Being in a relationship with a narcissist comes with challenges, but because of the stages of narcissistic abuse, you may find yourself falling in love with a narcissist, and then not knowing how to get out of the relationship when things start going downhill.
Overcoming narcissistic abuse is challenging, and it’s normal to feel some sadness or uncertainty over ending the relationship. Here, learn about the stages of healing after narcissistic abuse so you know what to expect when you make the decision to leave.
What narcissistic abuse looks like in a relationship?
Narcissistic abuse occurs when you’re in a relationship with a person with narcissistic personality disorder, which is a legitimate mental health condition. Coping with narcissistic abuse can be difficult because of the traits of this disorder:
Being willing to exploit others for personal gain
Believing oneself to be superior to others
Wanting excessive admiration
Being unable to empathize with other people
Behaving in an arrogant fashion
Expecting special treatment and automatic compliance with their demands
The personality traits above lead a person with narcissism to be abusive in relationships, because they have a hard time understanding other people’s feelings, and they expect others to give them exactly what they want. When they don’t get their way, they are likely to lash out toward their partner.
One of the reasons that healing from narcissistic abuse is so challenging is that the abuse can be rather subtle. People who have narcissistic personality disorder try not to show their negative traits in the beginning of a relationship.
People who suffer from narcissistic abuse experience the abuse in gradual stages. Over time, they slowly lose their sense of self, which makes it difficult for them to leave the relationship.
A narcissistic person begins a relationship by being very charming and loving, which causes their partner to fall in love.
Over time, the abuse gradually appears. It takes the form of isolating the partner from friends and loved ones, taking away their sense of independence, and coercing them to do things they don’t want to do.
Narcissistic abuse can involve physical assaults, psychological manipulation, and financial exploitation. As time goes on, the victim fears for their own safety and will be too afraid and too alone to escape the abuse.
Because narcissistic abuse often occurs in waves, with outbursts of aggression followed by happier times, the victim may stay in the relationship, believing that they love their partner and hoping they will change.
Getting over a narcissist can be extremely challenging because the narcissistic person tries to convince their partner that they are crazy. Instead of owning up to the fact that their behavior is abusive, the narcissist will convince their partner that they are too sensitive, or they may deny that abusive behaviors ever occurred.
What happens to your brain after narcissistic abuse?
If you’re going through the stages of healing after narcissistic abuse, it’s important to know that the abuse you’ve endured has a negative impact on your brain. Recovering from narcissistic abuse requires you to understand that being a victim of this abuse can alter the way that your brain functions.
According to research, after narcissistic abuse, you can expect changes in the way your brain processes emotions. Studies have shown that women who have suffered relationship abuse are likely to show signs of PTSD.
They also show changes in areas of the brain called the amygdala and the anterior cingulate cortex, both of which are involved in processing emotions.
After relationship violence, women also show increased activity in areas of the brain linked to fear and negative emotions. What all of this means is that you may feel constantly tense and on edge when you are recovering from narcissistic abuse.
Your brain is constantly on high alert, looking out for signs of danger. You are also likely to find that you suffer from extreme mood swings, and you have difficulty controlling your emotions, especially when something upsetting happens. All of this is a part of narcissistic abuse recovery.
How long does it take to recover from narcissistic abuse?
When learning about the stages of healing after narcissistic abuse, many people wonder how long getting over a narcissist takes.
It is impossible to give an exact answer to this question, because each person’s journey will differ, based upon their unique experiences, including the length of the relationship, the level of support they have, and the types of abuse they endured during the relationship with a narcissist.
Life after a narcissistic relationship will involve a period of healing, which will vary in length. That being said, you can expect to spend a significant amount of time processing your emotions and moving forward toward the life you deserve.
While narcissist recovery steps after the relationship will involve several stages, not everyone will proceed through the stages in a linear fashion. You may find that you make forward progress, only to take a few steps backward when you’re triggered by a memory of the relationship or faced with a stressful time.
See the following video, which describes the progression of the stages of healing after narcissistic abuse:
7 stages of healing & recovery after narcissistic abuse
As you begin to experience narcissistic abuse and then recognize what has happened to you, you will enter the process of recovering. Below are the 7 stages of healing after narcissistic abuse.
The first stage of narcissist abuse recovery actually happens during the relationship. As the butterflies and intensity of the initial stages of the relationship fade away, you will begin to notice that your narcissistic partner has changed.
They are no longer as loving and affectionate as they were in the beginning. They may begin to ignore you, lash out in anger, or insult you. Perhaps they begin to tell you that your friends are no good for you, or that you’d never be anywhere with them.
Initially, you will be in denial that there is a problem. You convince yourself that they are simply having a bad day, and they will return to being the loving partner they once were.
Here, you begin to see the narcissist for who they really are. You recognize that you are in a relationship with someone who is abusive and manipulative, and you begin to feel guilty for falling for them.
You blame yourself for not seeing the warning signs and for being gullible enough to fall for their charm in the beginning of the relationship. Your self-esteem is so low at this point, that you can’t even bring yourself to take the first step toward leaving.
Here, you find yourself stuck in a relationship with the narcissist. You aren’t yet ready to end things, so you convince yourself that if you try harder, they’ll change.
You may shower them with attention, walk on eggshells to avoid upsetting them or put all your time and energy into becoming the perfect partner because you’re convinced that if you fix some flaw within yourself, the narcissist will return to being the charming person you fell in love with.
At this point, you recognize the narcissistic relationship for what it truly was: one-sided and exploitative. You come to realize that the narcissist never loved you, and they duped you into becoming their supportive, loving partner without giving you anything in return.
Along with this realization comes a deep sadness, as you recognize that the relationship is not savable. You fell in love with someone who isn’t capable of loving you, and you now understand that you can’t save the relationship; instead, you must end it.
5. The turning point
During this stage, you stop fixating on the narcissist and fix the relationship. You are no longer overcome with sadness or so paralyzed by fear that you remain in the relationship.
You take steps to leave the narcissist, which usually involves cutting off all contact and starting over anew. You may find during this stage that you are so focused on healing that you end all relationships that are no longer serving you so that you can begin to focus on your own wellbeing.
6. Working through the pain
As you come to the next stage, you have ended the relationship and cut off contact with the narcissist. Here, you are finally free to heal and process your emotions, now that you have moved on to life after a narcissistic relationship.
Free from the narcissist’s grip, you can engage in some self-reflection. Think about what led you to form a relationship with the narcissist. Were there any early red flags that you missed?
Keep in mind that the narcissistic abuse was never your fault, but recognizing any warning signs that you missed can prevent you from landing in a similar situation in the future.
Be sure to be kind to yourself during this stage. You are likely to find that occasional feelings of sadness emerge, and you may even miss the narcissist at times.
You will also experience some challenges with processing emotions, and you may still find yourself reacting poorly to upsetting situations because your brain is still on high alert from the abuse.
At this final stage, things start to look a little better.
You’ve had time to process your emotions, and you’re ready to look toward the future with a positive mindset. You may even be ready to enter a relationship after narcissistic abuse, as you are healed enough to avoid such an abusive relationship in the future.
At this stage, you are able to accept the role you played in attracting a narcissist. Did you fail to set boundaries? Do you have unhealed childhood trauma that leads you toward abusive people?
Whatever the case, you now recognize your own faults, while still understanding that the narcissist is accountable for their own behavior.
As you’re proceeding through the stages of healing after narcissistic abuse, it’s important to give yourself time and space to recover. You’ve been a victim of significant mistreatment within your relationship, and you may even be showing signs of PTSD.
If you’re trying to figure out how to heal from narcissistic abuse, recognize that you’re going to need to make some changes. This means you must learn to set boundaries, which involves becoming comfortable standing up for your own needs and letting go of the habit of taking responsibility for other people’s happiness.
It is also important to take time for self-care. Ensure that you’re getting plenty of sleep, taking time to connect with people who support you, engaging in hobbies you enjoy, and treating your body properly with regular exercise and healthy nutrition.
As you care for your own needs, you will find that you’re in a better position to do the work of healing from narcissistic abuse.
Getting over a narcissist is no easy task. Given the way that narcissistic people function in relationships, they were likely head-over-heels in love with you in the beginning. They went out of their way to make you happy, and you fell hard and fast.
Once you begin to realize that the relationship is going sour, you are likely to have a hard time leaving, because you long for the charming person the narcissist was at the beginning of the relationship. Overcoming narcissistic abuse requires that you stop blaming yourself and recognize that there is nothing you can do to change the narcissist’s tactics. The abuse is never your fault, and the only way to get it to stop is to leave the relationship.
Even if leaving is the right thing, you may experience several negative emotions, such as sadness, guilt, and fear, after leaving. You may think that you will never find a happy relationship, and you are likely to have a hard time controlling your emotions as you go through the narcissist recovery steps.
One of the signs you’re healing from narcissistic abuse is that you stop blaming yourself for the downfall of the relationship and begin to be compassionate for yourself and stand up for your own needs. If you’re having difficulty getting to this point, or if the effects of life after a narcissistic relationship are making it difficult for you to function at work or in daily life, it may be time to reach out for counseling.
Jenni Jacobsen is a licensed social worker with a master's degree in social work from The Ohio State University, and she is in the process of completing her dissertation for a Doctorate of Philosophy in Psychology. She has worked Read more in the social work field for 8 years and is currently a professor at Mount Vernon Nazarene University. She writes website content about mental health, addiction, and fitness.
Licensed as both a social worker through Ohio Board of Counselors, Social Workers, and Marriage/Family Therapists and school social worker through Ohio Department of Education as well as a personal trainer through American Council on Exercise.
(Jenni Jacobsen is also listed in Best Marriage Therapists in Ashland)
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