What do boot camp, 1984, and emotionally abusive relationships have in common?
More than you might think.
I’ve found that sometimes, by using metaphors and ideas from popular culture, it’s easier to explain to people who have not experienced a relationship with a narcissist what the relationship was like or why it hurt so much– at least partially.
It only works, however, when you have people who are open to listening in the first place. Who are they?
One factor– not very surprisingly– is empathy.
We can generally divide the people who we might wish to tell or who know about our situation into three categories.
The Empathy Factor
- People who want to be supportive and are open to understanding;
- People who unknowingly say or do unsupportive things out of ignorance, but are generally empathetic and likely would not do these things if they had a better understanding;
- People who re-victimize and/or re-traumatize you with their words or actions because of or due to what happened and/or shut you down when you try to talk about it.
Does the third one sound familiar? Like the stonewalling, minimizing, or blameshifting narcissist?
Let’s be clear. We should give up on ever trying to explain what happened to people who knowingly say hurtful things about what happened or is happening or try to put us off of talking about it. People who kick other people when they’re down are people you should just stay away from. They’re not interested in understanding.
So how can you tell the difference between people who unknowingly say or do unsupportive things and people who are not interested in understanding and don’t care if what they do causes you additional suffering?
Truthfully, it can be difficult, especially if you are still in the relationship or are traumatized by it and you are unable to think clearly about who genuinely cares about you or has your best interests at heart.
Here are a few questions to ask yourself:
- Does the person mostly respond to you empathetically in general, even when not about your relationship?
- Does the person use the information you have told them against you?
- Does the person keep details that they know about the relationship to themselves or have they shared it with others (e.g., spread gossip)?
- Is the person otherwise a good friend/supportive family member?
When it comes to the other two categories of people, we can also think of them in terms of the timeline of our lives.
The Time Factor
- People who knew you before you got into the relationship
- People you met while you were in the relationship
- People you met after the relationship ended or will meet in the future
You will likely talk about it differently or want to talk about it differently with each group of people.
This may seem as if it is about the degree to which we know them, however, this is not necessarily the case, as someone we meet in the future may become a very good friend or potential partner and we will have to decide what to tell them about the relationship.
Those who knew you before you got into the relationship may have a totally different view of not only the relationship itself but of you and how you will talk about it with them than anyone you met after you met the narcissist. Unless they have ever had other friends or family members who have been victimized, you may feel hesitant to talk about how you have been hurt by the relationship.
It seems fair to say that those who want to be supportive and those who knew you before you got into the relationship will be the easiest with which to discuss your relationship. Although there may be some overlap, these two groups may not necessarily be the same.
Although I can’t tell you which combinations among these two groups you should tell or which ones will be the easiest in your particular situation, I would guess that the most difficult are probably those you meet or met while you were actually in the relationship.
Those who knew you before you met the narcissist had the benefit of knowing who you actually were before you were traumatized by the relationship. Those who met or will meet you in the future will have the benefit of knowing you after you have gained some distance and had the chance to recover from it.
Those who meet you while you’re in the midst of it, however… well…
They’re probably not going to be at the top of the “supportive” list. But they may or may not understand if you had the chance to talk to them about it.
But What Do I Say?
“Boot camp is the time when a teen, or young adult, is taken and slapped in one of the worst places to be. That kid is broken down to that of a whimpering boy, then rebuilt into what the Marine Corps wants in its warriors… Every single person who goes through boot camp is, at some point, a blubbering idiot. All common sense leaves!…We had numbers written on our arms, our head was shaved, any and all personal belongings were taken, excluding money, credit cards, IDs, etc., we were issued our gear, and our identities were effectively removed. From this point on I was recruit, the lowest of the low. There wasn’t one thing on the planet that I was above. Trash was more important than me, or so this is what they make you believe… Basically it is hell, and anyone who says it isn’t or wasn’t is lying… These are US Marines who are trained to destroy your soul” (Evans 2015).
What does boot camp have to do with a relationship with a narcissist?
Military boot camps “are scientifically and psychologically designed to tear apart the ‘civilian’ and build from scratch a proud, physically fit, and dedicated member of the United States Armed Forces” (Powers 2018). They break down the individual by subjecting him or her to intense psychological stressors; in place of what is stripped out, an intense loyalty and duty to the military, other service members, and country are put in place.
This is a necessary part of building a military. It saves lives!
Not everyone makes it through, but everyone who signs up has done so by choice.
Interestingly, and perhaps strangely, the psychological tactics used to break down and build loyalty are similar to what happens when someone forms an attachment to an emotionally abusive person.
The difference, again, is that people sign up to join the military by choice. They know what they are getting themselves into. It’s a mutually beneficial agreement by which recruits are choosing to subject themselves to extreme physical and psychological stress in order to gain self-discipline and test themselves.\
In contrast, in an abusive relationship with a narcissist, the narcissist deceives his or her partner about various aspects of his life, his or her past, and who he or she really is. This is to draw the partner into a “relationship” so that the narcissist can take what he or she wants from the partner.
In other words, it looks as if the relationship is mutually beneficial from the partner’s point of view. But because of the deception on the part of the narcissist, the consent on the part of the partner of anything given, whether it is something emotional or psychological (such as love) or whether it is something more material or practical (such as money) or whether it is something that allows the narcissist to obtain status or the appearance of normalcy (such as marriage or an engagement) is falsely obtained.
“But Why Didn’t You Leave?”
This is where those psychological tactics that engender loyalty come into play.
A “trauma bond” is an intense emotional bond that develops on the part of a traumatized person in situations where that person is dominated and controlled, such as in abusive relationships. It also develops in cults. It’s similar to Stockholm Syndrome and forms because the person who inflicts the suffering is also the rescuer.
Richard Grannon, life coach, describes it very well (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6k4AXhrYGvc):
“Trauma bonding in that sense as I first came across it was saying, well, look if you want to mind-control somebody you get them as a child… and you slap them around and shout at them and scream at them so that they’re frightened, you leave them poorly nourished and so they’re a little bit dazed and confused and then you lock them in a cupboard dark cupboard for eight hours which is an intensely frightening experience. You are the abuser if you did that that. In the child mind, they would associate your voice and the sight of your face to feelings of pain and suffering and that should create resentment. However, if you come back to the child after eight hours of isolation in a dark cupboard and release the child from the dark of it and then feed the child and speak nicely to the child you are then also the rescuer so then the child has intense feelings of gratitude and of warmth and love towards the person who is abusing them. That’s trauma bonding.”
“Where else do you see it? I think where it was fictionalized very nicely and very cleanly was in George Orwell’s 1984 where the main character… is being tortured… and the book conveyed a sense of almost like a weird love that develops between the tortured for the torturer when the torture is framed as being education: ‘I’m doing this for your own good.’ This is the kind of thing an abuser usually will say, ‘I’m doing this to teach you a lesson,’ ‘I’m doing this to drive the devil out of you.'”
The point with all of these metaphors and examples is that the psychology of inflicting cruelty upon someone and then offering them kindness is not a something that only works on a special kind of person.
- You were deceived
- You were trauma-bonded by the time you found out
Of course, it’s so much more complicated than that, and how many more details you provide will depend on how well you know the person, how much you trust them, and how much of a role they will play or do play in your life.
I’m not suggesting that you open up to everyone you know– or at all. But if there are people that you would like to be able to explain more about what you went through and you’re having trouble figuring out why they’re not being supportive or what to say, this may help shed light on whether they’re ever likely to or what you might like to tell them.
For some it won’t be enough. For some it will never be enough.
Some people will never have empathy for or understand what happened, because they won’t be able to identify with the fact that you were deceived (although experts explain that even they are deceived by narcissists and psychopaths).
Or they believe that they would never become trauma-bonded in a similar situation– as if they have a special psychological mechanism that kicks in to transcend natural brain functions when those brain functions are manipulated for evil purposes– and, transcend them, somehow, when the manipulation is done covertly without their knowledge to boot!
Sometimes, however, bridging the gap between something familiar and something foreign is a starting point for those who genuinely care about your well-being and are willing to listen.
Evans, Trace. (2015). “This is what the first 36 hours of marine boot camp is like.” Business Insider. Retrieved on August 26, 2018 from https://www.businessinsider.com/this-is-what-the-first-36-hours-of-marine-boot-camp-is-like-2015-7
Grannon, Richard. (n.d.) “Why do women get back with abusive men ‘trauma bonding.’ YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6k4AXhrYGvc
Powers, Rod. (2018). “How to survive military basic training.” The Balance Careers. Retrieved on August 26, 2018 from https://www.thebalancecareers.com/how-to-survive-military-basic-training-3353989