Often trauma survivors struggle with ingrained “stuck points,” maladaptive thoughts and beliefs regarding the trauma that sustain their PTSD symptoms (Botsford et al. 2019). In abusive relationships with narcissists, distorted thoughts, interpretations and beliefs are encouraged by the abuser in order to keep victims trapped in the toxic dynamic. Here are the five stuck points narcissists encourage in their victims to keep them hooked, the manipulation tactics associated with them, and ways of reframing these beliefs into healthier ones.
1. “If I had done something differently, I wouldn’t have been a target.”
A common symptom of those who struggle from the aftermath of trauma is a misplaced sense of self-blame. This agonizing self-blame is usually exacerbated by the narcissist’s own gaslighting of their victims. The narcissist might continually suggest to their victims, “You made me do this,” or something along the lines of, “If you hadn’t done xyz, I wouldn’t have mistreated you.” The narcissist may also project their own unsavory qualities onto their targets or accuse them of being “too sensitive.”
Narcissistic abusers also engage in chronic hypercriticism of their partners to deflate their self-esteem over time. Whether it’s nitpicking over whether you left the kitchen spotless, manufacturing a fabricated flaw or mistake you didn’t make, or lashing out in rage due to you being two minutes late in meeting them, they demand perfection out of their victims. They rarely apply this same golden standard to their own horrific behavior.
Questions to consider: Who was the person who had complete control over whether or not they abused me? Have there been people in my life who have loved me regardless of me being imperfect or making garden-variety mistakes? Do the people who truly care about me constantly nitpick and criticize me?
Reframing:The abuser is responsible for his or her abuse. Nothing is ever going to be good enough for an abuser. The truth is, they weren’t good enough for me.
2. “They have a new victim they appear to be treating well, so I must be the problem.”
Malignant narcissists and psychopaths are well-known for manufacturing love triangles to incite jealousy in their victims to create an aura of competition; this invites harmful comparisons and diminishes the self-esteem of their romantic partners. It is a variation of a manipulation method known as triangulation (Hill, 2015). When manipulators do move onto their new victims after a horrific discard of their previous partners, they tend to showcase the honeymoon phase of their relationship and flaunt their new relationships to their prior victims. This is a way to sadistically inflict pain while also causing the previous partner to question his or her self-worth. You may be prone to thinking that there must be something about the new victim that is “special” and allows the narcissist to treat this new person better. Nothing could be further from the truth. What you are witnessing is the idealization phase of their relationship.
Questions to consider: What was my reality with the narcissist? How did they abuse and mistreat me? How did I deny and rationalize their behaviors? Did I also enjoy a “honeymoon” phase with the narcissist before they devalued me? Would I want someone like that in my life?
Reframing: It doesn’t matter how an abuser appears to treat someone else. It’s unlikely that they have truly changed. What I am seeing is just another manipulation. I don’t know what happens behind closed doors and it’s very possible that their new victim is in denial just like I was. What really matters is how they have treated me and the fact that it is unacceptable. In many ways, I am lucky to have escaped.
3. “Relationships take work, so I have to keep working on this relationship and the communication problems between us. They are abusive because of their childhood trauma/sex addiction/fear of commitment. I have to help heal them.”
It’s very easy to fall into the trap of thinking that an abusive relationship is a “communication problem” when in fact it stems from the pathological personality of the abuser and an unbalanced power dynamic. The abuser is the one who mistreats, invalidates, coerces, belittles, and terrorizes the victim. Yet many victims of malignant narcissists are encouraged by narcissists and even misinformed therapists, friends and family members to continue to “improve” themselves in order to avoid being mistreated. It’s common, for example, for a victim of a manipulative narcissist to think, “I have to stop being so jealous,” or, “I have trust issues,” even when their narcissistic partner has a history of infidelity, deception, and lashing out in rage when confronted. Yet these issues do not stem from the victim. They stem from the deceitful nature of their partner.
In addition, oftentimes there are other issues that can camouflage someone’s narcissistic personality – like a seeming alcohol addiction, sex addiction, or the presence of childhood trauma. These issues convince victims that there is some external “out of control” element that is the driving force behind the narcissist’s abusive, entitled behavior. While there are people out there who legitimately struggle with these issues, they often don’t use these as excuses to harm innocent people and to continue harming even when these issues are brought up. People who are not narcissistic and have these issues often feel shame, remorse, and empathy for those they have hurt, even accidentally. In cases where a narcissist is involved, they use these other issues to mask their true problem – their core lack of empathy and emotional poverty. Narcissists hurt others deliberately and often to meet their own needs. Yet because of their excuses and pity ploys, victims of the character disordered are prone to sympathizing with their abusers and letting them back into their lives easily.
Questions to consider: Is this truly a communication issue or am I being belittled even when I try to communicate in constructive ways? Has the abuser been cruel to me even when I have been validating and kind to them? Has trying to enhance the way I communicate ever really helped the narcissistic abuser change his or her abusive behaviors toward me long-term, or did they always revert back to their abusive ways? Have I trusted people in the past who did deserve my trust? If so, how did they act differently from the narcissist? Did I also encounter childhood trauma or some other adversity – do I abuse others? Am I ever responsible for fixing someone’s addiction?
Reframing: It’s okay to not trust people who have proven themselves to be untrustworthy. It’s not a communication issue if one person is abusing the other. I am not in control over whether someone chooses to abuse me; I am only in control of whether I decide to leave or stay. Someone’s addiction is never an excuse for their abuse or exploitation. No amount of improving the way I communicate to the narcissist will change their behavior toward me in the long-run. The only way to truly change the traumatic effects of the relationship is to limit or cut contact with the abuser completely. I am not responsible for fixing an abuser.
4. “Addressing the abuse is the problem, not the abuse itself.”
Anyone who has ever been in any type of relationship with a narcissist knows that they focus on you calling them out for their behavior moreso than actually changing their toxic behavior. When they are being unresponsive or unempathic to the information you disclose to them, they will depict you as “expecting too much” for identifying their inability to center anyone other than themselves. When they are giving you the silent treatment, they will accuse you of being too needy or clingy when you attempt to reach out to them. When they are being disrespectful, they will gaslight you into believing your sensitivity, not their mistreatment, is the problem (Stern, 2018). When you discover information that counters their pathological lies, they will divert to why you felt the need to investigate them rather than acknowledge their patterns of deception. When you express your emotions about the ways they have harmed you, they will lash out in rage and projection to make you feel guilty about expressing your emotions (Goulston, 2012).
In healthy relationships, communication is a pathway to greater intimacy and understanding. In toxic ones with a narcissistic individual, communication is deliberately misconstrued, mishandled, and filled with mistreatment. That’s why overexplaining yourself to a narcissist, trying to get them to see your perspective, attempting to compromise, or persuading them to take responsibility only results in victims being subjected to further mind games and diversion tactics. Even if they do respond with flowery words to convince you they’ve changed, their actions will say otherwise. With toxic people, communicate through your actions more than words. And remember – leaving them is an action, a very powerful one at that.
Questions to consider: Have I had interactions where I addressed something to a non-narcissistic person and they validated my emotions, even if they did not agree with my perspective? Is a silent treatment, verbal abuse, or even physical abuse ever an acceptable way to respond to someone who tries to discuss something? In healthier relationships and friendships I’ve had, have they been responsive to my happy news or my distress with empathy?
Reframing: Normal, empathic people do not have a chronic pattern of disrespecting me when I bring up an issue. In healthier relationships and friendships, I know what it’s like to feel emotionally validated and understood. People who care about me care about how I feel. People who are manipulative only care about what they need and are indifferent to how their treatment affects me. I am allowed to express myself in healthy ways and to have empathic feedback and reciprocity in my relationships. I am allowed to call people out when they are being cruel and demeaning. I don’t have to apologize for someone’s malicious behavior.
5. “This person is the only one who can give me validation and approval.”
An abusive relationship creates trauma bonding. Trauma bonding occurs when there is a power imbalance in a relationship, intense emotional experiences, intermittent bad and good treatment, the presence of danger, and periods of intimacy (Carnes, 2019). Seduction, betrayal, and deception are often involved in creating such a bond; narcissists engage in hot and cold behavior, love bombing, and abrupt cruelty to make their victims walk on eggshells, never knowing what to expect. Out of a need to survive the abuse, the victim forms an addictive attachment to his or her abuser that may appear nonsensical to outsiders. They become conditioned to depend on the abuser for support, validation, and comfort after abusive incidents to assure them that everything is “all right.” The narcissist also instills in the victim that they are helpless and worthless without them. Trauma bonded victims often struggle with the fear of retaliation, abuse amnesia, and denial. The trauma bond is so strong that on average, victims of abuse attempt to leave their abusers about seven times before they finally leave for good.
Questions to consider: Are there other people who can give me validation – like a trusted friend or therapist? Can I validate myself and the experiences I went through with this person? In what ways can I self-soothe and comfort myself? What activities help me to get grounded in my own self-worth?
Reframing: The narcissist does not determine my reality or dictate my level of self-worth; they have only tried to make me feel diminished enough to feel that way. This bond is due to trauma, not because there is anything special the narcissist can give me. I can recover and heal these bonds and exit this relationship. I can find emotionally safe people who treat me well. I have more power and agency than I think I do.
Remember: narcissists can’t manipulate the victims who actually enjoy their silence and absence from their lives. That is why it is vital for you to remember the manipulator’s true self, cut through the cognitive dissonance, and get grounded in the reality that you did not lose anything valuable if you “lost” a narcissist. In fact, you have gained everything.