Narcissists are cruel. Narcissists can belittle, name-call, shame, fluctuate between “honeymoon periods” and “abusive periods,” be controlling and possessive, physically and sexually abuse, ruin someone’s finances, live double lives, and engage in serially cheating.
They may do any of these things or all of them, and because of a systematic pattern of behaviors as tipped off by the repeated things that the perpetrator says or does, we set it apart from other types of abuse, from other forms of emotional and psychological abuse in particular, and call it “narcissistic abuse.”
It definitely is different, but what is it about narcissistic abuse that makes it different and why bother to carve out a separate space for it at all rather than break it out separately into the types of abuse that have already been identified?
I have been seeking out the answers to these questions for years now, even before I could readily admit what I was going through and what I was likely dealing with.
Narcissistic abuse is a serious form of abuse that is estimated to affect somewhere between 60 and 158 million people in the U.S. alone (Bonchay, 2017). Despite its prevalence and the efforts to promote awareness, however, there is almost no public knowledge of this type of abuse.
Most types of abuse, such as physical abuse and psychological abuse, have generally agreed-upon definitions.
Yet often the definitions supplied for narcissistic abuse in mental health literature as well as books and articles written for survivors are vague, imprecise, and inconsistent.
Even at the time, I was going through something with my ex-boyfriend that was extraordinarily abnormal, dysfunctional, almost completely debilitating I found very few actual words that defined for me what was happening other than to describe behaviors of both him and myself that I immediately identified with and the pronouncement, “This is narcissistic abuse.”
But what is it? I know what it feels like, but what is it? How can it be explained as a whole?
It’s out there in bits and pieces, across scattered articles and books, and the descriptions of our lives as we find one another. Those of us who have been through it understand it intuitively because we recognize it as rooted in our experiences, and we see it in analogous experiences when we begin to read (e.g., hostage situations, addiction patterns, cult programming, etc.).
Yet the language for talking about it has not yet adapted to cover what has happened to us in the mainstream, so the narrative is difficult to wrap our minds around even for ourselves, much less explain to others.
I don’t mean this to be a criticism at all. This information I read saved my life and has undoubtedly saved the lives of many others.
I actually believe that one of the reasons the descriptions lack cohesion is because the abuse is so hidden and the reality we endured while we lived in was so warped that it is difficult to describe. I believe that that, however, is the very key to describing the abuse.
A clear and consistent definition can lead to a greater mainstream awareness of this type of abuse. This can lead to making it more difficult for narcissists to abuse in general and greater support for survivors.
Most importantly, when survivors are able to define the greater aspect of it for ourselves, to be able to say definitively, this is what happened to me, this is why, and this is how, it can forever rob the abuse of some of its lingering power.
The “Problems” in the Current Definitions of Narcissistic Abuse
I only call what’s happening in what I have read “problems” not because there is anything intentional or malicious in the current definitions, but because the definitions that currently exist are so vague that they make it difficult even for us to wrap our minds around when we are still in the relationship or even afterward.
As I stated, I believe that narcissists themselves in the way they act make it difficult to put a finger on how their actions are even abusive at times– but I do believe there is a way.
So to explain how defining narcissistic abuse is typically described, sources often use descriptions of certain aspects of it. For example, some sources define it as a combination of tactics that are used by the perpetrator to abuse a partner (i.e., Lancer, 2017, et al.), such as love-bombing, devaluating, discarding, smearing, hoovering, and others.
Other sources define narcissistic abuse by describing the signs it has occurred through how it has affected the survivor (i.e., Arabi, 2017, “11 Signs You’re the Victim of Narcissistic Abuse,” et al.). These include things such as struggling with health issues and walking on eggshells.
These types of descriptions have been extremely beneficial to millions of survivors around the world who are currently in or have come out of relationships with narcissists, are traumatized by what they have been through and are seeking answers– such as myself.
These articles are crucial for those of us struggling to survive relationships with conscienceless people who engage in unspeakable acts, who have hijacked our desires, who we repeatedly attempt to explain why those acts are wrong, who claim to love us and yet continue to do them.
There are many issues, however, with using these descriptions as definitions of narcissistic abuse.
First, they are too broad to convey easily.
Imagine trying to explain to someone else who hasn’t been through it what narcissistic abuse is and rambling on about tactics and their effects. Or why you once defended the person and now you have to explain the horrible things they did. Perhaps you don’t have to imagine because you’ve done it. I don’t, because I have tried doing it myself.
In contrast, people understand instantly when you describe, as an example, the concept of “physical abuse,” that it is when someone inflicted bodily harm on someone else in a relationship in order to control them.
Yet in trying to explain narcissistic abuse, if I start to ramble about all of the things as described, what am I trying to say about what the mechanism of control was?
Because these descriptions are really only focusing on an aspect of the abuse (e.g., a tactic or a particular effect) and not the underpinning, it lacks precision that can leave many things about it unanswered, such as how it is different than other types of abuse, why some of the things that were done led to the effects that are also described in the same articles or elsewhere, or sometimes even how the acts are abusive at all.
For example, if a definition mentions psychologically abusive aspects of the relationship, such as putdowns or silent treatment, then it raises questions about how the abuse is distinct from other psychologically abusive relationships that aren’t referred to as narcissistic abuse.
Or in another example, if infidelity and cheating are mentioned as characterizing narcissistic abuse, an explanation for why this is abusive may be necessary, as infidelity and cheating, though painful, may occur in any relationship.
And how should we understand, much less explain to someone else why someone would go to so much trouble to be the perfect partner for someone and lovebomb them only to later devalue and utterly destroy them so completely? It doesn’t sound rational.
That’s the point– it’s not.
And that’s the crux of narcissistic abuse. Even other types of abuse, though inexcusable, make sense to people. With narcissistic abuse, the problem becomes making the irrational understandable as a concept– even to ourselves.
A Working Definition of Narcissistic Abuse
The National Domestic Violence Hotline website defines domestic violence as “a pattern of behaviors used by one partner to maintain power and control over another partner in an intimate relationship” (“What is Domestic Violence?” n.d.). Linking narcissistic abuse back to the perpetrators and what characterizes them is the key to defining it because it leads to identifying the specific action by which these abusers in particular gain control.
Although they may never be diagnosed, the perpetrators of narcissistic abuse are typically those whose behavior meets the criteria for one of two Cluster B Personality Disorders — Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD) or Anti-Social Personality Disorder (ASPD) (Arabi, 2017, “Why Survivors of Malignant Narcissists Don’t Get the Justice They Deserve”).
Individuals with these disorders have a strong propensity to exploit others, due to having low levels of emotional empathy, an inability to feel remorse, and the pathological ability and desire to deceive and manipulate.
Although the typical cycle of abusive relationships includes “honeymoon periods,” (Walker, 1979), the cycle of narcissistic abuse is different. Narcissistic relationships instead have an idealization period, during which narcissists intentionally manufacture a “soulmate” persona at the beginning of the relationship that is not who they genuinely are in order to encourage targeted partners to become vulnerable to them quickly and fall in love.
Once the narcissist has gained the trust and confidence of the partner, the “true self” of the narcissist eventually shows itself. The abuser turns on the partner and behaves in cruel ways, such as through verbal abuse, withholding the love and attention that was previously freely given, intentionally manufacturing emotions such as jealousy and insecurity, and engaging in various forms of betrayal.
It is only through the deception of the “false self” that any of the abuse can occur, and the deception is unique to narcissistic abuse and is its particularly damaging feature, as it leads to cognitive dissonance and grieving over the person who does not exist.
Sandra L. Brown (2009) says in her book Women Who Love Psychopaths that intrusive thoughts and cognitive dissonance were the two most disruptive symptoms in the women she counseled who came out of relationships with psychopaths. “This is why the mid-relationship dynamics are marked by grieving. What [the survivor] becomes acutely aware of is that her grieving is caused by a unique feature of the psychopath. This unique feature is the unbelievable contradictions, opposites, and dichotomies that mark this man as the disordered person he is.”
Narcissistic abuse at every stage is about a false self and deceit, and I propose that the definition of narcissistic abuse have at its core the idea that this intentional deception for the purposes of exploitation is abusive.
Traditional abusers control through more traditional means: the infliction of bodily harm; lowering someone’s self-esteem through verbal abuse; controlling resources to keep someone dependent on them.
Narcissistic abusers may do these things as well, however, they may not.
The mechanism of control is to break down someone’s psychological barriers, to subvert their warning systems and create vulnerability and trust. They then can control the other person and get that person to willingly provide whatever he or she wants.
A formal definition might look something like this:
Narcissistic abuse is the intentional construction of a false perception of someone else’s reality by an abuser for the purposes of controlling them. It has the following features:
- The false reality is constructed through elaborate, covert deception and psychological manipulation over a long period of time.
- The false perceptions created are of the abuser as someone who has the survivor’s best interests at heart and of the relationship as a beneficial one for the survivor.
- The goal of the abuse is to allow the narcissist to extract whatever he or she perceives is of value from the partner, including attention, admiration, status, love, sex, money, a place to stay or other resources.
- The abuser takes advantage of societal norms that assume everyone participates in social relationships with a basic level of empathy, which makes it easy for the abuser to convince the survivor (and everyone else) that no abuse is taking place.
- Because the abuse is “hidden” using deception, it is difficult for survivors to recognize, understand, and escape it.
Often the narcissist is engaging in other activities outside the relationship that also use deceit and further provide support to explain how this is a specific and unique feature of a narcissist that he or she applies to all aspects of life.
For example, narcissists may con people out of money, or sabotage people at work in order to one-up them.
They may be vindictive and take revenge on neighbors, colleagues, or people in their social circles for minor slights, enjoyment or because they feel threatened in some way.
They may call people “friends” but have no problem being disloyal to them if a person is no longer useful or they perceive that betraying them serves them in some other manner.
By applying their deception as the key feature that explains what makes narcissistic abuse distinct from other forms of abuse and why that mechanism is so harmful, it provides a framework for explaining all of the other things that can happen in a relationship with a narcissist
Let’s Look at Some Examples
I was working on an updated resources page, which I will release soon, and including some autobiographies. There is a theme that emerges in the plots of the books. Let’s take a look:
- In alternating Before and After chapters, Waite obsessively analyzes her relationship, trying to find a single moment form the past five years that isn’t part of the long con of lies and manipulation. Instead, she finds more lies, infidelity, and betrayal than she could have imagined. With the pacing and twists of a psychological thriller, A Beautiful, Terrible Thing looks at how a fairy tale can become a nightmare and what happens when “it could never happen to me” actually does. (A Beautiful, Terrible Thing, Jen Waite)
- In April 2006, Mary Turner Thomson received a call that blew her life apart. The woman on the other end of the line told her that Will Jordan, Mary’s husband and the father of her two younger children, had been married to her for fourteen years and they had five children together. The Bigamist is the shocking true story of how one man manipulated an intelligent, independent woman, conning her out of £200,000 and leaving her to bring up the children he claimed he could never have. It’s a story we all think could never happen to us, but this shameless con man has been doing the same thing to various other women for at least 27 years, spinning a tangled web of lies and deceit to cover his tracks. (The Bigamist, Mary Turner Thompson)
- Tina Swithin was swept off her feet by a modern day Prince Charming and married him one year later. Tina soon discovered that there was something seriously wrong with her fairytale. The marriage was filled with lies, deception, fraud and many tears. Tina was left in an utter state of confusion. This wasn’t the man that she married…or was it? Tina first heard the term, Narcissistic Personality Disorder from her therapist in 2008 but quickly dismissed the notion that something could be wrong with her husband. It took several years for Tina to begin researching the disorder and suddenly, the past ten years of her life made complete sense. Tina soon discovered that there is only one thing more difficult than being married to a narcissist and that is divorcing a narcissist. (Divorcing a Narcissist,Tina Swithin)
- Her marriage to successful airline pilot Captain X seemed like a dream come true. In reality, it was a nightmare. From the second they met, Captain X swept MrsXNomore off her feet, constantly showering her with gifts, flattery and attention. Early on she underwent the physical and emotional stress of infertility and adoption with little help from her husband. Things were not adding up. His erratic work schedule, their few friends, distant family, and his evasiveness about finances left MrsXNomore in a constant state of confusion. Insisting on reviewing family finances, disbelief set in. Captain X had plunged them into serious debt, often using her name, ruining her credit. Shocked, she constantly searched for answers and found them in Captain X’s computer. She discovered he was member of a secret brotherhood involving prostitution, locally and internationally during their entire marriage. (The Secret Life of CaptainX: My Life with a Psychopathic Pilot, Mrs XNoMore)
- Web of Lies takes you on an emotional roller-coaster, experienced through the eyes of Sarah Tate, an intelligent, young newcomer to Switzerland who is swept off her feet by an older, more experienced company manager. Within weeks of their meeting, Bill impresses her with a courtship vastly unusual in modern times. He lures Sarah with his intellect along with numerous gifts, expensive restaurants, and trips to luxury hotels. Sarah, who is searching for not only love but security, quickly finds herself falling for the worldly but sensitive and caring man Bill represents himself to be. In Web of Lies, she describes the highs and the lows of what it is like to be involved with a person with Narcissistic Personality Disorder, how to come to terms with the abuse, and most importantly, how to escape. (Web of Lies, Sarah Tate)
What is the common denominator?
In each of these stories, the partners of the narcissist were lured into the relationships by a persona presented by the narcissist at the outset that was desirable. The person was so real that they were drawn into that reality and they established a life with that person, a foundation, only to discover years later secrets or behavior so shocking that it defied the very core of the reality in which they had been not only presented, but had been living all that time.
The details of the secrets and the behavior may have varied, but the systematic patterns are the same, and the common denominator is the deception.
The dual personas as part of this deception and manipulation, as explained by why narcissists do what they do as a function of Narcissistic Personality Disorder and/or Antisocial Personality Disorder, are specific enough to convey consistently.
They also provide a framework for understanding the variety of tactics used by narcissists, such as love-bombing and devaluation.
It can explain concepts such as trauma bonding, identity erosion, and cognitive dissonance that demonstrate what happens to the partner over time and why he or she doesn’t leave.
It can explain the seemingly contradictory and irrational behavior of the narcissist, that he or she is operating on a completely different moral system.
Focusing on “deception” as the key to understanding narcissistic abuse brings the very thing that makes the abuse possible out into the light.
Why is this so important?
It may be easy to say, “So what? We know that we were abused. It doesn’t matter if we have the right words to name what happened.”
Yet without words, we can’t call it out. People are often re-victimized by the court system when divorcing or attempting to retain custody of children, or even by therapists when the narcissist is able to use deception to fool other people. The lack of understanding that deception is how narcissists abuse their partners is a part of the problem.
Although narcissistic abusers may also abuse in other ways, they rely on deception to execute their dominance and control, to maintain it, and to avoid being detected as abusers.
This is itself abusive and should be recognized as such. By pointing it out and making it the focal point, it renders the darkness in which they operate just a little bit lighter.
Edited to include examples 9/10/2018
Arabi, S. (2017). Why Survivors of Malignant Narcissists Don’t Get the Justice They Deserve. The Huffington Post. Retrieved on June 28, 2018, from https://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/why-survivors-of-malignant-narcissists-dont-get-the_us_59691504e4b06a2c8edb462e
Arabi, S. (2017). 11 Signs You’re the Victim of Narcissistic Abuse. Psych Central. Retrieved on June 27, 2018, from https://blogs.psychcentral.com/recovering-narcissist/2017/08/11-signs-youre-the-victim-of-narcissistic-abuse/
Bonchay, B. (2017). Narcissistic Abuse Affects Over 158 Million People in the U.S. Psych Central. Retrieved on June 18, 2018, from https://psychcentral.com/lib/narcissistic-abuse-affects-over-158-million-people-in-the-u-s/
Brown, S. (2009) Women Who Love Psychopaths. Minneapolis, MN: Book Printing Revolution.
Lancer, D. (2017). How to Spot Narcissistic Abuse. Psychology Today. Retrieved on June 18, 2018, fromhttps://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/toxic-relationships/201709/how-spot-narcissistic-abuse
Walker, L. (1979) The Battered Woman. New York: Harper and Row.
“What is Domestic Violence?” (n.d.) The National Domestic Violence Hotline. Retrieved on June 25, 2018, from http://www.thehotline.org/is-this-abuse/abuse-defined/
A version of this article appeared online at PsychCentral: Defining Narcissistic Abuse: The Case for Deception as Abuse