Oh, the feeling of falling in love. I’m guessing most of you are familiar with the lovely song by Lionel Richie, Love Will Conquer All. And indeed, when we fall in love, doesn’t it feel like anything’s possible and we can truly conquer the world?
That is, unless you’ve fallen in love with an abuser and/or a narcissist, in which case, the only thing you’re left to conquer is your fear of your partner and their toxic, abusive behavior.
Abusive and toxic relationships are something quite puzzling to the outsider. When the abuse is so evident, you may wonder, why the hell would someone stay?
I mean, think about it. We’ve all had that one friend who, at one point, got stuck in an abusive relationship. Every time they described what they had to endure with their partner, what did you say to them? I know all I could think of saying was:
“How can you keep up with such behavior? Just leave.”
The thing is, someone who is stuck in such a relationship never gives a good answer to this question. That’s because not everything can be explained with logic, especially not the matters of the heart.
So, what is it that makes people remain by the side of abusers and narcissists? Other than a person’s low self-esteem — that’s something most people are aware of. Here’s what psychology has to say about it.
By the Time the Relationship Turns Abusive, We’re Overly Attached
The thing is, abusers and narcissists usually don’t show their true colors at the beginning of a relationship. They’re charming, clever, good at seduction, and know exactly how to hook their partner.
That can be confirmed by Counselor and Therapist Darlene Lanser, who states in this article:
There may have been hints of abuse at the beginning that we overlooked — abusers are good at seduction and wait until they know the partner is hooked before showing their true colors. By then, love is cemented and doesn’t die easily.
In another article, Lanser explains in depth the behavior of narcissists that make it so difficult for their partners to leave them:
Narcissists can be exceedingly charming, interesting, and enlivening to be around. Initially, they and other abusers may treat you with kindness and warmth, or even love bomb you. Of course, you want to be with them forever and easily become dependent on their attention and validation. Once you’re hooked and they feel secure, they aren’t motivated to be nice to you. Their charming traits fade or disappear and are replaced or intermixed with varying degrees of coldness, criticism, demands, and narcissistic abuse.
Most people easily rush to judge someone who stays in an abusive relationship, thinking that they’re weak, worthless, or even stupid.
What they don’t understand is that once you enter a cycle of emotional abuse, breaking it can be a real challenge like no other and that abusers have the power to make you develop an addiction to them, the same way you could become addicted to a drug, like heroin. In the meantime, they undermine your self-esteem and independence daily.
Trauma Binds Us More Than We Imagine
A couple of years ago, I watched this video by the incredible channel of School of Life, a global organization dedicated to helping people develop emotional intelligence and lead more resilient and fulfilled lives.
In this video, they explained that people can’t be attracted to just anyone. In fact, we all have some specific traits that we search for in a potential partner, and the most amazing thing is that these traits may not be conducive to our happiness.
The reason that happens is because what we look for in love, is someone who feels familiar and it is usually our parents who unconsciously guide our love types. So, if our mother, for example, was cruel, abusive, and mean, that’s exactly the kind of partner we will search for.
In psychology, this is known as Repetition Compulsion, and is mentioned by Lanser herself in her article:
When we fall in love, if we haven’t worked through trauma from our childhood, we’re more susceptible to idealizing our partner when dating. It’s likely that we will seek out someone who reminds us of a parent with whom we have unfinished business, not necessarily of our opposite-sex parent. We might be attracted to someone who has aspects of both parents.
The takeaway is, trauma binds you more than you can imagine and it can follow you throughout your life, influencing your decisions and choices. That’s why it’s important to work on our traumas early on, instead o feeling ashamed of them.
We Use Love as a Survival Technique
For many people who are stuck in abusive and toxic relationships, the feelings of love and affection they exhibit for their abusive partners can also be a survival technique.
Let’s stop for a moment and think about it. Imagine you just got in a relationship with someone incredibly good-looking, charismatic, and clever, someone who treats you like none else before and makes you feel really special. You think you finally found the one.
Then, out of nowhere, you begin to see another side of them. They start taking advantage of you, mistreating you, and lying to you. How would you feel? You would be in a great shock, to say the least. It’s a great shock for a non-abusive person to process how someone they love, and who claims to love them back, could harm or mistreat them.
To cope and ultimately, survive, they subconsciously decide to ignore their pain, detach themselves from it, and may even justify their abusive partner’s behavior. Things get only worse if they depend on them financially, physically, or emotionally.
In her article, therapist Darlene Lanser confirms that, explaining:
Denial doesn’t mean we don’t know what’s happening. Instead, we minimize or rationalize it and/or its impact. We may not realize it’s actually abuse. Research shows we deny for survival to stay attached and procreate for survival of the species. Facts and feelings that would normally undermine love are minimized or twisted so that we overlook them or blame ourselves in order to keep loving.
We’re so quick to judge the people around us, even though we’ve never been in their shoes. Yet, more often than not, a person doesn’t ever truly know another person — unless they’ve been together since childhood.
What I mean by that is, we all have a whole life behind us, years of memories and experiences, years of trauma and heartache. You cannot actually know what your friend who’s still staying in a relationship with that abusive jerk really feels.
So, if you know someone who’s in an abusive relationship, don’t rush to judge them and certainly don’t try to rationalize their behavior and feelings.
What you should do instead is, help them. Help them become more autonomous and build their self-esteem. Advise them to join a support group, or start seeing a therapist. If their partner is physically abusive offer them shelter. Tell them they deserve more.
If you are in an abusive relationship, you probably feel like there is no way out. However, the truth is, there’s always a way out. Staying in a toxic relationship shouldn’t make you feel worthless, weak, or stupid. You are not alone in this.
Don’t be afraid to ask for help. Talk to the people closest to you. Replace “I can’t” with “I will” today. You can break the cycle of emotional abuse — you are strong enough.
This post was previously published on Medium.com.
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