Frequently I encounter women, who are emotionally and psychologically devastated by the wreckage of romantic involvment with a malignant narcissist. These women are intelligent, beautiful, and empathic. Yet they cannot extricate themselves from insidious dynamics of abuse and violence. They are addicted.
B.F. Skinner’s work with operant conditioning tells us that what we learn is impacted by reinforcement and punishment/unpleasant consequence. A pattern of intermittent reinforcement establishes unpredictability and confusion. The narcissistic abuser capitalizes on this phenomenon.
The victim’s mind scrambles to discover what one has to do to acquire a positive response from her abuser. Eventually cognitive dissonance sets in and the desperate urgency to discern a rhyme or reason becomes a driving force.
At this point the victim is caught up in an addictive cycle and views her tormenter as her redeemer. The abuser is deified by the victim. The victim evidences signs of Stockholm Syndrome, a form of traumatic bonding in which victims are pathologically attached to their perpetrator.
This pathological attachment is a survival strategy, which enables the victim to dissociate from her pain. By disowning the horror of her reality and taking on the abuser’s perspective, the victim wards off the threat of helplessness and terror she actually experiences.
Her locus of control centers around appeasing and pleasing the abuser, so as to mitigate danger. Over time the victim becomes over-identified with her abuser, ignoring her own needs and assuming responsibility for the abusers’ ‘suffering’. She begins to believe the abuse is her fault.
When the victim finally bottoms out and is either degraded and discarded by the narcissist, or has been confronted with one too many infidelities, beatings, financial ruin, or other sundry forms of abuse, she may be ready to seek professional help. In order to initiate a process of recovery, a no contact rule is advised so as to sever the toxic bond.
The victim will be challenged to manage symptoms of withdrawal, characterized by harrowing obsession and emotional flooding. Resources such as bodywork, meditation and medication management may be necessary to stabilize the victim’s disregulated limbic system. Knowledge is power. Learning about NPD and identifying traumas rooted in ones family of origin that make one vulnerable to being targeted and victimized, are critical aspects of the healing. Ongoing treatment may probe the complex depths of reclaiming and rebuilding.
Life after narcissistic abuse takes on new meaning for the survivor. Metabolizing the reality of evil alters one’s world-view. This alteration allows the survivor to cultivate realistic boundaries. It encourages her to make a tenacious commitment to ensuring safety, predictability, and relationships that honor her personal dignity.