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: idealisation, 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 in ‘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 simply the 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. 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.
To learn more about the power of trauma bonding for codependents, read Why narcissistic abuse and trauma bonding is so powerful for codependents.
For more tools & knowledge building pieces on other issues in this article read:
- What happens when the narcissist knows you’ve figured them out
- When hope is killing you: Narcissistic abuse
- No Contact vs. the narcissist’s silent treatment & ghosting: The differences
- The narcissist’s ‘soul mate’ effect: How & why they do it
- Stop feeling sorry for the narcissist now
- Narc Speak: Words as weapons
- Getting past fear & leaving the narcissist
*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.
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.
(Note – if using link/s provided to purchase, you’ll receive free shipping and title heavily discounted. You’ll also be supporting my work in providing you free resources on this site, by earning a very small commission, at no extra cost to you – thank you 😊)
- 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.
There were two spots in the read where I just weeped. No matter how desperate I am to be completely shame free, and let go of the relationship I had with the abusers, it doesn’t happen overnight. I truly believe this will take years to fully recover from. Thank you for this article.
Dear Broken at Birth. In reflecting on all the damage that occurs from the many forms of abuse, to my mind, shame is possibly one of the most harmful. And unfair. It is truly an abomination that the shame of abusers is internalised by those who suffer their harm. I’m sorry that you feel this shame. I’m heartened to know that whilst you know it will take a lot of work, you can see that you will get there. I wish you loads of healing light and love Broken at Birth in handing the shame back to your abusers, and in living the life that should have been yours from birth. Maggie x
I’ve just discovered your website and wanted to say thank you for your insightful and helpful posts. I wept too when I read this post, particularly when you listed the physical ailments, all of which I suffered going through my relationship with my narc. I even ended up in hospital with chest pains, which turned out to be a panic attack. My narc love-bombed me with so much intensity, telling everyone I knew that I was the love of his life and his soul-mate. For the first five months he was so lovely though I did see red flags, which I ignored or put down to him having a bad day. Then the devaluation began after an incident which saw me threaten to leave him. He cried like a baby but later told me that had been the ‘writing on the wall’ for us and he should’ve ended it then. We continued on for four months, but he’d become very abusive, screaming at me, gas-lighting me, slut-shaming me about my past, dumping me when I had lunch with an old boss (male), then reeling me back in with fake apologies, just to keep the abuse going. He accused me of being selfish and needy, which I’m not. He was. The relationship revolved around him and his needs, He provoked late night rows when we were apart, knowing I wouldn’t sleep, then messaged me the next morning to ask how I was and if I’d got any sleep! I was so bonded to him though and kept thinking the lovely man I’d met at the start would return. The final discard came via text, leaving me so shocked and hurt. Then he attempted to reel me in again but half-heartedly, saying he was ‘willing’ to give it another go but couldn’t promise me anything. I walked away. I’ve found it so hard to cut the ties though and continued to reach out to him. He says now he’s been suffering from depression for years and blamed that for making him treat me so badly. He says his past has come back to haunt him and he hates himself for the way he behaved towards me. But it’s all excuses. I can’t describe the pain and heartache he put me through but I’m getting stronger and am done with him. Thanks again for this site.
Dear Maureen, you are one strong lady. What you share is so hard. I’m sorry this has been your experience. It never ceases to amaze me the pattern they all follow. It’s almost as if there is some secret instruction book out there on what to do to be a narcissist and devastate another human being. Go with that strength of yours gorgeous one. Leave this mess and person in your past. I pray he leaves you in peace. I believe this is all you need to reclaim your beautiful self and heal completely. Light & love to you Maureen. Maggie x
Thank you Maggie. I feel anything but strong but my counsellor (yes, I’ve had to go for counselling as a result) tells me I’m stronger than I give myself credit for. And I would never go back to him, so that’s progress. He is a mess, you’re right. And a drug addict too. I’m free from the abuse but he’ll never be free from himself and for that, I feel a bit sorry for him. Just a bit though, lol. x
Dear Maureen, listen to your counsellor. They are wise. Don’t let that ‘feeling sorry for him’ get any bigger than just a teeny, itty, bitty bit! Maggie x
God bless you for not pinning shame on the abused one for staying, for buying it, or for feeling bad about herself.
Dear S. There is no shame to be had. Maggie x
You are right! It looks like there’s a book about how to be a narc and a pain for anyone who loves them. Thanks for this great article!
Dear Carlos, I’m glad it was helpful. Light & love to you gorgeous one. Maggie x
Wow. Spot on. One day I gave myself permission to leave her. It took 25 years. But I left. Of course she blames me for everything, which is perfect! We havent spoken in 3 years. It’s been wonderful. Thanks!
Dear Anonymous, your message made me smile. I feel there is such joy in it! Indeed, there is much peace in being ‘not spoken to’ when the speaker knows only words that harm. May you have many more years of peace gorgeous one. Light, love & peace to you. Maggie x
What do you do? When when she thinks and calls me the narcissist. She turns everything around, so it my fault.
Dear Robert Jones Jr. I’m not sure of the broader context for you, but putting in place boundaries is always the perfect place to start. Check out this piece for some ideas: How to reclaim your boundaries after narcissistic abuse by using your values. Light, love, clarity & strength to you Robert Jones Jr. Maggie x
Thank you so much for your information. I have found answers and places to look for more.
I cannot begin to explain how this article has hit home with me. Everything that is described fits my situation exactly. I have been married to narsissistic husband for almost two years now (total relationship 3 1/2). Every phase that you have described is the absolute truth. It has taken me some time to come to the realization that he is never going to change or be any different that what he is today. The beginning of the relationship was good for about the first 2 months and then it started going downhill and has continued to get worse to the point of unbearable. I cannot even say that I was in denial. Maybe at first, but I thought that he would change if I just hung in there. I have witnessed numerous messages to other women in his phone (40+), he has burned my personal belongings, burned Christmas gifts given to him by my children, tried to run me off of the road in an attempt to get me to pull over, physically hit me, stalked me, accuses me daily of having numerous affairs (have even taken polygraphs at his request and passed), insists that I keep him on facetime all night long and when I am at work during the day, and will not allow me to leave my house or go into any store without facetiming him. These are just a few examples and it’s not even touching the tip of the iceberg. I filed for divorce back in September and ended up postponing but have finally decided that I absolutely cannot continue to live like this. I have had to change all means of contact so that he cannot contact me. This is probably the most exhausting and heartbreaking thing that I have ever experienced in my life. I encourage anyone that is going through something like this to look at the signs early on and not wait to make a change because it will never get better, only worse, I promise. Someone that is a true narcissist does not want to change, they like who they are and will not stop until they find someone that is totally and completely submissive to them and will do whatever they need to do to keep you right where they want you.