This is a very common thing victims of narcissistic/psychopathic abuse often wonder, sometimes during and definitely after the relationships. What was it that made me stay with them for so long? What was it that kept me trapped in the relationship? Why didn’t I leave even though I KNEW on some level they were toxic and abusive? How could I have been so silly to stay for so long being treated so badly?
It’s important to try and be kinder to ourselves and see that there are reasons why we stay stuck with narcissists/psychopaths and remain psychologically trapped in toxic relationships, and we might not be conscious of them all at the time the abuse is happening.
In very broad terms, it relates back to our own denial or naivety regarding what we’re actually dealing with, our own unresolved attachment issues, plus our own desire or wish for it to somehow “improve” or get better.
Let’s cover some common reasons and rationales that keep us trapped in toxic relationships with pathological personalities and lead us stay in them for so long, in more detail.
1. Trauma Bonding
This is the first one because it’s very important to realize that you definitely CAN be intensely bonded to someone in toxic ways and via trauma, as well as in healthy ways, leading us to stay with them for way too long. Just because you’re very intensely bonded or “stuck” to someone psychologically, it doesn’t mean it’s healthy, and in fact it often means the opposite.
There are a number of ways that pathological personalities can behave in relationships that “binds” or “bonds” you to them more intensely.
Some examples are:
- Mean-sweet cycles, where the psychopath/narcissist alternates between nice and nasty/abusive behavior, can often create toxic bonds, since it creates a lot of confusion in the victim and can lead them to push closer into the other person to try and regain trust/rapport.
- Sexuality – a huge one – pathological personalities know very well how to “read” or figure out what a person wants sexually and give it to them. Sexual contact with narcissists/psychopaths/borderlines can be very intense and addictive, keeping victims in a numbed out state of denial. This can bond us to them more intensely, and make it harder to retreat and dis-engage once the abuse starts.
- Withdrawing/discard – Another toxic pattern of abuse, whereby the person suddenly starts to withdraw and become more icy/distant/dismissive, leading the victim to obsess, ruminate and try harder to regain the affections of the narcissist/sociopath. This creates a more powerful but toxic bond with them.
Your main weapon in response to this is to become aware of it while it’s going on, and see how your emotions and desire to attach to them is keeping you stuck and trapped in a toxic situation.
“Almost every day, people who join our forum, they say ‘why did I stay in this (toxic relationship) for so long? How could I have been so stupid?’
The way that emotional abuse works is that it targets our most vulnerable human emotions in a way that – unless you’re aware what’s happening when you’re in the cycles of it – all it does is make a more and more intense bond ”
Jackson Mackenzie – see here.
2. Judging Others By Our Own Values/Coordinates
This is a huge error in thinking that keeps people stuck in toxic, abusive relationships, staying way longer than they should. Before we go through this, most of us will likely subscribe to the humanistic view that all people are basically good, and have some good in them somewhere. But when dealing with narcissists/psychopaths, this is exactly what destroys us and keeps us stuck with them for far too long, sacrificing our own mental health in the process.
Here are some common, but ultimately naive assumptions and beliefs we often hold that keep us trapped:
- That all people are basically good, and have some kind of moral center somewhere, even if deep down.
- That there is still a real person or “inner child” trapped inside the narcissist/psychopath somewhere, that we can “reach” or “bring out” of we try hard enough or for long enough (A HUGE mistake – see our article where we deconstruct this belief).
- That all personality disorders/defects can be fixed, that we just need to be patient and understanding and “love them better”.
- That because WE wouldn’t do XYZ, no one else would do it as well (we’re often shocked at some of the things narcissists/psychopaths do, but we shouldn’t be once we understand these disorders properly).
- That people should be “unconditionally loved” and forgiven no matter what they do.
Judging others by ourselves – our own values and moral co-ordinates – is a hugely naive mistake in general in a world which is full of evil, and often leads to the bewildered exasperation of many victims of narcissists/psychopaths while the abuse is happening – “how could they do/say something like that!?”.
We have to drop the naivety and get streetwise to the fact that the world is full of people who have zero empathy, zero conscience and zero moral/ethical core, and will happily do horrendous things to others and go on with their lives like nothing happened, not feeling bad about it at all.
If we don’t realize this, we’ll stay forever stuck to toxic abusers, and even if we get rid of the latest one, we’ll continue to attract more down the line as well. We need to have non negotiable boundaries and be prepared to enforce them and leave if someone persistently breaks them.
“Our default understanding of humanity is gonna be that everybody has some good in them. The research that Dr Robert Hare and Dr Martha Stout have done have really turned that around to say that 4% of human beings don’t have a conscience, they have no remorse for their behavior, and they actually look for opportunities to cause harm to others”
Jackson Mackenzie – see here.
In technical terms, this is another defense that comes up in the victim as well as the abuser during abusive relationships that keeps the toxic dynamics locked in place, and prevents us from leaving.
More specifically, once the abuse really starts ramping up in a relationship with a psychopath/narcissist, the victim can jump to the defense mechanism of denial rather than confront the painful/traumatic reality of what’s happening, such as:
- The horror of some of things they’re doing/saying to you, and the emotions that come with it (anger, hurt, humiliation, rejection, inadequacy etc)
- The reality that psychopath/narcissist doesn’t really “love” you authentically and instead sees you as an object to be used and discarded as they see fit.
- This entire relationship (and the time/money/resources/emotional energy sunk into it over time) is unfortunately a charade and exists only to “prop” up the toxic person’s psyche and feed them “supply”.
Rather than confront these painful realities and in essence “take the hit” on the time already invested in the (effectively fake) relationship, it’s often easier for victims caught up in it to resort to denial in the moment. And so we stay on, continuing to get abused.
Specifically for breaking down this defense of denial and integrating reality/truth in ourselves, see Richard Grannon’s excellent Break The Trauma Bond course (on our resources page), which contains well designed journaling courses designed to break free of trauma bonds and break down our own denial of what went on.
It’s very important to do this, otherwise you’ll effectively double down on your mistake of getting involved with this toxic person, and increase the damage they cause to you, taking even longer to recover afterwards. It’s important to accept some pain now (which is always tough but bearable) rather than denying reality and having to accept much more pain down the line because we refused to face reality earlier.
4. Fixer Mindset
This is another huge trap we can fall into with our thinking and mindset that keeps us bound psychologically to toxic people like psychopaths/narcissists, and staying with them far too long.
There’s often this stubborn “fixer” mindset, where the person thinks that we can “fix” or save this person, and we’re the only ones who can do it, even if everybody else in their life failed (which is slightly narcissistic of us as well).
This can be especially true with men trying to “fix” toxic female partners, because men’s minds are automatically tuned to wanting to “problem solve” or “fix” things anyway. But it can work the other way as well.
We have to let go of this belief and realize that depending on who you speak to, the Cluster B disorders either cannot be cured, or would take many years of intensive psychotherapy to perhaps partially “cure”, but that it isn’t our job to fix personality disorders that go back to childhood.
It’s the job of mental health professionals, and even some of these refuse to treat full blown narcissists/psychopaths. If we stubbornly cling to the belief that we can “fix” this person, we’ll give away all our time/resources/money/attention to someone who’s un-saveable, and possibly drive ourselves mad in the process. We have to let these people go.
5. Prolonged Gas-lighting
This is something else that the pathological personality will do in relationships that keeps you “stuck” to them and stops you leaving. They’ll always be engaging in so called “gas-lighting“, where they continually deny and undermine your perception of reality and make you think you’re losing your mind.
If you’ve been with this person for a long time, this gas-lighting will be very deeply rooted and the victim may have lost all contact with reality, often believing that it must actually be them that is wrong or “going mad”, and start believing the narcissist/psychopath’s warped view of reality.
If this has been going on a long time, this kind of emotional damage is very difficult to undo and will often require specialized work with a therapist (see also Amy Macoy Marlow’s Gaslighting Recovery Workbook in our books section).
It may also require the abusive behavior to reach insanely toxic and outrageous levels before the person finally sees through the gaslighting and leaves. The lesson in this is to never let a person systematically chip away at your own perception of reality, and disengage from relationships where this is happening right away rather than staying and letting it go on and on.
6. Being Isolated From Friends & Family
This is another common tactic of narcissists/psychopaths – to isolate victims from any friends/family and try to control the person’s life to the extent the pathological person is the only real source of feedback in their life.
This breaks off any access to people who might help them “break the spell” of being stuck with this person and see what’s going on more clearly, and is a common method of control.
To this end, toxic people will often manufacture or instigate fights/breakups between the victim and their family/friends, and slowly start to work in isolating them from any other support systems or feedback loops who might help them see the truth of what’s actually going on
As a side point on this, moving away to a new country/state/city where you don’t have any support systems always leaves you vulnerable to pathological personalities swooping in, and is quite a common pattern when victims of narcissistic abuse look back on how they got into these relationships and stayed trapped in them.
Making them financially dependent or having kids with them is another way of binding victims to them in a way that’s difficult to get out of. We have to learn to spot the warning signs earlier, and leave earlier, before they can sink their hooks in so deep.
7. Pre-existing Childhood Trauma & Attachment Issues
This is another background force that can seem invisible, but can have a very strong impact in keeping us bound to toxic people and over-ride our rational mind which knows on some level that something bad is going on and that we should leave. I know this from my own personal experience.
The reason co-dependents are often drawn to pathological personalities like narcissists/psychopaths in the first place, is because we are seeking something we didn’t get ourselves from childhood (namely, appropriate levels of authentic love/affection/care). And these people are often very adept at: a) spotting these unresolved issues in people (predatory mindset); and b) seeming like the people who can give us these things, and giving us a synthetic or manufactured version of these things.
If we didn’t get enough of these things and we have attachment deficits of our own, this leaves us with a deep rooted longing to resolve what wasn’t resolved in our own childhood. It’s a well known theory in therapeutic circles that some of us make relationships in adulthood to try and resolve things from childhood.
It might remain dormant for a long time, but a relationship with a psychopath/narcissist will bring them back to the surface in the most painful way possible, via the idealize-devalue-discard cycle and other patterns of abuse they commonly engage in.
When they reject or abuse us in this way, the rational part of our mind KNOWS what they are doing is wrong and we should reject and get away from them, but this is often over-ridden by the deep emotional attachment issues that have often been triggered, and can’t be “put back in the box” once they’ve been brought up again.
This can be why we naively stay or keep going back (or keep letting them back in) and experiencing more abuse, because this longing in us wants to resolve the attachment issues that have been re-triggered (of course, this could happen in a relationship with anyone, but narcissists/psychopaths are experts at sniffing out people with this weakness, since re-opening these wounds is a very easy way to control people).
You’re clinging on to the hope for “love”, from someone who is literally incapable of ever providing it. It’s a worst case scenario. You need to let go of this.
The Invisible Emotional Wounds That Leave Us Open To Abuse
It’s very important to work through these things with a qualified therapist in private, and not in the outside world with pathological personalities who are very adept at seeing these unresolved wounds we have and using them against us in a way that amplifies and compounds the trauma we already have and can make it that much harder to work through afterwards.
If you are finding that you cannot control the feelings a toxic relationship is bringing up in you, to the extent you cannot make clear, simple, rational decisions your conscious mind knows on some level you should make, and are staying stuck in an abusive situation, it’s time to humbly admit this and seek the help of a professional.