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One of the most difficult things to understand in life is how someone who professes to love you can then go on to abuse you. Many people feel traumatized and confused after a romantic relationship with an abusive Narcissistic partner ends. They wonder: “We were so in love, yet he went from telling me that I was the love of his life to treating me like garbage. He cheated on me. He devalued me. He embarrassed me in front of our friends. How can I trust anyone again, if I so badly misjudged this person?”
If you have ever been abused by a Narcissistic mate or lover and now are out of the relationship, you may be wondering how you could have made such a big mistake—and how you can avoid doing it again in the future.
The good news is that most people with Narcissistic Personality Disorder are very predictable. They tend to follow the same relationship pattern over and over again. And, unlike common perceptions about Narcissists, most are not very devious. Narcissists are continually signaling that they are Narcissists. You can learn to recognize the early signs that the new love of your life is a Narcissist by paying close attention to how they behave towards you in each stage of the relationship. Then it is up to you to decide if you want to continue the relationship. Here are some of the basics that you need to know:
Why Are Narcissists Prone to Being Abusive?
When people have a Narcissistic Personality Disorder, two things interact to predispose them to be abusive:
Emotional empathy is the capacity to feel what another person is feeling (or what you imagine that the person is feeling). Having emotional empathy decreases the likelihood that you will want to hurt other people because you will literally feel some of their pain. Without emotional empathy, you have less motivation to pay attention to the pain that your words and actions are causing your partner.
Narcissists can have “intellectual empathy” without also having emotional empathy. Intellectual empathy is the ability to cognitively understand that you are causing the other person pain. Intellectual empathy requires that you stop and think about what the other person might feel in response to your actions. Narcissists, therefore, can understand that they may be causing you pain, but they have less motivation to care because they are not feeling anything negative themselves.
- They lack “whole object relations” and “object constancy.”
One of the main reasons that people abuse others that they profess to love is that they lack “whole object relations” and “object constancy.” Briefly defined: “Whole object relations is the capacity to see oneself and other people in an integrated and realistic way as having a mix of good and bad qualities, some that you like and others that you dislike. If you have “whole object relations” you can accept that someone is not perfect and still value the person for the good qualities that he or she has. “Object constancy” is the ability to maintain your positive emotional connection to someone that you care about while you are feeling angry, frustrated, disappointed, or hurt by the person. Having “object constancy’ helps you rein in your impulses to hurt someone during a fight. Not having “object constancy” makes people more likely to be willing to emotionally and physically damage their mate.
NOTE: Not all people with Narcissistic Personality Disorder are equally abusive. Narcissists range from those who put you on a pedestal and then verbally devalue you when they realize you are not the perfect being that they expected you to be, to people who physically abuse their mates and try and control their every move—who they see, what they spend money on, how often they speak to their family.
The Three Stages of the Narcissistic Relationship Abuse Pattern
Although there are Narcissists who are “players” and not looking for a serious long-term relationship, many people with Narcissistic disorders do want to settle down and get married. Unfortunately because they lack whole object relations, they tend to be extremely unrealistic about what they expect in a mate. They have only two categories, perfect and flawed.
Perfect = You are pleasing me right now.
Flawed = You are doing something that I do not like right now.
As a result, instead of finding the perfect relationship that they crave, Narcissists end up repeating what I think of as “The Narcissist Relationship Abuse Pattern” over and over again. Each relationship stage has its own form of Narcissistic abuse that you can learn to spot. Below are the three basic stages, the type of Narcissistic abuse typical of that stage, and the behaviors that predict the abuse.
STAGE 1: Chasing the Unicorn
In the beginning, you seem like that rarest of imaginary creatures, “The Unicorn.” They love everything about you, even your flaws seem like endearing idiosyncrasies. Narcissists are extremists and have no middle ground. When they first find you attractive, they are likely to idealize you and believe that you are the perfect mate for them. At last they have found someone who will never disappoint them. They give chase and pursue you with attention, gifts, texts, flattery, and anything else that they think will work to prove their total devotion. In this stage, while you are slightly out of reach and they have not yet sealed the deal, they are totally focused on convincing you to give them a chance to prove their love. Some Narcissists just repeat the “Chase Stage” over and over with different people because they really do not know how to have an actual relationship with someone that they have “caught.”
Stage 1 Abuse Pattern: After spending an enormous amount of time, energy, and sometimes money trying to convince you of their devotion, your pursuer immediately loses interest in you after you stop running. You are left feeling disappointed and bewildered that this person who said he wanted you to be the mother of his future children (or the father) has “ghosted” on you and will not even answer your texts.
Predictors of Abuse: Here are some typical signs that you may want to notice at this stage of the relationship that signal your “lover” may become a Narcissistic abuser.
- The over the top nature of their chase is a signal that they are unrealistic.
Unlike most people who want to gradually get to know the person that they are dating before they start to make commitments about the future, Narcissists often try to engage you in planning your future together after your first date. They may start talking about all the places that they want to take you this Summer on vacation, or even want to discuss how many children the two of you will have together and where they should go to school.
- They worship the ground that you walk on.
I know that this sounds like a good sign, but it is not. What goes up, must come down. This degree of idealization is actually a sign that they are not seeing the real you at all. Instead they are simply projecting their fantasy woman onto you. The real you is not perfect and certainly is unlikely to fit every item on their wish list. Once they discover that you are not exactly like their fantasy woman, they are likely to be resentful and disappointed. If you are lucky, they will simply disappear from your life at that point instead of proceeding to the next Narcissistic Relationship Abuse Stage.
- All their former lovers ended up disappointing them.
However they describe their former lovers and mates is how they are likely to eventually describe you. If they are perpetually disappointed in people, it says more about them than the people they feel disappointed by. If you ask why their previous relationships did not work out and they tell you that they found out that their lovers were very different than they first seemed, this is a sign that you too will be described that way one day.
STAGE 2: The Construction Project
Once you are “caught,” Narcissistic lovers start to relax and enjoy your company. Now that they have time to take a good look at you, they slowly begin to notice little things about you that they think detract from your perfection. Your idiosyncrasies no longer seem so adorable. Now they are flaws. It is at this point that you can start to recognize the signs that this person may be a Narcissist.
Stage 2 Abuse Pattern: Narcissistic lovers start suggesting ways that you should change “for your own good.” “If only you would do your hair differently, work out more, or wear sexier (or less sexy) clothing, you would be even better. Don’t you want to be better?” “Don’t you want to please me?” I think of this stage as “The Construction Project” because they keep suggesting ways to renovate you.
Predictor of Abuse: How they deal with their disappointment and react to your “no.” Many people discover that their new lover is not as perfect as they first assumed and are disappointed. This can be quite normal. What differentiates Normal disappointment from Narcissistic disappointment is how they react to you saying “no” to their suggestions.
- Normal Disappointment: They would love you to make slight changes to please them, but if you really do not want to, they can accept that without devaluing you or losing interest in you as a mate. They may occasionally bring up the topic again, but they more or less gracefully make peace with the idea that you will not give them every single thing that they want. They also accept that you are a separate person from them and have a right to your own ideas. You’re a not a doll for them to dress, or a house to renovate; you are a real person.
- Narcissistic Disappointment: They cannot understand why you want to stay the way you are. When you resist their suggestions, they feel insulted—as if you have criticized them, and not the other way around. They become angry, want to punish you, and they begin to get nasty. They start picking fights with you about every little thing that you do that they do not like. The ratio of compliments to devaluing comments shifts. You find yourself starting to wonder: “What happened to the sweet man I fell in love with?”
STAGE 3: Devaluation
Stage 3 Abuse Pattern: One day you wake up and realize that the compliments have stopped and all you are hearing are criticisms.
Predictors of Abuse: The criticisms are no longer phrased politely as suggestions. They are outright insults. He says: “You look like a clown in that dress. It makes your butt look like the rear end of a cow.” Or she says, “I hate that scent you are wearing. It smells like something my grandfather would wear. When did you become such an old man?”
- Eventually, the insults go public. One day you are out together with friends and your beloved not only starts criticizing you in front of them, but to them in front of you.
- The verbal abuse escalates until it is the main way that your lover speaks to you. Your wishes are ignored and you are treated cruelly. The fights escalate into screaming matches and you find yourself yelling or crying hysterically. You may get hit or physically abused in some other way. Unless you put a stop to this quickly, this will become your life from now on.
Conclusion: Once you learn to recognize the above, you may still find yourself in love with a Narcissist one day. The question you then need to ask yourself is: “How much abuse am I prepared to take?” If your answer is “very little,” then you may want to take your heart and leave before it gets well and truly broken.
Elinor Greenberg, PhD, CGP
Author of the Book: Borderline, Narcissistic, and Schizoid Adaptation: The Pursuit of Love, Admiration, and Safety.