if you leave, passive aggression and the silent treatment. But what they all have in common is that they keep you so off balance that it’s hard to find the energy, strength and clear-headedness to end things.
One of the key questions people often have about their narcissist partner is ‘Are they aware of what they are doing? Do they know that they are manipulating me?’
In other words, is the person being intentionally calculating, or are their behaviours born of damage, dysregulation and desperation? The answer, frustratingly, is that there is often no straight answer. It really depends on the particular situation and where the person is on the narcissism spectrum. Sometimes abusive behaviours can be designed to control or disorientate, yet at other times they might be a side effect of a narcissist’s highly disordered internal world. If the person is extremely low in empathy and perhaps crosses over into Antisocial Personality Disorder, then much of their behaviour could be intentional.
However, one way to look at it is that a narcissistic person might often be ‘aware’ of what they are doing — but not necessarily conscious of it. In other words, they are most likely not thinking about you and what they’re doing to you. Instead, they’re more likely to be desperately trying to maintain a superior position (rather an inferior one), to feel in control (rather than out of control), or to feel powerful (rather than powerless). For these individuals, narcissism is a defence against shame, humiliation, inadequacy and fear that they will be rejected. Being in this defensive state means that it is difficult for them to be fully conscious of their actions in any meaningful, reflective way.
For instance, when they meet someone that they want to date, they can quickly become fixated on them as a potential new source of supply. This can be a powerful infatuation, yet they are not seeking a true and deep connection. Instead, they are more like an addict desperately hunting for a fix. Feeling adored is seductive for them yet as more intimacy is introduced, this becomes uncomfortable. As a result, the new partner is removed from their pedestal and perhaps even rubbished.
So at one level they might well be ‘aware’ that they are love bombing you or pretending to share your interests to draw you in. But they are not necessarily reflective about the consequences of their behaviour or what it says about them. Instead, they are a false self in an altered state, one where moments of clarity and lucidity are rare — and often very painful.
So perhaps the key question isn’t so much ‘Is my partner aware of what they are doing?’ Instead, maybe it’s ‘Why does it matter, either way’? Because in the end, abuse is abuse, no matter what the reasons. It is crucial to protect yourself by setting limits — even leaving the situation — rather than trying to analyse your abuser’s mindset or motivations. This just keeps you trapped with them.
Instead, it is much more useful to get curious about why you were attracted to a narcissist in the first place. What emotional wounds drew you to them and them to you?
Leaving a narcissistic partner can be agonisingly painful for a number of reasons, not least of which being that you might love them very much. This alone can make it hard to end things.
Yet narcissistic abuse has various other deep hooks that can make it feel impossible to leave. Together, these create an experience known as trauma bonding, which is the powerful feelings of attachment that an abused person feels towards their abuser. Trauma bonding can be caused by a number of difference things, including:
The abuse cycle itself causes powerful feelings of attachment. This is because its highs and lows can keep you so intensely focused on your partner’s moods and behaviour that it’s hard to gain the separation needed to leave. You reel from one drama to the next, never quite finding your footing or feeling safe, but somehow believing that happiness is just over the horizon.
Abusive relationships are chemically and biologically addictive in a very real sense. For instance, the extreme ups and downs of a toxic relationship can put you in an ongoing Fight or Flight state, ‘flooding’ your system with high intensity hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline. And during periods of love bombing, you will also get doses of feelgood hormones like dopamine and oxytocin. Eventually, you will come to deeply crave these chemical highs and experience suffering if they are taken away.
Together, this process is sometimes known as ‘peptide addiction’. It is why, when people leave a narcissistic partner, they can describe symptoms similar to drug withdrawal, such as physical pain or a desperate need to see the person.
This is when your partner randomly mixes cold and unkind behaviour with occasional bursts of love. Again, this can sometimes be intentional and sometimes be down to the narcissist’s highly dysregulated moods. As a result, you might become obsessed with trying to get into their head and work out ‘the secret’ of getting them to be consistently loving.
Yet sadly, there is no real rhyme and reason to intermittent reinforcement, no trick to getting your abuser to treat you well. All it does is keep you hooked on the relationship.
Leaving a narcissist can be very difficult for all the reasons stated and more. Whether you are thinking of leaving or have already ended things and are struggling, the support of an expert, trusted therapist can make a big difference (plus there are also a number of organisations that can provide practical advice and guidance about extracting yourself from an abusive relationship).
When you’ve ensured that you are physically safe, a psychotherapist or psychologist can help you to explore the reasons why you might have found yourself in an abusive relationship and help you to develop healthier boundaries in future. They can also help you to work through the pain, fear, trauma, anger, sadness, grief, shame and betrayal that you might be feeling. And by developing a safe relationship with your therapist, you can learn how to trust again.
Various therapeutic approaches can support you through abuse recovery. For instance, in Psychodynamic Therapy you can explore how earlier, repressed emotions and experiences might still be affecting you today. By doing a deep dive into the unconscious forces at work in your life — including any patterns of attracting toxic partners — you can gain a better understanding of yourself and let go of anything that is no longer serving you.
Another way to explore unhelpful relationship patterns and cycles in your life is through Schema Therapy or Cognitive Analytic Therapy (CAT). Schema Therapy focuses on how difficult experiences and unmet emotional needs in childhood might have affected your adult life. For instance, by causing you to develop unhelpful beliefs or ‘schemas’, such as ‘I am not worthy of love’. These beliefs can lead you to developing coping strategies to get your emotional needs met, such as being a people pleaser. As a result of this, through a process known as ‘schema chemistry’, you can end up attracting exploitative partners. CAT also looks at patterns in relationships and how to break them.
Finally, people with a history of traumatic experiences can often be vulnerable to toxic relationships. Perhaps because they had an abusive, withholding or narcissistic parent, meaning that a narcissistic partner feels familiar to them. As a result, they might be unconsciously replaying old childhood traumas within their relationships, time and time again. If this sounds familiar to you, then trauma-focused therapies, such as EMDR and Body-Focused Psychotherapies, can help you to process the pains of the narcissistic abuse and any other traumas from the past.
Leaving a narcissistic partner can feel overwhelming, yet it is also more than possible to find the strength to break away. You deserve to live a life free of abuse and the chance to find a safe, trusting, loving relationship where both of your needs are met. Leaving can feel like taking a huge, scary leap but on the other side you finally have a chance to find yourself again.
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