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LOVE-STARVED: Why People End Up In Toxic Relationships

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


As we've discussed in other articles, while it's true that abusers and manipulators brainwash and condition their victims after a fashion, it's just as true that most people who are vulnerable to these kinds of relationships were usually already conditioned before they ever met their abuser. In some situations, such as family situations, they've been conditioned by their abuser - since birth.

People who were raised by narcissists are of course going to be vulnerable to narcissistic relationships as adults. This is what they have been taught that relationships look like. If they are still caught up with the parent or sibling or other family member, this is how the relationship has always been so while it doesn't feel good, it's their normal. Even if they know intellectually it's not normal and not healthy, it's hard to make that make sense emotionally when this is all you've ever known. It makes sense in your heart, even though it shouldn't, and it feels familiar. But familiar is not always good. Some people may not even realize this is abuse, although they usually know it's not OK and realize they are unhappy.

But while it goes without saying that people who were raised by narcissists will be vulnerable to them, what about people who were not? We hear it all the time: "My parents were good people. I don't know why I'm attracted to this kind of person or why I stayed." However, when we dig deeper, we usually find that everything was not as rosy as it sounds initially. Blatant abuse is not the only thing that creates a vulnerability to the kind of emotional manipulation perpetrated by pathologically narcissistic people. Many people were raised in a situation that we call emotional neglect. Instead of starving for food, as children might do in situations of physical neglect, people who are emotionally neglected grow up starving for love. They can become love-starved adults who are very vulnerable to the love-bombing and intensity that usually accompanies narcissistic courtship.

Emotional neglect is often something that is not noticed or realized until a person is much older, because while it's easy to remember situations where something did happen, it can be harder to pinpoint what didn't happen - and neglect is a situation where things didn't happen. It is often done accidentally or is the result of mismatched personalities between the child and the parent. For example, the child may be naturally needy and require more validation and attention, whereas the parent is not emotionally demonstrative or is very reserved. A parent may have to work a lot, or maybe there are many children in the family. There could be a chronically ill sibling, or maybe the parent has a chronic illness. Maybe the parent is just a naturally unemotional type of person. There are many situations that can result in a child growing up feeling like they are ignored or unimportant, and many of them are not done on purpose at all.

As an adult, the love-starved child may realize that this is not something their parent or parents did to hurt them, but knowing that usually does not repair the lifelong conditioning, mindset and deep need that this situation has created. It often persists, leaving the person vulnerable to narcissistic love-bombing and the cycle of idealization-devaluation that is intrinsic to narcissistic relationships.

This happens because love-bombing is exactly what a love-starved person is looking for. When someone has felt unimportant, ignored or unloved by the people who mean the most to them, the overwhelming intensity with which a narcissist fixates on them can be intoxicating. "Wow!" they might think. "This is what I've been waiting for. I'm finally the most important thing in someone's life! Someone finally loves me the way I've been waiting for!" When the inevitable devaluation happens and the narcissist begins to treat them as if they don't matter. not only is this familiar and thus more tolerable to them than it would be to someone who did not have that conditioning, but the devaluation creates a mad scramble to get back to the good feelings that so intoxicated the person in the first place. If the narcissist is a parent or other family member, it feels so good to finally have the mother or brother or grandparent they've always wanted that people ignore all the other times this happened but didn't last. Thus, a cycle is born.

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The other part of it is that love-starved adults often don't have healthy boundaries. Subconsciously, they may not even want healthy boundaries because they may feel like this will get in the way of their attachment to the other person and they don't want that. When someone does have healthy boundaries, the initial fall from grace and devaluation that narcissists engage in would be enough to send them on their way. But if someone does not have healthy boundaries, they already have a lower threshold in the first place. This means that they may not even realize that the way they are being treated is not OK. They of course figure it out eventually because it gets worse, but without strong boundaries, they may not realize the behavior is wrong at all at first.

For example, most people know that hitting another person is wrong. It's disrespectful, invalidating and abusive. However, they may not realize that someone telling you to shut up or treating you as if your feelings don't matter is also wrong for the same reasons and in the same way. A person with healthy boundaries can see this behavior for what it is and leave the situation. A person without healthy boundaries may not, and even if they do, they may be more willing to put up with it because their threshold is lower.

If you find that any of this applies to you, remember that conditioning can be broken. Part of the way you do that in this situation is by becoming aware of it. Learn to stop devaluing yourself. Learn that you are not helpless. Stand up for you. Insist that others respect you and if they don't, stop engaging with them. Above all, learn to validate yourself. Your value is not based on what other people think of you or how they feel about you. It really and truly isn't. You have value that is intrinsic. It exists outside of other people and is not related to or controlled by them in any way. If you don't believe that, answer this: if someone finds a gold watch on the ground but they don't think it's real, does that change the value of the watch? No, it doesn't. It only changes the way they treat the watch.

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