“Wait, you’re STILL not over them??”
“Just move on girl!”
“Get back out there and you’ll feel a lot better.”
I spent a long time recovering from a relationship that I just couldn’t seem to shake off. Months rolled by and despite my attempts at all the usual remedies suggested by my kin to get over a “bad breakup,” nothing seemed to do the trick. I began to feel a sense of shame over not being able to just pick up and move on like everybody else does after the end of a relationship.
It wasn’t until I began regular therapy sessions that I uncovered the true nature of the relationship, and why its negative effects were so particularly long lasting. During one session, my therapist mentioned that this partner of mine seemed to display narcissistic characteristics. Intrigued, I went home that night and began my own research on the subject. All it took was a simple google search, and up popped the very specifically detailed dynamic of my relationship with this partner. All there in black and white. This partner had been emotionally abusive, and the realization was a lot to unpack. Every memory was now smeared with the truth of how I had allowed this person to control my thoughts and emotions so effectively, that I hadn’t even noticed.
I’d like to share the key points of what I found through both research and personal experience. My hope is that this information brings awareness to how to identify an emotionally abusive partner, and aids in the healing process of those in my position.
Things to Know:
They aren’t all monsters and serial killers-–
Narcissism functions on a spectrum. It is possible to have some traits of narcissism without having a full blown clinically diagnosed narcissistic personality disorder. Not all narcissists are as brazen and dangerous as Ted Bundy. Most often, narcissists display a few of the staple characteristics, that show up in more subtle ways. They also tend to give wonderful first impressions, coming off charming and likeable. This can make them hard to spot, and therefore easy to infiltrate the life of an unsuspecting person. My partner and I were together for a few years and it took me months after the end of the relationship to even recognize the person that they truly are. If you feel yourself deteriorating in the relationship, do not ignore your instincts. Examine your partners actions for signs of emotional abuse.
They live in their own world, and draw you into it—
Some narcissists are completely unaware that they are emotionally abusive. This is because they have a skewed perception of reality. Almost everything that they do stems from being deeply insecure. They are so afraid of facing their own wrongdoing that they must manipulate and control the narrative of their lives in order to protect their sense of self. They desperately do everything in their power to build a world in which they are always the hero of the story, which means anyone that challenges the credibility of that world must always be the villain. They tell themselves and others this story so often, that they actually start believing that it’s true. This delusion is their defense mechanism against facing the ways that they harm others in the process of protecting themselves. They absolutely will not allow you to permeate it and will often lash out or break down if you attempt to do so.
My partner once insinuated that I had “gaslit” them after I mentioned that they were not the only person hurt in our relationship. From their perspective, I committed the ultimate betrayal by finally choosing myself and my well-being over them when I ended our relationship. They deemed me unforgivable for having left the relationship and cut off communication, clinging to the idea that my “abandonment” of them warranted withholding compassion from me and treating me as if we were never together. All of the energy that I consistently poured into them over the course of our relationship was completely forgotten. Reality is not where they exist. They build and live in a world all their own and the only way to exist in a relationship with them is to step into that world and adopt their version of reality. Loving them is how you allow yourself to become its prisoner.
They choose their targets very wisely—
You are a good-natured, non-confrontational person with the capacity to put the needs of those you love ahead of your own. And that is exactly why the narcissist chose to latch onto you. They know that a compassionate person will search for the good in them, the reason to forgive them, and come running whenever they are in need. Narcissists will only get close to those that give them things they want or need. That can be intimacy, praise, status, etcetera. They often have networks of friends that serve as a source of indiscriminate support and validation.
My partner had more friends than I could count, and they all had one very important thing in common: they praised my partner constantly. I found it strange watching their interactions, noting the ways my partner seemed to be their unchallenged leader. But I wrote it off as my partner just having a naturally powerful personality and being lucky to have so many kind supportive friends.
Narcissists will often only keep somebody as a close friend or partner if they are the type of person to not pose a threat to their way of operating. They prey on the compassionate and submissive in order to eliminate the possibility of being called out on their abuse. You will find yourself walking on eggshells in conversations with them because the last thing you want to do is upset this person that you care about. They are just “so sensitive” after all, and in need of your gentleness and patience. And that is exactly how they keep you in line. If you do not indulge them in order to appease their egos, or if you challenge them too consistently, then eventually they will get rid of you.
They have a toolbox of ways to control you—
Narcissists are masters of emotional manipulation. They aim to control their partners, and the people around them, out of their deep sense of insecurity. During my relationship, I often felt as though I was being controlled but could not for the life of me put my finger on how because it was never as blatant as them saying, “Do this because I said so!” A narcissist’s means of control are very covert in order to keep them effective and to keep you unsuspecting. Some of these tactics include:
- Projection– attributing undesirable feelings or emotions onto someone else. My partner accused me of being selfish, being neglectful, lacking empathy, and being unwilling to take responsibility when I was wrong. Because these accusations were coming from a person that I loved and trusted, I began believing them to be true. Now I know that this partner was simply redirecting the responsibility that they did not want to take for their own actions.
- Deflection– a method of changing the course of an emotion or thought from its original source. When I would find the confidence to attempt to address the way that my partner’s actions made me feel, I was often met with this form of blame-shifting and misdirection that would leave me feeling as though I was wrong for having brought it up at all. Me pointing out that I was constantly catering to their needs was quickly flipped into me “having a martyr complex” that I needed to work on.
- Guilt tripping– a feeling of guilt or responsibility, especially an unjustified one, induced by someone else. My partner knew that flat out demands would not work on me in order to get me to do what they wanted. Instead, they would regularly appeal to my conscience when I could not provide them with whatever they needed. By allowing them to have this control, over time their demanding nature was eclipsed by me constantly feeling as though I was failing them as a partner.
- Self-victimization– also known as “playing the victim,” is the fabrication of victimhood for a variety of reasons which include to justify abuse or to manipulate others. Both during and after our relationship, my partner would often prune situations to center on my “harmful reaction” to their toxic behavior, as opposed to acknowledging their toxic behavior at all. This is used to further evade taking responsibility for their actions by painting me as the villain. If I am the villain, then that means that they get to count all of their wrong doing as self-defense.
- Gaslighting– manipulating someone by psychological means into questioning their own sanity, memory, and/or feelings. This is one of the most disturbing and damaging forms of emotional abuse. I remember very vividly the sensation of feeling like I had gone crazy every time I practiced exactly how I was going to address an issue with my partner, and almost always left the conversation having to apologize for something instead. It’s this constant altering of one’s sense of what is real and what is not that can wear a person down to the bone.
“But they were always so good to me…” -–
Narcissists will often do something called “love bombing.” This is when they shower their target with affection, gifts, compliments, ect. For a long time, it was next to impossible to see the toxicity of my relationship because when I looked back at the way that they treated me, it was full of thoughtful and sometimes lavish displays of affection. They constantly expressed just how much they loved me with relentless intensity. To the people around us, our relationship was picturesque, and I was more than lucky to have this person in my life. There was not a single doubt in my mind that I was passionately loved and cared for.
However, these overzealous gestures are only to further leverage control. They can be used as bargaining chips for when you do not or cannot give them what they want down the line, or to distract you from the harm that they are doing. My partner used to say that I “didn’t love them as much as they loved me.” Allowing them to have me believe that they felt this way caused me to work overtime at showing them just how much I cared for them. A narcissist’s goal is always to maintain control over their partner in order to get what they need from them. If you are constantly being distracted from their true nature with reassuring words and actions, you almost do not notice it.
Their image is everything-–
Public perception is everything to a narcissist. They put meticulous time and effort into perfecting the version of themselves that they display to the world. When I began describing the dynamic of the relationship to people in my life that met this partner, they could barely believe it. A narcissist makes absolutely sure that they are seen by others as a good person. This is due to the fact that they harbor a deep sense of self hatred. They need outside validation in order to feel as though they are good and deserving. For this reason, narcissists often do not want you repeating the details of your relationship to anyone, because they know what they are doing to you, and they cannot risk being seen for who they truly are.
My partner would regularly tell me that being seen as a bad person was their “worst fear.” As a result, I began to allow a healthy dose of guilt to come attached to the act of trying to call them out on their abusive actions. The last thing I wanted to do was bring their worst fear to life, because I loved and cared for them. This fact is a part of what stopped me from sharing the details of our relationship with anyone because I felt as though “painting my partner in a bad light” was unfair to them. Ironically enough, once you get on a narcissist’s bad side, they will often describe all of your flaws and wrong doing to anyone who will listen in order to preserve their image.
At the start of my relationship, my partner specifically asked me to always come to them directly about an issue we were having before turning to social media, and I agreed because it is a philosophy that I still believe to be a healthy one. Then after our relationship deteriorated, they would regularly turn to live-tweeting their point of view during disagreements in order to publicly validate their side of the argument. A narcissist does not play fair and they will do any and everything to ensure that public perception of them remains positive.
The relationship will drain the life from you—
A narcissist is often highly emotionally dependent and will drain you without remorse if you allow them to. The relationship that I had with my partner began during one of the most difficult times in their life. This contributed greatly to the way that I felt responsible for putting their needs first and only. However, constantly tending to the emotional needs of my partner while ignoring my own was not a sustainable dynamic for a healthy relationship. As the relationship drained me and I had less and less to give over time, this only strengthened the ways that my partner would coerce me into trying to give them more of my time, energy, and effort. It did not matter to my partner that our relationship was coming directly at the expense of myself, so long as I was putting all of my energy into trying to meet their needs. I realize now that if you are honest with your partner about how their needs are overwhelming, only to be met with accusations of not trying hard enough, that is not a sign to try harder. That is a sign to run.
They lack empathy—
Though their tactics for emotional abuse are largely subtle, closer examination of a narcissist’s actions will highlight their lack of empathy and compassion for others. A narcissist will learn your weak spots and use them to hold power over you in the relationship. For example, I have a history of struggling with self-harm. When I was dating my partner, the anxiety that stemmed from this emotionally abusive relationship caused me to relapse after over a year of not turning to it. Knowing that I have a special level of compassion for people that also struggle with this issue, my partner bruised their knuckles in response to my relapse, telling me that they struggle with self-harm as well. This was done in order to evade their own guilt of having contributed to my relapse and turn my attention to feeling sorry for them instead. They later admitted to having lied, but never fully took on the responsibility that comes with committing that deep a betrayal of trust. We never spoke about it again. Shortly after this incident, they insinuated that they would harm themselves if I ever left the relationship. Any person capable of toying with the compassion of another person to such extreme extents does not have the capacity to consider how it is affecting that person. A narcissist does not feel the ways that the harm they do affects others. Their only goal is to preserve themselves and their own needs.
They will always paint you as the villain—
Was I the perfect partner? Of course not. I am a human being capable of mistakes and I make them all the time. However, that does not warrant emotional abuse. I spent so much time allowing my partner to fill my head with the ways that my missteps in the relationship were the reason for how they treated me, that recognizing that I did not deserve it was an entire process in and of itself. During the time of this relationship, I struggled heavily with social anxiety. This made having friends and a life of my own very difficult. As a result, I made this relationship my entire life and we spent the majority of our time around their friends. This meant that for a few years I mainly interacted with people that indiscriminately love and support my partner. This also meant that when the relationship ended, my partner had complete control over the narrative being relayed to the people that knew us both.
Naturally, because these people are good supportive friends, they took the side of my partner without question, and I was excommunicated. It felt extremely isolating and unjust to be viewed as the villain in a relationship that both my partner and I knew I was not the villain in. However, a narcissist needs an audience of their peers to validate their internal belief that they have done nothing wrong. This can be a particularly frustrating experience for anyone feeling the wrath of a narcissist. The irony of being seen as the bad guy while your emotionally abusive partner is being seen as the victim is almost unbearable. But this is all part of the narcissist’s game to confuse, manipulate, and punish you.
Ways to Heal:
Healing from an emotionally abusive relationship is a particularly excruciating process. That is because the damage done is internal. Nobody around you can truly grasp the extent of the destruction because there are no external scars to show for it. This detail can even make admitting it to yourself a whole separate difficulty. However, healing from emotional abuse is just as arduous and often takes much longer than healing from physical abuse. To have one’s reality and emotions manipulated over an extended period of time is something that cannot and should not be taken lightly. Below are some ways that I have found healing in the wake of emotional abuse.
You are not crazy, and you did not make this up—
The most difficult and disturbing aspect of emotional abuse is that you will often find yourself second guessing whether it actually happened to you or not. With physical abuse, it’s hard to ignore a slap to the face. With emotional abuse, you spend an extended period of time allowing your partner to skew your perception of reality. The abuse is gradual and covert. Picture the boiled frog analogy: your psyche was a frog sitting in warm water that was brought to a boil so slowly, that it did not even perceive the danger until it was far too late. This can make picking apart your experience in the relationship extremely difficult.
There was no major blow up event that you can point to and say for certain that this partner was clearly here to hurt you. So, you must trust your gut. My partner did not hit me, yell at me, or call me names. However, the most tangible sign that this relationship was abusive was just how badly I began to feel about myself the longer it went on. If your relationship made you feel badly about yourself, drained you, and left you feeling as though all of your best efforts were never enough, then that is grounds enough to start being intentional about healing from the emotional abuse that you endured in the relationship. Abuse is abuse. Calling it by its name can be an important first step to recovering from it.
Learn to listen to your body—
Though the effects of emotional abuse are largely psychological, they can also have physical manifestations. In hindsight, though I was unaware of the true nature of this relationship, the effects of the abuse that it administered showed up very prominently in my physical and mental health. During this relationship, I experienced anxiety like I never have before. I was consistently on edge and did not know where this internal panic was stemming from. The constant heart racing and irritability made functioning regularly next to impossible. This anxiety also resulted in the lowering, and eventually the disappearance of my sex drive entirely. In order to maintain a healthy sexual relationship with a partner, you must feel safe with them. My body shut my partner out in response to them consistently triggering emotional distress and piling up unresolved grievances. I also gained over twenty pounds during the course of this relationship, and at the time, attributed it all to “relationship weight.” I rationalized it as the result of laying around and getting comfortable with the person that I loved.
In hindsight, it was the result of the constant emotional eating and alcohol consumption that I was using to cope with the internal distress of this relationship. When things were at their worst, it had gotten to a point where I could not even talk to or be around my partner without being under the influence of something, in order to quell the stress. My body was buckling under the pressure of abuse and I did not notice the ways that this relationship was directly affecting my health until I stepped out of it.
When I finally found the strength to leave this relationship, the weight dropped off on its own as my diet returned to normal, and my debilitating anxiety subsided seemingly overnight. Do not ignore the signs that your body is trying to give you. Learn to regularly check in with yourself physically and mentally in order to keep yourself healthy. Moving forward, if you experience a notable decline in your physical and mental health during your relationship, consider just how healthy the relationship truly is.
Let it out—
After my partner and I stopped communicating, I felt a huge gaping hole in my life where they once sat. That is because this person and this relationship was the center of my life for years. And not having them around to process this abrupt shift left me floundering. I needed a way to process everything that I was feeling. I began writing letters addressed directly to them in order to say all the things in our relationship that I was never able to say because our communication called for me to constantly walk on eggshells.
I ended up with close to fifty pages filled with writing because, evidently, I had a lot to say. I also talked through the experience in therapy regularly. I truly cannot stress enough how integral therapy was in processing this experience. If it is in any way accessible to you, I will always highly suggest it. It is important for you to find an outlet for all the emotional turmoil that an abusive relationship brings. If this is writing, therapy, painting, sculpting, crying, screaming into the abyss, whatever it takes. Take the time to let it out. This is not the kind of pain that you can keep bottled and expect to heal from. Healing comes from feeling through your emotions, instead of suppressing or avoiding them.
Do not allow anger to make a home in you—
Before I even had the knowledge that my relationship was emotionally abusive, I had the anger and resentment toward my partner with the intensity of a thousand fucking suns. When we ended, all of the injustice that I had suppressed hit me like a truck. I was bitter and enraged for months because I could not stop playing the ways that they had hurt me, over and over again in my head. Every wound felt fresh and unresolved because this person never took responsibility for the damage that they did, and I let how deeply unfair that was fester in me. It was truly torturous.
However, over time I had to let that anger dissipate. Holding onto it was not hurting anybody but me. After unpacking the abuse suffered in this relationship, I was able to understand the root of my partner’s actions. I had to understand before I could forgive them and let go. Though I would never advocate for the idea that it is mandatory for a person to forgive their abuser, because I believe that you should heal in the way that is safest for you, I do believe that letting go of the intense anger that you may feel toward them is necessary. Rage can be extremely debilitating because it is such a heavy thing to carry around. You have to find a way to put it down. Do it for you, not for them.
Accept that you cannot change your partner—
It took me a long time to face the reality that my partner had been emotionally abusive because in my mind, I could not fathom that I had allowed somebody capable of this kind of behavior into my life. It wasn’t until I reached out to them to gain closure (against my therapist’s suggestion), that I realized the truth. I was still convinced that this was somebody that had loved me, so surely, they would want to reach a place of reconciliation in order for us to both move on in a healthy way. Instead, this partner set a date with me to talk, waited a month, and then cut off communication with me entirely without an explanation. I begged and pleaded and groveled for them to grant me this relief that I believed I needed in order to move on, to no avail. It was this jarring cruelty that finally allowed me to see that this person never truly cared about me. They had only kept me around to fulfill a purpose: to provide them with endless love, support, and validation without receiving the same in return.
Once I stopped fulfilling that purpose, they had no use for me anymore. It was a devastating discovery, but a necessary one in order for me to move on. Narcissists often withhold closure from you as a leverage of power in order to make moving on as hard as possible, especially if the relationship did not end on their terms. Because you truly loved this person, it will be hard not to attempt to smooth things over with them. However, a narcissist is not going to respond to you rationally just because you care about them. Personality disorders cannot be cured with kindness. They cannot be cured at all.
The only hope for a narcissist to change their behavior is for them to gain self-awareness. However, the chances of them gaining that awareness, given how heavily their existence leans on delusion, are very slim. So, save yourself the extra layers of heartache and do NOT attempt to reach out to them once the relationship is over. The kindest thing an abusive partner can do for you, is never speak to you again. Let silence be your closure and allow your consolation to be putting this experience behind you.
Spend time around people that truly care about you—
The first thing I noticed about stepping out of my emotionally abusive relationship, is just how warped my sense of self had become. I remember sitting with a friend that I had not seen in a while and them telling me that I was one of the most giving people that they knew. I immediately broke down in tears because my initial reaction was to not believe them. I had allowed my partner to lead me to believe that I was a selfish and cold person for so long that hearing the opposite was a shock to my system.
An abusive relationship can have extremely damaging effects on your self-esteem. By allowing my partner to gain control of my thoughts and feelings, I had begun to feel less than and to see myself in a negative light. However, the more time I spent around people that are in my life to genuinely love and care for me, the better I felt. The people that you allow into your life should make you feel supported and appreciated. Being around real love is an essential part of returning to yourself.
Take responsibility so that you can take better care of you—
An important point that my therapist brought to my attention is that an emotionally abusive partner can only leverage power over you if you let them. I had to take responsibility for the ways in which I allowed loving this person to be an excuse to let them chip away at me. I allowed them to leverage control over me in the relationship and ignored the ways that it made me feel because I had an internal belief that truly loving somebody meant putting their needs ahead of my own. I had to give up that belief in order to make room for loving others in a healthier way, that incorporated the very important aspect of being fair to myself.
Once you are honest with yourself about the reasons why you did not come to your own defense, you can learn to do a better job in the future. You are most deserving of your own love and protection. Do not allow this experience to turn you into a victim, but rather use it to learn how to show up for yourself better and stronger moving forward.
Be patient with yourself—
People, even people that genuinely love and care about you, will wonder why you can’t just let the relationship go. Unless you have experienced an emotionally abusive relationship oneself, it’s hard to describe the experience to someone else. But the fact is that the act of unknowingly pouring yourself into a big black hole of a partner can be extremely traumatic and disorienting. This goes far beyond the realm of a “bad breakup.” So be patient with yourself and don’t be ashamed of taking as much time as you need to heal. I personally did not feel ready to jump into a new relationship until having properly healed from this experience, and that is perfectly fine. Even if they do not understand, the people that love you should be supportive of your healing process and what it entails for you personally.
Pour your energy into self-love—
This relationship left me feeling very disoriented about the kind of person that I am. I had allowed my partner to infiltrate my sense of self and believed that I was somebody that I am not. I have found that being intentional about loving myself has been an essential part of healing. And that goes far beyond face masks and drinking water. It means taking the time and space to know me better. The stronger that you stand in knowing exactly who you are and exactly who you are not, the less room you leave for others to decide those things for you. Take yourself on dates, trips, out to dinners all with the intention of loving you the way that you would want somebody else to, and the way that you deserve. Grow to admire and be proud of the person that you are. You are an incredible force, capable of surviving an event as arduous as this relationship. You are to be celebrated. So, celebrate yourself.
I blocked their number when I was angry, I yelled and cursed them out in a fit of frustration, I broke up with them over the phone. I was a partner that made mistakes. However, absolutely nothing that I did warrants the abuse that this relationship administered. Granting yourself that same humanity is very important. People make mistakes in healthy reciprocal relationships. However, people also forgive their partners for the mistakes that they make. A healthy reciprocal relationship is never going to be possible with a narcissist. Narcissists do not know how to pour into another person, only how to be poured into. While simultaneously avoiding accountability for their actions, they will absolutely crucify you for your every indiscretion and lead you to believe that you are undeserving of forgiveness if you allow them to.
My partner used to have me apologize for the same thing over and over again until I “got it right.” When I would contest, it was quickly flipped into a matter of me being “unable to admit when I was wrong.” At the start of my healing, I used to think “well maybe if I had done this differently…” Stop. You did not administer abuse against your partner and your intentions were never malicious. Forgive yourself for your missteps in this relationship. You are a human being and granting yourself the humanity to still deserve love and compassion, flaws and all, is important. No matter how hard you tried to be the perfect partner for them, they were always going to find a way in which you could have been better. Do not take on that responsibility. You did your absolute best and perfection is not your job.
Relearn love the right way—
An emotionally abusive relationship can distort your perception of what love feels like. It’s important to put time and energy into making clear what love is and is not. Being needed is not being loved. A love-based relationship offers freedom, a need-based relationship is built like a cage. A narcissist will not love you but depend on you for the things that they need. Once you no longer provide that thing, they throw you away. Love accepts you the way that you are. Love makes you feel fulfilled, supported, and comfortable. Love allows you to grow into your best self and feel like you can take on the world. Make sure that you are paying close attention to the way that your future partners make you feel.
Do what YOU need to heal—
I spent a long time putting the needs of others ahead of my own. This relationship had the most painful repercussions of that. However, I now know the importance of honoring my own needs. Upon realizing that my partner was abusive, part of me felt a responsibility to attempt to get the people in my partner’s life to see what they are doing. I was not the first person that they had abused, and I am certain that I will not be the last as they continue to evade accountability. I did not and do not want anyone else to suffer at the hands of their emotional manipulation, as I would not wish this experience on my worst enemy. However, my research and personal experience have all pointed to that course of action only resulting in my demise.
I’m no match for a master manipulator in a case of my word against theirs. Especially not in an arena of people that indiscriminately love and support my partner. Instead, I choose to provide information to people in my position in order for them to know how to keep themselves safe. Do not forget to protect yourself during this healing process. Honor the ways in which you feel safest and the ways that will help you truly move past this.
At this point in my life, I am grateful for the lessons that enduring an emotionally abusive relationship has provided me with. Though the experience and healing from it was terribly painful, I have emerged a much stronger, compassionate, and centered person. My hope is that sharing my knowledge and experience will help those that feel invalidated and bruised by the invisible destruction of emotional abuse. There are people in my life that know me intimately and personally and will still read this account in disbelief. That is because for a long time I was reluctant to address this relationship with my kin at all out of fear that the damage was all made up in my head, and that nobody was going to believe me.
So many suffer in silence at the hands of emotional abusers for the same reasons. My hope is that bringing the subject to light will make way for more conversations about how to identify it, avoid it, and heal from it. Through a lot of therapy, self-reflection, and support from the people that truly love me, I have been able to make peace with this relationship of mine. My hope is that sharing my experience will assist others in finding their peace as well. If you are currently healing from an emotionally abusive relationship: You are so strong. I am so proud of you. And life after this will shine so much brighter, I promise.