For most people, the first 50 days separated from their Narcissistic ex-partner are some of the most excruciatingly painful. I believe we need more guides to help us all feel less alone, and more empowered, in this early healing process.
So, I have taken the initiative to share what I have learned from my own experience, as well as from the experiences of clients, friends, family, and my community.
A Narcissist Narcissistically Abuses
First and foremost, most of us are not aware that if we are with a Narcissist, this means we are also in an abusive relationship. The relationship may not have physical abuse, but there will certainly be psychological, emotional, verbal, and/or financial abuse occurring while being bonded with this person. Narcissistic Abuse, is what we refer to as the dynamic created in being with a Narcissist. Yes, Narcissism is on a spectrum, and we all have some Narcissistic traits, however, there are people who have a level of Narcissism that is toxic and pathological, and these people use abuse as a way of being in relationship. To them, this IS how to be intimate and close. They are likely partially unaware of, or in denial about the fact that they are abusive, and usually lack the empathy, accountability, and self-awareness to genuinely understand, take responsibility for, and care about the harm they cause, enough to become aware and to change, and this is part of what makes them continue to abuse.
The Narcissist, through using values based on control and dominance, and employing projection, denial, and blame, they maintain a delusional perception of self, others and the world, that somehow places them in a position to be right and justified in whatever abusive actions they take, all while denying they are even abusive. Being in an ongoing love relationship with a Narcissist is an entry into a warped reality, in order for the relationship to last. We end up adopting their perception of self, others, and the world, that they so skillful brainwash their victims into.
It is very important to acknowledge the foundation with which a Narcissistic Abusive relationship is built upon, in order to understand how this brainwashing happens, and to build empathy and compassion for why recovery from the relationship is so difficult for victims of Narcissistic Abuse.
A Warped Reality As A Trap For Narcissistic Abuse
The reality distortion that comes with Narcissistic Abuse is a perfect trap. This reality distortion has the abused believe that the Narcissist and the fantasy life built into the future goals within this relationship, are both the victim’s source of well-being and happiness. The abused believes that the Narcissist will save them from the pain and exhaustion of life and existence, all the while, the Narcissist is the very one creating the drama, betrayals, exhausting arguments, and extreme pain that the abused is seeking to be saved from. The Narcissist is masterful at convincing their victim that they are there to help and love the abused, if only the abused would let them. The Narcissist justifies that the ways they are abusive, as a reasonable response to how messed up, harmful, and traumatized the abused person is, and how difficult it is to be around them. The abused begins to believe that they are the problem, and if one they could be enough or less of something, then the relationship and their partner would suddenly align with the fantasy goal built into this relationship.
One of the closest terms to describe this distortion, is what is commonly referred to as Stockholm Syndrome. Stockholm Syndrome occurs when those held captive by kidnappers who abuse them, learn to love, sympathize with, and make excuses for their captors. The combination of isolation, as well as a repeated distorted narrative by the captors towards the abused, creates a brainwashed experience, where those held captive begin to believe their captors really aren’t so bad. If the captive remains with the captor long enough, they might even view them as lovable, while viewing their abusive actions as understandable or excusable. Those held captive must do this to survive the experience, as continuing to fight actually puts them at greater risk of death or harm. Additionally, it helps anyone in this situation have a greater sense of power and control if they can make the source of their problem either be themselves, or an outside person or circumstance. It is clearly too disturbing for those with Stockholm Syndrome to fully acknowledge they are being isolated, controlled and dominated by this person or people they have no choice but to remain in repeated and ongoing communication and relationship with.
The survival instinct exercised by those captive or abused, to sympathize with and love our captor is extremely relevant to how our breakup and healing process plays out, when being apart from a Narcissist. The relevance will become more clear in the list I have created below.
Narcissistic Abuse is actually worse than in clear situations of Stockholm Syndrome. With Stockholm Syndrome there is often a legal or eventful ending to the captive being exposed to their captor, the society and culture completely recognize the victim’s feelings and experience as valid, while attempting to protect them and help them recover, and the victim then gets the un-intercepted space and time to heal and move on from their relationship with their captor. Alternately, Narcissists rarely ever completely leave their victim alone to heal and be done with the relationship, because they benefit from holding on to their victims as possible future sources of supply. Narcissists instead depend on having the power to trigger in their victims, a re-entry back into this state like Stockholm Syndrome, and with this return, show remorse, make more promises, and profess undying love, to strengthen the fantasy future goals that contribute to this reality distortion. This re-entry is called “hoovering”. Additionally, societies and cultures around the world do not understand Narcissistic Abuse, how incredibly manipulative a Narcissist is towards the community or the victim, and they may wish to stay out of it, or downplay the importance of the viticm’s feelings or need for complete no-contact and separation. This lack of community understanding, presence, acceptance, and protection, creates an increased risk that the victim will fall right back into being with the Narcissist again, and re-adopt their Stockholm Syndrome experience.
How The Break Up And Separation Usually Occurs
Most victims of Narcissistic Abuse report having a major awakening, have a series of life or soul threatening betrayals or losses usually related to the Narcissist, or were completely (and repeatedly) brutally discarded or abandoned in the relationship with the Narcissist, before the spell was broken, they finally begin to heal, and they see the Narcissist and the relationship for who, and what they were. Sometimes it takes years for the right combination of pain, struggle and trauma, and repeating this betrayal/abuse, break- up and re-union cycle with a Narcissist, before the abused is able to sufficiently, and completely separate from them. Often this complete separation involves finally going no-contact, and refusing to let the Narcissist have access to the self, in any way. This process is only made harder if the abused cannot go full no-contact, and shares assets, debt, extensive community, a business, and/or children with the Narcissist. In fact, many people, if with a Narcissist long enough, will in fact share at least one of these elements with them, and it makes it even harder to leave, and easier to rationalize more fully remaining within their Stockholm Syndrome experience.
How Others Respond To The Victim’s Struggle To Be Free
Anyone who has never been in a relationship like this, can’t possibly understand how deeply entwined those who experience Narcissistic Abuse are, within the alternate reality that is spun around they and their Narcissistic partner. Outsiders judge. They get frustrated. They believe the person experiencing the abuse is weak, dramatic, stupid, naive, co-dependent, toxic, and a failure. People distance themselves and also allow themselves to be pushed away from the person being abused, because they can’t understand, and many have become exhausted trying to.
Onlookers, friends, and families of the abused will gleefully support the break up of a Narcissistic relationship, and cheer on the abused for having gotten “free”. What they don’t understand, is that the freedom from the Narcissist is only something those outside of the relationship see and feel, and experience positively, at first. The abused still has a ways to go to heal, before they feel truly free, and happy.
The Break Up And Ensuing Separation May Be The Hardest Part Of The Abuse
Sadly, for the abused, the suffering doesn’t end once the Narcissistic relationship ends, and in many ways, the deepest suffering has just started. This deep suffering in the first 50 days following the end of a Narcissistically Abusive relationship, and how the abused responds to this, is what actually determines whether they will be susceptible to going back to the Narcissistic ex, or ending up in a new abusive relationship.
So, here is a list of the main experiences you (or someone you know) as a person escaping Narcissistic Abuse, will likely have in these first 50 days out of the relationship. Most of these experiences will feel more extreme if the abused has selected to go complete no-contact with the ex, or they have been completely discarded, and thus their ex has decided to go no contact with them.
There is considerable overlap between several items on these list, but they are kept distinct as a means to highlight the nuance and complexity of the experience.
- Your pain of the Narcissist not being there in your life, feels almost as if you are going through a major drug withdrawal. You were addicted to the Narcissist and the abuse relationship, through trauma bonding. Trauma bonding is a term used to describe how deeply and obsessively, people form bonds with their abusers. In these bonds, the abused experience gratitude and even love feelings towards their abusers for allowing them to be rescued temporarily from pain, death or emotional annihilation, by the rewards that the abuser also doles out. As mentioned before, in referring to the Stockholm Syndrome element at the foundation of Narcissistic Abuse, this process of abuse only works through isolation, where the abused begin to believe that for survival, their only reward can come from the same person giving them their punishment, and thus grant the abuser power over them. Within this isolation, trauma bonding, and Stockholm Syndrome, the Narcissist exploits our tendency to respond to behavioral, operant conditioning. Operant conditioning is a way in which a behavior is strengthened or decreased in a person or group, through the use of punishment and rewards. When a punishment or reward are doled out unpredictably, and with varying effect on the subject, this is referred to as intermittent reinforcement. Narcissists, with their emotional instability and dual nature of being both a kind, caring sweet Dr. Jekyl and an evil, uncaring, torturous Mr. Hyde, are experts at intermittent reinforcement. Intermittent reinforcement creates the strongest and most addictive desire to perform or alter behavior, in the process of seeking the reward. There is domestic violence literature and research that speaks specifically about the effects of “trauma bonding” as a symptom of operant conditioning, using intermittent reinforcement. During the course of abuse, usually the Dr. Jekyl side of the Narcissist is extremely active, and hooks you in for more of the bliss. Then as the relationship continues, and the Narcissist has skillfully isolated you further and gotten you more addicted to the fantasy of being with Dr. Jekyl, Mr. Hyde begins to come through with increasing frequency, but at variables that are entirely unpredictable. You become fixated on ensuring the unpredictable punishment of Mr. Hyde can possibly be avoided. This obsession with avoiding punishment in the negative, painful part of the abuse cycle, encourages us to focus our attention and resources intensively on the Narcissist, in order to get them to become Dr. Jekyl again. When we receive Dr. Jekyl as a reward, on a schedule that is unpredictable and infrequent, we want the reward, even more desperately, and will do anything to get it. At the worst stages of abuse, we will sacrifice our life and our self, and essentially do anything the Narcissist wants, as a means to avoid the arrival of Mr. Hyde as our punishment. We become fiends for Dr. Jekyl, and this allows the Narcissist increased control over us. Our life is reduced to getting Dr. Jekyl to show up, until we truly aren’t living our life, for our self, anymore. We live for the drug of Dr. Jekyl. When Dr. Jekyl gets removed all together, with a break up, and going no contact, we go through severe withdrawal pains, because we have forgotten how to use anything else in life as a source for well-being and feeling good.
- You may have a much higher than normal desire to get lost in self-escaping, or self-abandoning experiences, such as drugs, alcohol, being too busy, eating tons of sugar or junk food, shopping sprees, becoming obsessed with a project or forming a new skill, obsessively exercising, binge watching shows, playing lots of video games, or dating around and having lots of sex with other people. You will do this because you are upset and fearful about how all-consuming the pain is, and decide you need a break from it. You will also do this, because you started an addictive pattern with your ex, with the trauma bond, and thus, may end up transferring over this addiction to something or someone new.
- You may feel like you have been given an impossible task, to survive without this person, who you likely believed was your soul mate or Twin Flame. This is often a part of the fantasy that is created with the Narcissistic Abuse. Additionally, the Narcissist will have assigned a magical perception of you and the relationship, as a means to make you feel good and special, to bond you to them. The Narcissist, while being Dr. Jekyl, will most likely paint this narrative that you alone are the special and magical person meant for them, and you two are destined to be together, forever. That you are perfect for one another, and that you “get” them and they “get” you, in an almost magical, divinely ordained way, beyond the ways anyone else ever could. You became addicted to striving for this fantasy and magic, and thought it would be the two of you against the world, working through your pain and challenges in life, together, where you could both heal and finally discover how to have a happy, magical life together. The aftermath of the magical element of this fantasy, which also feels like a form of torture, is that it seems like songs that were significant for the two of you are following you around, or everything reminds you of them. It almost feels like your souls have a cosmic connection to one another, that is felt strongly with the no contact and physical distance.
- You will have days where you are crying uncontrollably, or the pain is so great it feels like it could kill you. This is a symptom of having developed Post Traumatic Stress (PTS) as a byproduct of the abuse. If one experiences PTS for longer than 6 months, and with it severely impacting their functioning, they may be diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). When a relationship with a Narcissist finally ends, it usually ends in a dramatic, overwhelming, and deeply disturbing way. Often the ending will bring up the trauma of abandonment, engulfment, betrayal, and abuse, and when left alone, the abused now also has to deal with this pain alone, rather than being saved from it, by the Narcissist swooping in to be their savior. The deep pain and feelings of annihilation demonstrate how deeply tied to the Narcissist we become for our own survival, so when they are suddenly gone, we feel we may die from how intensely we are in pain. It is as if them leaving allows us to finally feel the backlog of emotion we were capable of bypassing, when in the adrenaline of the dynamic and through our Stockholm Syndrome experience with them. Just as those held captive have breakdowns and finally feel their intense feelings from the experience, often after being removed from the kidnapping or hostage situation, so do those who were Narcissistically Abused.
- You will realize how alone and lonely you feel, with all the extra space in your life. Your social circle of support has been decimated. This is because you had tried to get most social time with your ex, who also demanded your attention and thoughts be about them most of the time, as a means of controlling you. You have been isolated, and in an abusive, addictive cycle, where all you have lived for is to make the relationship with the Narcissist feel good and become stable. You have lost friendships and close connections with most people because they couldn’t handle the drama and pain of the relationship, or dealing with the break ups and reunions. Now you feel emptiness or a void in your self and your life, in realizing you now need to focus on being with your self, creating less immersive and addictive relationships, and thus fostering healthier intimacy with other people. Yet, healthy intimacy with self and others, often feels lonely at first, because it is does not have the intensity of “connection”, that was felt with the enmeshment and co-dependence with a Narcissist.
- You will likely feel very angry with how absent your friends and family are, or how judging or impatient they are with your break up process. You will likely get angry and defensive when they say how much they hate your ex, and how bad the relationship was. You will feel like barely anyone in your life wants to hear about how much you miss your ex, how great your ex could be, or how much you love(d) them. You may feel very alone with handling the complexities of how you feel, and how hard each day feels, in moving on. You may feel instead, especially after the three week mark of coming out of the relationship, very few people even ask how you are doing, or care to even talk to you about what you are going through. They expect you to be strong, love yourself, and move on. They don’t understand the addictive cycle you were in, and that you are literally overcoming the worst addiction you have likely ever experienced.
- You will obsess about the beautiful future that could have been. The fantasy in Narcissistic Abuse that one day the Narcissist will constantly be the loving, supportive, caring, competent, mature, and perfect partner they portray when they are Dr. Jekyl, is one that the Narcissist helps to cement into your psyche. Narcissists make lots of promises and tell the abused everything they want to hear, when trying to to resolve a conflict or get them back. After a while, this fantasy becomes the carrot the Narcissist dangles in front of their victim, as a method of control. They blame their victim for not being enough or being too much of something, or else otherwise, the fantasy of this perfect partnership and how wonderful they could be, would have been fulfilled. When a relationship like this ends, there is a major grieving period of the fantasy partner and life, that the abused held desperately to, as a flotation device throughout the abusive cycles. This is deeply painful, and has one question what was real, and if the Narcissist was right all along.
- You may have fantasies of how the Narcissist is going to grow while the two of your are separated, and that they will finally come around, apologize, and do many romantic, amazing gestures to win you back and make it right. Towards the end of this 50 days, if they haven’t yet tried to hoover you back in, you will start to question whether you have lost them forever, and may dream up how you might create a scenario to create connection again, to give them an opportunity to prove something to you, and heal with you, so you two can be together again. Or, you may end up convinced that because they aren’t coming back to hoover you in, that you are indeed the one who screwed everything up, and may be plotting breaking no contact in order to apologize for how badly you harmed them, misunderstood them, and how your weren’t patient, caring, generous, or loving enough towards them. In this part of the self-flagellation, you lose perspective about what they were doing in the abuse, and instead begin to shoulder the responsibility based on how badly you acted, where you believe your behavior brought them to the point of desperation enough to act the ways they did.
- You will likely go through several up and down periods, perhaps even in the course of a day, where you feel extreme heartbreak, rage, sadness, despair, freedom, relief, self-love, pride, empowerment, and then yearning for your ex. You may be confused by this oscillation between extremes in how you view yourself, the relationship and your Narcissistic ex. But, this is simply your process of overcoming the addiction, as well as making sense of how a person can be so evil and so angelic, combined, and how to understand where accountability is distributed in abusive relationships. Several parts of you feel and experience the Narcissist in different ways, and you will become an expert in holding paradox through processing this range of perceptions, and the emotional ups and downs.
- You will go through questioning how bad your behavior was, and begin to see ways you were violent or acted poorly, and start to wonder if you were in fact as difficult and abusive as your ex made you out to be. You will start to question your perceptions about your ex and everything you two went through. Many victims of Narcissistic abuse were brought to a point of desperation and rage in repeated boundary violations, dismissal, gaslighting, and overall abuse, that they acted poorly and maybe, at times, with retaliation and violence in the relationship. Most people are brought to their worst nature in dealing with a Narcissistic Abuse. When out of the relationship, people begin to analyze their behaviors and wonder why they acted so badly. Then they may blame themselves for the dysfunction of the relationship, as they see they were triggered easily and were very agitated in the relationship, or were even this way when the Narcissist was calm, loving, or neutral towards them. This is a normal and natural response to being abused, and should not be taken as an indication that you were in fact the abusive one. Narcissists want you to believe your extreme behaviors are what made you the abusive one, and have you doubt your goodness or innocence, because it makes it easier for them to abuse you, or return to your life again.
- You will likely become obsessed with understanding the traits of Narcissists, and in particular want to understand how your ex Narcissist could have been so sweet, romantic, compassionate, generous, loving, and caring, when all the other Narcissists are portrayed in our culture as evil and heartless. Our culture has a challenging time holding the paradox that someone can be both Dr. Jekyl and Mr. Hyde, essentially. Thus Narcissists are portrayed as heartless and soulless, and their humanity gets stripped from them in most story lines. Sadly, because we saw their humanity in daily life, and loved their occasional loveliness, vulnerablility, remorse, and receptiveness, we started to believe that perhaps they weren’t a Narcissist.
- You will probably learn about the term “gaslighting” and a major light-bulb, “a-ha” experience will shift your perception of it all. Gaslighting is an abuse tactic that allows the abuser to gain control over the abused. It is a method that creates systematic and extreme self-doubt for the abused, in trusting their own perceptions, feelings, and thoughts on the abuse and the consequences of said abuse. Understanding gaslighting may help you understand why you stayed so long. You will also understand why it is still so challenging to validate your own experience and recall of what happened. In trauma bonding, you received positive reinforcement and reward for choosing to adopt the Narcissist’s narrative of reality and the relationship, and this tendency remains even long after the relationship has gone. It also does not help that the sheer ignorance that our culture has about the nature of Narcissists and abusive relationships, acts as another form of gaslighting, as you will commonly not be validated by others in what your experiences are or were, in regard to the Narcissistic Abuse.
- You will struggle with how to defend against those who say, “It takes two to tango,” or all the other pop-psychology relationship forums that explain we all share accountability for what occurs in a relationship. We struggle to find our empowerment and accountability, while also fending against the victim- blaming that is alive and well in our communities and culture. We struggle with first naming we are a victim, while also figuring out how and what we were responsible for in the relationship. This process of finding accountability usually leads to euphoric feelings of power and freedom, combined with crashing down in to the the depths of shame a despair, because of believing you are the fucked up one who caused the relationship to be so bad. It is challenging to hold the identity as a victim, while also seeing where we are accountable.
- You will have dreams about your ex. Usually the dreams are either nightmares about them hurting you again, or they are fantasy fulfillment dreams. These dreams can feel like torture, as we often wish to escape our pain from daily waking life, in these first 50 days of separation from a Narcissist. Both types of dreams are your body and brain processing trauma, as well as dealing with the aftermath of the addiction to the Narcissist.
- You will likely be masturbating (if you do this) and find that it is difficult to not fantasize about them sexually, as they were very seductive, and seem to fit your sexual fantasies pretty well. The Narcissist often stays powerfully connected to our sexual pleasure, and has infiltrated our psyche as a source of feeling good in this context, because often in the relationship, this was an area that was most deeply pleasurable and rewarding in the addictive cycle. It is completely normal to still associate them with our sexual pleasure.
- Towards the end of the 50 days, you may also begin to start facing what patterns in yourself caused you to draw in a partner like your Narcissistic Ex. If you can process these patterns in your self, you may just become unable to be hoovered back in, or may lose your desire for your Narc ex, altogether. Here is a hint. For the grand majority of us, what caused us to draw a Narcissist in, usually involves deeply held negative beliefs about our lack of self-worth or right to exist fully as a Self. These beliefs are usually formed from repeated attachment traumas in early childhood.
When The Abused Are Truly Free From Their Narcissistic Ex
What I see as the defining moments for people having been broken up for 50 days from their Narcissistic Ex, are when people can begin to allow themselves to honor and acknowledge the Stockholm Syndrome and trauma bonding they were powerless over. Then, from this point, we begin to process the addiction, understand it, and learn to create a life where this addiction is no longer present.
Working through healing from the foundations of the Narcissistic Abuse, involves healing rage, and addressing the feelings mixed into this “rage bubble”, so to speak. This involves healing older traumas or wounding, centered around self-worth, safety, survival/existence, and approval, in order to process the “rage bubble”. When we take responsibility for our own trauma, and the beliefs we have about our self, relationships, and the world that set us up for Narcissistic Abuse, we can begin to truly be free, and start to feel better. When a person begins to see that their ex is no longer relevant to their well-being and is not a(n) (addictive) source of love, well-being, or approval or survival, and learns instead to live in healthier ways to relate to their self, this is when the Narcissist stops being important.
This is when the the abused truly begins to let go of the fantasy of reuniting and making it work, and becomes a survivor, rather than a victim.
My hope is that you feel seen and understood in your struggles with finally being done with a Narcissist in your life, and give yourself more time to heal before you consider trying to go back to them, ever again.
Keep going! You can do this!
For more resources and greater understanding around abusive relationships, please visit this website: https://www.abuseandrelationships.org/index.html