This post is for readers who are just suspecting that their partner may be a narcissist who is targeting them with narcissistic abuse. You may have stumbled across an article, book, or website related to narcissistic abuse and had a very uncomfortable light bulb go on in your head. Or someone may have told you that they think your partner could be a narcissist.
One of the greatest challenges in the journey you are just beginning is taking in the full reality of the chasm between who you thought you were in relationship with and who you actually are in relationship with. People like you, with the capacity to love and provide empathy to others, find it profoundly difficult to take in the horrific reality that someone who has claimed to love them—and who, at times, has behaved in what seemed to be a loving manner—could so intentionally want to cause them significant harm. While you know full well that everyone (including you and me) is capable of making mistakes and hurting others, most of us don’t intentionally try to cause others significant harm. Doing so is literally mindboggling to most people. Unconscionable. We cannot wrap our heads around this horrible truth. In trying to make sense of it all, we experience what is called cognitive dissonance.
When the human mind encounters new (to us) information that conflicts strongly with our pre-existing beliefs, we experience cognitive dissonance—which often comes with an unconscious tendency to reject the new information. That new information could be, for example, receiving a new and serious medical diagnosis (we ask in disbelief, “Are you sure, doctor?”) or being told that someone we love has died (we cry out in shock, “No! It can’t be true!”). This tendency to automatically reject new information that conflicts with our pre-existing beliefs is not a character flaw. It is not something we do willingly or knowingly. The physical, emotional, and cognitive stress we experience because of the contrast (dissonance) between what we have believed and the new information is so great that our minds automatically seek to reduce that huge stress. Humans only have a couple of basic options to try to feel less stressed: 1) change our beliefs (which also necessitates changing our behaviors) so they align with the new information or 2) minimize, discount, or otherwise reject the new information.
Before we talk more about these two choices, it’s important to know that a fundamental part of narcissistic abuse is gaslighting: a control tactic of psychological manipulation used by narcissists to cause targets of their abuse to doubt their own experience of reality and, therefore, to doubt their sanity. In brief, some of the ways that narcissists do this is to accuse their target of being “too sensitive;” denying that something happened (when it actually did); projecting their own cheating, lying, and abuse onto their target; and repeatedly lying. These behaviors (and many more) are engaged in gradually, sporadically, and increasingly, which makes them much harder to recognize than if they were first engaged in abruptly, consistently, and blatantly.
So, let’s go back to exploring the two basic options for reducing the major stress of cognitive dissonance: 1) changing our existing beliefs (and behaviors) to align with the new information or 2) minimizing, discounting, or rejecting the new information.
When you are in a relationship with a narcissist, just a few of your existing beliefs may include:
- The narcissist currently or used to love you
- You should honor your commitment to the narcissist
- If such-and-such challenge (e.g., your relationship skills, your helping the narcissist overcome a personal challenge, something you may be at fault for) is lessened or eliminated, the narcissist will behave in a more loving manner and you will be able to have your dreamed-of future with the narcissist
- You have been wrong in multiple ways (generally defined by the narcissist who is using gaslighting) and are the one who is causing major problems
- If the narcissist does not love you, you are unlovable
- The failure of the relationship with the narcissist would be your fault and be evidence of your incapacity to create a loving, healthy relationship in the future
- Getting involved with the narcissist shows you are fundamentally flawed
Changing these kinds of beliefs is extremely difficult. It takes time, energy, effort, grieving, and often specialized support (e.g., counseling) to do so. These beliefs go to the core of your being. You are not a failure because you are unable to change them in an instant. No one can change them in an instant. No one. And, as the victim of narcissistic abuse, you have already been gaslit, which massively undermines your capacity to trust your own perception, experience, and judgment. Having been gaslit by a narcissist is a huge barrier for changing beliefs like the ones listed above and is also a huge barrier for taking in new information about narcissistic abuse.
In addition to the difficulty of changing deep (and often initially unconscious) beliefs after narcissistic abuse, there’s the profoundly challenging reality of barriers to ending an abusive relationship. You may fear—or know—that:
- You do not currently have the ability to financially survive on your own if you leave (often due to financial abuse by the narcissist)
- The narcissist will slander you widely if you leave (or has already done so to make it harder for you to leave)
- You will have no social support if you leave (often due to isolation created by the narcissist or the narcissist being “a pillar of the community”)
- The narcissist will hurt or even kill you and/or your children if you try to leave
- You will not be able to afford legal protection for you and/or your children if you leave
- You will lose your children to the narcissist if you leave
- The narcissist will harm your pet if you leave
- You will not be believed and/or will be judged by important others if you leave (e.g., family members, friends who are also friends with the narcissist, leaders and members of a house of worship if you belong to one)
- Due to the abuse you have endured, you do not yet have the emotional, physical, cognitive, and social resources needed to make the huge life changes involved in leaving anyone, much less involved in escaping a narcissistic abuser
- You do not yet know how to engage in the huge and complex work of leaving the narcissist
And, in addition to these barriers, targets of narcissistic abuse are impacted by trauma bonding with their abuser: the involuntary development of addictive biochemical patterns that result from intermittent reinforcement in the form of behavior that occasionally appears loving scattered throughout abusive behavior. Trauma bonding creates strong physiologically based barriers to leaving an abuser. Again, this is not a character flaw: it’s the result of having a human body and of how human bodies biochemically respond to being the target of repeated abuse.
Back to cognitive dissonance…. These fears and realities pose very real barriers to option 1 (changing behaviors in ways that would align with changing beliefs so that they align, in turn, with new information about the narcissistic abuse you are enduring). People typically need to “buy time” before they can escape narcissistic abuse. Option 2 (minimizing, discounting, or rejecting the new information) allows that time to be bought. It is psychologically unbearable to take in the full reality of narcissistic abuse and then not be able to leave your abuser. Victims of narcissistic abuse need time to grapple with immense cognitive dissonance, learn more about narcissistic abuse, and try to get into a better position that makes it possible for them to start changing at least some of their beliefs, as well as to develop a plan to try to surmount the very real barriers that they face when trying to leave a narcissistic abuser.
So, if you are struggling with learning that your partner may be a narcissist, know that you are not alone. No one can take in the full reality of narcissistic abuse instantly. It is, quite logically, a very difficult journey that involves much cognitive dissonance and the need to find support as well as to prepare to face the many barriers to leaving an abuser. Your journey is likely to have many stops and starts. You might leave, return, and leave again. Anyone who judges you is simply wrong. If you can safely do so, try to find others who are on similar journeys so that you can experience the validation you need and deserve as you find your way out of narcissistic abuse.
I’ll be writing more about narcissistic abuse in the future. For now, I hope that this post is helpful to anyone newly suspecting that they have been the victim of narcissistic abuse.