Episodic ruptures were peppered throughout their tumultuous relationship, but when seemingly benign texting commenced during the pandemic, Megan began to question if she was correct in concluding that her ex was a full-blown malignant narcissist. In fact, their friendly exchanges caused her to ruminate over how the early stages of their courtship were not defined by a predictable form of grandiose love-bombing.
When push came to shove, she rationalized to herself there were signs of narcissistic traits but not a full-blown disorder. In a similar manner, she also began to question if the stabilization she recently achieved in trauma-informed therapy was the necessary balm to their prior incendiary dynamics. After all, she reasoned, her incessant need to interrogate was certainly a valid source of annoyance and provocation. Yet mostly, truth be told, recollections of the laughter they shared and the alignment of their lifestyles and worldviews tugged at her heart.
Consequently, unconvinced of the threat involved and curious as to whether they had a chance, she took the bait and picked up where they left off. Indeed it appeared as if things were different. After all, he was contrite, even reassuring. He evidenced constraint and attentiveness. What ignited vitriol in the past was now met with reflection.
Likewise, since entering therapy to assimilate the pain of a traumatic childhood dominated by a violent, narcissistic father, Megan concluded that her achieving regulation and containment was indeed pivotal to their being able to build a future together. Insistent that they had both matured during their most recent separation, Megan encouraged family and friends to warily consider that perhaps they really could commence with actualizing a sustainable life partnership.
This time she trusted they would go the distance.
The charade tragically dissipated when the escalation of abuse turned unrelenting and physically violent. Once again, character assassination, debasement, rages, and physical threats became routine. Having remained in therapy throughout the duration of the reunion with her ex, Megan reluctantly but unequivocally conceded that she had to leave and never look back.
At long last, Megan broke loose from a toxic trauma bond to a man she was swayed to believe would be her partner through life. In true form, he already had another woman lined up to take her place.
Like Megan, unless an abuser decisively conforms to a textbook version of pathology, most people will minimize and even trivialize what is happening. Even when there are overt indicators of pathological malignancy, the gradual corrosion of a person’s spirit, achieved through a calculated process of debasement that starts off with seemingly benign forms of seduction, creates confusion.
In fact, many of my therapy clients evincing PTSD due to systemic abuse find it particularly difficult to grasp that they have been subjected to a calculated scheme to dehumanize. The basic reason is that, on a fundamental level, we have an innate need to trust in humanity. Accepting that from the very onset, they were being groomed as supply means accepting that the love they committed to was never real. This ignites debilitating torment, which modifies one’s worldview to incorporate a necessary awareness of the potential for evil in the human condition.
Although narcissism is a condition that has variability across a continuous range, unlike the introversion-extroversion spectrum, where there is a range of opposite ways of being, with traits of engagement and disengagement peppered in-between, the narcissism spectrum draws distinctions of adaptive, healthy narcissism from malignant pathological states. All human beings possess some characteristics that span this continuum. However, the further along on the narcissistic continuum, the more the capacity for love diminishes and the greater the proclivity for domination.
This being the case, the developmentally stunted disordered narcissist needs to extract supply (Fenichel), meaning they must have targets of objectification to satisfy insatiable needs and demands for compliance and worship, or they will succumb to annihilation panic. Hence, the arrangement between an abuser and supply prohibits reciprocity and mutuality, as the needs of the victim interfere with existing solely for the narcissist’s parasitic predilections.
Since malignant narcissists share a delusional sense of accomplishment and superiority, they are discerning as to whom they choose to exploit and destroy. Contemptuous towards those they regard as inferior, they seek sources of supply that serve as ‘extensions’ of what they lack and crave. For this reason, targets of narcissistic abuse typically embody the empathy and the gifts that narcissists envy.
To this end, those who tend to be challenging but malleable enough to mold are ideal targets of primary supply. Conversely, those who classify as low-grade or insufficient supply generally uphold strong boundaries and meet coercion with resistance. Furthermore, their conveyance of empathy and generosity is predicated on discernment and discrimination. As a result, love-bombing and weaponizing victimization will not procure immediate compliance. Most importantly, the individual suspicious of narcissistic maneuvering has sufficient trust in their instincts to gauge danger.
Once a target is singled out, a premeditated form of manipulation in which an abuser tactically inveigles another into becoming a malleable source of objectified supply occurs. This is referred to as grooming.
The anatomy of abuse begins with sniffing out a target for the very purpose of grooming them to become supply.
An essential component of grooming is known as love bombing, a swift process in which an abuser ingratiates themself to an unsuspecting target in order to establish a false sense of intimacy and trust. Although abusers are typically known to ramp up compliments, lavish gifts, and request continuous contact at this stage of the game, it’s important to consider that despite the term suggesting excessive and overt aggression, there is variability to love bombing.
Although lying, fabrication, and fraud are standard procedures, employing impression management assists the personality-disordered abuser with crafting a false persona and impersonating feelings to achieve a desired outcome. The form seduction takes will be largely predicated on the abuser’s constitution and how they read their target.
Some narcissists present as grandiose yet superficially charming, others as outwardly bold and arrogant. The more covert variety can appear vulnerable and unassuming and may quietly virtue signal and grandstand. The somatic narcissist will use their sexuality to manipulate supply, while the cerebral narcissist will use their intellect to procure adulation. In turn, the female narcissist will conceal perfidious motives behind a gender-specific guise.
Depending on conditions, ‘love bombing’ might consist of encouraging seemingly profound sharing. Appearing humble and kind, the abuser might subtly weaponize how they are held back by sundry circumstances that interfere with realizing their full potential or aspirations. By coming across as fragile and eccentric, as one who has been misunderstood and injured by prior romantic partners, the new target for supply is encouraged to believe they are ‘the special one’ who can help them out of binds, offer understanding, and accept their ‘idiosyncrasies.’
When victims of abuse embark on healing and recovery, many are bewildered by the absence of a grandiose whirlwind of bombastic wooing and idealization. Like Megan, who erroneously viewed being on the receiving end of a nuanced form of love bombing as proof of safety, many struggle with fully owning that they were victims of narcissistic abuse when love-bombing tactics were subtle and stealthy.
Additionally, controlling behavior is often masked as romantic courtship. As a result, when relationships with abusers accelerate at warp speed, it’s choked up to chemistry and destiny. These romanticized notions of soulmate destiny and throwing caution to the wind create confusion and contribute to blurring the lines between amorous interest and hostage-taking.
Bypassing the processing of feelings and behaviors at the onset of a relationship may be culturally sanctioned, but it is contrary to self-protection. Undoubtedly, this proclivity is capitalized on by abusers when hooking supply.
To be expected, following the chase and a short-lived period of euphoric idealization and future faking, devaluation kicks in. Being that a malignant narcissist seeks idealization in order to feed their grandiosity and illusions of control, any perceived slight, criticism, or deviation from perfection is experienced as an unforgivable humiliating ‘injury.’ As a result, when fantasies of perfection and idealization are tainted by the inevitability of human fallibility, unbridled rage is ignited, culminating in an elaborate form of retaliation.
Insatiably empty and devoid of empathy, the narcissist’s fragile chaotic self cannot tolerate human flaws. It follows that the targeted supply will be repeatedly blindsided by the fury ignited by any perceived blow to the narcissist’s ego.
Essentially, any digression from perfect mirroring triggers the narcissist’s depths of emptiness, primal rage, and torment, setting in motion a cycle of unrelenting abuse. At this point, the narcissist devises a traumatic relational landscape designed to debilitate the victim. With repetitive indoctrination and thought control, steadfast allegiance takes tenacious hold. This is referred to as a trauma bond.
Forms of coercive, injurious, and controlling behavior and confusional techniques are employed by the abuser to distort reality and gain leverage. The use of blame, shame, and humiliation silences the target, and the calculated wielding of a toxic array of tactics, such as intermittent love bombing, gaslighting, smear campaigns, stonewalling, stalking, deception, infidelity, and lying, ensure that the victim becomes increasingly untethered, fearful, and doubtful of their perceptions.
These unpredictable machinations heighten sympathetic arousal, causing the victim to experience responses of fight, flight, freeze, and fawning. These responses are the hallmark of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
In spite of egregious misconduct, the victim’s need to believe others are inherently good and well-meaning dupes them into taking on misguided liability. Holding on to a mythic narrative that all people possess an inner light and the moral compass to amicably resolve difficulties sets the victim up for further exploitation and manipulation. This relational trajectory is further exacerbated by the stigma incurred by those who view the victim as delusional when they suspect that the narcissist is causing deliberate harm.
Moreover, since we are inclined to reject that which generates uncertainty and threatens our worldview when an unsettling contradiction occurs, the victim of abuse will deny, minimize or rationalize that which causes distress and choose an attitude or belief that assuages anxiety and guarantees a modicum of stability. This phenomenon is known as cognitive dissonance.
Inevitably, the onus will be on the victim for any ‘misunderstandings.’ In due course, the one inflicting torment is imbued with the power to stop the pain by absolving the guilty victim for their unlimited faults. To survive, the victim will remain blind to and even justify difficult truths.
This proclivity, known as confirmation bias, explains why victims of abuse form emotional bonds with their captors, demonstrate abject compliance and deny reality so as to manage the threat of psychological annihilation. It also clarifies why victims of narcissistic abuse are often not believed.
Ultimately, when the abuser determines their supply is no longer useful, they will be discarded like expendable trash. There is no closure. Victims are left to struggle with believing the horror of their pain and their traumatic reality.
If the victim was abused or neglected in childhood or had experiences with systemic assaultive behavior prior to meeting the narcissist, the psychological strain of healing from extensive narcissistic abuse is debilitating. The presence of complex trauma, as well as addictions and mood disorders, further complicates the healing process.
Considering that the thrill of the hunt and the irresistible power of embodying both tormenter and redeemer fuels the narcissist’s quest, the abuser will often return. Referred to as hoovering, ploys, and strategies are employed to reignite a connection. The abuser’s intention is simple. They are returning to reassert possession.
Returning leads to a progression of even worse degradation and abuse as the narcissist concludes it is the victim’s weakness that gave way to triumph. The victim’s capitulation reinforces the abuser’s sense of superiority, omnipotence, and entitlement.
Hence, victims of traumatic abuse seeking recovery are advised to go ‘no contact’.
In closing, knowing how our basic trust in the order and structure of our world is preserved by denying the existence of human evil urges me to shatter illusions of safety and predictability. There are pathologically dangerous people in the world. I am hoping by helping others see through the machinations of intentional dehumanizing cruelty, potential targets of supply will dodge the bullets fired by malignant narcissists and be spared the harrowing ordeal of traumatic abuse.
Thank you for this informative article, Sheri!
Rev. Sheri Heller, LCSW is a NYC psychotherapist, freelance writer/author, and an interfaith minister in private practice specializing in the treatment of complex trauma, narcissistic abuse syndrome, and addictive disorders. Learn more about Sheri at www.sheritherapist.com.