How the greatest love stories develop into the messiest relationships, the most traumatic break-ups and how healing is possible
Many of my clients come to me filled with so much shame over their break-up they can’t even verbalise it. They are at a loss as to how they could have been so stupid to not see what was really going on. They may be ashamed that friends or family, even professionals attempted to help them see that what they were going through and how they were being treated was not right or OK, and how it took them so long to ‘wake up’ as to what was really going on, often not until they discovered an affair or cheating etc.
The biggest initial gift I can give to my clients it for them to realise it is NOT THEIR FAULT. They have been expertly manipulated since their abuser first set eyes on them and have been part of the process known as narcissistic abuse.
Many don’t realise they have been in an abusive relationship. It’s a long process of discovery, acceptance, forgiveness (at least to themselves) and healing.
In this article, I will explain the stages of a narcissistic relationship in the hope that the truth, THAT IT IS NOT THE VICTIM’S FAULT, is absorbed and helps you, a friend or family member wherever you or they are on the tough road ahead.
All narcissistic relationships begin with a period of ‘Love Bombing.’ I’d only heard this word used in a positive context before I discovered it in this scenario, but the two acts are the same — namely they shower everything they can that’s good onto the Victim (also known as the narcissist’s ‘Supply’) in an effort to ensure that person feels totally loved, valued and cherished, like they never have before (que ‘The Greatest Love Story Of All Time Ever feelings). They form these bonds that are so strong they literally bond the couple together like glue. These bonds later develop into Trauma Bonds, which I will explain more about later.
The textbook process of Love Bombing will be followed until the narc/abuser finds a weakness they can capitalise on. After they do that, they just can’t hold back the anger and control any more. They may revert back to love bombing for a week or so here, possibly longer there, but it’s impossible for them to remain consistent once they’ve broken the initial Love Bombing period.
Love-bombing is just the initial act in the narcissist’s performance. They will later include the subtle art of devaluation, manufacturing issues and causing conflict within friendships or family or even at work.
Extreme jealousy is also a very common trait, but of course it will be the Victim who makes the abuser into that jealous person, one they will swear they’ve never been before. These other tricks may include poisoning the Victim’s mind against an ex they previously got on well with, causing the Victim to dislike the ex in their lives (past or present if they have yet to finish things with a current Victim when they first meet the new one). They will talk about them and tell the Victim just enough information to reassure them to some extent, but not enough for the Victim to make complete sense of things. They never will, because even if they DID tell the Victim EVERYTHING, the ‘truth’ will be dependant on the narcissist’s warped sense of reality. Depending on how bad the victim/supply has already fallen will depend on the extent to how much damage these revelations, or lack of them do.
As therapist Andrea Schneider writes, love bombing is when “the narcissistic person may smother the target with praise, courting, intense sex, vacations, promises of a future together, and designation, essentially, as the most special person ever.” Narcissists later devalue their targets as they push them off the pedestal. Dr. Dale Archer explains that, “Devaluation becomes a tool to keep the victim isolated and dependent…Each time, the devalued partner has to work harder to get back in the love bomber’s good graces, usually by sacrificing something that competes with him for attention.”
The above descriptions may sound extreme, but the skill of the narcissist may be so great they can accomplish this very subtly so that no questions are raised and if they are, the victim keeps them in their head, which brings us nicely on to…
Gaslighting is the usually very subtle art which leads to the victim questioning their own reality, often internalising their thoughts because they sound too crazy to be verbalised, putting them down to their own insecurities, lack of self confidence, poor judgement and paranoia.
Wikipedia explains: “The term may also be used to describe a person (“gaslighter”) who effectively puts forth a false narrative that leads another person or a group of people to doubt their own perceptions and become disoriented or distressed. This dynamic is generally only possible when the audience is vulnerable such as in unequal power relationships or when the audience is fearful of the losses associated with challenging the false narrative.”
The term Gaslighting is taken from the 1944 film ‘Gaslight’, about a man who repeatedly turned down the gaslights in his home whilst denying to his wife that he had touched them. He convinced her it was all in her head so he could later go on to steal from her. Unsurprisingly, she went insane.
So what does Gaslighting FEEL like?
When you are told something enough times then you will start to believe it is true. When you tell yourself something else but your voice is drowned out by your abuser’s, you will start to feel like you have gone mad. This is one of the most consistent things my clients struggle with and again experience shame and disbelief that ‘they could have been so stupid.’ It’s like their brain finally starts to break down the cotton wool that filled their skull and made them overwhelmed as a minimum, half zombies in many cases. It’s very likely that they stopped looking after themselves, or even that they could barely operate. They may have stopped sleeping or be sabotaging their health with quick fixes like chocolate or alcohol to help them feel better. Many women lose or put on a great deal of weight when this happens, which further increases their lack of self worth. They may or may not struggle to lose this weight afterwards, it may stick around like a form of protection, the subconscious believing that at least if they remain overweight, they should be protected from the advances of any more men who are now a threat to their safety because of what the narcissist has done to them.
Gaslighting’s closest relation is Cognitive Dissonance. Abusers will often contradict themselves, deny and change their stories, which will confuse the victim. We naturally look for comfort and consistency in life — things to make us feel safe and prove other things are right. When the brain is fed differing versions, from both their abuser AND themselves (due to the Gaslighting), this leads to the debilitating disease of Cognitive Dissonance.
The other huge wound is from the trauma of how blindsided the Victim was leading up to the end of the relationship. There may have been a final push by the narc abuser, which traps the Victim even more. They may do something big like to convince the supply/victim that they are 100% committed to them so it’s still worth sticking with them because of course, if they’re this committed, you will be able to work out any problems and move beyond them. For me this was buying a holiday home together and my ex talking about marriage (more than was usual, which was a lot). For my clients it’s often been new family homes, even a new baby. The effects are obviously devastating. Often times it’s a financial stretch for a new ‘forever family home’ and often the new home needs a lot of work doing to it. Que the narc abuser escaping and leaving their victim stuck in a house they can’t afford on their own, a house that needs a lot of work, is often freezing cold and half finished and just turns into a millstone around the Victim and their children’s neck.
There are a myriad of ways a breakup with a narcissist will occur, but it is never easy, never pretty and is usually devastating in itself. It usually follows that last ditch attempt described above to hook the Victim in one last time, which is why disbelief is so common. The original bonds have now become sticky Trauma Bonds which work to keep the Victim stuck to the abuser and the trauma of the relationship. Because it’s become such an ingrained part of their life, despite it being awful, there’s a reluctance to let go and the relationship often gets stuck in this cycle way longer than a ‘normal’ relationship would towards the end.
Don’t forget that the Victim has been Gaslighted into thinking they will never experience a love like this. Their self confidence, self value and self worth are so low and shrouded in layers and layers of fear that they may never be good enough to be loved by anyone else and may never find love again.
The Aftershock of an earthquake is often the most devastating because although the initial damage has been done, the aftershock can bring what’s left further down to a crumbling mess. It’s the same for the Victim, even if they have an initial rush of relief that they are finally ‘free.’ They are anything but. The shock of what their abuser does next in the aftermath of the relationship can be worse than the trauma of the relationship itself. The abuser will try to punish the Victim even further for their crime of leaving, even if the narcissist themselves finished the relationship and forced the Victim to leave. The punishment will go some way to satisfy the abuser’s own sick sense of keeping score and getting ‘one up’ on their victim who has or is in the process of having eventually figured their abuser out and had the strength, or been forced, to walk away. At the end, the abuse gets ramped up as the abuser has nothing else left to lose. They are going for causing maximum destruction and worthlessness and their stakes are high. This is where No Contact with the abuser is so effective, but it’s incredibly difficult and I have huge respect for anyone who manages it!
No contact is obviously difficult if children are involved and the Survivor will very likely need support in managing this tricky dichotomy.
A narc abuser will always move on very quickly, often already having a new Supply/Victim replacement lined up before the end of the relationship. An example of the continuing harm an abuser wishes to inflict often includes attempting to make the Victim (who I will now call The Survivor) jealous of any such relationship. The depths many narc abusers will stoop to know no bounds. One of but not the worst I’ve experienced is an abuser undertaking a specific sex act with someone new that the abuser then delights in telling the Survivor about. The Survivor may have no option but to hear or read the sick details that the narc abuser gives them just as a way to try to continue to hurt and abuse them.
This will of course be denied by the narcissist, and if their new supply ever finds out, the narc will be able to laugh it off, explain it away and will always turn it around on the Survivor, telling their new supply that the Survivor was the crazy one, not to allow her to penetrate this amazing new relationship which comes no where near how they felt for the ex Victim/the new Survivor.
Sadly, it’s almost guaranteed that the new Supply/Victim will believe this and hold on to this so tightly because they are already on this rollercoaster ride that they can’t bear to jump off of, even if it’s early stages and they’d be saving themselves so much hurt and despair if they did. Alas, they are in too deep even at this early stage to be able to or even want to extrapolate themselves. The guilt and terror that a Survivor feels in not being able to protect or save the new Victim/Supply is sadly usually something they have to come to terms with. The new Supply will not listen or believe even if they could get to hear the horrors and reality that their new partner possesses.
Often when a Surviving woman comes to me, they feel nothing like a survivor. They are broken and only just functioning in their post abusive world. It still doesn’t feel safe because they’ve been so badly traumatised, even if they don’t recognise their wounds as trauma. Add in physical assault or a pattern of physical abuse which often (but not always) accompanies narcissistic abuse, and the trauma is obviously magnetised. Despite this, most say the emotional abuse was far, far worse than any cuts, bruises or even broken bones they have endured.
My hope is that I am able to support these Survivors so they become the strongest version of themselves possible, so they really don’t just survive but thrive beyond this terrible period of realisation and recovery with as much grace and humility as possible.
And it IS possible. Obviously time is a great healer but time alone won’t heal these wounds, only professional help will. Even the women that come to me sometimes years after their break-up still need the support to heal the wounds inflicted upon them. Later on the disbelief and shame sets in that they could have been so stupid as to have believed the lies and stayed for so long, to have been in so deep they didn’t get out sooner. All of this is normal and natural and happens time and time again. Even though that doesn’t make it better, I always hope it helps to feel like they are not alone in their pain, suffering and struggle.
There really IS light at the end of the tunnel, it’s just that sometimes it’s a very long and winding tunnel so the light can’t be seen for a while. Then there will be days when the light shines bright, other days when it is foggy, and others where it feels blown out completely. It’s a process, which on those days the Survivor feels anything but, they have to hang on to. ‘This too shall pass.’
Relationships like this certainly leave their scars, but in time and with the right help they will fade and you begin to wear those faded scars with pride. The pride that YOU GOT OUT and stopped the cycle, at least for you and your children, and hopefully to others by raising awareness and sharing your experience, of which you should no longer feel any shame. I feel it is my duty to help these women and share their anonymous stories to make a difference. Even if each article only helps one Victim to become a Survivor, then everything we have been through is not without reason. I thank every single one of my clients,others who have so bravely shared their own journeys and even my ex abusers for giving me the real life experience to understand all of this, so much more than any text book or course could have ever given me.
If you’ve been affected by anything raised in this article, please book a call to get support from me or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
N.B. In this article, I use the man as the example of the narcissist/abuser and the woman as the Victim/Supply then Survivor in an attempt not to confuse the reader. I am in no way suggesting that the gender roles cannot or are not reversed or changed or that this doesn’t happen in same sex couples. Although I work almost exclusively with women, I do welcome male clients as well.