Narcissistic Abuse and Other Pathological Relationships

Psychologists have studied personality disorders at length when it comes to the impact the disorder has on it’s host. However the study of the impact the disorder has on interpersonal relationships is comparatively under-studied despite the harm which can come. Even when the traits implicated in a disorder are insufficient to have a pathological effect on the person with the traits, they may still be pathological to others in their lives.

The lack of study in this area has left a knowledge gap which has been filled by survivors of these pathological relationships and those who care for them, through various media such as blogs, books, videos, and workshops. A term that has become common in the survivor community for these types of relationships is “Narcissistic Abuse”, however, narcissism is not the only pathological trait set that may cause harm in interpersonal relationships. Even the concept of Narcissistic Personality Disorder is losing ground in psychological research in favour of newer models of personality pathology 

 What They Look Like

These relationships often remain hidden from the outside world as the perpetrator does not want anyone to intervene in their control of the victim or to lose social status. Meanwhile, the victim, often unaware of what is going on, is insidiously losing their sense of self, their autonomy, their resilience and their protective resources.

In the survivor community common patterns have been identified and terms attached to the stages of relationship progression. Some of these are:

  • Love Bombing (Wikipedia): A high level of affection and attention from the pathological partner early in the relationship to hook the other partner into the relationship, influence them and gain control. “OMG this person is amazing, I’m so falling in love with them”.
  • Mirroring (Ashley Broadwater on Medium): Early in the relationship, when the pathological partner purports to share the same values and have the same interests. The match is uncanny but irresistible. “We are so alike. I think I’ve found my soulmate. Can this be real? Yes, I deserve this”.
  • Gaslighting (Wikipedia): Convincing a person to lose trust in their reality. “I’m sure I did that, maybe I can’t rely on my intuition and memory as much any more. Thankfully I have my partner to put me right”.
  • Social Isolation (Wikipedia): Isolating a partner from external friends and family to increase dependence on the perpetrator and reduce external support. “My partner and I always fight when I see my friends and family. It seems easier just to not see them as often”
  • Devaluing: Treating a partner as lesser than with ongoing contempt and criticism. “Why are they putting me down all the time? I yearn for the good times. Am I that bad a person?”
  • Discard (Sanjana Gupta on Very Well Mind): When a partner is of no further use to the perpetrator and they are cast aside as though the relationship was nothing. “How can they just leave and move on like that after all we had? Did they not love me?”

And then there is the aftermath:

  • Trauma Bond (Crystal Raypole on Healthline): A cycle of great times and abuse can create an addictive pattern known as intermittent reinforcement which can keep a person bonded to a partner despite the harm caused. Similar to a gambling addiction where a person has a compulsion to go for the win despite knowing they are losing overall. “I just can’t stop thinking about them. I’m not coping without them. If I could just fix this and get the good times back”
  • Smear Campaign (Character Assassination on Wikipedia): The abuser destroys the credibility of the abused partner to limit the damage they can do to the abuser’s reputation when they uncover the true nature of the abuse. This can also extend into legal abuse and parental alienation “Why won’t anybody talk to me or believe me about what happened?”

How Can Counselling Help

These relationships often leave the victim traumatised, depleted and without support. The combination of damage to the self, depleted resources, ongoing abuse, trauma bond and a shattered reality is complex and often leaves the victim unable to communicate their needs, find support and heal. Even finding validation of their experience can be difficult as it is outside the range of what most people have experienced.

Counselling from a trauma-informed approach takes into consideration that the victim has experienced something beyond what they could cope with and may have limited capacity to trust or build a therapeutic relationship with their counsellor. Counselling can help restore trust in others, restore trust in reality, understand the dynamics of what happened, rebuild resilience, decrease post-traumatic symptoms and set a path toward post-traumatic growth. 

Your Counsellor, Annie Mundy

Having lived experience of a long-term pathological relationship has taken me on a journey that is difficult to describe but allows me to understand and validate the experience in others. I was left barely able to function and with a strong belief I was broken beyond repair. My healing journey with a counsellor who understood and could validate my experience led me to regain trust in people and myself again and increase my ability to function until I was able to engage with my journey to post-traumatic growth through studying counselling and the abuse process so I could, in turn, help others.

On top of a Master of Counselling with the University of Queensland, I have sought and continue to engage in specialist evidence-based training in treating survivors of pathological relationships

Other Stuff

Two content creators stand out for me in my early healing journey in helping me validate and understand my experience, so I would recommend them to you also. They are:

  • Dr Ramani Durvasula (Wikipedia), has an excellent resource of videos relating to narcissistic abuse on YouTube.
  • Shahida Arabi (Website), has published numerous books and articles which are easy to read and digest.