Why do victims of narcissists, borderlines, histrionics and psychopaths stay in abusive, toxic relationships well past the point of expiration? Even when they’re checked out, shell-shocked and empty? My clients often say they feel trapped in the relationship. Sometimes it has to do with children, and children do create logistical, albeit not insurmountable issues. So what’s the real trap?
You’d like to have boundaries and a healthier relationship, but here’s the rub. You can’t have a healthy relationship with someone who is personality disordered. That’s like trying to get sober while chugging Jack Daniels. If you decide to work on your codependency and become healthier, the narcissist or borderline’s dysfunction will seem more extreme.
This is due to the contrast between health and pathology. It’s also due to actual decompensation and escalation triggered by the borderline or narcissist’s perceived loss of control. The healthier you become, the less tolerable the narcissist and the relationship will become. In other words, you getting healthy most likely means the end of the relationship, which causes FOG — feelings of fear, obligation and guilt.
Fear. You’re afraid to be alone. You’re afraid you’ll never meet someone else, or that you’ll meet someone far worse. You’re afraid you won’t feel that same ZING! with emotionally stable women and men. If healthy, stable adults seem boring to you, that means you need to do some work on yourself. This is entirely within your power to do.
You’re afraid they’ll smear you, ruin your reputation, try to get you fired or destroy your relationship with the kids. Narcissists and borderlines typically begin the smear and parental alienation campaigns long before you divorce. You’re afraid the narcissist or borderline will miraculously become a decent, loving person with their next girlfriend or boyfriend. That’s not going to happen. Don’t believe their self-serving, self-aggrandizing social media press releases. The majority of their Facebook and Instagram posts amount to nothing more than turd polishing.
Obligation. You feel obligated. You made a commitment, which the narcissist nullified with her or his abuse. Who will take care of the borderline and her children by other men? Seriously, dude — if the kids aren’t yours they are not your responsibility. You can’t save those kids from their mother. The only way to do that is to remove them from the abusive mother. That is the biological father’s responsibility. Even if he was able to secure custody, the kids are still going to have issues. No one escapes a disordered parent unscathed.
He divorced his wife for you (after cheating on his ex with a series of women throughout the marriage). You owe it to him to stay with him after “everything he gave up.” Otherwise, your affair was actually just another affair and seems a lot less noble. He wouldn’t have cheated if not for you. Er, yeah right. Narcissists don’t do what they don’t want to do. On the rare occasions when they do something they don’t want to do, you know it by the epic tantrum that ensues. Telling you that they “sacrificed” their marriage is just a way to absolve themselves of responsibility for cheating on their former spouse and family.
Guilt. You feel guilty. What will happen to the poor little narcissist or borderline if you “abandon” them? You abandon a car; you leave an adult. What if she or he tries to commit suicide? Then they belong in an emergency psychiatric unit, not a relationship. How will she or he ever take care of themselves? They won’t.
Most likely the parasite will latch onto their next host/enabler so fast it’ll make your head spin, which takes you back to fear. Did the narcissist, borderline or psychopath ever love you? No, they’re not capable of it. How could the narcissist move on so quickly to the next man or woman? Didn’t you mean anything to them? Probably not. Supply is supply with one caveat — new supply is juicier and more fun than old supply.
You’re miserable, but the thought of ending the relationship is terrifying and feels even worse. You desperately want the narcissist to treat you like she or he did during the love bombing or idealization stage, and cling onto that hope (i.e., wishful thinking). You feel trapped, but you’re not trapped.
You’re in a cage and the door is wide open. The trap is your emotions and wanting the impossible to be possible — for the narcissist to stop being a narcissist. When a narcissist or borderline is abusing you, dismissing your needs, exploiting you, lying to you, cheating on you, etc., you can say, “This doesn’t work for me. I’m done.”
Narcissists train their victims not to expect much, if anything, from them very early on in the relationship. And if you do, they rage, tantrum, gaslight, name-call and threaten to dump you. You just want to go back to the honeymoon stage and believe it’s possible, so you stop holding Vampira or Count Vlad accountable. You stop sharing your feelings and don’t ask anything of the narcissist, all the while hoping they’ll miraculously change.
The aforementioned fears kick in and keep you in self-imposed bondage. You know if you stand up for yourself and insist on decent treatment you may very well lose the narcissist and the relationship. That’s the trap. Things can’t be better, you’re not going to feel better and live better if you stay with the narcissist. In this respect, losing the narcissist or borderline is winning.
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Counseling, Consulting and Coaching with Dr. Tara J. Palmatier, PsyD
Dr. Tara J. Palmatier, PsyD provides services to help individuals work through their relationship issues via telephone or Skype, particularly men and women who trying to break free of an abusive relationship, cope with the stress of an abusive relationship or heal from an abusive relationship. She combines practical advice, support, reality testing and goal-oriented outcomes. Please visit the Schedule a Session page for professional inquiries.