One of the questions we ask ourselves once the narcissistic relationship is finally over for good is – ‘How could I have put up with this for so long? and, Why did I Keep Going Back?’
Hindsight is a terrible thing because at some point we suddenly see with true clarity how wrong it all was and how much time we wasted. At this point we often start beating up on ourselves; ‘How could I have been so foolish and given him so many chances that he didn’t deserve?’
The truth is that until we are ready to learn the lesson, until the situation becomes too painful and we know we want to break the destructive pattern, or until he breaks it for us with the discard, we are locked in emotional addiction, just as much as if we were dependent on a drug.
But how have we managed to get to a point where we are addicted to the very thing that is causing us so much pain? It is all tied up with boundary setting. At the very beginning of the relationship, usually 3-4 months in, when we first see the switch from the Mr Nice to Mr Nasty alter ego, we want to give him the benefit of the doubt – ‘the horrible way he just acted can’t be right, he must be stressed.’ The switch to the beastly side of his nature interferes with our fairytale notion of this being our perfect relationship and perfect man. We don’t want to believe this is the truth, so we forgive him. The second time it happens, the warning bells go off loud and clear. A person with strong boundaries is prepared to walk away at this point but we can’t bear to think we have made a mistake and we forgive him again. Part of the reason for this is that women involved with a narcissistic man tend to be the forgiving and empathetic types, the highly sensitives of the world (by the way highly sensitive does not mean you cry at the drop of a hat, it simply means your senses are more highly attuned to what goes on around you and because of that you can sense the underlying pain behind someones’ bad behavior.)
However by making excuses for him and forgiving bad behavior repeatedly, the narcissist now has a measure of how much we are prepared to put up with. We have failed to set boundaries early on in the piece and a narcissist is only going to take liberties with that and push things even further. We go into a relentless cycle of idealization , devaluation, relenting (submission) and reconciliation.
Each time the reconciliation takes place we tell ourselves that ‘this time things will be different.’ But of course it never is and each time the cycle is faster – in other words the high of the reconciliation, the relief that he is back to being Mr Nice becomes shorter and shorter lived.
As our expectations are managed down we become caught up in a nightmarish puzzle that we can’t work out. We start to lose our ability to define what is right and wrong and believe that it must be our fault, that if we could just do something different he wouldn’t behave this way. We become fixated on ‘how he was at the beginning of the relationship’ and how he usually is again at the start of each reconciliation. ‘Ah, he’s back, there’s the lovely man again. I just have to walk on eggshells and be perfect so he stays the lovely man.’ But of course the lovely man doesn’t exist, he is only a faked persona designed to lure us back in. We become caught up in getting him to love us, in trying to fix the relationship. After being trapped on this emotional rollercoaster for a while, we develop what is known as trauma bonding, or Stockholm Syndrome, named after hostage victims who actually begin to bond with their captor and make excuses for their behavior. This happens because the sense of self is so continually under threat from the abuse that a kind of self preservation kicks in, where it is easier to align with the captor and rationalize his behaviour, ‘It must be my fault, I must have caused him to fly off the handle like this,’than to be on the receiving end of the abuse.
It becomes an addiction. And until we understand that and learn to value ourselves enough to walk away, we will stay trapped in the addiction and trapped in the pain. The best way to help ourselves is to stop focusing on the relationship and to start questioning why it is that we would be prepared to keep putting up with this type of behavior? Instead of trying to fix him and the relationship we get honest with ourselves and look at what we need to change in our own behavior.
If you are still in your relationship, read up on narcissism as much as you can. Join forums and websites for survivors. If you have left but are struggling to let go, read up on the importance of maintaining No Contact. Either way, focus on putting time and energy into yourself, rather than attempting to fix a relationship that is only designed to show you the truth about learning to love and care for yourself first and foremost.