As an advocate for victims who are in or have been in narcissistic relationships, I all too often see blame placed on the victim for either not leaving the relationship, or for not breaking it off sooner.
If you have never been in an abusive relationship, you may wonder, “Why don’t they just leave?”
Why Victims of Narcissism Stick It Out
The list of reasons why people stay in toxic relationships is lengthy and endless. Every abusive relationship holds a unique story of its own.
Here are the common reasons people remain in narcissistic relationships (in no order of importance):
Lacks an Understanding of Narcissism – More often than not, people get involved with narcissists before they identify what they are dealing with. People that do not understand, or have never heard of narcissism (and yes, this is still common today), frequently get deep into relationships (i.e, marriage and children) before they put two and two together and realize that they are in a whirlpool of emotional abuse.
When victims do not understand narcissism, they can fall into the trap of believing that if they say or do the right thing, the abuser will change. Victims can fall prey to trauma bonding, meaning, they become hooked on the back and forth (good times in the relationship, love bombing, combined with emotionally abusive times). Years upon years, lifetimes, can be entangled in a narcissist’s web—sadly, while the victim remains in place and staunchly believies that the relationship is foundationally good and that someday the abuse will go away.
Note: True narcissists, those with Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD), either refuse to change (refuse to accept that their behavior is not appropriate and/or shifts the blame to others), and treatment typically does not help.
Protect the Children – Divorce rates are at an all-time high, yet, victims in toxic relationships commonly keep the marriage intact because they do not want their still-at-home children to experience divorce.
It is not uncommon for a parent victim to fear losing custody of their children, especially when the spouse, or extended family, are strongly rooted in narcissism. This is like a two-prong fork, staying hurts the victim (and can emotionally scar the children) in the relationship, leading the victim parent to weigh out, “Is it bad enough for me to simply leave, and hope that I can remove my children from this pain?” Or, “Do my children seem happy and safe? If I stay, my children will not suffer from the effects of a broken home. Which is worse? Which is better?”
Fear – Fear of the unknown may keep a person deeply rooted in an unhealthy relationship.
Fear frequently sounds like: Where will I live? Will I lose my children? He/she has threatened me so many times, how will he/she react if I leave? After all these years, how can I make it in the world alone?
Shame – Victims often feel ashamed that they are involved in a difficult relationship.
Part of this sense of shame can come from Gaslighting, which is the narcissist’s manipulative attempts to take control of the victim. It can also feel embarrassing to a victim to admit that they are being abused. They may also worry that their support system (family and friends) will judge them.
Love – Narcissists are super good at love-bombing. This often happens early in the relationship, leading a partner to feel they have found Mr. or Mrs. Right, falling ‘madly in love’, and unaware that they are being manipulated and groomed by the narcissist.
In truth, narcissists often lack self-esteem and the response that they receive from their partner due to their love-bombing gives them reassurance and feeds their self-enhancement supply needs. The victim, however, can simply feel immense love, and later in the relationship, even if emotional abuse sets in, they long for the partner they “once knew.”
Financial Control – Finances in a narcissistic relationship can go in several directions, and can also involve financial abuse (preventing the victim from having the ability to leave).
The victim may be manipulated into being the sole breadwinner, with the narcissist contributing very little and reaping the benefits of a roof over their head and food on their table (i.e., a sense of entitlement). In these situations, the narcissist often feels entitled to a financial stipend, which can be costly for the victim if they feel this is their only way to get out of the relationship.
In other abusive relationships, the narcissist may have complete control of the household finances, from bringing home the paycheck to operating the bank account, to hovering over the victim to ensure they have no way to earn an income. This leaves the victim in a pickle (feeling unable to leave with no financial means). If this is your situation, know that you are not alone. Call emergency services if you are in danger of physical abuse. Otherwise, seek help through a shelter or advocacy organization. Advocacy organizations can walk you through your options.
Low Self-Esteem – Some victims enter narcissistic relationships with low self-esteem, leaving them vulnerable to manipulative abuse. Some victims lose self-esteem after being in a narcissistic relationship for a while. This can happen after months and years of verbal manipulative abuse (see Gaslighting).
Some victims are codependents. They enter toxic relationships knowing nothing better than emotional or physical abuse (raised as children in an abusive or neglectful home). At the root, codependents believe that their needs are not worth being met. Codependents become enablers, as they do nothing to stop the abuse. If this is your situation, please seek help from a therapist or counselor. You deserve much better in life.
Faith – People stick it out in abusive relationships, marriage especially, when they find no backing in their faith that supports their reason to leave or divorce.
Even after the narcissist cheats, the partner may still believe they can turn the relationship around. Manipulative narcissists are commonly chronic cheaters. It can take an enormous length of time for victims to realize that it does not matter how “good” of a partner they are…the narcissist will only blame the victim for their infidelity and they typically refuse to accept responsibility for their behavior.
There is hope. Scripture for the Christian faith, read Matthew 19:9 and Matthew 5:32.
Avoid Blaming or Shaming the Victim
Not only are victims often blamed for the abuse, but they are also shamed, which can add to a victim’s feelings of confusion, bewilderment, and abandonment. The more they are blamed and shamed, the less chance they will stand up for their own rights in life. Truthfully, shaming the victim is abusive in itself. I hope you are not experiencing this in your life!
Instead of blaming or shaming the victim, ask yourself “What can I do?” “How can I help?” You can listen. Check out these two sections Don’t Say These Things to the Victim and What You Can Do to Help in my blog Don’t Blame the Victim (of Narcissistic Abuse).
As common as narcissistic abuse is, and it is growing more common as time goes on, people in our world need to develop compassion, and I believe that can only happen through education. Education = an understanding of narcissism and narcissistic relationships.
If you are a victim of narcissistic abuse, I want you to thrive! You deserve nothing less. Have self-compassion and take care of yourself! Remember one key thing…the abuse is not your fault, and abuse is never okay.
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