Relationally traumatized clinical counseling clients may present in multiple ways, ranging from calm and self-depreciating to enraged and frustrated, all the way to appearing like textbook cases of bipolar disorder. Which is why, of course, the competent clinician will be thorough in the initial assessment of the client. Some clients, namely the calm and self-depreciating client, may take several sessions to feel comfortable enough to reveal that they are in fact in relationship with a personality disorder. Many such clients are often completely unaware of the fact, and demonstrate complete responsibility for their own sufferings. The latter two client presentations may have more insight into their situation, exclaiming relief when the clinician suggests to them that it may be not them, but their difficult person who is the source of their suffering.
From working with victims of personality disorder some thirty plus years, I have come to have a loose list of what I consider the top needs that the relationally traumatized client has in order to begin to make meaningful progress. The list is by no means exhaustive, and it is stated in no particular order. I try to help the victim move fairly quickly from identifying as a victim to a survivor of such abusive relationship, while allowing for some natural grieving in the process.
A relationally traumatized victim has a good bit to grieve, including not only their current state of affairs (like separation, divorce, being cheated on, custody harassment, social media harassment, protections from abuse, etc.), but all of the dreams they once held about the future of their relationship. Being in the midst of an ugly, running battle with an individual akin to the Terminator is not where they thought their life would be at this point. It’s a long way from the charm and love-bombing worship of the first phase of relationship with a personality disorder to the bottom of the barrel feeling of being completely alone and at the total mercy of a sadistic madman that you cannot shake. Oh, and then add the grief of realizing that your kids, if you have them, have a certifiable jerk for a parent.
Assurance of their own sense of reality: Due to the relative skills of the personality disorder, the victims of relational trauma inevitably personalize and take total responsibility for their feeling like they are “crazy”. Nowhere in my practice do I hear the word “crazy” nearly as often when speaking with victims of a personality disorder. The classic Cluster B personality disorder is reliably predictable in their ability and action to project just about everything onto their victims. This includes the elaborate dance of pressing their victims to feel like they are losing their minds.
Victims need frequent and strong statements that they are not “crazy” and that they should give consideration that the reason why they feel this way is because someone is emotionally and relationally manipulating them. They need fairly strong directive help to anchor themselves in a way that they can begin to self-validate what is real. A key to accomplishing this is to help them with reality testing.
Education regarding the nature of relational abuse/personality disorder: The general public is extremely weak concerning awareness of personality disorder in general; nothing much is really widely available beyond the sensational stories of serial killers or television dramas which most pass off as fantasy fiction. There are some victims who become self-motivated to begin to search for some kind of answers or insights to their plight, and may stumble upon information on the internet or books. But as the dedicated researcher might realize, much of that material is centered around descriptors of the perpetrators, the complaints and miseries of the victims, or advisement to simply go “no contact”, and not practical, helpful information or training on how to recover from the trauma sustained. There can never be enough education for the victim of a personality disorder on understanding just what the perpetrator did to the victim’s way of thinking and behaving, and how they did it. Most importantly, how to undo it.
Build a solid and reliable support system: By the time most relational trauma victims come to the clinical counseling room, they have had their support systems dramatically impaired at least, and more likely totally destroyed by their perpetrator. The victim’s good friends are long gone, cut out like weeds and left to decompose on a trash heap by the perpetrator. Any friends left are either the minions of the perp, or are so enamored with the personality disorder as to be incredulous of any criticism of him. Blood family members have long ago been marginalized or blocked, but a remnant may remain that can help the victim escape and recover. Embarrassed, the victim may need encouragement to seek out and solicit old, good friends and family members who have been waiting for them to take the first steps to recovery from the perpetrator.
Manage mood and neediness swings: Making the all-important decision to leave does not magically break the spell that the perpetrator has cast on the victim. The sticky web of lies and sick beliefs that the perpetrator has installed in the victim’s psyche continues to chug away. Victims will oscillate between the relief of leaving and the overwhelming sense of loss and failure in the separation. They will fluctuate in their emotions from rage and anger at the wasting of their time with the perpetrator to tender, forgiving and regretful emotions of wanting the relationship to be repaired so that it can “work like it did in the beginning”.
The approach here is once again a reality-based press to reality testing and beginning solid cognitive-behavioral self-help practice. Emphasizing the skills of authentic self-validation of critical thinking and emotional discernment is key to assisting the victim to move towards a survivor status. Such mood and neediness swings are a dangerous and critical issue that can lead the victim to swallow the lies of the perpetrator wholesale, and re-engage with them in the vampire dance.
Find respite: By and large, victims of relational trauma are exhausted. The analogy of being a feeding station for a vampire is not an idle one; personality disorders drain their victims in ever more creative and total ways. Helping the survivor discover available and creative means to carve out a private, secure, and serene life with specific skills training is an important process for not just survival, but moving on to thrive in life. Teaching the survivor how to manage their social media, use the law when needed, learn skills like Relational Aikido for needed interactions with the perpetrator, and how to meditate are all tactics to learn about to come to a new and satisfying life.
Get on track to recovery: On-track recovery can be characterized by clear, critical thinking, self-validation of emotions and thought, stabilized emotions and behaviors, and a shift from seeing their situation from a crisis to an opportunity to move on from the tatters that their life had become. In a word, hope returns, and along with it, the channeling of their anger from an outlet seeking revenge, to an outlet seeking ever smarter ways of coping with and dealing with the perpetrator in things like divorce and especially, custody issues.
This content is for informational purposes only and does not substitute for formal and individualized diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, and/or dietary advice from a licensed medical professional. Do not stop or alter your current course of treatment. If pregnant or nursing, consult with a qualified provider on an individual basis. Seek immediate help if you are experiencing a medical emergency.
Ellen Gregory from Connecticut, USA on January 14, 2020:
So well written and so very helpful
Pamela Oglesby from Sunny Florida on January 11, 2020:
I found your article to be very interesting. It is a long road back when you live with someone like you described. I appreciate all of the information you shared.