Loving a narcissist is like Stockholm Syndrome
Leaving an abusive relationship is never easy. On average, it takes a person around 7 times to leave an abusive partner. Abusive relationships are complex and traumatic. The cycle of abuse is pervasive and difficult to break free from, let alone get over. We become addicted to a relationship and person who is no good for us. It was like a drug for me. The only person who can make you feel good again, is the person who is hurting you. It’s no wonder leaving is so hard.
But the beginning of the end of my relationship happened quite a while before I finally left him.
The only way to free ourselves from an abusive relationship is to take all the energy we are wasting on them and focus it back on ourselves. To take our focus off trying to fix them, change them. Change us instead.
As I worked on my self-esteem I started to realise, I deserved better. This relationship wasn’t good enough for me. I had to leave. I had to plan to do so safely as this the time when 75% of victims are killed or injured by their partners. Only then would I be able to heal.
Leaving an abusive relationship is one of the hardest things I’ve ever done in my life. I left and went back to my ex many, many times, even after he’d nearly killed me. I’d have steely resolve, only for it to melt when he was loving again.
Many other victims of domestic violence I’ve talked to say the same. That they minimise what’s happened. That once the bruises fade, it doesn’t seem so horrible after all. They felt perhaps they had overreacted? Guilty for abandoning them when they need me. It takes a huge amount of courage and strength to leave an abusive relationship.
Victims of abusive relationships progress through a series of five defined stages before finally breaking free from an abusive relationship*. The first stages are when we are still in the relationship. I relate to every one of these stages:
This is where we deny or minimise the abuse. Whilst everyone around us can see what is going on, we either lack awareness of how bad it is, deny it or minimise its influence on us. We may feel trapped and hopeless to improve things or change it. We make no attempts to take action to make our life safer and less threatening. We don’t see our partner, or abusive person for who they really are.
We prefer to recall the person we first met, who love-bombed us and made us feel so special. Or the good times, the “honeymoon stage” after abuse, when they shower us with gifts and affection. We long to believe their promises that it will never happen again. So, delude ourselves into thinking that if we change to please them and not provoke their anger, the abuse will stop.
If others question bruises or any evidence of abuse we’ll make up excuses. I was good at doing that. Anything but blame him. I was too scared of losing him. Besides, it’s more insidious than that.
When we’ve been in an abusive relationship for some time, a form of traumatic bonding takes place. It’s a bit like Stockholm Syndrome. Named after the hostages of a bank robber in Stockholm started to feel sorry for and side with their captor.
When we first meet our abusive partner the emotional connection is intense. As the relationship progresses they start to isolate us from family and friends. Anyone who might give us a healthy reality check on what is happening. We may not be aware of it, but an unhealthy attachment to them starts to form. We become dependent on the person who is hurting us. We need them to make us feel good after abuse. We numb our emotions. Our gut instincts no longer work and this only accentuates our denial. We believe our own rationalisations that the abuse isn’t as bad as we think it is.
Their manipulative tactics are also designed to make us accept responsibility for their behaviour. We internalise this blame and rationalise that: If I hadn’t done this or that, they wouldn’t have got so angry. Had I not said this or that, the abuse wouldn’t have happened. We feel helpless. Trapped. I did. And I also kept how bad things were hidden from others. I didn’t reach out for help.
Until you can admit there is a problem, you won’t take steps to change it. Whilst you are convinced that you can affect them to change, simply by changing what you do and say. Whilst you keep changing your behaviour and taking responsibility for theirs, you’re hanging onto hope things will one day be okay. So, you stay in the relationship waiting and hoping for it to improve. But the emotional and/or physical abuse only gets worse.
2) Admitting reality
This is when you start to admit to yourself the reality of what you have been denying and minimising for so long. Admitting that my life was out of control was one of the hardest steps I had to take. For a long time, although I was able to acknowledge the severity of what I was experiencing, I was still paralysed, unable to take steps to change it.
This is a time when your feelings shift back and forth from realising you are a victim of domestic abuse to denial of it and back again. You love their good side, but you hate the bad. You are on an emotional rollercoaster. It’s a very confusing time.
The thought of leaving terrifies you. Even though they’re hurting you, you don’t want to lose the person you love. I still loved my ex. I had a son with him now and was desperate for us to be a family. I just wished the abuse would go away. I’d rather wait and hope he’d change.
Others might fear harassment or stalking if they leave an abusive partner. Or being left financially destitute, unable to get a job. Just the overwhelming fear of starting over again can be crippling, especially if it involves moving away and going into hiding, say in a domestic violence shelter.
At this point the fears of leaving outweigh the risks of staying. But there’s a huge gap between the often-exaggerated memories of the good times, and the painful reality of how toxic the relationship has become. Even after my ex almost killed me by strangling me, I still convinced myself things would one day be okay. But gradually the balance tipped the other way. I moved into the next stage.
3) Preparing to leave
When we realise that sustaining the status quo means we put ourselves and our children in danger. We become aware we have no other choice but to leave. If not, the abuse will only escalate further. At worst, we risk losing out life.
First, I had to admit my life was out of control. Then I had to see him for who he really was. Not the person I had projected onto him. Not the one I was waiting and hoping he’d change to become. By now I’d learnt that I had to accept the things I couldn’t change. Which was him. I had to find the courage to change what I could. Which was me. I had to let go of trying to fix him, save him, rescue him. I had to focus on me.
I remember the moment so clearly as if it was yesterday….. when it dawned on me that meant accepting him for who he was right now. Not who I hoped it might become one day in the future. What if he never changed into this fantasy person I had in my head? I knew I had to leave. My safety and that of my child finally outweighed my denial. I had clarity for the first time.
This is an enormous step to take. It’s the culmination of years of having to challenge your fears over your future, your doubts that things are as bad as they seem. Facing down the uncertainty over whether you are making the right decision. Questioning what will happen, to you or to them, if you take this step. It is a very anxious time.
Often it takes another horrendous incident, following a lull in the abuse (and the promise that it will never happen again) that’s finally the straw that breaks the camel’s back.
I can’t recall exactly what triggered the moment I finally walked free. But it was at night, when I knew he wouldn’t be home for a while. I packed my baby and the bare essentials into my car and left.
You never realise your strength, survival skills and ability to cope under such duress before having to walk away from an abusive relationship.
5) Staying strong
This is one of the hardest stages. Where you need to stay strong. To maintain the gains you’ve made leaving behind a toxic relationship that was filled with injury, fears and pain. That’s easier said than done. You think that when you leave an abusive relationship that’s it, it’s over, it’s the end. But it’s not. It’s just the beginning. In some ways, it can be the most painful part.
6) Termination stage
This is the point – if you’re lucky enough to get there – where you have finally terminated an abusive relationship, mourned its loss and started life anew, safely and securely.
I got there. It was one of the toughest journey’s I have taken in my life. I relapsed along the way. And it took many more years to understand why I was attracted to the type of person who would hurt me like that, why I stayed when others wouldn’t have and to build my self-esteem to such an extent where I can maintain healthy boundaries in all aspects of my life.
But it was also the most empowering one. I not only found self-confidence and self-esteem I never had. I went on to find long-term healthy love with the man I am married to now. The lessons I learnt from this relationship have benefitted me in relationships with friends, work colleagues and my career.
But what I am most proud of is that I have broken the destructive and addictive cycle, and not passed the negative patterns down to my sons. There is life after abuse. And it can be a positive one.
Are you going through any of these stages at present? Let me know in the comments below.
If you need professional help, advice or support please see Domestic Violence resources here .
* This is based on the ‘Readiness to change and the corresponding stages-of-change model’ developed from extensive research on self-changers (Prochaska, Norcross, and DiClemente 1994)