Love After Narcissistic Abuse

Rev. Sheri Heller, LCSW
Photo by Danie Franco on Unsplash

My experience as a survivor and a therapist specializing in treating both complex trauma and narcissistic abuse syndrome has shown me that the violent personal assault inflicted by NPD abuse causes Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) in victims, irrespective of whether they present with a prior history of complex trauma. Accordingly, having somehow managed to keep oneself glued together in the aftermath of a degrade and discard and relentless hoovering, the survivor of narcissistic abuse is confronted with the task of healing from Stockholm Syndrome (aka trauma bonding) and acute or complex PTSD.

Of course, it’s inevitable that victims of narcissistic abuse who are beset by complex trauma may evidence a greater exacerbation of symptoms and present with a more challenging prognosis and recovery, than those grappling with an isolated acute episode of trauma. Yet regardless of a prior trauma history, all victims of narcissistic abuse will at the very least evince some symptoms of PTSD and a pathological allegiance to one’s abuser.

According to Tracy Malone’s PTSD checklist at Narcissistic Abuse Support, hyper-vigilance, pervasive depression and anxiety, dissociation, flashbacks and cognitive dissonance are just a few of the significant indicators of psychological upheaval ignited by narcissistic abuse. As these destabilizing symptoms are allayed during the survivor’s reparative process, thoughts of ever loving again will inevitably surface. This concern intensifies as physiological and psychological withdrawal from the trauma bond and obsessions achieve a modicum of remission.

At this stage of recovery, the survivor is just starting to taper off from fierce rage and grief. He or she is coming to terms with shattered illusions and the truth of who the abuser is. Although this is a vulnerable time and space of healing, as one has barely emerged from the trenches and is still teetering on the edge of rejoining life, the survivor is becoming cognizant of loneliness and the desire for companionship.

Questions arise. How to trust, how to feel safe, how to even enjoy the experience of getting to know another. These are complicated ordeals after being on the receiving end of debilitating mistreatment and endless lies with a malignant narcissist.

Suddenly everyone is viewed through a lens of danger. Even platonic connections are fraught with suspicious watchfulness. Naturally, this state of mind is exponentially amplified in the context of dating. Memories of love bombing skew benign romantic overtures and seemingly playful fun moments are coupled with visceral hypervigilance.

I recall after a prolonged hiatus from dating, precipitated by a disastrous ‘noship’ with a covert narcissist, how paranoid and activated I was. My now-husband was playing Beatle songs on my guitar in my living room. While I joined him in singing gleefully, I was actually on high alert. An observant part of me was acknowledging the enjoyment of partaking in live music with this lovely man, but at the same time, every fiber of my being was waiting for the sword of Damocles to drop on my head. Apparently, even after taking a five year reprieve from dating and sex I needed more time to fully heal.

Truth be told, recovery and rebuilding for the survivor of narcissistic abuse is life-changing. No one comes out unscathed from calculated, emotional, psychological and physical violence. It galvanizes an overhaul of all relationships. Coming to terms with having been exploited and reduced to supply by someone deeply valued even loved alters one’s reality and sense of self.

One of the hardest things to contend with is that unless another has experienced this surreal nightmare, few can wrap their heads around what you’ve been through. Most people won’t get it and many simply won’t believe you.
The anguish born of not being believed is called in psychological parlance, Cassandra Syndrome. This phenomenon exacerbates heightened mistrust and disillusionment.

On the upside, the tenacious guardedness that initially followed the crash from narcissistic abuse and was fueled by primal unassimilated rage and profound grief, with time, healing and refinement morphs into an instinctual aggressive energy that liberates the survivor from a treacherous power-submissive motif. It is at this stage of recovery that one is ready to glean the lessons from having survived. This involves a bittersweet process of rethinking one’s worldview.

Although one can now define principles and ethics which inform healthy life-affirming relational choices and interpersonal integrity, one's view of humanity is ironically sullied by realism. Notions of all people as ‘good’ are replaced with a more holistic understanding of moral complexity. Whereas one might have once believed everyone had an inner redemptive light, new notions of irreparable malignancy emerge. This is not a popular heart-warming perspective, albeit it is one that ensures the ability to dodge bullets fired by narcissists. It also ensures that one will fastidiously evaluate another’s character and assess the give and take and pros and cons of all relationships.

It is critical for the survivor intent on thriving, to establish new rules of engagement that engender balance and well-being. Due to a reframing of humanity that incorporates human evil, sturdy boundaries, conditions and standards ensue. Any vestiges of being viewed as potential supply are dismantled. The victim turned survivor is no longer a pushover and is no longer steeped in romantic mythology.

Eventually, the victim turned survivor comes to terms with human fallibility and trusts their capacity to reveal their vulnerability while protecting oneself from harm. Ultimately the inherent longing for intimacy compels the survivor to safely open up to others and the possibility of love.
Photo by Fringer Cat on Unsplash

The survivor turned thriver of narcissistic abuse knows that unlike what fantastical sentiments tell us about romance, mature adult love calls for conditions and standards. For a grounded, enduring love of depth to materialize, character and integrity are mandatory. Charm, status, good looks and bravado are not the defining pre-requisites to what constitutes a potential mate. Volitional loving behavior that is consistent, stable and responsible is.

As social psychologist and humanistic philosopher Erich Fromm wrote in The Art of Loving, “Love isn’t something natural. Rather it requires discipline, concentration, patience, faith, and the overcoming of narcissism. It isn’t a feeling, it is a practice.”

For the thriver of narcissistic abuse who is ready to embark on discovering love, the practice of love will be guided by discernment and discrimination. These tools, not desperation, lust, or feelings of deprivation will facilitate ‘loving rightly… in an educated and disciplined way’ ( Plato).

With a viable blueprint of relational attributes that encourage a steadfast bond, the prospect of love for the recovered survivor of narcissistic abuse is construed through values, rules of engagement and personally defined preferences. The magnetic pull of seduction has become ego dystonic. Instead what enraptures are those who show up, are clear about intentions, who take responsibility towards others and appreciate the vulnerability involved in risking attachment. In short, the survivor intent on thriving desires an ethical grownup, not a grandiose larger-than-life caricature.

Indeed, when I finally accepted the reality of human evil and refused to bargain with malevolence with every fiber of my primal animal being, could I free myself from narcissists and open myself to the kind of love I spent my life seeking. After having spent much of my life shattered by love denied, while ceaselessly dismantling toxic relational patterns rooted in childhood abuse and subsequent victimization, exchanging marriage vows in Nevada’s Valley of Fire State Park was not just euphoric and numinous. It was a defining moment, a moment of truth that likely would have completely eluded me had I not confronted full on the treachery of narcissistic abuse.

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As a survivor (and thriver) of complex trauma and a seasoned therapist specializing in treating complex trauma, narcissistic abuse syndrome and addictions, I am intent on creating content that affords informative insight, hope and healing from psychological disorders. I aim for my creative content to assist readers with tapping into the resiliency of the human condition while recognizing the countless challenges of being human.

New York City, NY

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