The first couple weeks were blissful: He would cook me food after coming home from work; we’d watch TV on his bed; and in restaurants, he'd tell me he felt lucky to be sitting across from me. It was easy to fall in love with him. This all tracks with the cycle of narcissistic abuse, according to licensed clinical psychologist Ramani Durvasula, PhD: “Early on, you can expect love bombing, intense interest, and grandiose gestures." And according to psychotherapist Jack Worthy, LMHC, who focuses on personality disorders, at the start of a relationship “a narcissist can feel intoxicating," and the very hallmark qualities of a narcissist are what can be alluring. "Grandiosity can feel like charisma; entitlement can feel like ambition; callousness can feel like assertiveness,” he says.
In the beginning stages of courtship with this type of person, you’re inside the “narcissistic bubble” and are focused on the positives. “You’re telling them how wonderful they are, and they’re rewarding you for seeing their specialness," says Worthy. But, this won't last. “Eventually, you will fail to reflect back to them their perfect vision of themselves and will burst the narcissistic bubble," he adds. "You’ll have criticism—a request, a difference of opinion.”
When that happens, a narcissist may withhold warmth and affection or become critical and judgmental so as to bring you back into compliance. At that point, you’ll be forced to choose between your integrity or the relationship. Then, the hallmark traits of a narcissist will shine through in a negative light, taking the form of narcissistic abuse, which is emotional abuse characterized by narcissistic manipulation.
Welcome to my emotionally abusive relationship with a narcissist
Not long after we began dating, my ex made a habit of invalidating my feelings. He refused to take accountability for his actions and blamed me for everything that went wrong. When I would try to address something, he would either gaslight or manipulate me to drop whatever issue I had. Over time, such manipulation can lead someone to lose their sense of self, autonomy, and the ability to make decisions. Enter: low self-esteem and codependency, which together make leaving a toxic relationship difficult, to say the least.
Even so, we broke up several times, but at his behest. The first time was over something silly: a picture of him on my Instagram Stories that he didn't approve. The second time was because he accused me of needing constant validation of his commitment. But every time my ex was around me while we were broken up, he’d continue to hug me or massage my neck for a few seconds. When I would question him, he said it meant nothing, that he didn’t want us to get back together. His occasional bursts of affection continued, though, just enough to string me along for weeks at a time.
He would often tell me that I wouldn't find anyone better than him, that no one else could handle me, that he was the only person who could be with me.
Now when I look back, I see an abundance of evidence of narcissistic abuse. He would often tell me that I wouldn't find anyone better than him, that no one else could handle me, that he was the only person who could be with me. This type of language can lead the victims of narcissistic abuse to stay in the relationship for so long because they become emotionally dependent on the narcissist and made to believe they aren't good enough for anyone or anything else.
Narcissists also project a lot of their insecurities on their victims, which I eventually discovered. My ex is a decade older than I am, and he resented me being successful in my career at a young age. He often made me feel badly about my professional milestones. Once, I was excited to tell him about a great meeting I had with a big magazine. He rolled his eyes and walked away saying, “I don’t care—it’s just posh people doing posh things.” I often wondered why he couldn't be happy for me, but eventually learned it was rooted in envy. He once slipped in a conversation with me and another person that he was jealous I was living the life I had always wanted, in a city I loved, and doing work enjoyed.
I also learned that narcissists are conversation killers. Every time he had something exciting to share, he wouldn’t stop talking about it, without even asking me about how my day went. But I wasn’t allowed to talk about my passions or good news without him distinguishing my joy.
While there might not be a way to prevent such situations from manifesting in a relationship with a narcissist, there are ways to recognize it and heal.
How I found my way out and saved myself from narcissistic abuse
After six months of therapy during which I detailed accounts of my relationship, I felt confident that my ex was displaying toxic narcissist behavior and I was, in fact, not unworthy but a victim of his abuse. There were moments I still believed it was all in my head and that I was the broken one. But that's because I was so used to that dynamic of blame and fault that took hold in the relationship.
I also realized that part of the reason I had trouble getting out of the relationship was due to my then-limited understanding of what narcissism meant and how it presented. Because of this, I couldn't identify my ex's toxic and abusive behaviors.
I used to think narcissism only described someone who is laser-focused on themselves—but now I know it's so much more. I've since learned terms like "narcissistic rage," which explains my ex's screaming during our last argument while punching a wall and slamming a table.
I also learned about the narcissistic need for control after we broke up and I began dating other people. At that point, he realized he couldn't control me anymore, so he made a point of making sure I knew he was also dating other people as a ploy to try and hurt me. “A narcissist seemingly cannot resist proving to you that they’re one-up in the relationship—that they have control and you don’t,” says Worthy.
There is a silver lining to what I've endured, though: I’ve learned to listen to my gut and trust my instincts. Now, I encourage friends to run for the hills when red flags appear. Because if your intuition tells you that you deserve much better, you do and you should listen to it. And when in doubt, talk to a therapist or other mental health professional.
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