By Shahida Arabi
Many books, articles and online platforms for abuse survivors often focus on what happens when a narcissistic abuser ‘devalues’ and ‘discards’ their victims. Yet what happens when survivors are lucky enough to identify the abuse that is occurring to them and with the right support and resources, are able to leave their abusers first?
Unfortunately, what would otherwise be a path to freedom can be complicated by the predatory nature of malignant narcissists, whose severe sense of entitlement combined with an unnerving lack of empathy are intrinsic to their disorder. This is a dangerous combination that can result in the abuser sustaining what is known as a narcissistic injury (a threat to the narcissist’s sense of power and control) and subsequently, narcissistic rage.
This type of injury and rage manifests in different ways. According to Dr. Sarkis, narcissistic abusers are likely to do everything possible to win back their victims if they suspect they are on the verge of leaving. Yet this also applies to after their victims leave, as well. To explore what can happen when a survivor leaves his or her narcissistic abuser first and how survivors of narcissistic abuse can protect themselves in this vulnerable stage of their healing journey, I’ve listed the four main ways in which narcissists can act out their “injury” and pose potential harm to their victims, as well as some ways you can empower yourself during this precarious time.
1. Stalking and harassment. Unless the narcissistic abuser had other sources of narcissistic supply (people who provided them a steady stream of attention, praise, admiration, resources, etc.) they were already grooming by the time you left, chances are that he or she was left blindsided by your departure – especially if you planned your departure quietly and safely. A normal partner may be understandably hurt by a break-up that was sudden and not mutual, but eventually, that partner would understand if you needed to end a relationship because it was causing you much more pain than happiness. At the very least, that partner would find some way to move forward with his or her life, knowing that you were not the one for them.
An abusive narcissist? He or she will fly off the handle when they realize that you’ve ‘one-upped’ them somehow and “beaten them” to the discard. Despite the fact that you were obviously in severe emotional and/or physical danger, the narcissist will perceive your escape as an abandonment, rather than a way to secure your safety and sanity from their psychological violence.
See, abusive relationships with a narcissist rely on an idealization-devaluation-discard cycle which enables the narcissist to degrade their victims and discard their victims without any accountability whatsoever. This cycle confirms the narcissist’s distorted sense of being superior to their victims. If the victim ‘discards’ the narcissist first, he or she upsets the power dynamic that bolsters the abuser’s desire for power and validation.
Remember: even if you left the relationship for legitimate reasons – such as for your own emotional and physical safety, your abuser still views the relationship as a competition. For you, the seemingly helpless and powerless victim, to leave first, sends them into a tailspin of fury and devastation. After all, how dare their victims forge the path to freedom, when they essentially ‘belong’ to the narcissist? That is how the narcissist thinks and believes: they truly see their victims as objects to be owned, controlled, mistreated and used as emotional punching bags, not as independent agents with free will.
Make no mistake: you deserve to live a life free of abuse. You have rights. You have boundaries. You have limits. The narcissistic abuser works to erode those boundaries and rights throughout the abusive relationship and sustain a parasitic connection with their victims; they leech off their victim’s resources, empathy, compassion and compliance. By leaving the narcissist first, you threaten their sense of ownership over you and their excessive need to control and gain from you what they cannot find in themselves.
That is why the devastation they feel at the loss of supply is not due to the loss of the survivor, but rather, the loss of power they once held over the survivor. Narcissists rely on narcissistic supply (anything in the form of praise, money, gifts, sex, attention, etc.) to survive their daily experience. They are “addicts” that zoom in on vulnerable targets – anyone they perceive to have high degrees of empathy and compassion – and exploit those targets for all they’re worth, sucking them dry emotionally, physically, and spiritually. They use their victims as trophies to give themselves access to the victim’s resources – status, wealth, the reputation of being with someone attractive and/or successful, as well as social proof of their normalcy.
When their victims are able to escape their grasp without all of their resources being fully exhausted, or right around the time when the narcissist is depending on another devaluation phase to feed himself or herself that daily high – they become inexplicably enraged.
It is no wonder, then, that narcissistic abusers are known to stalk their former victims months, sometimes even years, after the ending of the relationship, especially if their victims discarded them first. They might harass and stalk you in person, through e-mail, texting, phone calls, voicemails, or third-party contact. They may stalk you on your social media platforms and even engage in cyberbullying or threats. Their messages can range from threatening to love-bombing, and may vacillate between rage and tenderness, causing a confusing cocktail of emotions for their victims who simultaneously may want to be left alone but may also be concerned about whether the narcissist’s performances of remorse, pity ploys, or apologies are in any way authentic attempts at accountability.
The usual advice given to the survivor is to go No Contact with his or her abuser – but the sneakiest of narcissists will find their way around the barriers you place. It is actually very common for an abusive ex to linger far beyond the expiration date of the relationship, because abuse is all about power and control. In more extreme scenarios, an abusive partner may hack into your computer or phone and install spyware; they may obtain a plethora of fake IP addresses or fake accounts to cyberbully you on different social media platforms without it being traced; they may threaten you “anonymously” through different e-mail addresses or texts with messages that are meaningful to you but confusing to outsiders, in order to evade suspicion from law enforcement. Narcissists can even use various phone apps to mask their numbers and use multiple numbers to harass you all day long or bombard you with an excessive amount of messages per day. This leaves you with the rather dreary choices of blocking each and every number while a new one pops up, or changing your number altogether.
When stalking and harassment takes a severe emotional toll and you feel you are being retraumatized, unable to move forward in your journey to healing, it may be time to consider taking legal action (if, and only if, you feel safe doing so) whether by reporting the harassment to the police and/or filing for an order of protection or restraining order.
Some survivors may not feel comfortable with this, as it has the potential of making their abusers even more vindictive and it may be even more traumatizing should the case proceed to court. Others may feel empowered by receiving legal documentation that will often make more cowardly narcissists back out of their schemes as soon as they realize they may face legal consequences for their actions.
Research the laws in your state about how to best protect yourself, understand which laws support you in documenting and recording the various forms of abuse and remember to also consult the National Domestic Violence Hotline if you have any questions about how to proceed in your specific situation.
Whatever you decide to do, make sure you’re taking some steps to document the harassment and stalking in case you ever need proof of it. Let those you trust know about what is occurring as well as your whereabouts. At this time, for your own safety, you need to be able to seek support and ‘check in’ with those who can help you – whether it be with a trusted friend, family member, therapist or all of the above.
Never forget: the time when an abuse victim is leaving an abusive relationship can be one of the most dangerous points in the abuse cycle. Please take care of yourself and do what you feel is most emotionally and physically safe as well as practical for you. Don’t discount your intuition, either – it can save your life.
2. Devaluation and Jekyll and Hyde hoovering. After the breakup, the character of the narcissistic abuser can become disturbingly clear – and dangerous. Malignant narcissists will usually attempt to sweet-talk you back into the relationship with promises of change, faux remorse for their misdeeds, and feigned accountability for their actions. They may romanticize the relationship and re-idealize you, taking back all their hurtful words and actions in one fell swoop (or cleverly constructed text message). This is known as hoovering, and it is when, like a Hoover vacuum, the abuser attempts to “suck” their victim back into the abuse cycle.
Yet when you fail to comply with their demands to meet up, reconcile, remain friends or you resist the idealization in any way, abusive narcissists revert back to their true, vindictive selves. Pulling the signature Jekyll and Hyde moves they subjected you to during the relationship, they devalue you all over again, engaging in name-calling, cruel insults and demeaning remarks about your personality, your lifestyle, appearance, talents, career – anything and everything they can pull in to make you feel small, undesirable and unworthy.
For you to say “no” (even politely) and set boundaries is akin to setting off an atomic bomb in the narcissist’s eyes. It sends them into a frightening rage as they realize they can no longer control you and that you are actively resisting their hoovering attempts. Even if you are not verbally expressing anything, you are essentially saying “no” firmly through your actions, your silence and by refusing to get ensnared once more into the traumatic vortex of the relationship.
Your abuser had, after all, hoped that you would react just as you had all the other times you had reconciled with them after incidents of abuse – denying, minimizing or rationalizing the abuse while accepting the crumbs of their love-bombing efforts. Instead, they are left with a void in which they must try to secure other supply, lest they have to confront any need for possible self-evaluation.
Even if they are securing other supply after the break-up, it doesn’t mean they are done with you yet – they may still continue to harass and stalk you, taunting you and debasing you in order to regain a sense of power and control. They may text or call you while they’re with their new partners, to further minimize, provoke and compare you. They may swoop periodically in and out of your life through these hoovering tactics, so they can gain supply in the form of your emotional reactions.
3. Post-breakup triangulation. Once the narcissist has secured new supply, they’ll want you to know about it. That is why, on the No Contact journey, I always recommend that survivors block their narcissistic abusers as well as their harem members on all social media platforms, because even just one accidental look into their Facebook or Instagram can send you back into a downward spiral of self-doubt and self-blame if a new victim pops up shortly after the breakup.
Survivors who “discarded” the narcissist first may have an emotional advantage, in that they may be more fully connected to the reality of who the abuser is. These survivors may have resolved some of the cognitive dissonance that arose during the relationship, and successfully battled the fear, obligation and guilt (FOG) that occurs due to the traumatic nature of this form of relationship. They know why no new victim should ever be envied, as these new victims too will also go through the same horrific cycle.
Still, any survivor is still vulnerable to post-breakup triangulation (the deliberate manufacturing of love triangles to control and devalue you) whether online or in real life because survivors are still in the process of healing from their “addiction” and trauma bond to the narcissist. This leaves them susceptible to further emotional manipulation, unnecessary comparisons and excessive gloating from their abusive ex-partner. To avoid this, be gentle with yourself and very firm with your boundaries so that you can remove temptation or the risk of encountering the abuser altogether.
Ensure that you are avoiding places that you know the narcissistic abuser frequents; remove any form of contact with their harem members; be mindful of any urges to ever reach out to or reestablish contact with a narcissistic partner, as they may be prone to using those instances to brag about their new supply.
4. Smear campaigns and threats. If you discarded the narcissist first without warning, they are sure to be desperate to reframe the narrative about you as soon as possible. This is because in breaking up with them first, you unintentionally ‘exposed’ who they truly were as well as the hidden nature of the abusive relationship – and exposure is one of the narcissist’s greatest fears. Breaking up with a narcissist threatens their very sense of security because it could potentially rip off their false mask and reveal the true self to their harem members.
Many narcissists begin the smear campaign even before any devaluation begins by sneaking in hints to their family members or friends about your shortcomings or projected abusive traits (which are in fact their own) and provoking you publicly throughout your relationship. Smear campaigns are often staged successfully when the narcissistic abuser has access to both his or her harem group as well as your social network. However, if you never introduced the narcissist to your friends or your family, and if you are able to gain validation from within after the break-up, the smear campaign might be less effective.
The narcissist may still find other ways of slandering you – shortly after you leave them, they may threaten to release your personal information, such as private photos, text messages, videos or otherwise confidential discussions; they may stalk and harass you online; they may contact others who know you as a way to gain information about you. The means in which they can desperately try to regain a sense of control over your life are endless – but the portal to inner peace is not as impossible to reach as you may think.
Remember: all smear campaigns rely on the idea that the abuse victim is unable to self-validate and cope without the approval of others. The truth is, there may be legal ways to protect yourself against slander or the release of private information depending on the state you live in; you can still report the narcissist for harassment if they try to reach you via a third party; you can get professional support that helps to validate your experiences of the abuse and regain a sense of emotional freedom and security within yourself. As survivors, we still have choices, even if those choices primarily lie within doing what we can to seek out resources and help.
Undoubtedly, this can be a difficult time, but all we can control is how we approach the situation and empower ourselves. Research what you can do legally to protect yourself. Build support networks that help to validate your experiences and strengthen your resolve to detach from the toxicity and focus on your own inner peace. Explore alternative and traditional healing modalities that can reconnect you with a healthier mind, body and spirit. Find assistance anywhere and everywhere – through domestic violence hotlines, lawyers, support groups, therapists, life coaches, books, articles – you name it, it can all be used to propel yourself towards healing and a brighter future.
Envision yourself being in a better place than the situation you’re currently in. Know your own worth and celebrate being finally free at last from your abuser. In knowing your inner power and trusting in your ability to survive seemingly insurmountable odds, you’ll realize that you are much more powerful than you might think. You were powerful enough to leave your abuser and survive the abuse – don’t underestimate how powerful you can be in thriving after it.