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Ending Relationships With Narcissists

The Little Shaman is a spiritual coach & specialist in cluster B personality disorders, with a popular YouTube show and clients worldwide.


Relationships with pathologically narcissistic people are generally traumatic. They are mercurial, intense and often abusive. There is usually a lot of emotional investment on the non-narcissistic person's part and many times, a large amount of time has been invested in the relationship as well. For a large part of the relationship, there has commonly been a pattern of idealization and devaluation, where the non-narcissistic person is first put on a pedestal and then treated like garbage, over and over again. There often seems to be no rational trigger for the fluctuation in behavior that people can figure out, and victims feel that they are subjected to random behavioral changes that they are then blamed for causing. This roller coaster of unpredictability coupled with the intensity of the extremes can result in the formation of something called a trauma bond. Trauma bonding makes ending relationships very difficult.

In some ways, the steps to deal with a narcissistic relationship ending are the same as those regarding non-narcissistic ones, but there are some things that make them different from other relationships. Trauma bonds are one such thing. Another is the amount of fantasy and cognitive dissonance involved in relationships with pathologically narcissistic people. Cognitive dissonance is when people hold two contradictory beliefs about something. For example, people who smoke want to smoke but they also know that smoking is bad for your health. Usually, in order to reduce the psychological stress involved in this contradiction, they justify, minimize or deny the conflicting information. They might say to themselves, "Lots of people smoke and they don't have cancer, so it can't be that bad." Or they might say, "I'm going to die anyway, so I might as well smoke if I want to."

This is the same thing people often do with narcissistic relationships. They love the narcissistic person and believe the narcissist is a good person that loves them back. They also see that the narcissist is vindictive, selfish and abusive. These two things cannot exist together in someone's mind; if someone is a good person that loves you, they do not abuse you and behave selfishly, so people come up with justifications, minimizations and denials in order to reduce the contradiction. They make excuses for the narcissist's behavior or deny it because it is too psychologically stressful to hold both of these beliefs at the same time and too painful or upsetting to change the beliefs to reflect reality. There are different types of cognitive dissonance, but the two mostly commonly seen in this situation are belief disconfirmation and and effort justification. Effort justification in particular is common here, which is where someone convinces themselves that the ends justify the means. "It will be worth putting up with the abuse when the narcissist finally understands the problem and changes," or "Yes, they are abusive now but it won't last forever and it will be good again. It's not that big of a deal. It's worth it."

Another example of this can be blaming yourself for the abuse. "Bob is a good man. Bob loves me. Bob abuses me. A good man who loves his wife doesn't abuse his wife. Therefore, something must be wrong with me to make him behave in a way that makes no sense." Or, "Mothers love their children. My mother abuses me. Therefore, something must be wrong with me to make her behave unnaturally."

Cognitive dissonance is part of the reason there is so much fantasy involved in the relationship with narcissists. The focus of the relationship is always on something that either has not happened yet - like a time when the narcissist will not behave the way they usually do - or something that has not happened again - such as in the beginning of the relationship when the relationship seemed so perfect. There is a large amount of future faking involved in these relationships, and not just from the narcissist. The victim is often future faking, too. They focus on a hoped-for future with the narcissist that will be better than the present reality. When it does not come, they often readjust their expectations and keep hoping. The cycles of idealization and devaluation can sometimes help people to persuede themselves that the relationship is progressing when in actuality it isn't. It is only after years that people may realize nothing has changed. The narcissist is still the same person they always were. They may even be worse in some ways. When the fantasy is finally punctured and the cognitive dissonance can no longer be reduced, the resulting trauma can be devastating. Regardless of how the fantasy thinking is exposed, this is often when the relationship ends. People simply cannot justify staying in it any longer without the fantasy. When the relationship is understood in reality, it is exposed for what it really is, and the victim realizes that they are never going to get what they want and that there is no point in continuing.

This can be a gradual realization over time, or it can occur all at once. If it occurs all at once, there may be a period of shock that has to be processed before you can even think about grieving the relationship. As we've discussed, more than other types of relationships, there is often a very large difference between what the relationship with a narcissistic person seems like and what it actually is. The narcissist may end the relationship out of the blue, or you may discover something that changes the way you view the relationship and your ability to stay in it. This can all come as a great shock to people, and if that has been your experience, you need to allow time to process the situation before you can begin actually dealing with the fact that the relationship has ended and the emotions that come with it.

Once the shock has worn off - and this can take a bit of time - grief can set in. Some people may be embarrassed that they are upset an abusive relationship is over, but there's no shame in it. It was real to you. You lost something very real to you and it matters. Let yourself grieve and be honest about your feelings. It's OK that you are a caring human being, even if the other person wasn't. Just remember that it takes time and there are no tricks to get through it faster. It's what it is. It's a normal process and it will work itself out. If you find yourself getting caught up in the what ifs and could have, would have, should have where that old conditioning tries to creep in, remember that in reality, all you have actually lost is your illusions. And even though it may be painful, you're better off without them.

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