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Narcissism

Why Is It So Hard to End a Relationship With a Narcissist?

Three reasons that make it difficult to break away.

Key points

  • Despite having the ability to leave a romantic relationship with a narcissist, many still don't.
  • The narcissistic manipulation in a relationship ensures that victims don't consider stepping away as an option.
  • Codependency, the trauma bond, and loss of self are the insurance policy for lasting abuse.
Milada Vigrova/Unsplash
Source: Milada Vigrova/Unsplash

Narcissists or people with strong narcissistic tendencies are masters of manipulation and are keen to take charge of the important relationships in their lives. This could be their partners, children, or friends.

Narcissists typically show five characteristics: an unrealistic grandiose picture of themselves, a strong sense of entitlement, a great skill to control and manipulate, incompetency in dealing with criticism, and a total lack of empathy.

They control people and are good at creating relationships that serve them but are damaging for their counterparts.

Relationships that serve narcissists are those that deliver attention, admiration, and confirmation. This is what they need to feel good and it is called "narcissistic supply." It is an addiction, and as with any addiction, after the one fix, another one is required.

A relationship never happens overnight and a relationship with a narcissist is a process of subtle manipulation, totally controlled and directed by them.

Have you thought and felt that something about your relationship wasn’t right, but couldn’t put a finger on it? Have you doubted your own thoughts after being challenged by a narcissist? Have you lost your confidence, believing you got it wrong all the time?

Every textbook on narcissism advises the victims to push the narcissist out of their lives, which is not always possible. When you are married and have kids, or when you are young and it is your parent or sibling, you will at least for the time being, have to maintain some sort of contact. When you are in a romantic relationship, however, you have the option to just walk out.

But how hard is that?

What are the factors that make it so hard?

Doing research for my books and working with hundreds of clients who suffered narcissistic abuse, I have come to the conclusion that there are three main factors: the relationship itself, the addictive nature of the trauma, and the mental state of the victim.

Codependency: The relationship issue

Codependent relationships are those in which two people become so invested in each other that they can’t function independently. Boundaries between individuals have evaporated and the language reflects that. Codependent partners use "we" and speak on behalf of each other. They might talk about being "soulmates." However, the aim is to keep each other safe from external influences and be only open to each other — a brilliant formula to invite abuse.

In a co-dependent relationship, there is usually one person who is more passive and can’t make decisions for themselves and a more dominant personality who gets some reward and satisfaction from controlling the other person and making decisions about how they will live. One part of the "we" sets the rules (abuser), the other part follows them (enabler).

The enabler’s happiness is determined by the abuser’s happiness. And the enabler will do anything to make their partner happy, embracing the idea that "if they are happy, I am happy."

When you have lived your life through somebody else, always having them at the forefront of your mind, it is difficult to comprehend how you could possibly ever be happy on your own. There is a huge fear factor in not being part of a unit, not knowing how to think for yourself, and standing up for yourself.

One of my clients told me: "I have no idea what makes me happy, but I can tell you everything that makes my partner happy. He is the one I am looking to in order to know how I feel. If he is grumpy, I am feeling grumpy. If he is happy, so am I.’"

Trauma bond

A trauma bond is the result of a cycle of repeated physical or emotional trauma with intermittent positive reinforcement.

The cycle knows four stages:

  1. Tension building: Pressure starts to increase and communication breaks down. Fear pops up and the victim feels an even stronger need than usual to please their abuser.
  2. The incident: An explosion of verbal, emotional, and sometimes physical abuse, anger, threats, and intimidation. At this moment in the cycle, the victim switches off from everything and can only focus on getting through and simply surviving.
  3. Reconciliation: The aftermath of excuses, blaming, talking the incident down. The relief sets in as it is over. The immediate danger is gone and the victim starts to feel more relaxed.
  4. Calm: Pretending the incident never happened or is forgotten and there are glimpses of the "love bombing" stage. The victim is happy now as there is hope for the future. Their abuser has calmed down, the episode is over and now they experience the good feeling caused by happy hormones oxytocin and dopamine.

The stage of calm gives the victim hope and makes up for the incidents. They are not able to see the incidents for what they really are as during those there is no rational thinking, considering long-term impact and risk analysis. After the trauma of the incident, the abuser comforts or talks everything down and is seen as the rescuer, the one who makes them feel good again, giving them hope for the future.

The victims can’t see the explosion for what it really is, the abuse and its damaging nature. The brain remembers only the feel-good aftermath, where the abuser made them feel wonderful.

What has been formed is a trauma bond (read more from Dr. Patrick Carnes in his book Betrayal Bond: Breaking Free of Exploitive Relationships), which makes it impossible to leave the relationship, no matter how much damage it is doing. The victim believes that the real person they love is the one who was "love bombing" and during an incident, the behaviour is out of character and most likely the fault of the victim. They stay in the relationship because they want to be with their idealised partner and understand what they are doing wrong in order to bring back the loving part of the relationship.

Another strong effect is that victims become biologically attached through "trauma bonding."

The psychologically abusive relationship is like a rollercoaster, with punishment and intermittent kindness. The body responds to this ongoing situation by continuously producing the stress hormone cortisol, only to be disrupted by the happy hormone dopamine, which flares up when there is kindness. This physical dance between high and low creates an addiction to dopamine. The only release from the cortisol is the injection of dopamine.

One client told me about the silent treatment he was regularly subjected to. "It could last for weeks and absolutely floored me. I couldn’t reach her or talk things through as she completely ignored me. I didn’t exist. I begged and begged her to just look at me and talk." This victim was imprisoned by the trauma bond, unable to properly think his situation through and come to logical conclusions.

No sense of self

Narcissists are focused on chipping away any sense of self-respect, self-worth, and sense of self in their victims. The stronger their insecurity, the more power the narcissist has. Confusion, gaslighting, and diminishing are the tools of the continuous campaign to "break" their victim and take full control of them.

Especially gaslighting is undermining confidence as it makes people doubt their reality. Did this really happen? Did I get it wrong? Am I going mad?

When lacking that secure base in yourself, it is hard to believe you have the capacity to make life changes.

One client mentioned: "I used to be fun, have fun and enjoy my life. I was confident and bubbly. But now all that is completely gone. I am gone, I don’t recognize myself and wonder who I am."

It is hard to step away from codependency or a trauma bond when your sense of self is very low.

But it is not impossible.

I didn’t believe I would have the strength.

Ever.

I talked, cried, panicked.

I repeated my attempts to break away.

I doubted myself.

I forgave the unforgivable.

I closed my eyes for the cruelties.

It took me years to succeed.

But now I am free.

At last.

Look for support from a life coach or therapist who is experienced in the area of narcissism. Don’t expect to get out overnight. But do expect to succeed when you persevere.

To find a therapist, please visit the Psychology Today Therapy Directory.

References

Learn more about narcissism and how you are affected via Dr Mariette Jansen's bestselling and award-winning book 'From Victim to Victor' - Narcissism Survival Guide. Available via Amazon in paperback, Kindle and audible.

Find out if you have a narcissist in your life via this brief quiz.

Read about Mariette’s Narcissisism Abuse Recovery Coaching.

Learn more about the trauma bond The Betrayal Bond - Dr Patrick Carnes

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