Content Note: Mentions Abuse, Depression, Anxiety, PTSD
Your partner tells you he or she was in a narcissistically abusive relationship. What to do with this information is of concern to you.
As with recovery for the survivor, psychoeducation is a powerful antidote to the hurt. Currently, there is no specific diagnosis for this type of psychological injury but experts in the field are discussing whether Narcissistic Abuse Syndrome should be included in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM).
For the survivor, the legacy of this type of abuse lasts indefinitely and if you, as his or her partner, are not able to understand what is going on, it can take its toll on you and the relationship. So, let’s begin.
The Effects of Narcissistic Abuse
Narcissistic Abuse (NA) is an attack on the person. The survivor is often left unsure of her or his worth, reality, sanity, ability to cope as well as periods of depression, anxiety and symptoms mirroring PTSD.
They are left with little or no confidence. She or he may have been stolen from over time, isolated from friends and family and may have developed a maladaptive behaviour – alcohol/drug dependence, an eating disorder or a process addiction.
They may have been the subjected to injury to the person that would not be immediately identified as physical or sexual abuse – pushing or shoving (no scars) or sexual injury (when abuser was transmitting STIs).
There may have been (or be) secondary suicidal behaviours – not attending cervical smears/mammograms; regular health checks of moles or physical abnormalities or inattention when driving, crossing roads or cycling.
They may have neglected their appearance – hair, teeth, weight, skin. There is a very strong possibility that much of the abuse was about appearance and/or age so, in the spirit of compassion, consider how you comment on these issues. Even if you are being complimentary, they can trigger deep insecurities.
Their abuser is likely to have left them feeling unattractive and unlovable. They are likely to suffer unpredictable flashbacks to highly charged abusive episodes.
They were controlled to within an inch of their lives and as a result may react with suspicion if you show interest in any aspect of their lives. With time, this can get better. But it does take time.
Another manifestation of this constant despair is that the survivor has a latent disregard for their own lives. They may not care if they live or die. Please try to understand that they are grieving; their hopes and dreams, years lost, opportunities missed and their wellness.
They blame themselves. My clients often tell me they feel stupid and embarrassed at being enthralled in such a way for as long as they were. Paralysing shame can result from this type of abuse.
How To Help
This is what you, as partner of a survivor, need to know. He or she has been changed forever by this experience. It was an indescribable trauma. They were dehumanised and left a shell.
Their lack of confidence, hyper-vigilance, moments of dissociation or deep thought, anxiety or panic attacks and chronic self-doubt, may confuse or baffle you. And it can be a lifelong legacy. Largely, because you are attracted to them, you may find their insecurity and self-loathing, frustrating.
There may be many triggers – mobile phones/discussions about or with ex partners/places/music/anniversaries. Until you know your partner, you may find behaviours unsettling.
Telling them you love them and will support them could be of little comfort. Remember, the abuser said the same. The language of narcissistic abuse and the language of genuine love are similar.
The survivor has heard it before – how loved/handsome/beautiful they are; how devoted the abuser is; how they will never leave/cheat on them. “You can trust me” said the abuser and the survivor believed, leaned in and disclosed their intimate selves only to have these precious truths weaponised, perverted, amplified and broadcast.
The extraordinary manner in which they were manipulated can leave them unable to believe that you care for them for some time. If ever. Maybe they will never trust again. You will need to be patient and kind and expect your survivor to be the same.
You do not deserve to be the abuser’s collateral damage. Nor do you need to be more supply for the narcissist. It may be that you need to have some contact in a family situation.
Given the opportunity the narcissist will charm you, too. Be warned – you may find yourself doubting your survivor partner. Please be aware that you are nothing more than a new supply. If the narcissist can manipulate you sufficiently, you will be weaponised. Please exercise caution.
Looking After Yourself
Here’s the rub. Sometimes, the abuser has done such a good job that they have left a part of themselves in your partner. This is complex – it may be narcissism by proxy or it could be that the abuse was a trigger for your partner’s narcissistic tendencies.
If, at any point, you are being treated in a manner that is less than respectful, you need to get therapy– as a couple or individual. Or end the relationship. This behaviour is not acceptable. The cycle of abuse must stop.
Also, in another sinister twist, narcissists often present themselves as the victim so you may believe that their previous partners were the villains of the piece. They are frighteningly plausible. Listen carefully and heed your instincts and never ignore red flags.
So, what to do when your survivor is in emotional or psychological distress. Hard and fast solutions are way above my pay grade and expertise so I’ll make one or two suggestions.
First, ask what your survivor partner needs from you. They will direct you or he or she may not know (they have not had their needs met for so long they cannot readily identify them) or you could ask them how they are feeling – same thing – feelings invalidated for too long that they have forgotten how to recognise them.
In that case, maybe hold them or sit close by. Rejection and abandonment were at the heart of their narcissistic relationship so staying close is helpful.
Secondly, try to work with a specialist counsellor or therapist who understands the hidden wounds of the abuse. You, too will need to have an opportunity to voice your concerns/observations/experiences in a safe environment. Counselling together is one option.
This all sounds a bit dark so here’s the good news! These men and women were preyed upon because they were successful, accomplished, able and attractive. They made the narcissist look good. The narcissist’s envy destroyed their person.
Your genuine care can help heal. In my experience these recovering individuals can achieve more than ever, appreciate their genuine partner in a way that only few can dream of, model authenticity in a manner that humbles and take risks that see them inspire beyond imagination. Remember, they lost everything and have survived. You have chosen a hero.
One final note – my clients, through healing and without exception, are the funniest people you could ever meet. Even after such pain and hurt and being left little more than a carcass they find the strength to get up and survive and thrive and be side-splittingly hilarious.
It will take a much more able colleague than me to explain this process. I’d like to think it is more than a defence mechanism or post traumatic growth. What I see in them, is joy. And that, you both deserve.