The shared fantasy at the heart of narcissistic abuse

The Shared Fantasy at the Heart of Narcissistic Abuse

| Getting at the Heart of Narcissistic Abuse |

Escaping an abusive relationship with a narcissist requires some degree of understanding. Physically removing oneself from the situation is an important first step, but the trauma bond will keep a victim psychologically and emotionally trapped in the relationship until he or she understands what actually happened and why.

A painful first principle I had to grapple with was that my cluster B disordered ex fiance, despite constant assurances of profound love, never loved me at all. This person, who I believed I shared an indelible, near mystic connection with actually regarded me as little more than a kitchen appliance – a useful and handy gadget that provided some service, but replaceable.

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I thought we knew each other on a deep and sublime level, but I didn’t know her at all. I was in love with a persona developed just for me – just especially for what would become our shared fantasy. I didn’t know her true self or nature. And if I didn’t know her, how could I have loved her?

In the plainest, coldest terms, neither of us ever truly loved the other. I thought I did. My emotions were profound, but artificially induced by a con artist, for the fictitious character she played.

The relationship was tumultuous. Tina frequently hurt me with her words, deceptions, and actions and we broke up to reunite more times than I could keep track of.

None of that mattered when we were alone together, when we were in our bubble, as I considered it. That was bliss. We created a world all our own, where the most fanciful romantic notions were as sound as the laws of physics. Our oft-discussed future together was full of success, travel, joy and transcendent love. Marriage and children, as well! In the common  lexicon of our shared fantasy, we volleyed words like eternal, forever and fate.

Tina appeared to love and appreciate me more than anyone in the world and I returned the sentiment tenfold. She described me as handsome and brilliant. Called my works and deeds, “amazing,” my hands, “incredible.” In turn, I built her up as my perfect intellectual companion and the most beautiful woman in the world. I reassured, validated and pulled her up out of occasional pits of depression. In our world, each of us was idealized, our relationship and future imagined in the grandest terms.

I used to feel like we were always “making love,” no matter what we were doing –  shooting pool or just walking hand in hand across the Walmart parking lot. Sex was just a part of that – the peak expression of our connection, but not entirely distinct from any other aspect of the bubble.

My bubble with Tina consisted of mutual admiration, sex, booze, and lot of loving contact. She loved everything that entertained or interested me. My choice in movies, music, books, hobbies – She was into all of it and I considered her my best friend, who was also my lover to boot!

I never wanted to leave the bubble – I had to, of course for work and other responsibilities, but getting back to the bubble was always top of mind. When other people would intrude and break the bubble, I wasn’t happy. I was miserable. It wasn’t just a matter of any other person being around – no. We could easily continue living our shared fantasy around others. We often did and may have sickened a few with our frequent and cloying displays of affection.

The bubble only really broke when colliding with one of Tina’s other realities, or when she’d triangulate by deliberately bringing a rival “suitor” into our bubble. On the next level was when Tina would simply vanish without any explanation. Ghosting was the worst.

Those times, I knew something was wrong. Sometimes I even went so far as to consider it severely wrong, but I still needed to get back in the bubble. It was safe, comforting, warm and fuzzy. If I could just get back in the bubble, everything else could be “fixed” (or forgotten).

Severely wrong and bliss. How can those two ideas coexist in the mind? How can you desperately crave something that’s obviously hurting you?

I used to smoke cigarettes. I was told from a million sources that it was bad for me and I rationally understood the dangers of continually sucking concentrated tobacco smoke into my lungs, but for a while I liked the way it made me feel. Later on, It was more important how I felt when I didn’t have my regular dose of nicotine. That was bad. Withdrawals are miserable and to be avoided. That meant when cigarettes called, I answered. I knew it was unhealthy and I knew the smell offended a lot of people. I knew it was an expensive and fruitless habit, but as an addict, my brain had to rationalize and justify it.

I don’t smoke as much as my father did, so I’m not doing that bad and cancer doesn’t run in my family, so my genes will protect me. Those people complaining about the odor are just too sensitive. Besides, I like it and nobody’s going to tell me what to do!

Sometimes smoke would burn my eyes, or my bronchial tubes would actually hurt. My stamina was decreased, my blood pressure elevated. I’d have violent coughing fits some mornings. Smoking was hurting me. Why did I keep doing it?

Just like with smoking or any other addiction, our brains have to justify our obviously broken relationships with narcissistic partners, because we’re addicted to those love bombing hits. Those blissful times when nothing is interfering with the fantasy.

Thus, victims of narcissistic abuse become accomplices in their own abuse. I’m not saying it’s necessarily fully conscious participation or implying that it isn’t abuse because of the seemingly willful participation. Inducing someone to participate in their own abuse is definitely abusive behavior!

A heroin addict willfully sticks that needle into their vein. Can’t wait to do it, even. That doesn’t let the pusher who got him started off the hook, and it’s not even entirely willful. Addiction lets a whole different part of the brain take over both body and mind and it’s not easily seen by the person experiencing it.

The tricks our minds play on us in addiction are pretty commonly understood, these days: Denial, rationalization, bargaining with ourselves (if I only have one drink after work every day, I’m not an alcoholic… well, just one more won’t hurt anything).

What doesn’t seem to be as commonly grasped is that these exact same mechanisms compel victims to participate in their own abuse in a relationship with a narcissist.

We may become willfully ignorant. Perhaps there’s a box that could contain evidence of your partner having an affair. Do you open the box?

We may compartmentalize. Sure, my partner was talking to another man behind my back, but it was just the one time and probably didn’t mean anything, right? But it happened last week and two weeks before that, just before she disappeared for a whole weekend. Those aren’t related, though – just isolated incidents.

We may rationalize. Sure, Tina lashed out and hurt me, but she was just stressed out and she had such a difficult childhood…

We may forget. Our minds have many parts beyond the consciousness we’re normally aware of. One part may play a trick on the others in order to maintain equilibrium. Deleting inconvenient memories to aid in the compartmentalizing trick isn’t outside the realm of possibility. I experienced a loss of traumatic memories myself and also found a way to help my sneaky brain suppress unpleasant or inconvenient truths: Getting drunk.

Our narcissistic partners are adept at manipulating us down the paths that spring the internal traps that keep us coming back despite mounting evidence that the relationship is hurting us.

Gaslighting is the common term for convincing someone not to trust their own observations or that they are going insane. They’ll unflinchingly and unrelentingly cling to a false narrative until you start to believe it, or at least doubt yourself. Doubt is often enough. Tina often hinted that my memory was poor, my recollections faulty. If I questioned her version of reality, she’d suggest that maybe I should look into psychiatric medications.

Under the circumstances of unpredictable vacillation between abuse and elation and muddled memories, it is just easier and preferable to submit to the fantasy. Pretend the narcissist’s version of reality is true and play along. You’ll almost believe it, much of the time. Then, sometimes you get to crawl back into the bubble and enjoy the blasts of dopamine and oxytocin your brain will release.

Because of the highly addictive nature of intermittent reinforcement releasing supersized doses of the potent, but natural pleasure-inducing brain chemicals and the psychological trauma bond that develops, leaving a relationship with a narcissist isn’t like any other break up.

Separating and maintaining no-contact is first a physical endurance challenge. When you throw away your pack of Marlboro’s and swear off tobacco, the addiction doesn’t just give up and go away. It’s a struggle for survival. A part of your brain believes you will DIE if you don’t go get another smoke and it gets darn crafty to convince you to do it. Your body, too. The physical cravings and withdrawal symptoms are powerful enough that most people, no matter how strong their resolve will go back to smoking after their first attempt to quit.

Addiction to a narcissist is a hundred times stronger and they can also talk. Imagine if cigarettes could also literally speak to try to con and woo you back? To make you feel guilty for abandoning them? To promise to be better this time?

Ending a relationship with a narcissist is just the beginning of a long span of struggles. Coming to accept that the whole thing was a shared delusion is a place many victims never reach, but understanding that is key to unraveling everything else that got tangled in a victim’s brain.

You might not yet believe these truths, but that doesn’t make them false:

  1. The narcissist never loved you.
  2. It was not possible for you to love the narcissist, because you never knew the narcissist.
  3. You were compelled (by manipulation and addiction) to participate in your own abuse.
  4. Healing is possible by better understanding yourself, the part you played and why.

Read next: Lasting Damage

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  • Al Corrupt

    When you throw away your pack of Marlboro’s and swear off tobacco, the addiction doesn’t just give up and go away. It’s a struggle for survival. …
    Addiction to a narcissist is a hundred times stronger and they can also talk. Imagine if cigarettes could also literally speak to try to con and woo you back?”

    Having been through both I still think nicotine is worse, even if t can’t speak.

  • Laura Mac

    I love your book, I hope I can get there some day… everything you say is spot on. Even knowing the monster I’ve been dealing with I’d still allow him to lead me blindfolded off the edge of a cliff. Its a scary thought that your mind creates this need for them. He’s trained me to accept love on his terms and lower my lowest standards. I can see it all objectively from the outside, but I still couldn’t walk away from him if he was here…

    • Dan

      Thanks for the kind compliment. Please consider reviewing the book on Amazon!
      You beat the trauma bond pretty much the same way you beat any addiction. Time away from the “drug” will eventually rid your system of the physical, chemical dependence, but there is a psychological component, too. You need to turn your attention inwards for a while and get reacquainted with yourself – your true self – the person you were before the narcissist became everything. Call an old friend – pick up old hobbies that you used to enjoy. Force it for a while, if you have to . Just do it. Get sunshine and exercise. Realize that you don’t need a relationship to be happy right now.
      Best of luck on your recovery.

      • Deb

        My son is in this situation and I am straight up a mess because now she also has control over my grandchildren who my son had previously kept away from her. I was raising them and she convinced him to take them away from me. It is a horrible situation. While it was all happening, it was so surreal I thought I was losing my mind. Her power over him is complete, appalling, and sick. My grandchildren are the real losers here and are being kept isolated from not just me, but everyone they have ever known. There is no help for this situation, the authorities believed the smear campaign instead of looking into it more thoroughly. Understanding what is happening is very little comfort, it frightens me for them even more. He is powerless to protect them.

  • Nicola

    This has affected me deeply reading this. I am currently separating from a narcissist and it’s been the hardest time of my life. He was mentally, physically and emotionally abusive and I am struggling so much to close the door.

  • Big R

    Is “shared fantasy ” a term coined by Sam Vaknin, or is it a term already established in previous literature?

    • Dan

      Sorry. I couldn’t say for sure. It described my experience. Sam Vaknin is certainly worth watching, though. He’s had many useful insights.

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