Trapped in toxic relationship? Four characteristics by which you recognize narcissists

Everyone has narcissistic traits, but that doesn’t make him a narcissist. Narcissism expert Chris Oeuvray explains the four characteristics that make up a narcissist, what a toxic relationship looks like, and why such unions need a clean break.

Melanie is 35 and is in the middle of life. She meets Ronald and falls in love with him. He embodies everything she has ever wanted: he is great looking, eloquent, charming, confident and successful. Within a short time they marry and become parents. Soon Ronald shows his other face. He is choleric, cheats on Melanie, makes her responsible for everything bad. At first Melanie defends herself and the situation escalates more and more often – more and more. She gives in for the sake of harmony and resigns. Her self-confidence crumbles and she falls step by step into his narcissistic trap until she is at his mercy. Her marriage becomes hell. Melanie recognizes this and wants to separate. To prevent this from happening, Ronald pulls out all the stops. He spoils her, in the next moment he tortures her, he finishes her off. He accuses her of being a failure, stalks her until she almost goes crazy. On top of all this, he threatens to harm the children. He knows her vulnerabilities and exploits them shamelessly. She is devastated.

How such a relationship with a narcissist arises and develops, I describe in the thriller "Fatally in love", which deals with the fictitious love affair between Ronald and Melanie. Ronald binds Melanie to him, manipulates her, makes her dependent on him, abuses her emotionally. For those affected and their relatives, it is often inexplicable how someone gets into such a toxic relationship. For the person affected, on the other hand, it is often difficult to leave the narcissist.

Chris Oeuvray is an author and coach. For 20 years she has run her own practice focusing on relationship dynamics, especially dealing with toxic people. Together with Martina Muller, journalist and mother of three children, she founded the Swiss association for "victims of narcissists". Sufferers regularly meet there and exchange their experiences to support each other

Four characteristics make up the narcissist

Every person has narcissistic traits, but that doesn’t make him a narcissist. Four characteristics distinguish a person with narcissistic personality disorder: It is selfish, egocentric, dominant and shines through a lack of empathy.

Narcissism is by no means a male phenomenon. Women are currently catching up. But it is even more difficult for male victims to talk about it. The shame of having been the victim of a female assault is too great.

It is estimated that up to five percent of all people have a narcissistic personality disorder. There is no cure, the narcissist suffers from this disorder for life and in most cases is not even aware of it.

"Fatally in Love," by Chris Oeuvray, 2020, Blackbird Publishing.

Mental cruelty leaves no visible traces

Victims of narcissism are often not taken seriously when they open up and tell about the emotional abuse they are experiencing. The mental cruelties from which the victims suffer, sometimes for decades, ultimately leave no visible traces. But what they tell often leaves the other person speechless:

"My husband would hide my car keys and sometimes even move the car just to make me feel like there was something wrong with my mental health."

Or "If I didn’t behave according to my mother’s expectations, she punished me with food deprivation or stopped talking to me for days at a time."

Narcissistic assaults also occur in everyday business lifeMy boss has always blamed me for all his mistakes. And sold my own performance successes as his."

The pattern of narcissists is always the same

These are three examples that we are confronted with in our self-help group "victims of narcissists". Sufferers differ in personality, age, background and life history. Nevertheless, each and every one of them always experiences the same pattern when it comes to narcissistic abuse. It starts with the "love bombing" phase.

During this time, which usually lasts three months, the sufferer is showered with attention, gifts and affection. The chosen one becomes emotionally dependent on this flattery. Then usually follows overnight the cold withdrawal, the narcissist turns away, becomes cold, keeps his distance. The victim, who has become accustomed to the attention, doesn’t know what’s happening to him and looks for the fault in himself. He thinks if he just conforms, changes his behavior, dresses differently, speaks differently, or becomes compliant to the narcissist in a different way, that this beautiful phase will come back.

The affected persons thus become "co-narcissists" overnight, who now try to compensate for the lack caused by the narcissist for the rest of the relationship and thus give themselves up.

Emotional violence determines everyday life

The narcissist, aware of his power and control, now alternately uses various tools to mentally massacre the co-narcissist, including the following

  • Gaslighting (distortion of reality)
  • Ghosting (complete loss of contact for an extended period of time to always)
  • Silent treatment (a short period of ignoring)
  • Drama sequences (freaking out, insults, humiliations and playing up trivia)
  • Surveillance in the form of hacking social media accounts and installing tracking devices

If there are also common children, they are often instrumentalized and trained. Everyday life with a narcissist does not allow the co-narcissist to rest easy. He unconsciously moves in survival mode all the time. Thinks twice about every step so as not to provoke the narcissist unnecessarily. This dance on eggshells drains the co-narcissist, causes burnout or leads to other serious illnesses.

In most cases, the narcissist is not aware of these assaults because he himself grew up with such patterns: Those who always had to fight for the love and attention of their parents and learned that there is love only in exchange for a favor, tend to live this pattern in adulthood also with their love partner.

Needs a clean break

If the co-narcissist recognizes that he or she is in a toxic relationship, only a separation with a complete break-off of contact will lead to a clean break-up. This is comparable to drug or nicotine withdrawal. Just as the addictive drug prolongs dependence even in small amounts, reduced contact with a narcissist means further destruction. Because a narcissist does not show insight, nor will he change.

In our association women meet, some of whom were married to a narcissist for more than 30 years and only now find the strength to separate from him. With consequences to match: Those who dare to take the step of breaking up go through hell. For most narcissists do not simply give up this loss of control without a fight. They will use any harassment possible to make it as difficult as possible for the sufferer. Often those affected by the breakup are also ruined financially and leave the relationship with debts. The situation is different when contact with a narcissistic parent is severed: This is comparable to leaving a cult: The affected person usually has to leave behind all the relatives and the rest of the family as well.

If children are involved, in most of the cases we know of, contact must be kept to a minimum and often the child protection authorities must be called in to minimize the damage to the children. But no matter how difficult the breakup is, what awaits is freedom and the opportunity to enter into a healthy relationship. And this is worth fighting for.

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