Last winter, I ended a relationship with a man who I came to realize was narcissistically abusive.
Our six-month partnership began with the “love bombing” that characterizes any relationship with a narcissist. He lavished me with constant attention, meals, and gifts. Within a matter of weeks, we developed an emotional connection that made me feel as if I had known him forever.
Although I had always been a skeptic when it came to romance and relationships, he insisted we were soul mates.
But in textbook fashion, the love-bombing phase ultimately gave way to one of gradual and inevitable “devaluation.”
When disagreements arose, he would increasingly erupt in anger, unleashing a torrent of often alcohol-fuelled verbal abuse against me.
During one argument, I remember realizing with matter-of-fact detachment that the man who claimed to care so much about me was willing to say absolutely anything – maybe even do anything – in order to hurt me, in order to “win.”
Yet I struggled to reconcile this behavior with the person I believed I had fallen in love with.
How could such a charismatic and compassionate man – a health care professional who presented himself as a “healer” – become so angry and hurtful behind closed doors?
This cognitive dissonance ultimately made me doubt my own perception and even my memory of what had happened.
Besides, he would always apologize – sometimes even breaking down in tears – blaming the verbal assaults on his ADHD medication or the alcohol. Then he would accuse me of not being “supportive” enough.
I became convinced that if I just tried harder, things would go back to the way they were.
But, eventually, it seemed as if any perceived slight would upset him and even enrage him, especially if he had been drinking: a flat tire, misplaced keys, a client cancelling, the barista making his latte too slowly.
I walked on daily trails of eggshells, praying that nothing would happen to ruin his fragile mood.
I stopped confronting him with things I was unhappy about, knowing that he would either explode in anger or stonewall me by emotionally withdrawing or leaving his own apartment – once for hours.
By this point, we were practically living together, and I had become consumed with the relationship. I worked from home more often now (his home). I rarely saw friends or colleagues.
But the constant waiting for the other shoe to drop, the persistent feeling that things were never completely stable began to far outweigh the intermittent reinforcement that kept me tethered to him. I was finally able to end the relationship — on the third try.
Characteristically, he made more excuses and insisted I was to blame.
I should have made him give up alcohol. I should have spent more time with him instead of working on my damn Ph.D. I was too cold and heartless to “fight for love.”
But, the important thing was: I was free. Or so I thought.
As I entered therapy and began to pick up the pieces of my self-esteem and my heart, I naively expected everything to fall back into place.
Thus, it was especially painful for me to realize the first hard truth about narcissistic abuse: that an abuser will never, ever acknowledge or take responsibility for the pain they have caused you. Especially if they are a narcissist.
Although you thought you had left the crazy-making and emotional invalidation of the relationship behind, you get to experience it all over again once the relationship is over.
Because the only other individual in your toxic relationship – the only other person in the world who was “there” and saw it all unfold – absolutely refuses to accept your version of events.
Instead, they continue to make excuses and minimize their behavior, attempting to “hoover” you back into the relationship.
Despite blocking the narcissist from my phone and Facebook and never once responding, he continued to contact me for months after the relationship had ended – by email, letter, a different phone number, and even online sites it hadn’t occurred to me to protect, such as LinkedIn and Pandora.
But most insidiously of all? Eventually, the abuser pretends as if nothing ever happened.
Five months after the break-up, the narcissist announced in an email that he would finally leave me alone. He ended the message with: I love you.
Basically, it didn’t matter that this man’s behavior had constantly made me feel unstable and unsafe because he “loved” me.
And now he had finally decided to stop months of unwanted and unreciprocated contact…because he felt like it.
That is when I learned a second hard truth about narcissistic abuse: that the abuser always gets the last word. That the abuser is the one who gets to decide when the abuse stops.
Only they get to carry out the ultimate “discard.” Because they don’t just require the upper hand during the relationship, but all the way until its bitter end.
I wish I could say that I have moved past all of this, but I am still coming to terms with the realities of narcissistic abuse. And yet, I still have hope.
Just as I am a bit of a skeptic, I am also a rather stubborn optimist.
I am hopeful that someday, it really won’t matter that my abuser will never take responsibility and acknowledge the pain he caused – because I will be able to validate my feelings and perception of reality, for myself.
I am hopeful that someday I will get to the point where I get to decide that the abuse is over. That eventually it will all just be a memory, as will the constant fear of him unexpectedly showing up at my door.
I am hopeful that someday I will be able to trust people again.
Because, hard as it is, simply knowing the truth can also be beautifully freeing. And, for now, that will have to be enough freedom for me.