- Narcissists are highly skilled at picking their victims.
- They select people who are vulnerable, either because of their past, or because they have high levels of empathy.
- Here are some of the things that keep people trapped in toxic relationships with narcissists.
It’s hard to walk away from a relationship you’ve put time and effort into. Sometimes it’s right to fight for your partner, while other times it’s best for you both to walk away.
But when it comes to dangerous, toxic people, it’s even more difficult to know what to do. Narcissists – people with a grandiose sense of entitlement – are particularly damaging to be in a relationship with. They spin lies to keep you hooked, while they simultaneously chip away at your self-esteem.
There are certain red flags to look out for in a relationship, or on a first date, that indicate you could be dating a narcissist. If your partner happens to be one, continuing the relationship is going to be hard work – but not impossible.
If you do decide to leave, there are still a number of things that could keep you stuck in the toxic cycle. Here are seven of them to be aware of.
1. Love bombing
Manipulative people, like narcissists, can hook their victims in with a tactic called “love bombing.” It’s the stage of the relationship where they identify their target, then make them feel like the most special person in the world by showering them with compliments, affection, and gifts. At the time, the victim is likely to feel like the luckiest person alive, and believe they have found true love.
But the manipulator’s intentions are not pure. Love bombing is simply reinforcement, where the abuser showers the victim with love if the victim acts how they want. If the victim doesn’t, then the manipulator withdraws and becomes a new person – like Jekyll and Hyde. They withdraw all their kindness and instead punish the victim with whatever they feel is appropriate – shouting, giving them the silent treatment, or even physically abusing them.
Love bombing is a smart tactic because the victim believes the affectionate, caring partner is the real one, and they blame themselves for bringing out the monster in front of them. This keeps victims trapped because they bend over backwards trying to get their loving partner back – but nothing they do will ever be enough.
According to psychologist Perpetua Neo, gratitude can keep some people stuck in abusive relationships with narcissists, because nobody is 100% bad all the time.
“You can always find evidence of your partner being good, that’s the whole point,” she told INSIDER. “That is the way in which they operate so that you will always have selective evidence.”
Narcissists expect any tiny, piecemeal changes they make to be applauded, and their mistakes ignored. But if their victims ever slip up, it’s blown way out of proportion. But they are incredibly convincing.
“They will always use that to hold you hostage,” Neo said. “In this sense you have to be really honest with yourself.”
3. You’re an empath
“People with high levels of empathy, people who over-give, people who are fixers, they tend to be in such relationships,” she said. “They will over-inflate the gratitude and will underplay how much they are suffering.”
Narcissists and highly empathetic people, like empaths, make a toxic partnership because the empath will want to fix the pain in the narcissist. Empaths have a lot of compassion and understanding to give, while narcissists thrive on someone worshipping them.
But while the empath gives and gives, the narcissist takes and takes, which is incredibly emotionally exhausting.
4. Trauma bonding
Therapist Shannon Thomas, author of “Healing from Hidden Abuse,” told INSIDER psychological abuse is insidious, and it occurs a over time like an IV drip of poison entering your veins.
She said victims can become biologically attached to their abusers through something called “trauma bonding.”
“You have this back and forth, and the body becomes addicted,” Thomas said. “When we’re looking for something that we want, that we once had, which is a connection with somebody, and they are playing cat and mouse where they are pulling it back and forth, then the body really does become dependent on having that approval.”
It’s a bit like a drug addiction, except the victim is hooked on the emotional rollercoaster, and getting intermittent affection when they act how the narcissist wants them to.
Research has shown that some people stay in unhappy relationships longer than they should because of altruism. Essentially, they believe their partner is still putting effort into the relationship, so they try and reciprocate.
But you cannot read someone else’s mind. So in most relationships, they end anyway, even when factoring in the altruism.
With a narcissist, however, it might be hard to figure out when to stop trying, because they exaggerate all their good points and refuse to believe any of their bad ones. This can be confusing for their partner, meaning they search inside themselves for the problem, rather than realising their relationship is toxic.
6. Downplaying abuse
In the midst of a relationship with a narcissist, they are likely to start gaslighting, and twisting the victim’s reality. The victim may find they end up being grateful for tiny victories, like the fact they haven’t been physically abused in three weeks.
Psychological abuse is just as damaging as physical abuse, but it’s harder to identify because there aren’t physical scars. Unfortunately, manipulative people are often aware of this, and they can use this to their advantage. They know physical violence is the breaking point for many people, and so they will abuse and control their partner in every way up until that point.
“When people say, ‘but he didn’t hit me,’ what they often mean is that they would leave if they were hit,” said Lisa Aronson Fontes, a psychology researcher at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. “Their partners exert control one thousand ways but may stop short of hitting, if they know that would ‘break’ the relationship.”
7. Repetition compulsion
In romantic relationships, people can sometimes repeat behaviours to make up for the falls of their previous ones. In psychology this is called repetition compulsion, and it essentially means you’re trying to fix the past by pursuing similar situations or people who once hurt you.
People who grew up with healthy relationships and relatively few traumas are more likely to have a healthy attachment style. But those who weren’t so lucky are more at risk of finding abusive, troubled partners over and over again.
“This is an unconscious attempt to make sure that they never again go through anything like they went through with their original caregiver,” psychotherapist Allison Abrams told INSIDER. “The irony is that by engaging in these defences that we’ve learned we are actually recreating the very thing we were trying to avoid.”
Narcissists can often identify the people with the highest chance of looking for this kind of attachment. They want someone who is damaged, because they’re more likely to go along with their lies and deceit because they’re probably more scared of the relationship failing.
8. Financial control
Financial abuse is when somebody controls how and when you spend money. Sometimes, they are the breadwinner and withhold or hide their money, while other times, they are a financial leech.
“There’s also this behind the scenes way – keeping people in debt, and keeping family in debt, so the partner doesn’t feel like there’s money to live on,” Thomas said, who has written a book about financial abuse.
The abuser essentially warps their victim’s reality, Thomas said, because it’s a way of taking away their humanity. When the victim tries to complain or get their needs met, the abuser will say things like “look at this house, look at the car you drive, look at the trip we just took.” They make the victim feel guilty for not appreciating what they have, even though they have no control over their own life.
Healing and protecting yourself
Once you’ve identified the red flags and the signs you might be a target for narcissists, the next steps are to protect yourself from their toxic tactics.
If you’re just leaving a relationship with a narcissist, it will be difficult, but you will come out the other side stronger and wiser – especially if you vow to work on whatever made you vulnerable in the first place.
It’s important to know that it takes the average person seven times to leave a toxic relationship. So if you struggled the first time, don’t be hard on yourself.
If you suspect you’re being targetted, run fast and far, Neo said. Remind yourself of your boundaries, and don’t let yourself be tricked into thinking you deserve less than you do.
“Gratitude is sometimes dangerous because people say you should be grateful for the bad times,” Neo said. “Instead, you should be grateful for your capacity to come through the bad times… Especially for people with high levels of empathy and the people pleasers.”
Business Insider Emails & Alerts
Site highlights each day to your inbox.