Nobody deserves to spend even one moment of their precious lives in an abusive relationship. Unfortunately, not every narcissistic person fits the same mold, and they are often challenging to identify.
Making matters even more difficult is the fact that being in a relationship with a narcissistic partner can lead to a condition known as narcissistic abuse syndrome, in which your self-confidence and mental health are compromised. This way, you begin to doubt your own perception of reality, and recognising narcissistic abuse becomes more difficult.
So, although abuse comes in countless forms, the focus here will be on identifying how people with narcissistic traits can create their own unique form of abuse, how you can spot it (not always an easy feat), and most importantly, how to avoid getting into a relationship with an abusive partner to begin with.
What is narcissistic personality disorder, and what is narcissistic abuse?
Narcissistic abuse is a wide-ranging form of abuse perpetrated—whether consciously or unconsciously—by someone suffering from narcissism or sociopathy. In a nutshell, narcissistic partners use manipulative language and behavior to control or alter their partner’s perceptions and behaviors. There are several ways they set about doing this.
Ultimately, narcissistic abuse can be emotional, mental, physical, sexual, spiritual, or even financial. Or, all of the above. Here are a few examples of narcissistic abuse you may not have identified:
Not all who are verbally abusive are narcissistic. There are many types of abusers out there, after all. That said, narcissistic verbal abuse often includes demanding, belittling, bullying, name-calling, criticizing, sarcasm, undermining, interrupting, opposing, accusing, blaming, shaming, threatening, and flying into rages—to name a few.
Manipulative behavior is often a cover for all-out aggression. One of the hallmarks of manipulation is language that seems harmless or even flattering on the surface, while underneath you feel degraded or threatened. This is, in a sense, how narcissistic abuse syndrome occurs.
Emotional blackmail is one form of manipulation which can include warnings, intimidation, or punishment—in turn provoking self-doubt, fear, obligation, or guilt. Those of us who had narcissistic parents may not even recognize it as such.
Gaslighting is a tactic commonly used by narcissists to make you distrust your own perceptions of reality, your self-worth, intuition, and even your sanity. The classic narcissist will deny any wrongdoing if confronted by their partner, turning the situation around so that the victim is the one to blame for their perceived abuse.
Competition can take many subtle forms. Narcissistic partners may resort to petty competition and one-upping in order to always remain “on top,” or have the upper hand. For instance, they may cheat at a game or even claim credit for an idea that is yours.
Narcissists may even take measures to sabotage your career, your artistic endeavors, or your relationships with family and friends—either to get back at you for a perceived slight or to simply hold you back so they can feel at an advantage.
Narcissists are known for spreading damaging lies about their partners to others in an effort to discredit and isolate them. Often possessing a good dose of believable charisma, those with these kinds of mental disorders will often get away with telling those close to you stories about you being harmful, abusive, or unstable.
If your loved ones won’t listen to you anymore, you begin to feel isolated, which leaves you vulnerable and open to further abuse. At this point, a narcissistic abuser may try and rein you back in with apologies, tenderness, or by pretending the abuse never occurred. This strategy is known as hoovering and it works best when you lack supportive people in your life to talk to honestly, or when your loved ones doubt your version of events.
Someone with narcissistic personality disorder won’t hesitate to use or objectify you, taking advantage of you for their own gain—all without empathy or regard for your needs, your feelings, or, really, your humanity.
It may go without saying, but if you’re suffering from narcissistic abuse syndrome, your partner is likely someone who tells lies very regularly in order to fulfill some hidden agenda and ultimately to avoid responsibility.
Narcissistic abusers often withhold communication (silent treatment), affection, sex, or money from you to get what they want. Similarly, narcissistic parents might ignore the needs of a child, leaving them in a dangerous situation to cope for themselves.
Narcissistic abusers tend to ignore your boundaries, freely looking through your things, your phone messages, or your mail.
They might deny you physical privacy in spite of requests, or even resort to stalking you.
Financial abuse is just another way to control you within a narcissistic relationship. For instance, your narcissistic partner may insist on exercising all control over your finances. They may even extort funds from you, steal, gamble, sell off your personal property, or accrue debt in your name, among other abusive behaviors.
Narcissistic abuse can include physical or sexual violence as well, such as trapping you in a room, blocking your movement, pulling your hair, throwing or breaking things, destroying your property, pinning you down, or worse.
Where does narcissism come from?
In essence, narcissistic personality disorder is selfishness and entitlement on steroids. Narcissism is a complicated mental health issue characterized by very little empathy, a highly idealized sense of self, and a strong need for attention and admiration. Yet, big surprise, narcissists don’t actually love themselves.
The self-inflation typically displayed by narcissists stems from deeply entrenched feelings of shame. They may have developed harmful or unhealthy ways of concealing certain flaws in their personality or their physique, or are attempting to compensate for a past experience or trauma that made them feel powerless.
Deep down, narcissists are usually aware that there is a huge gap between the self they show other people and the self they’re ashamed of. To avoid feeling shame, narcissists use a variety of destructive defense mechanisms that hurt anyone who happens to be in a relationship with them—especially their romantic partners.
Signs of narcissistic abuse syndrome
While it may be relatively easy for a survivor of narcissistic abuse to spot narcissistic abuse, not everybody subject to such abuse is able or willing to see it. It may be months or even years before someone experiencing this kind of psychological abuse realizes something is truly off. At this point, they have often normalized the abuse and may have an extraordinarily difficult time extricating themselves.
Narcissistic abuse syndrome happens when you’re abused and put down to such an extent that you begin to believe you deserve it. You may have a hard time telling which thoughts are your own and which are your abuser’s. You may not even be able to tell when your partner is lying, even when there is blatant evidence. People suffering from narcissistic abuse syndrome tend to agree with their abusers 100% of the time without any critical thought.
Although we all respond to abuse and psychological trauma in unique ways, here are some signs that you’re experiencing narcissistic abuse syndrome:
If attempts to confront your abuser (fight) or escape altogether (flight) fail, you may freeze up instead, dissociating in order to distance yourself from intense distress. This is a typical response to feeling helpless. If you believe that there’s no way out of your relationship, you may remain paralyzed rather than seek support.
You can’t decide
When a narcissistic abuser routinely insults, criticizes, and ridicules you for your choices, it’s common for self-assurance to plummet.
Over time, this narcissistic victim syndrome will can you to internalize these put-downs, frequently second-guessing yourself and every decision you’re faced with.
You absorb blame
Narcissistic partners avoid taking responsibility at all costs, often finding ways to offset blame onto you instead. They may do this by insisting they said something they never said—and when you don’t recall, they become enraged and you end up apologizing, agreeing you were wrong, and comforting them.
If, for example, you suspect your partner has cheated and you ask them about it, they may fly into a rage because you’re doubting them, proceeding to turn the situation around on you. They may accuse you of reading their messages, or tell you that they should cheat on you because you’re bad in bed.
If you’re experiencing any kind of similar narcissistic injury, these bombardments of rage and insults can leave you feeling powerless and grateful that they’re willing to stay with you in spite of your faults.
You’ve got loose boundaries, if any
If you’re experiencing narcissistic abuse syndrome, you almost certainly have trouble setting boundaries (which is a good mental health practice to have, by the way). When you try to set limits, your narcissistic partner might challenge them, ignore them, or use emotional manipulation by simply stopping to talk to you until you change your tune, or decide that your boundaries were silly.
Once you end a relationship with a narcissist, you may set boundaries, promising yourself you won’t answer their calls or see them. But if they know they can wear you down, they’re more likely to keep trying.
You’re on edge
It can be difficult to know what to expect from a narcissistic abuser. They can be unpredictable, and as such, you may never know whether they’re going to be angry with you or surprise you with a beautiful gift. Not knowing what to expect from someone day in and day out can lead to a lot of built up tension—you don’t feel safe letting your guard down, so you’re always on edge. Chances are you don’t know how to relax anymore.
You’re out of touch with you
Narcissistic behavior will include making you feel that any attention you give to anyone else (i.e., friends, family, or colleagues) is attention you’re not giving them. Someone suffering from narcissistic abuse syndrome will stop going out with friends in order to prove their love.
Before you know it, you’ve given up your hobbies, and stopped meeting people for drinks or coffee. You may have even stopped taking solo strolls which you used to love doing. Instead, you do what your partner wants to do, in order to show you care. This leads to a loss of sense of self, which can leave you feeling empty and without purpose.
You’re anxious or depressed
It’s hardly surprising that victims of narcissistic abuse syndrome often experience anxiety and depression. The constant stress you face in your relationship can cause ongoing worry, nervousness, and fear, though the type of anxiety and/or depression you experience will depend on your level of awareness of the abuse you’re experiencing.
You may feel powerless to change your situation, worthless, and lose interest in people and activities that once brought you joy. In turn, hope for the future can seem completely out of reach. You may also feel confused about what made your partner change so suddenly, taking the lion’s share of the blame for their abuse, and even believing their lies, accusations, and insults. To heap on yet another layer, you may even blame yourself for falling for their lies to begin with. Regardless of the narrative of self-blame rolling through your head, it’s bound to serve a hefty blow to your self-esteem and overall morale.
You have mysterious health issues
The anxiety associated with narcissistic abuse syndrome can, unsurprisingly, lead to physical symptoms.
These might include changes in appetite, nausea, digestive issues, abdominal pain, muscle aches, joint pain, insomnia, or fatigue—to name just a few. Some turn to alcohol, food, or drugs in order to cope or simply to get a good night’s sleep.
How to get help for narcissistic abuse syndrome
Although some narcissists do seek out treatment, it is very rare. Narcissistic abusers are unlikely to take responsibility or see anything wrong with their behavior. They may only get treatment when forced to, such as in cases of divorce, legal disputes, or custody battles. Facts are facts: it’s far more likely that a victim of narcissistic abuse syndrome will seek out treatment that results in meaningful change.
If you’re in a relationship with a narcissist, it’s crucial that you seek out external support to help you clearly understand what’s happening to you, rebuild your confidence and sense of self, and teach you to set firm boundaries and communicate clearly.
Recovering from the effects of narcissistic abuse can take time, so be patient and kind with yourself. You may feel fragile, uncertain of yourself, and distrustful of others, but it will pass. These are all signs that you are in recovery. With time and help from a good therapist, you can heal—and you will. Have no doubt.