8 minute read
Why is it so hard to leave a narcissist, even when you know the relationship is abusive? Even when there is awareness that the relationship, is quite literally, killing you?
These questions can stir shame for those who are still suffering in a relationship with an abusive narcissist. In fact, that feeling of shame can continue for a time even once the relationship has ended and recovery has begun.
This article if for you gorgeous ones out there who know exactly what I’m referring to when I talk of this sense of shame.
Some may ask, shame, really? Surely, not. A victim should not feel this way!
The thing is though that many do, and it sits in the confusion of being unable to answer why it is so hard to leave. Because, on some level, you know staying means the abuse will continue and in a sense you are choosing to accept what is hurting you. Enter crippling shame, and self-hate.
But let me tell you gorgeous ones who are feeling the shame: you are not a freak, there isn’t anything fundamentally wrong with you that you would accept abuse, you are not a masochist, you are not all the mean things you tell yourself you must be.
The difficulties in leaving are not a reflection of who you are as a person, but a function of the abuse.
You may have been asked by people who care about you, ‘why don’t you just leave him/her’? To them the situation externally looks so clear cut. If you are in an abusive relationship, the solution is to leave. Simple. Except it isn’t. It is a big, bloody, complicated mess.
What makes it such a mess and why is so very hard to leave the relationship? The cycle of narcissistic abuse and trauma bonding.
And why is it so important to understand these concepts? Because accepting the reality of the abuse means coming to an understanding that the shame is not yours to own. It is theirs.
No longer holding the responsibility for their shame moves you towards what is rightfully yours: freedom & joy.
The sticky bonds of trauma
The cycle of narcissistic abuse
To appreciate why it is so hard to leave the relationship, let’s look first at the cycle of narcissistic abuse. This is a relationship pattern followed by narcs that covers three phases: devaluation and discard.
Phase 1, idealisation is the period when the narcissist cements mutual bonds of adoration. You are worshipped and all you could possibly ever want from a partner becomes a reality (albeit, unbeknownst to you, a somewhat false and temporary reality…).
The narcissist is attentive, focused only on you and your needs, and flattering almost to the point where the words are over the top.
The narc spins a dream like spell over the two of you, creating a ‘high’ like quality to the relationship. Being together gives you such incredibly positive emotions, like you’ve never felt before. This feeling is comparable to a drug induced high. This is precisely what the narcissist intends. To foster your addiction to them and the relationship.
The addiction sought by the narc is necessary. They know that inevitably, the charade will cease, and their mask will drop. When this happens you are transitioned to the second phase of the cycle of abuse which is devaluation.
The narcissist shifts focus, and now the aim of the game is to completely disempower you. Their goals are to have complete power and control over you. This ensures your full compliance to their demands, and ability to avoid all responsibility for their behaviour.
Though drawing supply from you through adoration is now irregular, their need hasn’t changed. Your job is always to supply continuous affirmation of their self-beliefs of superiority, omnipotence, and entitlement.
They extract supply from you through the abuse. All the mental and psychological manipulations of gaslighting, projecting, smear campaigns, isolating you, threatening you, the minimisation and denial of all the abuse, possibly also the physical and sexual abuse too…all this abuse is to secure the supply that supports their self-beliefs and to maintain that power and control.
But it’s not just the ugliness that is a tool to secure supply. The ‘niceness’, the ‘good side’ reminiscent of the love bombing that reappears every now and then during devaluation, this too, is also a manipulation with a very clear purpose. More on this ‘Trauma bonding’.
The third phase is discard. The severing of the relationship and eradication of your existence, which is completed without any further pretence of having any empathy.
You are ‘no longer required’ and suddenly deleted from their life. You may be notified by text message, or the simply sound of crickets.
This is the cycle of narcissistic abuse. It is cyclic because often the narc will kick start this relationship sequence with you again, once they have exhausted their other sources of supply (i.e.: discarded the other people who served this same purpose in their life), and if you still offer the potential of further supply for them.
For more details on this cycle check out ‘From soul mate to worthless: What’s behind the narcissist’s 180?’.
From an outsider’s perspective, one might still say: ‘so that is all horrific, I repeat my question…why don’t you/didn’t you just leave him/her?’.
Let’s look closer at phase 2, devaluation, and what is happening there. During this phase, abuse interspersed with love bombing creates trauma bonding (a.k.a Stockholm Syndrome). This is a powerful, unhealthy attachment to another who causes you harm.
Trauma bonding occurs in conditions where an individual is under threat psychologically or physically, and they perceive that their survival is dependent on their abuser. This could be due to isolation, and/or inability to escape from the situation. In addition to these circumstances, the victim also perceives that the abuser is intermittently kind towards them.
The drugging effect
The occasional and irregular kindness, or love bombing, amongst the awfulness of the abuse creates an emotional roller coaster with the darkest lows and brilliant highs.
When you are living in a state of unbearable pain, the intermittent reinforcement through a ‘hit’ of love bombing, keeps you hooked. This ‘hit’, is quite literally all that is keeping you going.
When your heart, mind and soul, and every aspect of your life are devastated by the impact of the abuse, the momentary high is all that is left. You genuinely come to believe that your survival depends on the relationship with your abuser.
Sound dramatic? Depression, anxiety, panic attacks, inability to sleep, throwing up, confusion, fear, loss of sense of identity, weight loss or weight gain, obsessive thoughts and compulsions, rage, muscle aches, suicidal ideation, insomnia. These are just some of the symptoms of narcissistic abuse. When you feel unwell you look for the antidote right? That high when it happens, lessens the symptoms just for a little while, so of course you chase it.
You also stay in the relationship, because you have become brainwashed into believing you are not worthy of being loved. You come to think that you don’t deserve any more than what you are getting.
That occasional sprinkle of sugar after being starved of love, and believing you are not worthy of it, is intensely powerful in cementing ever more strongly that trauma bond. This is where the addiction initiated in the idealisation phase is strengthened to the point where it can feel impossible to break away.
Hooking keeps hope alive
Abusive narcissists are fully aware of what they are doing (for more on this check out Proof the narcissist abuses you intentionally and will never change). They know they are causing you harm. They know by any normal standard of behaviour it is unacceptable. They know that you also know this at some level, and if their hard work in all the brainwashing falters – you just might leave them.
So, the intermittent love bombing also keeps hope alive that just maybe one day, the good you see in them will prevail, and everything will work out. After all, as long as you keep holding to that hope, hooking you back in will never fail.
The combined effect of all of this, is that you feel reliant and entirely under the control of your abuser because the trauma bonding has created emotional attachment and psychological dependence akin to drug addiction.
The superglue that binds you to the narc, is like I said, a big, bloody, complicated mess.
Dissolving the bonds
BUT, the mess can be cleaned up.
Part of the formula for dissolving these bonds, is understanding why they are formed*. This knowledge leads to your capacity to take a more objective look at the situation. And you need this to begin cultivating detachment from the narc and the relationship.
Whilst still in the mindset that it is the ‘perfect love, they just have a few problems that cause me pain, but it will all be ok’, you remain hooked. And you simply can’t maintain this brainwashed state when you look the reality of addiction and abuse in the eyes from an informed, objective position.
When you do eyeball it, know there ain’t no love in the narc’s equation.
Feeling trapped, stuck, unable to leave an abusive relationship with a narcissist that is killing you, is in fact, not freaky. There is nothing inherently wrong with you. How you feel is the natural consequence of a particular mixture of psychological torture designed to make you feel precisely this way.
It is my mission in this article, that in understanding this, your shame leaves you and you forgive yourself for what may feel/have felt, like you are/were betraying yourself by remaining in a situation of harm.
This starts with seeing with increasing clarity where the ownership and responsibility for the shame sits: your abuser.
Let this big, ugly reality check help break those bonds. Let go of your shame and reclaim yourself by leaving it with the narcissist where it rightly belongs, as you walk out the door towards freedom & joy.
*Don’t stop now! Keep building your knowledge to help you break the bonds with your narc. I’ve included a number of recommended titles below. Two books that particularly helped me at the time I was grappling with ‘why is it so impossible to leave this terrible & destructive relationship??’ were Women Who Love Too Much by Robin Norwood, and Facing Love Addiction by Pia Mellody (to buy, please use these links which will take you to the Book Depository and free shipping 🙂 – thank you!).
These were so helpful for me in expanding my understanding beyond how the cycle of narcissistic abuse was binding me through trauma, to get me to look at what was going on inside me that was contributing to feeling stuck.
There were some brutal truths faced in reading the pages in these books, but they are delivered in a way that is enlightening, eye opening, and challenged me to start taking accountability for what was mine to own about why I felt so stuck. Being clear on what was mine to own, and what wasn’t was a massive platform for me in starting my recovery journey. I highly recommend them for these reasons.
- Bancroft, L. (2003). Why does he do that? Inside the minds of angry and controlling men. New York, US: Berkley Books.
- Dutton, D.G., & Painter, S. (1993). Emotional attachments in abusive relationships: A test of traumatic bonding theory. Violence and Victims, 8(2), 105-120.
- Keller, P.S., Blincoe, S., Gilbert, L.R., Dewall, C.N., Haak, E.A., & Widiger, T. (2014). Narcissism in romantic relationships: A dyadic perspective. Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, 33(1), 25-50.
- Mellody, P. (2003). Facing love addiction: Giving yourself the power to change the way you love. New York, US: Harper Collins.
- Norwood, R. (2009). Women who love too much: When you keep wishing and hoping he’ll change. London, UK: Arrow.
- Reid, J.A., & Haskell, R.A., Dillahunt-Aspillaga, C., Thor, J.A. (2013). Contemporary review of empirical and clinical studies of trauma bonding in violent and exploitative relationships. International Journal of Psychology Research, 8(1), 37-73.