Abuse victims end up forming an emotional bond with their abusers in an attempt to survive those difficult, tumultuous, traumatic relationships. This bond is formed in situations where there is a repeated cycle of "rewards" and "punishments" in which the victims, after countless abuses, become conditioned to expect the "rewards" (the relief). They view their abusers as both the source of their terror and their source of comfort and relief when they display desirable attitudes and behaviors.
In general, narcissists attract codependent partners who at the beginning of the relationship get exactly what they need, and then they start to face devaluation and abuse. They know things are changing, but they can't figure out why, so they blame themselves. They think that they must have done something to deserve this kind of treatment, they must have done something wrong. Thinking this way, all they have to do is try to fix their so-called mistakes in order to win back the narcissist's affection and goodwill. They will try not to upset their partner, to do everything that is expected of them, hoping that in this way they will break the cycle of abuse and awaken in their partner only that affectionate and loving side that they knew in the beginning.
Why is it so hard to end an abusive relationship with a narcissist?
In the beginning you are overwhelmed with affection and attention and you feel like the most special person in the world. The narcissist shows interest in you because he/she wants to discover your weaknesses, your needs, your desires, in order to use them against you later. He/she is willing to do everything for you and play the ideal partner just to gain your trust. He/she takes over you, constantly gives you validations and appreciations, fulfills your every need to make you become dependent on him/her.
As time goes by, things begin to change: their gestures of affection become increasingly rare, and criticism and devaluation start to show up. If you take a stand, if you express your dissatisfaction, the narcissist will distort things in such a way that it seems that everything bad that happens in the relationship is your fault or that you are exaggerating, you are wrong, mistaken, "you are crazy".
Even if you try to solve the problems, you have the feeling that every time you are faced with the same thing: reproaches, blame, anger, as if no matter how hard you try, you can't really reach an agreement. You start telling yourself that in every relationship there are problems and arguments and that maybe what you need to do is put up more.
The more you compromise, the more the narcissist learns that he/she can do anything, because you will accept anything. The rare occasions when you "rebel" (you express your point of view, you say what bothers you, you disagree with your partner) will therefore be seen as real affronts and betrayals, and his/her reactions will become more and more virulent, more aggressive, more toxic. If until now you have been submissive, how dare you to disobey?
You start to feel more and more insignificant, more unconfident, more insecure and you start to fear more and more his/her emotional outbursts, his/her reproaches, fights and all you want is to avoid "provoking him/her". You live in constant stress and you start to get anxious. Now your only solace or relief is when they give you a few shreds of goodwill. Like a drug addict, you bear all the unwanted effects for those few minutes of pleasure and comfort.
The narcissistic partner gives you affection, validation, appreciation or gifts after a long string of abuse and in an unpredictable manner. If you don't know when you will get your "reward", you will always behave in such a way as to please them, because you hope that you will receive, as soon as possible, those gestures of affection and those validations that you so long for. And once you get them, you delude yourself that your partner will never be mean to you again, even if the evidence says otherwise. You cling to that small gesture of kindness and hope that he/she will change.
The narcissist is not a "good", nice, loving, caring and compassionate person who occasionally has unintentional mean, cruel and aggressive outbursts. He is perfectly aware of what he/she is doing, he/she is aware of his/her abuses and he/she is aware of how much suffering he/she is causing you. If he/she wasn't aware, how could he/she calculate so well every gesture and move he/she makes in public? How could he/she be so nice in public, when he/she knows he has to protect his/her image, and so cruel and inconsiderate in your privacy, when he/she knows no one else sees him/her?
Your partner may get mad at you and stop talking to you and sulk for days if he/she perceives as being "wrong" something you did. Even if you didn't do anything wrong (for example, you refused to fulfill a selfish request), you will find yourself in the position of apologizing and trying to fix your "mistake" in the hope that the tension between you will go away and he/she will start talking to you again. Although the problem has not really been solved, just the fact that things are back to "normal" (he/she is talking to you again) is a great relief, a stress and anxiety relief.
He/she may punish you in other ways, not only by giving you the silent treatment: by throwing tantrums, being physically abusive, insulting you, devaluating you, having a hostile behavior or a passive-aggressive behavior etc.
You end up feeling that when he/she treats you nicely, behaves with respect or shows interest in you, he/she is actually doing you a favor. As if you don't actually deserve all these things, but he/she, out of his/her own goodwill and because you were "good", offers them to you.
But a healthy and functional relationship is based precisely on respect, on appreciation, on genuine interest, on treating your partner as an equal, not as a subject who you’re doing a favor by simply no longer abusing him/her if he/she is obedient.
The problematic aspect is that people who are abused and who develop an emotional bond with their abuser perceive that if he/she is the one causing them so much pain, he/she is also the one who can free them from that pain.
A person caught in this vicious circle will tend to blame himself/herself for the abusive behavior: "I pissed him/her off", "if I had acted differently... he wouldn't have been upset", "if I had done things differently...", "if only I could push myself harder / if I was different / if I was more loving / more understanding / if I stopped doubting him... surely he/she wouldn't behave like this again" and find excuses for their abusive partner: "he/she had a difficult childhood", "his/her father abandoned them", "he/she was betrayed in the previous relationship", "that’s the way he/she is and he/she can’t change".
The person will find it hard to leave, even if they are completely miserable there, and will hide or minimize the abuse they are going through. He/she will think that he/she doesn’t deserve or can’t find something better and that his/her life would have no meaning without his/her current partner. He/she will be able to lie to himself that things are ok, despite all the problems and difficulties, because he/she will focus on those shreds of goodwill, clinging to them. He/she will constantly be tense and he/she will feel that he/she has to tiptoe around their partner in order not to upset them, that he/she has to give up their authenticity and make countless sacrifices and compromises for things to be ok.
What steps can you take to end the relationship with a narcissist?
The first step in solving a problem is recognizing that problem. That is, if your partner is abusive, stop lying to yourself or others that he/she is not. Stop finding them excuses. If you feel unfulfilled, unhappy, sad, anxious or stressed, first admit to yourself that you feel that way. If your partner makes promises they don't keep, admit that and stop looking for excuses. Regardless of what they are saying to convince you, notice the facts. Deep down, despite the confusion you may feel, you know that something is not ok, you know that there are problems and things that hurt you, you know that you would like something else.
If you live in the same house, don't tell him/her about your plans because he/she will most likely do everything possible to prevent you from leaving and will have the ability to change your mind or just make your life a nightmare and your safety and health are more important than anything you think you owe him/her. Start securing the resources you need and leave. No matter how impossible it seems to you, realize that it is a choice you can make. You just need to grant yourself this permission. Avoid any contact, and if you have children together or if we are not talking about a couple relationship, but a business relationship, communicate the minimum necessary and don’t get caught in the trap of reopening the topic about you and your relationship.
Make self-care and self-love a priority – you've most likely forgotten about yourself, about who you really are, about your needs and desires, and now is the time to remind yourself that. Accept yourself as you are now, don't blame yourself for what you did or your past, but seek to build and reinvent your life starting from what you have and who you already are.
Seek specialized help to help you understand what drawn you into that relationship (what traits, what beliefs, what unfulfilled needs, what emotional wounds of yours contributed to forming that bond) and to help you process what is happening to you and to heal yourself, to forgive yourself, to free yourself.
Surround yourself with friends, with people you trust or people who can support you in this time of your life. It’s important to avoid isolating yourself or sweeping everything under the rug.
Make future plans and set goals – if your plans have revolved around him/her up until now, now may be the time to start thinking about yourself again. Deciding what you want to do with your time, your energy, your life and taking action knowing that you are doing it for your own good can be an extremely powerful boost to regaining self-confidence. Even if you make mistakes, with each lesson learned and each obstacle overcome, you prove to yourself that it’s possible and that you don't need external anchors, you don't need someone to constantly validate you and to tell you if you think, choose or act right or wrong, good or bad.
Your life belongs to you and I want you to realize that you can be and have everything you deserve and really want.
Dr. Ursula Sandner