Who has bad taste in romantic partners? I do!
No matter how many times I think I’m choosing wisely… uh… I’m not. Plain and simple, I don’t know how to choose a good human for my significant other.
Am I a chronic dater? Just taking whatever comes my way? Nope, actually I love my alone time and I don’t seek out romantic partners, well, ever really. Too energetically and emotionally expensive. Complicated. Stressful. Painful. Dangerous.
No, I’m not one of those girls who always needs to be with someone to feel whole, myself. I’ve spent many years single, and dare I say, occasionally even thriving?
But don’t worry… somehow, every time I do manage to make a connection with someone, you’d better believe that it’s going to be a terrible choice. As someone who prefers to have limited human contact because I genuinely can’t stand them, I have no idea what my fucking problem is. I really love losers in sheep’s clothing.
Anyways, things are… complex when it comes to dating in the wake of Complex Trauma. Getting over my social anxiety, mistrust, and sky-high walls is hard enough. Picking up my phone and answering people isn’t really my forte. Meeting up in public places and having socially pressured plans doesn’t sit well with my neuroticism. So, clearly, getting together isn’t easy in the first place.
Even worse, I really don’t know how to let things go when it’s inevitably not working out. And trust me, it will only be a matter of months before things are in the shitter. They’ll reveal some deep, fucked up personal truths. We’ll struggle with communication and cooperation. I’ll feel like I’m dating a stranger with my dad’s temper before long.
Will I leave when I see the first warning signs? Nope.
Will I dig in further, feeling strangely obligatorily tied to this person? Will I decide I’m responsible for all of their feelings and general well-being? Will I put all of my own dissatisfaction and unrest aside? Will I feel like there actually isn’t another choice? Yip.
Will my partner realize this, play off my emotional martyrdom, and drag my mental health through the steaming-shit-streams that they’ve chronically gestated in their addictive, self-centered but self-loathing, distasterious lives? Yeah, that’s the ticket.
Will the breakup be long, drawn out, and more painful with every passing day as we slip between hell and purgatory, on repeat? Will everyone’s behavior continue to escalate - way past the point of lovers’ quarrels and fully into the territory of emotional and physical abuse? Will it take extreme, flighty measures before the spell is finally broken and escape is mine?
Don’t get me wrong, there are plenty of terrible people that Traumatized Motherfuckers accidentally subscribe to. But, for some reason, it seems like we’re especially adept at finding ourselves deeply enmeshed with narcissists. And once that party starts, the good times don’t want to stop.
So… what’s up with the entrapping shitshow that comes with dating people who fall on the narcissist spectrum, anyways?
Why is it SO hard to get out? Why do we keep crawling forward on broken limbs? Why do we blame ourselves and shut our mouths, even though we’ve been seeing the telltale signs for a few months or years already?
If you’re already feeling the shame spiral start spinning… don’t worry, don’t blame yourself, and don’t feel like you’re the only fool in the crowd - clearly, I’m here with you. Rest assured, I finally stopped pondering these narcissist-magnet questions to myself as a personal torture device and found us an answer.
Today, let’s talk about the cycle of narcissist abuse. What it is, how it works with our brain chemistry and animal behavior models, and exactly why it’s the perfect trap for Traumatized Motherfuckers to fall into. Yet another pit to desperately claw our way back out of - as if our Trauma backgrounds weren’t slippery enough.
The narcissistic abuse cycle
In the beginning, everything is amazing with narcissists. After you meet each other in the wild - inexplicably drawn together like properly polarized magnets - it feels like walking on clouds every day. It can be dizzying; a new high, unlike anything you remember experiencing before. All signs indicate that you’re slip-sliding into a new relationship, whether you were ready or not.
Things tend to move very quickly, even for people with distrust issues and introverted tendencies. Why? Because the narcissist is pushing things along at a breakneck speed. Blowing up your phone. Asking about your plans. Making sure date night is always right around the corner. Showering you with compliments. Showing an incessant interest that you can’t help but feel flattered by.
This is the first weapon of narcissists - the lovebomb.
When narcissists find something they want, they get it. It’s a fundamental part of their entitled view of the world. They found a secret treasure and that treasure will belong to them, why wouldn’t it? If you’re the shimmering pile of gold in their sights, well shit, you’re about to get swept away in the riptide.
Narcissists believe that they’re the best, the brightest, the greatest. So, if they find someone that catches their attention, through transitive property they believe that they’re the best, too. This is why they’re so over the top interested in you - if they (master of the universe) determined that you’re great, well fuck, you must be the greatest EVER. They choose their lovers because they feel deserving of such a finely-designed specimen. This individual is the ultimate partner, because they’ve decided so. And, since they’ve gone through the trouble of being interested, that means they have every right to that other human. You will be theirs.
So the go-to move by the narcissist is to flood them with affection, attention, and praise. Make sure the other party can’t take a breath without being reminded that they’re amazing, adorable, and worthy of all the things only the narcissist can deliver them. (Of course, what they actually end up getting is very different than the self-serving delusions promised by the narcissist, check out the earlier narcissist episode for information on that hallmark)
The narcissist makes their love interest fawn with excitement; no one has ever been so into them before. So straight forward. So confident. So insistent. So full of kind words and respect. So different from all the others, in this modern dating culture of playing coy and suggesting casual hangouts at home.
For once, you won’t have to wonder what’s going on with your potential-future-boo when you meet a narcissist. They will probably make it very clear what they want and where you’re headed. Buckle in for all the worship that normally befalls the highest echelon supermodels - it’s like you just made the cover of GQ.
As you begin spending time together, each meeting will feel magical. Every date is a new adventure in chivalry and being treated like royalty. Every interaction with their friends and family will be packed full of abundant compliments and bragging about your many personal merits. Every random Tuesday will suddenly feel exciting. Every conversation will pull you closer in and set your sights further into the future.
In short, things start out like a fairytale with narcissists. When they’re wooing, they’re worth their weight in gold. They go above and beyond to win your heart and dominate your social schedule. They know what to say, how to say it, and where to whisk you away to next. They’ll sweep you right off your feet… because that’s step one of the narcissist’s trap. Get you uprooted, obsessed, and convinced that they’re king. They must be, afterall, because you’ve become a fucking queen of the world.
All of these behaviors would feel amazing to anyone. Feeling recognized and respected is important to every person on this earth. But for Complex Trauma sufferers, I think it’s extra addicting to receive so much praise and attention. Consider the definition of CPTSD, first of all. We’ve necessarily experienced emotional abuse and neglect during the developmental portions of our lives from the people who are supposed to care about us. As a long-lasting effect, we generally have low self-worth and negative perceptions of how we fit into this world. We don’t expect to be acknowledged in most instances, let alone celebrated. We don’t often have easy interactions with others or feel like our presence is demanded in social situations.
And then, the narcissist comes along and fills all of those decades-long open wounds. We actually feel desired and cherished - possibly for the first time ever. Someone is actually putting in the effort to know us, to treat us well, and to build up our fragmented self-esteem. This person appears to have their shit together and they also have chosen us as pick of the litter. We might even find ourselves viewing the narcissist with a sort of pseudo-parental authority, as they tend to project supreme confidence and security in the way an idealized parent should.
In short, all of this love bombing feels like an unfathomable dream for Complex Trauma sufferers. With the passion that they project and the ways they seem to “see” us like no one else can, we must have been destined to meet each other. It’s a sacred connection. Finally, this human was sent here to save me from everything in the past.
The thing we often don’t notice is how all of those early admirations are actually not about us. They’re functions of how amazing the narcissist is. Those dates out? Those early introductions to family? Those kind words? Those are experiences that prove something positive about the narcissist, because you’re the kind of company they want to be in and be seen in. At the time, though, we’re too busy being blown away by the instances of unexpected admiration and human kindness to notice.
Don’t worry, this unfamiliar journey into feeling loved and appreciated won’t last. Once the narcissist is done building you up, they’ll start pulling out the bricks to tear you down.
The second phase of the narcissistic abuse cycle is Devaluation. Now that you’re in the clutches of the narcissist, it’s time for them to start molding you into the role they really want you to fill. You aren’t going to be the object of their unconditional affection for long; it’s time to bring the attention back to where it really belongs - on them.
After you’ve been with a narcissist for a while, once you’re in some sort of committed relationship or messily entangled living situation, you’ll notice things start to shift. Suddenly, the conversation isn’t so directed at your merits and amazingness. In fact, the conversation is rarely about you at all… unless you’re being acknowledged for something you didn’t do correctly, that is.
There’s still plenty of room to talk about how you’re letting them down in various ways or failing to meet some previously unknown-measure in one or both of your lives. There’s not much time in the day to discuss what’s going on with you, how you’re feeling, what you’re working towards, or why.
Actually… it seems like most every interaction has to surround the incredible accomplishments or unsettled life conditions of your partner these days. Their experience, their schedule, their wants and needs are the name of the game. And hell, if your name does come up, there’s a lot of emphasis on the ways that you’re directly or indirectly responsible for their shortcomings.
The relationship stops being about the both of you, and starts to feel like it’s more about how you serve them. Huh, you probably don’t remember signing up for that arrangement… but you continue pushing forward, anyways. Everyone has bad days, right?
Clearly, you just forgot to pay enough attention to their circumstances. You were too busy worrying about your own work, social connections, and mental health to consider how you could support theirs more fully.
You vow to do better next time, and you mean it. You beat yourself up for being a less than perfect partner. Your significant other confirms that this has been their thought, too. With the weight of the relationship firmly on your shoulders, the tension decreases.
This relationship imbalance will only continue to develop over time. Narcissists take things step by step, gradually withdrawing their abundant affection and replacing it with dismissal or negative attention. The thing is, you aren’t going to notice right off the bat; they won’t outright hand you a loaded gun. If they push too hard right out of the gates, not only would you be more likely to catch on and start backpedaling out of the relationship, but hell, they wouldn’t look very good in the aftermath.
Narcissists know how human brains work after decades of influencing them to bend to their will; they know how to be covert with their manipulations. And so, they employ more subtle emotional tactics like gaslighting, triangulation, and isolation to keep things on the sneaky side of abuse and pull you in even closer, making it more difficult to see straight or leave.
I’m sure we’re all familiar with gaslighting by now - and, you know I wish I was just talking about one of my favorite bands. Gaslighting is defined as psychological manipulation in which a person or a group covertly sows seeds of doubt in a targeted individual or group, making them question their own memory, perception, or judgment, often evoking in them cognitive dissonance and other changes, including low self-esteem.
In real world terms, the narcissist will verbally or functionally tell you one thing through their words or actions... and when you repeat what you’re noticing or question the intention, they’ll find a way to turn it all around on you. To either make you feel “insane” for interpreting it that way or for believing that’s what happened at all. Even if the event literally just took place - the words just popped out of their mouths five seconds earlier - they will insist that it never happened or you’re flawed for believing that it did. This has the effect of reducing your confidence in self and empowering them as the authority.
Triangulation is another common form of mental and emotional abuse. In this instance, the narcissist draws on the power of your other social connections to create an isolating and disempowering situation. Triangulation is defined as the occurrence when an outside person intervenes or is drawn into a conflicted or stressful relationship in an attempt to ease tension and facilitate communication. In the context of narcissism, triangulation occurs when the narcissist attempts to control the flow, interpretation, and nuances of communication.
In other words, the narcissist starts communicating with your friends and family members about your relationship rather than talking directly to you. They control the entire conversation because you aren’t invited to give your input, which enables them to skew the storyline and paint a much brighter picture when it comes to their own actions. They can express their love and concern for you, while mentioning that things have been rocky lately and they’re not sure what’s happening. They can retell old arguments and alter the plotlines ever so slightly to remove any of their own actions from the mix and highlight yours. They can drum up sympathy and respect while subtly or overtly questioning your positive intentions.
Triangulation is one of the sneakiest ways for narcissists to control you, because whereas you typically have some awareness of gaslighting taking place, with triangulation they’re doing it through indirect measures that you might never be privy to. It’s possible that they’ll leverage the newfound social changes against you in an argument (“so-and-so said that you were being selfish and cruel,” or “whatsherface agreed with me that you…”), but it’s also very possible that their triangulation efforts will have an unexplainable isolation outcome from your perspective. Your friends might just drop off the map or become distant without you ever realizing what happened.
Of course, this brings us to isolation. Narcissists don’t want you to be well connected or socially supported, because it disempowers them through limiting their control over you. If you’re able to turn to friends and family in times of need, if you’re able to receive confirmation that what they’re doing isn’t right, if you’re able to easily leave them when things get rocky, that limits their manipulation power. It helps you to maintain boundaries. It gives you an escape route when that voice in your head whispers, “hold up, this person is sending serious unsafe vibes right now.” And so, they work to isolate you.
Isolation may be physical, such as convincing you to move 700 miles away from your framily - is that oddly specific? Yeah, because it’s my life. They may encourage you to quit successful employment positions where you have the support of coworkers, self-confidence, and financial stability. They may insist that you accompany them on trips across the country or right around the corner, in order to keep you in sight and under control at all times.
Isolation can also be very mental and emotional, if it’s not as explicit as locking you in the basement. As described with triangulation, narcissists enjoy thinning your social network until it disintegrates fully. By controlling your relationships they control your ability to receive outside, unbiased feedback about their actions. They also position themselves as the most important person, resource, and influence in your life. With less humans to care for, you can focus more attention on them and their needs. With less voices to question what the fuck they were doing, exactly, you can continue to believe that you’re dating a real catch and simply need to change yourself to be good enough for them.
These mental and emotional abuse tactics are just a few of the ways that narcissists enact the devaluation portion of the cycle of abuse. But lawd, are they effective.
This is how you find yourself convinced that you’re just not doing enough. You’re just not paying enough attention to caring for them. You’re just too wrapped up in your own selfish existence and mental unhealth to be the best you can be. You need to try harder and everything will be fine. You can be as amazing as they thought you were in the first place again. Just be better so you can stop letting people down. Especially people who think that you’re so wonderful… at least, you know, when they think you’re not being so horrible.
All of this disempowerment works to draw you in closer to the narcissist, to be fully immersed in their world, and to begin questioning everything else in your life - even your damn self and the things you always held to be true.
Why doesn’t all of this mental fuckery quickly alert the victim that they need to get out, ASAP? Well, the tactics are sneaky and manipulative… plus, narcissists know when to pull their punches. They might tear you down and grind you through the ringer until you’re on the brink of falling apart, but then they’ll revert to stage number one right at the final second.
Suddenly, they’re fawning over you again. Telling you how amazing you are. Apologizing for seeming like they were saying one thing when, in fact, they couldn’t love or care about you more. Reiterating that they can’t live without you. Just as all the threads start to unravel, they’ll stitch you back up, tie a pretty bow on it, and set you back on the shelf for you to serve them another day.
For Complex Trauma sufferers, this process is especially effective and destructive… for reasons that you can probably begin to formulate on your own. You’re smart Motherfuckers, you know your head doesn’t need any help with these self-shaming sentiments. But, we’ll get to that whole story in a minute. First, let’s keep on track with the narcissistic cycle of abuse and talk about the final step in the cycle.
What happens when either 1) you run out of attention, love, affection, finances, or other resources that the narcissist has been banking on? Or 2) you realize that “holy shit, this was really fucked up for a while now,” and start looking for a way out?
It’s predictable. It’s a losing battle that they can’t control anymore. There’s no function to the relationship anymore because they aren’t getting what they signed up for in the first place. And so, the narcissist discards you.
If this split is the narcissist’s choice, they will find a substitute before they pull the trigger. Cut and run… but, with a new honey on the line. No wily narcissist will trade something for nothing, even if they insist that you can’t give them a thing.
They’ll start sneaking around, trying to secure a new source of stability and praise before they ever have an adult conversation with you about it. When they’ve got their next supply lined up, they’ll be gone in an instant; don’t expect any closure or information about what happened between your last dramatic make-up session and one week later, when you mean nothing to them and never did.
Once they’re gone - poof - like they never even knew you in the first place… Will they wave their new love interest in your face? Will they insist that you were holding them back? Will they find a whole new life meaning in this fantastical soulmate that they discovered after enduring years of your abuse and neglect? Youbetcha.
Don’t worry, nothing has changed. Their next victim has no idea what’s in store for them. They’re being swept away in a tidal wave that first appears like the coolest wavepool they’ve ever seen. You, on the other hand, will finally be able to see their full-fledged lovebomb from the outside. Will it sting? Yeah, probably. Your ego can’t help but have a time of reckoning as your ex suddenly transfers all their proclamations of soulmates and instantaneous love to someone new. “Oh, so I’m not such a one-of-a-kind diamond in the rough, afterall… or, else they’re expert miners.” Don’t worry, you know what you’re missing out on when the switch flips.
Alternatively, what’s going to happen if YOU decide to get out? Uh, good luck. Narcissists don’t take the idea of someone leaving them lightly. For as highly as they think of themselves, they sure are convinced that they need you to hold everything together for them.
When you try to leave a narcissist, it won’t be an easy departure. It couldn’t be. They are accustomed to always getting their way, always having control over other humans, always leaning on the attention and resources that can be sucked from the social situation they’ve designed to serve them. Being rejected is a non-sequitur in the narcissist’s life. No one can leave them. No one can turn away from their brilliance. No one can move on before they’ve given the “Ok.”
If you attempt to leave a narcissist, get ready for DRAMA that never wants to quit. There will be adult temper tantrums. There will be extreme manipulative efforts left and right. There may be more gaslighting and triangulation to try to change your mind. In the end, your efforts to solidify the split may be so poorly received that it may be necessary to use lawful force to finally get them out of your life.
In short, they won’t let go easily. Months or years after the split, you’ll probably still be hearing from them (or, not hearing from them as they silently keep tabs on your life updates through socials). They’ll likely pop up from time to time with stalker-ish behaviors and unrequited confessions of missing you. Unwanted admissions of making huge mistakes and insincere apologies for everything they've ever done. The love bombing will return with a vengeance, but this time, it will probably feel creepily dishonest. No matter how kind the words are, now they’ll seem strangely thin and forced.
They might continue to be emotionally manipulative with extreme behaviors, as well. Not all of the desperate attempts to regain your affection will be so sweet. As their efforts don’t result in the expected outcomes they desire (read: “deserve”), hunker down for things to get volatile quickly. Nothing like dealing with an ex who’s threatening to hurt themselves or others because of the emotional strain “you’re putting them through” by denying their advances.
It’s also always fun when they start contacting your mutual friends or family members to plead their case or try to poison the well against you. If they can’t have you, your reputation will be dragged through a shit puddle until no one in your life wants you.
If you stay strong and change the infrastructure of your life to completely avoid this turd and avoid feeding into their delusions, you’ve got a chance of moving on. Block their number, block their social media, cut your old social connections, maybe even change your residence and place of work… and remind all of your friends - if any remain - that you are not, under any circumstances, allowed to have contact with this person. If they hear you express the slightest sentiment of grief, regret, or loss, instruct them to promptly slap you silly.
If you have the slightest hesitancy or idea of “giving them another try,” on the other hand… you’re signing on for several more months or years of repeating this narcissistic cycle on repeat. Crack that door open one inch and they will shove it open with suitcases in hand. Do not do it.
Once you’re out, stay out. You need to trust the shitty things that pushed you away in the first place. Do NOT get lost in the old fantasies from the idealization period of your relationship. Do NOT reminisce over the good times. Do NOT fool yourself into assuming the blame for the chaos, unpredictability, and emotional roller coaster of the devaluation period.
If you do, it’s a slippery slope. Get ready to fall back into the same relationship dynamics and lose yourself in the fantasy/abuse fluctuation that these magical beasts oscillate between. With a history like ours, you might never get away from their adoration and assumed blame.
And that, my motherfuckers, is the danger of the narcissistic abuse cycle when it comes to Complex Trauma sufferers, possibly even more than… everyone else. Lez talk about why Trauma sufferers are extremely susceptible to narcissistic abuse.
Why are CPTSD sufferers so likely to suffer from Narc abuse?
I think it’s no surprise, a lot of the characteristics of narcissistic abuse sound… well… awfully familiar. Comforting, even. Like experiences that we’re well versed in from our early years and throughout our lives.
Many of us were delivered our early trauma experiences at the hands of narcissists, either directly or indirectly. Narcissistic parents are one of the super common characteristics discussed in the Traumatized Motherfuckers Discord community, and obviously, that correlation makes a lot of sense when we’re talking about emotional neglect and abuse. Why have so many of us grown up feeling like our emotions, opinions, and experiences don’t matter? Well, having a narcissistic parent definitely contributes.
As a child, living in the bubble of a narcissistic parent means that you will be manipulated, guilted, shamed, and controlled in order to support their wants and needs. You may be a pawn in the life they present to the world. You may feel like you don’t matter to them at all when you aren’t serving their need for attention and care. You may have to effectively switch roles, so that you’re giving them the emotional and physical comforts that they demand.
What is the effect of growing up under these conditions? From a young age you will learn how to put your own needs aside in order to keep your adult parents afloat. The consequences of not bending to their will are quite enormous as children - you need them for your basic standard of living, even if you can’t count on anything else. Therefore, you have to learn how to appease them to secure at least the basic foundational blocks of your hierarchy of needs.
If mom demands that she needs you to rub her feet and shoulders, if dad insists that you go to the store for his every whim, if no one will feed you unless you feed them first… you do it. Because the other option is not an option. They control you and your ability to thrive. Besides, every so often, your parents will exhibit an over-the-top demonstration of undying love for you. Fawning over your appearance, accomplishments, and personality to make up for all the times they forgot that you existed or treated you unfairly in their plea for securing all the resources they need.
From that young age and with no other life experience, you don’t know any other way for a parent-child relationship to be. And later in life, you won’t know how any partnership could look any differently, either. Being emotionally abused, manipulated, and incrementally cherished or cast aside seems pretty normal. Isn’t this how people interact with each other? Isn’t this the role that everyone plays for their significant others? Isn’t this how love works?
No surprise, if narcissistic love is all you’ve ever known, it’s all you’ll recognize to be love.
Along with the narcissistic cycle of abuse comes a particularly devastating effect on the human brain… trauma bonding. Trauma bonding is what happens when you and another person endure extreme situations together. For example, soldiers who survive a war together in the same platoon may feel inextricably linked following their shared experience. Their survival depended on one another, they witnessed scenarios that no one else on the planet could understand the same way, and they form a deep, lasting bond because of it.
Hey, the same thing happens in the narcissistic cycle of abuse.
When you’re constantly going through the extreme highs and lows of an abusive relationship, the brain does a funny thing. Similar to Stockholm syndrome, when someone shows you love and kindness following a void of all positive emotions… your survival brain begins to see your abuser as a source of comfort and care, disregarding the fact that they’re the ones perpetrating the trauma in the first place.
It’s the extreme nature of the narcissistic abuse that confuses your head. How can someone seem to be so awful, self-centered, and cruel at times, putting you through hell and dragging your mental health through the mud… but also, so sweet, sensitive, and grateful to know you at other times? Couple this with all the gaslighting and isolation, and you’ll start to doubt that they are the cause of the bad times at all.
Under the spell of a convincing emotional manipulator, the narrative in your head starts to shift. Here, you were thinking that this partner was creating a lot of drama with their demands and disregard for your emotions… but, actually, those low periods and times of strife must be your own fault - even symptoms of your Complex Trauma battle, maybe - and meanwhile this wonderful being has been so kind and compassionate to try to ride them out with you. How could you ever blame them for all the messes you’ve both endured? These were just circumstances of life and your own mental illness - not signs of their own maladaptive relationship style.
Because of the cycling between adoration and devaluation, it’s easy to get confused about the cause of your pain and the solution to end it. And Complex Trauma sufferers are no strangers to their inner critics telling them that they’ve caused all the trouble they’re experiencing. Our low self-esteem and penchant for shame makes us the perfect subject for narcissistic abuse, because we are ready to take the brunt of the blame.
Even when we have moments of clarity, our inner voices are ready to shut it down and assume the worst about ourselves at the drop of a hat. We fuck up ALL relationships, afterall. Our big emotions, our anxiety, our depression, our health problems, our silly trauma “quirks” - all of these personal shortcomings complicate our relationships. Why would this instance be any different?
It’s a no-brainer to assume that our mental health and symptoms are the root of all evil - especially when people are more than happy to tell us that’s the case. And let’s be honest, if it’s not the narcissist, themself, telling you that your messy head is to blame… someone else in your life probably has mentioned it before. It’s an old narrative on repeat. I’m not good enough, I’m too broken, I can’t do anything right, no one deserves to put up with me.
Next thing you know, you’re feeling indebted to your narcissistic captor. What an angel for putting up with your shit. You can’t believe that you’ve stuck it out this long together with all the chaos you’ve both seen. They must really love you considering all the effort they’ve put in. How could you ever even ponder leaving them? No one would ever be able to love you this way or to withstand your continual mental fuckery, anyways.
Because of our tendency to doubt ourselves, our perceptions, and our judgements, Traumatized Motherfuckers are primed and ready for trauma bonding to take over. Our skewed assessments of our own self-worth in comparison to others and unfortunate tendency to assume blame make us amazing candidates for narcissistic abuse to draw us ever-closer to the asshats who are creating the waves in our tumultuous waters.
Next thing you know, we’ve decided that our narcissistic partner is our life-jacket in this churning ocean. Pretty soon, we’re sucked in so deeply that we can’t even identify where their perspective stops and our own perceptions start.
And so, we land on another Complex Trauma hallmark that ain’t helping anyone with these shit relationships; codependency.
To start, let’s define codependency because I think a lot of us get it wrong. No judgement, I’m talking about myself here. Until about 3 months ago, I didn’t have a full understanding of the term. As a Motherfucker would, I interpreted it to mean that I was always needy and requiring the support of another human. “I’m not pathetic, I can take care of myself!” I wrongly insisted for most of my life.
Nah. That’s not the point. Codependency is actually a pattern of having poor boundaries with others, in a mutual clusterfuck of limited personal accountability and self-management. This leads to enabling and controlling behaviors between both partners, as they simultaneously expect their own emotional and physical needs to be fulfilled by their significant other rather than themselves.
For me, this looks like one undulating pool of emotions that can’t be assigned to one party or the other. I tend to have zero emotional boundaries with my closest connections, which creates a confusing set of circumstances where I feel responsible for all of their feelings and experiences, and vice versa. If they’re having a bad day, I’m having a worse day because our experiences are so incestuous that I can’t differentiate my own emotions from theirs. I become frantic, trying to figure out how to support and soothe them so we can both feel okay again.
In the wake of all this narcissistic talk, how do you think that pattern works out under the spell of a narc abuser? Uh, poorly.
When you have codependent tendencies, you are primed to be taken advantage of. If someone desires to dump their responsibilities on your shoulders, your response will be insidious self-hate and feelings of inadequacy as you struggle to hold two heads above water, rather than expecting your partner to kick their fucking feet once in a while.
This is exactly what happens in the cycle of narcissistic abuse. When things are going well, in the idealisation phase of the cycle, you’ll feel like you’re walking on water. Everyone is happy, everyone is fulfilled, everyone is so enamored and deeply loved. Your partner is doing well, and therefore, so are you. Your value is validated. Your life has a purpose.
Annnd then the devaluation phase kicks into gear. All of those fuzzy feelings disappear, and you’re left desperately thrashing as you attempt to personally will everyone back into a place of positive feelings and experiences. Your partner is in pain and therefore so are you. Nothing feels good and nothing is right until you can fix it again.
This is exactly what the narcissistic personality is hoping for. Work ten times as hard to keep me afloat so I don’t have to lift a finger. Forget your own feelings, friends, and aspirations because you’re too consumed with my world. Try to be the best partner you can be, and blame yourself for my incremental cruelty and chaos. Ideal.
The next thing you know, you’re not only responsible for their emotions and experiences… but all the ways they abuse you. If they said or did something extremely harmful, it’s because you’ve done something to cause this rapid shift. If you could only be better, then so could they. Enabling and controlling behaviors take over your life. The next thing you know, you don’t even know what your life is without considering theirs.
To drive the point home even faster, here’s a quick list I stole of the shared traits of codependency and trauma bonding:
Your self-worth feels entirely dependent on the narcissist
You deny your own needs in order to focus exclusively on meeting those of the narc
Boundaries are either non-existent or very weak
Communicating your own needs is nearly impossible because you don’t even know what they are anymore
You take responsibility and blame for the narc’s actions and behaviours
Your fear of abandonment is disabling
You have an intense need for approval from the narcissist
Comfort in chaos
I guess it probably goes without saying at this point… there’s a lot of chaos built into the narcissistic abuse cycle that mirrors the shit we’re used to from our childhood homes and early life experiences. The up and down roller coaster of a narcissist’s emotions and actions can feel very comforting and familiar.
For those of us who don’t know what a calm, peaceful life would even begin to look like, it seems absolutely normal that the relationship follows a rapid rise and fall pattern - everything else in life does, afterall. You never know what you’re going to get. You’re always waiting for the other shoe to drop, anyways. So it’s actually validating and comforting when it happens with some predictable unpredictability.
Is he/she going to come home in a great mood, walking on water, today? Or will they be screaming in my face about something that I have nothing to do with? It’s always a fun game of “what’s behind door number 3” with a narcissist in your life. And as much as we Traumatized Motherfuckers say that we HATE chaos, the truth is that oftentimes it’s all we know.
It would be boring, uncomfortable, and possibly more stressful for us to imagine an even-keeled, probable outcome to every day and every circumstance. That just drums up our sense of foreboding and doom without ever experiencing the relief of seeing it become reality.
While other folks might look in on a narcissistic relationship and think that it seems unmanageable and terrifying, we take a gander, shrug, and think about our upbringing. What’s so scary? Seems like mom and dad. Seems like my neighborhood. Seems like my social situation at school. Is there another option?
Narcissists breed chaos and - whether you want to acknowledge it or not - we’re always looking for another dose.
Speaking of which, one final point. Let’s talk about the addictive quality of narcissistic abuse.
Lastly, I have to throw my ABA education into the ring to enthusiastically talk about the intermittent reinforcement that is necessarily part of the idealisation and devaluation phase fluctuation. I’m not even projecting my recent readings onto this post - it’s actually discussed in all the narcissism literature. Intermittent reinforcement is an important part of the addicting quality of narcissistic abuse that keeps us coming back for more punches.
What’s intermittent reinforcement? What it sounds like. Reinforcement is any consequence that increases the frequency of a behavior happening in the future - it can be positive or negative reinforcement - but that distinction isn’t important right now. Reinforcement is provided on a schedule to encourage the development and maintenance of behaviors - these schedules range from continuous to fixed to variable.
With so-called intermittent reinforcement, we’re talking about a variable schedule. You’re smart, you can guess what this means. Only some instances of the desired behavior is reinforced, with a general “average number” before reinforcement is provided. The purpose of this timing is to encourage the rapid and consistent development of targeted responses and, maybe more importantly, to maintain them over time.
Think about it - if you perform a certain action and receive a reward some of the time, you’re likely to continue performing that action all the time, because there’s always a chance of getting what you want. If you don’t receive the reward, you aren’t discouraged to stop trying… after all, the next opportunity might be the one when you receive reinforcement again!
How is this relevant, you ask, thinking that I’m being a behavioral asshole. Well, in the beginning phases of idealisation with a narcissist, they’re going to give you continuous reinforcement. It’s all good times, no matter what you do. They shower you in positive attention, accolades, and possibly even material goods. All you have to do is show up and be amiable to the interaction as your wonderful, cherished self.
As time goes on, however, the narcissist thins the schedule of reinforcement. Instead of providing you with positive feedback every time you do something that they like, they start intermittently positively acknowledging what you’ve done. You strive for the satisfaction and validation of their positive regard and gifts, so you continue to exhibit the behaviors they’ve reinforced in the past, nevertheless.
And every so often, it pays off! They realize that you were a good little worker bee or sacrificial lamb and they actually mention your efforts in some form of socially mediated reinforcement.
When you’re still receiving positive attention once in a while, you won’t quit demonstrating the desired behavior until the reinforcement schedule grows too thin. So, if it’s 3 months in between receiving a compliment or a thank you, well, maybe you’ll decide that enough is enough. But if it’s every week or so between receiving the reward that you strive for - hell, there’s always a chance that it’s coming your way. Just keep acting the way they want you to, and eventually it’ll come to a validating fruition.
For folks like us, who tend to have addictive personalities already, do you think this intermittent reinforcement is effective? It sure fucking is. Essentially, this is the same concept that they use to program slot machines. Every so often you’ll hit the jackpot, so it becomes addicting to keep seeking that momentary thrill. It might just take one more pull of the handle to receive the reinforcement you’re looking for. Only one way to find out.
This sneaky principle of behavioral science is just another way that Complex Trauma sufferers tend to be the perfect subjects for narcissist abuse. We long for the personal validation and emotional support that will sometimes be provided by the narcissist’s glowing reviews. And we aren’t going to give up that high, even if it means enduring days or weeks of acting on our best behavior without receiving a thing in return.
Again, this probably reminds us of our narcissistic parental roots. Just keep being a good boy or girl, and one of these days, mom or dad is going to say something about it. Then I can feel loved, if only for a moment. That’s what you know, that’s what you expect, and therefore that’s what you accept without considering that there might be an alternative.
Alright, Fuckers. Jesus Christ, this one took me a long time to finish. Quite honestly, because I’ve been too preoccupied trying to decide if I’m quickly entering a relationship with a narcissist or not. With MY past history of chaos, abuse, codependency, narcissistic figures, and addiction… uh… it’s pretty fucking hard to tell.
We’ll find out about the nature of this dude and this relationship pretty quickly, I suppose. This idealisation phase can’t last long. And I’ll be sure to start bitching if I find myself being devalued through the emotional manipulation efforts that I know a thing or two about this time around.
Live, learn, lament. Amiright?
If you’ve found yourself in a narcissist’s clutches in the past, don’t beat yourself up about it. Realize that they have decades of experience under their belts, learning how to identify, test, and mold humans to meet their needs. Even if you consider yourself to be an excellent judge of character, it can be hard to look past the initial charms of a full-blown narcissist to see the subliminal ways they shape your outlook and behaviors.
When it came to my narcissistic ex, I was so blind to it that we often joked about him being one. It seemed so preposterous during the days when he bent over backwards to treat me like a queen. Until… he isolated me, forced me to fold into the container of his life, and started redacting all of his gushy proclamations of love and devotion, that is.
In hindsight, I saw it happening and explained it away. It was good enough that he rewarded me once in a while with reinforcements that validated my belief in him as a trustworthy human. I don’t blame myself for the missteps. I just wish I had known better and listened better.
The first time a voice whispered “IS he a narcissist, though?” I should have taken the steps necessary to find out; stop delivering his supply of attention and support. Separate yourself. Set boundaries and see if they are honored or blown apart.
If you find yourself in a relationship with a narcissist, start finding a way out. Give yourself distance and don’t humor them with any attention. Cut your ties as thoroughly as possible. Find social support options where you can receive validation for your decision.
And once you’re out of the nightmare, be kind to yourself. Don’t get mad it happened, just get glad that it’s done with.
Cool, I’m out of here to live another boring day, so far free of the emotional roller coasters that I love so dearly.