Dissecting On-Again, Off-Again Relationships
Unstable, on-again, off-again relationships are a hallmark of Cluster B disorders, like borderline and narcissistic personality disorders. On-again, off-again relationships can be terribly damaging and often, they can be the result of a prolonged, repeated pattern of narcissistic abuse.
Narcissists tend to target very empathetic and conscientious people, because they can mistreat them longer, with less chance of them leaving. By sporadically giving them hope, they can string several people along at once. Of course, a large harem requires maintenance and can present scheduling problems.
I believe this is part of why narcissists are so unreliable. Aside from the fact that their impaired empathy prevents them from really caring about anyone else’s feelings, they need to make time, often in secret, for the various harem members they’ve been stringing along. This necessitates last-minute cancellations, changes of plans and occasional no-shows. Insidiously, this erratic behavior helps to cement the trauma bond between victim and narcissist.
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I wasn’t aware of it, but I was part of Tina’s harem. She cleared her schedule for me in the beginning love-bombing stage and a lot of the time, I was her main source of supply, but periodically, I was rotated out. I can see now that this generally followed some kind of narcissistic injury. Unintentional slights or minor disagreements that would roll off the backs of most could be grievous blows to a narcissist. Criticism was intolerable. That kind of injury demanded retribution.
Ghosting is one of the narcissist’s favorite weapons. It certainly was one of Tina’s. Disappearing without explanation for days or even weeks and sometimes months was a psychologically and emotionally torturous punishment and also allowed time to maintain relationships with the secondary sources in her harem.
Ghosting creates a wound that only the narcissist can soothe, because without the narcissist to explain why she left, there is no way to close the case on that mystery. The mind will spin itself into a frenzy trying to figure it out, but only the narcissist could solve the puzzle.
[Related reading: Why Ghosting Hurts so Much]
With one relationship on hold, twisting uncertainly in the wind, a secondary supply source would have been eager to prove their worth to the narcissist, would lend a sympathetic ear and commiserate over perceived, exaggerated injuries. The most important job of secondary supply was to reassure the narcissist of her own faultlessness.
Of course, eventually, everyone lets a narcissist down and they move from idealizing and love-bombing into devaluation when they realize their target is not perfect and then to discard, when they rotate to another (former or new) source of narcissistic supply. They lose some along the way, so a narcissist is constantly on the hunt for potential new sources. Everywhere I took Tina, she was shopping for my temporary or possibly permanent replacements. Sometimes she’d collect numbers or accept drinks from other men right in front of me. That was a power play called triangulation.
Put simply, triangulation is using a third person to belittle or create insecurity in a narcissist’s victim. This psychological manipulation tactic is used to secure control. A crafty narcissist could even be accuser and defender at once, like when Tina told me “all my friends are against us being together, but I told them that you’re the love of my life and no one has ever made me happier.”
Since I’d had almost no interaction with Tina’s friends, the only way they could have formed a negative opinion of me would have been based on what Tina told them. During the devaluation stage, narcissists smear their victims with friends, family and even mutual acquaintances, then get their support for inevitable discard. That didn’t occur to me at the time, though, because I was put on defensive and felt I had to redouble my efforts to prove my worthiness. The immediate threat took precedence over any deeper examination. Besides, Tina was telling me that she talked me up and “defended me” to her friends!
[Related reading: The Five Devaluation Triggers]
After a variable time apart, with me struggling in vain to figure out what had gone wrong, Tina always came back in what’s commonly known among victims of narcissistic abuse as a “hoover.” She’d suck me back in. She’d heal the self-esteem wound she caused by vanishing without a word and commence with a new period of idealization and love-bombing.
Each time this cycle repeated, the trauma bond became stronger. Each discard was more devastating and painful than the last.
A trauma bond is, essentially, a powerful, chemical/physiological addiction to one’s abuser, not unlike the “Stockholm Syndrome,” observed after hostages developed a bond with their captors in a 1973 robbery of a Swedish bank.
When I questioned Tina’s behavior, she’d either ghost again (which I was always walking on eggshels to avoid because the withdrawals that ensued were increasingly unbearable agony) or engage in gaslighting to get my inquiring mind under control. She often made little suggestions to make me question my mental health. I’d ask about something that seemed out of place with her words or behavior and she’d in turn suggest that I could benefit from anti-depressants, for example. More often, though, she’d make me doubt the veracity of my own memory.
[Related reading: How Narcissists Gaslight]
For the first two years, we drank together, a lot. Somehow she always had crystal clear recollection of every incident and conversation on those drinking nights and she could get me to doubt my own memories, because I’d been drinking. It got to a point where I’d think I must have dreamed or imagined her bad behavior, because she’d so-often call my memory into question. I began thinking of it as my “half-heimers.” It even worked on me after I’d stopped drinking. The funny thing was, once free of Tina’s influence, my recall seemed to improve miraculously.
Gaslighting is a way of concealing the truth by causing the victim to question his own eyes, ears, recollection or sanity. It eventually warps one’s entire perception of reality and destroys self-confidence. This is where conscientiousness plays a role in victim selection. A more conscientious person is more willing to entertain suggestions of their own shortcomings in memory and mental health. Conscientious and empathetic people expect that those close to them have sincere and well-meaning intentions, give the benefit of the doubt and consider how they might, themselves be wrong.
[Related reading: Gaslighting, Signs, Situations and tips for Pushing Back]
Tina’s ability to successfully gaslight me had another force at play in my mind. It’s a revelation that only came after being years-separated from the manipulation. On an almost subconscious level, it was preferable to accept the gaslighting, no matter how ludicrous it became, than to face a reality that would necessitate separating. The stronger the trauma bond became, the more I feared the horrific agony I’d suffer from the inevitable withdrawals if we broke up.
There can be other reasons for on-again, off-again relationships. Relationships between addicts and co-dependents can often result in a lifetime of separations and reunions. That dynamic also happened to apply to Tina and I, but the on-again, off-again dynamic perfectly matches the narcissistic abuse pattern of idealize, devalue, discard, hoover.
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