When you’re in a relationship with a narcissist, it isn’t always easy to tell that you’re actually being abused. Narcissists are good at disguising their behavior, covertly wearing you down bit by bit without you realizing until it’s too late. Manipulation and control are things that drive a narcissist, and if that means hurting you in order to obtain that coveted dominant status, then so be it.
However, being on the receiving end of manipulation and gaslighting means you’re not in a position to fully grasp what’s going on. You’re lied to and berated so much that you think you’re the problem in the relationship. You blame yourself and you begin to feel deserving of the abhorrent treatment you’re exposed to. You’re made to believe you’ve said things you can’t recall saying. Your recollection of events always seems to differ drastically to those of your partner, making you wonder if you make things up like they say you do.
With that in mind, this article is to help those of you who are wondering if you could be in a toxic relationship. I write this from my own 13-year experience with a narcissistic spouse, as well as the years afterwards I spent healing and researching the type of abuse I endured. If you’re feeling forever belittled, lied to, or like your partnership is adversely affecting your self-esteem, then this information could help you decide what kind of relationship you’re in.
Narcissistic Behavior #1: The Silent Treatment
The dreaded silent treatment. You might not even know what you’ve done, but you know you’ve committed some kind of offense, as your partner is barely speaking to you. They’ve become cold and distant, and the worst part is that you know silent treatment eventually leads to an eruption or verbal outburst from your spouse if you dare to probe them about what you’ve done wrong. The silent treatment is used as a punishment for you, even if you don’t know what you’ve done. Should you try to talk it through, you’re met with a brick wall.
Narcissists know full well just how hurtful the silent treatment is. It’s a way to assert their control over the relationship and for you to know that should you upset them, they’ll shut themselves off from you. To avoid enduring the emotional agony of the silent treatment, you often find you’re walking on eggshells and tiptoeing around your partner in order to keep them pacified.
This usually goes hand in hand with ghosting, too. They might take their silent treatment to the next level and act like you don’t exist. If you live with your other half, they may take off for days at a time without explanation, often using something you’ve apparently done to them as an excuse for their horrible treatment of you. They won’t answer calls, texts, or pleas from you to talk things through. They simply cut you off—until they decide that they’re willing to talk, that is.
Even then, you’re often left with the burden of taking the blame for the hurtful things your partner has done. If you find that you’re agreeing to accept culpability for things you know you haven’t done just to keep the peace in your relationship, it might be worth considering that your other half is displaying very real narcissistic tendencies.
Narcissistic Behavior #2: Using Triangulation and Flying Monkeys to Hurt You
You may not have heard of the terms ‘triangulation’’ or ‘flying monkeys’, but you may have experienced the pain of enduring this type of abuse. Let me explain what each one is.
Triangulation is the narcissist’s use of third parties to manipulate you. For example, my abuser used to use his ex to make me feel belittled and insecure. He would remind me he could jump right back into a relationship with her and would often exchange texts with her just to prove his point. He would use her to chip away at my self esteem. He did the same with a girl he worked with, even going as far as telling me to dye my hair to look more like her. Abusers often try to disguise this behavior as a ‘joke’ or light hearted banter, but you’ll know as well as I do, it’s beyond hurtful. The abuser knows this, too, despite their insistence otherwise.
While the two women my ex used as part of his manipulative triangulation tactic likely had no idea he was using them as a way to demean me, sometimes a narcissist can have the full support of a third party. They will utilize them to belittle you even further. These people are referred to as the narcissists ‘flying monkeys’. If you’ve seen The Wizard of Oz, you’ll know that’s what the Wicked Witch of the West’s loyal minions were called. They did whatever vile deed she commanded them to.
This is the same for a narcissist’s flying monkey—they will do whatever the narcissist demands of them. These are usually their friends and family. They will badmouth you, spread rumors about you, lie on behalf of the narcissist, and generally enable your abuser to keep doing the hurtful things they’re doing to you.
Narcissistic Behavior #3: Gaslighting
The term ‘gaslighting’ has been thrown around a lot, particularly the past few years, which can only be a good thing since it highlights a hard to spot form of abuse.
Gaslighting is a way for the narcissist to make their spouse question their own perception of reality, to second guess themselves and their ability to make decisions, and to feel responsible for the relationship’s shortcomings. They do this in a very subtle, covert way. They make you feel like you’re being unreasonable and difficult for requesting the bare minimum.
They tell you that you’ve said something, but you have no recollection of ever saying such a thing. They convince you that you were rude to their family member, but you swear you weren’t. Narcissists are master manipulators, and they use this dark ability to make you think you’re the bad guy. They’ll tell you that you were ogling the cashier when you picked up groceries, even though you were sure you barely looked at them. An abusive spouse can convince you of just about anything and erode you down to the point where you truly believe their gaslighting is reality.
They do this to keep you under their control. They use gaslighting as a way to suppress your self-esteem and stop you from realizing the truth: that you’re being abused.
If you don’t know whether you’re coming or going, and you feel like your partner is twisting the truth to make you feel like you’re going insane, consider gaslighting as a possibility. It’s a difficult form of abuse to prove—after all, it’s often your word against theirs, and they swear you’re the one with issues. But, observe your interactions moving forward, and even take notes to refer back to later if you feel you need to.
Narcissistic Behavior #4: Love Bombing
Love bombing is often utilized by a narcissist when they break up with you. If you feel like your partner enjoys playing games and toying with you, there’s a real possibility that they’re a narcissist. They relish in the pain and torment they put you through, it seems, but when they shower you with love and adoration, you’re pulled right back into their twisted cycle of abuse.
At the beginning of the relationship, things were dream-like. You couldn’t imagine a more perfect partner. You felt listened to, cared for, comforted, and wanted by them. However, bit by bit, the warmth and love you were getting from your partner began to erode away. They’d suddenly become distant, they’d take longer to reply to your messages, and it seemed like all you did was irritate them.
This is a stark contrast to how they treated you at the beginning of the relationship, and while your partner keeps going hot and cold on you, all you can think about is getting back the person who you fell in love with at the start. You do everything you can to bring that person back.
You’ll give your spouse an abundance of attention, say yes to their every request, and avoid talking about how you truly feel just to steer clear of an argument. While your partner may be critical and dismissive of you, you will relentlessly try to get back the loving and adoring person you thought your partner was.
Unbeknownst to you, this is the exact state a narcissistic partner wants you in. They relish the excessive love and attention you’re directing their way. It fuels their ego. On top of this, it gives them a boost of dominance over the relationship—they know you’ll try whatever it takes to maintain the relationship while they treat you so cruelly.
Narcissistic Behavior #5: Victimization
Narcissists are the best actors in the world when it comes to playing the victim. No matter the situation, no matter the reality, no matter if they’re the culprit of bad behavior, a narcissist will turn the tables and make sure they’re portraying themselves as the true victim of any given scenario. For example, your partner may have said or done something that has upset you, but when you challenge them about this, they tell you that you’re argumentative and confrontational. You’ve upset them.
As a result, they’ll make themselves out to be a victim of your harsh words. In some instances, you can even be manipulated to the point that you’re apologizing for hurting them, despite the fact they were the one who upset you.
A narcissist will instill unjustified feelings of guilt and shame onto you in order to paint themselves as a victim. They can make you believe you’ve said and done things you know deep down you haven’t, but their gaslighting techniques are so good that you second guess yourself. It seems like everything that goes wrong can be somehow traced back to you. They take your comments out of context and make you seem like a nasty person, when in reality, they know how to twist your conversations to make you seem cruel and hurtful.
It’s a crazy-making experience to endure the frustration and confusion of dating a narcissist who always plays the victim. But why do they do this? The simple answer, as with all things narcissism related, lies in the control the narcissist has over you.
The abuser can exert more power and control over you when you’re constantly apologizing, begging for forgiveness, or walking on eggshells around them to avoid an argument.
If you’re noticing these five behaviors creeping up in your relationship, it’s time to evaluate why they’re presenting themselves and confront the power dynamic you have in your partnership. Relationships aren’t black and white, and we all have our fair share of problems and ups and downs. But, if you’re finding yourself more often than not in a state of anxiety about your relationship, if you’re constantly saying sorry to pacify your partner, or if you feel like your partner is manipulating you, it’s time to assess what type of relationship you’re in. While you can never change your partner or control how they treat you, you have the power to control something far more important: your choices and decisions.