Leaving a relationship is always difficult and painful, and leaving one with a narcissist can be even harder because you’ve invested so much time and effort into trying to make it work. Even when you do find yourself starting over, many of us end up in a similar relationship with someone else and are left wondering how we got there and how we can break the cycle. Changing your relationship patterns comes down to recognising that there are two people in any relationship and the only one you can change is you.
No one would choose to be in a relationship with a narcissist. What usually happens is that we make the choice subconsciously. We are all attracted to someone who reminds us on some level of one of our parents so that we can recreate the dynamic that existed when we were children and heal the wounds from that time. If your mother was very controlling, for example, and didn’t listen to you, will you tend to be attracted to controlling people as an adult because you still want to try to get that love and attention and care you longed for as a child. That is why we are attracted to narcissists or to people who do not seem to care about our needs. Their behaviour seems ‘normal’ to us because it’s just like our parent’s behaviour, so it doesn’t raise any red flags. Anything that is familiar, whether good or bad, feels comfortable. While we may not be happy with their behaviour, it is hard to leave because we feel driven to try to get this person to give us the love we need. The problem is that the narcissist is incapable of giving you what you need, just as your parent was.
Highly sensitive people are natural carers and nurturers and sensitive to other people’s feelings and needs and narcissists can sense this a mile away. So just as we’re attracted to them because they seem familiar to us, they are attracted to us because they know they will get what they need from us. And that’s what usually happens in the relationship – the narcissist gets what he or she needs and the HSP keeps trying to be loved.
So how do you stop being attracted to people who you are subconsciously attracted to? How do you break the pattern of relationships with people who treat you badly? If you have tried to remind yourself to avoid such people in future you know it doesn’t work. Change is not flipping a switch, it’s a process.
Many of us struggle to make a relationship work and make our partners happy by working harder at the relationship. We tell our partner what they should do differently or we try to do what they want. But despite our deep-rooted sense that this relationship feels familiar, we begin to feel increasingly unhappy because we are still not getting our needs met. The struggle to get this person to love and accept you is not working, just as it didn’t work as a child. And just like a child, we employ all kinds of tactics to try harder, many of which may have worked as a child, but do not work now, such as avoidance, temper tantrums, passive-aggression, crying, pleading, and defensiveness.
But while we keep trying to hang on to the relationship, we know deep down that whatever we’re getting isn’t enough and that’s why we feel unhappy. It’s the struggle for love and the subsequent unfulfilment that makes us unhappy.
Our needs for love, respect, attention, affection and acceptance are important. We all need those things. That’s what romantic relationships are for. But many of us have had so little of what we need in the past that we are starved for it now, so we try to get what we need from a partner by reaching out, hanging on, holding tight and feeling afraid that they might leave us. We think we need to hold on to whatever crumbs of love are dropped on us because it’s better than nothing. We feel grateful for it and become willing to accept anything, however meagre.
The process of change begins when we recognise that we should expect more. Crumbs are not enough. What you’re getting in your relationships now and in the past wasn’t and isn’t enough because if it were, you’d be happy. The answer is to stop struggling.
Not struggling to get what we want can sound and feel like the wrong thing to do and it can also feel very scary and unfamiliar. In the past, as a child, not trying to get what you want usually meant that you got nothing. But that struggle is now attracting people who know you are struggling and will use it to meet their own needs. When you stop trying so hard, you begin to trust that someone who really cares and loves you will give you what you need. And when you believe that, change happens. You will change what is acceptable and what isn’t. And that will attract a loving, caring person. Here’s how to begin:
1. Figure out what you need. Do you feel you didn’t get enough attention or affection growing up?
2. Express your needs. Tell your partner clearly what you need and how you feel. That’s all you have to do. You have a right to get your needs met.
3. Stop trying to help your partner. They have to help themselves and they will if they want to. You are not responsible for their growth or health or even for the relationship. You are only responsible for you.
4. Expect to receive what you need. Maybe your parent didn’t give it to you, but the right partner will.
5. If you have expressed your needs and your feelings and your partner ignores them, you’ll know it’s time to move on and find someone who will.
The process of changing your expectations and your beliefs will create change in your life. When you recognise what you need and you express it, you are creating an expectation that you will get what you need. This new way of thinking will begin to change you and that’s what will lead you to better relationships. You will no longer be a person who tolerates hurtful behaviour. You will be a different person, someone with self-respect who knows they deserve to be loved and accepted. And that’s when healthy, loving relationships will emerge.