How do smart people fall for toxic women and men? Why do these individuals remain in self-destructive relationships when their rational adult minds know better? What keeps them stuck in abusive relationships when the costs are so high to themselves and their children?
The short answer is likely a combination of codependency, trauma bonds and repetition compulsion. Of course, there’s more to it.
After new clients recite a litany of relational abuses, exploitation and betrayals, I usually ask, “What do you see in this woman?” Invariably, most of them answer, “but I love her.”
Abuse isn’t love
Do they love these women, or do they love the way it feels to be love bombed during the first stage of the relationship? Are they selling out their self-respect to experience the illusory euphoria of fast, false and cheap intimacy? Have they become dependent on their abuser for a sense of worth and value? Do they feel like they exist as an individual outside of the abusive relationship? Have they been brainwashed by their narcissistic or borderline spouse, girlfriend or boyfriend and become psychologically entangled in some kind of Stockholm Syndrome?
First, abuse isn’t love. Second, love bombing isn’t love. It’s a form of seduction that employs false flattery, emotional intensity and basic con artist techniques. Second, if you “fell in love” with a narcissist or borderline, you were taken in by their false self not their pitiable, fragmented authentic “self.” That’s the emotionally immature, unstable, self-absorbed, entitled, self-destructive, characterologically disturbed person they actually are. Even if these individuals agree to long-term intensive psychotherapy, they’re not going to ever become the person who love bombed you. Please let that permeate your cranium.
Third, you didn’t really love their false self. You loved the way their false self made you feel about yourself. Handsome, strong, heroic, sexy, hot, genius-like, like a “good boy” or a “good girl.” Ergo, once the idealization stage ends and the devaluation stage begins, you feel worthless, desperate and empty. The Stockholm Syndrome involves a captive bonding with their captor/torturer. Unless your borderline girlfriend locked you up and put a gun to your head, it’s more likely you’ve developed a betrayal or trauma bond. In other words, the prison you’re in is of your own making and you have the key to release yourself.
Effective abusers and effects of abuse
Abuse wears you down over time. It erodes your confidence, independence, sense of worth and any good judgment you may or may not have had. Since most narcissists, borderlines and other characterologically disturbed people are chaotic, immature and psychologically stunted (i.e., not rocket scientists), how is it they’re so effective at what they do? Many clients have pondered, “Do they go to school to learn this stuff?” No. These behaviors were likely modeled by equally characterologically disturbed parent(s) — similar to how your codependency developed.
The most successful abusers — whether they know it or not — use brainwashing techniques to disassemble your sense of identity and extinguish the natural responses to abuse. In other words, you become numb and submissive instead of fleeing or fighting back when mistreated and exploited.
Abusers establish control over their targets by using “brainwashing tactics similar to those used on prisoners of war, hostages, or members of a cult” (Mega, Mega, Mega & Harris, 2000). Again, many abusers instinctively practice these behaviors because it’s what they observed and experienced in their families of origin.
High-functioning narcissists and borderlines know what they’re doing and why. Mid-functioning ones know what they’re doing and sometimes know why. Low-functioning ones often are just blindly acting out and lashing out. In my opinion, the high- and mid-functioning ones are more dangerous. Why? Because it’s easier to see the obvious train wrecks. The ones who are better at appearing normal are also better able to hide in plain sight.
In the 1950s, psychologist Robert Jay Lifton studied POWs from the Korean War and Chinese prison camps. He concluded that these soldiers “underwent a multi-step process that began with attacks on the prisoner’s sense of self and ended with what appeared to be a change in beliefs” (Layton). Lifton defined 10 brainwashing steps that occur in 3 stages.
Stage I: Breaking down the self
1. Assault on identity. “You are not who you think you are.”
This is stage is an unrelenting attack on your identity or ego. For example, “You’re a selfish jerk. A loser. You don’t deserve me. No one likes you. Your family doesn’t care about you. You don’t make enough money.”
These attacks destabilize you and keep you off balance. The assault continues until you become “exhausted, confused and disoriented.” The result is a weakening of your sense of self, beliefs, values and any other healthier relationships you may have.
2. Guilt. “You are bad.”
Once the dismantling of your identity begins, the abuser begins a staccato drip of criticism. You go from being able to do no wrong during during the love bombing stage, to not being able to do anything right. Throughout the endless conflict and criticism, the abuser puts the blame exclusively on you. Consequently, you begin to believe you deserve to be treated the way the narcissist or borderline is treating you. You feel a general sense of shame, that you’re wrong and that everything you do, don’t do, say or don’t say is wrong.
Humiliation and shaming tactics destroy your confidence and make you feel bad about yourself, which puts you in a malleable and submissive state. Shame is psychologically, emotionally and physically paralyzing. Inducing a sense of shame doesn’t just make you feel bad; it makes you believe that you are bad.
3. Self-betrayal. “Agree with me that you are bad.”
Once you’re disoriented and feel a pervasive sense of guilt and shame, it’s relatively easy for the abuser to manipulate you. That includes manipulating you into acting against your own best interests. Please reflect on that last sentence for a moment.
You forsake your own needs and make choices that are detrimental to your well-being. This is when the abuser may begin to isolate you and/or get you to turn against friends and family. In other words, you isolate yourself voluntarily instead of being emotionally coerced or bullied into doing so. The betrayal of yourself, your beliefs and the people to whom you were once loyal increases feelings of shame, guilt and loss and also makes you easier to control.
4. Breaking point. “Who am I, where am I and what am I supposed to do?”
You no longer know who you are. You’re confused and disoriented from gaslighting, projection, splitting and being fed a distorted version of yourself and reality. You may feel like you’re “the crazy one” and/or feel depressed, anxious, traumatized and a host of other negative emotional and physical symptoms like insomnia, paranoia and digestive problems.
It’s common to begin to doubt yourself, your judgment, perceptions and sense of reality. You may not know what’s objective reality is anymore. She tells you she loves you, yet continues to treat you horribly. If you’re in this stage, believe what the abuser does, not what they say. The truth lies in the way they treat you.
Many clients believe the lies. That their abuser loves them and if only they could find some magic beans, they’d return to the love bombing stage. If the narcissist or borderline has successfully isolated you (or gotten you to isolate yourself), you can’t reality test or receive outside support. And it’s important that you do. Try to find someone you trust (including a therapist) to talk about what’s going on. If that isn’t possible, keep a journal to help yourself reality test.
By this stage, you’re likely solely emotionally dependent upon the abuser and focused on pleasing them, gaining their approval and avoiding their wrath or disapproval. You feel completely alone. Alternatively, if you’re still in contact with friends and family, you’re afraid and/or ashamed to tell them what’s going. Or even worse, that they wouldn’t believe you or wouldn’t understand. This is especially true if the abuser has a false self or public persona of a charming, generous, super nice person.
Stage II: The possibility of salvation
5. Leniency. “I can help you.”
This is what I like to call the tyranny of small mercies. Periodically, the narcissist or borderline offers you some small kindness or you’ll have an “amazing” afternoon (i.e., the absence of abuse) in which she appears normal. Because your perception is so warped, the tiniest act of kindness or absence of overt hostility and/or icy withdrawal fosters gratitude, relief and a sense of adoration within you. In reality, she’s not kind and she’s not normal.
The disparity between their bad behavior and good/neutral behavior is so great that the simple act of heating up a can of soup can make them seem incredibly benevolent. The minuscule and infrequent acts of normalcy cause you to romanticize the abuser. “This is why I love her. She can be so sweet.”
It also causes you to experience a destructive sense of false hope. “If only she could be this way all the time. Maybe she will if I just try harder to please her.” The only way you can please an abuser is by continuing to allow them to harm you and express gratitude for their abuse. That is, until they resent you/grow bored with you for becoming a doormat that they demanded you be.
6. Compulsion to confess. “You can help yourself.”
You’re so grateful for the small kindnesses they bestow in between periods of covert and overt abuse that you agree with their criticisms and devaluations. For example, you agree that your friends are bad for you and that your family is controlling and dysfunctional (um, hello, pot meet kettle). You promise to be more attentive and sensitive to her needs and see your needs as evidence of your selfishness.
Alternatively, you agree with her just to make the rages, derision and accusations stop. By the way, this is why torture techniques don’t work for intelligence purposes. People will say anything to make the torture stop. By this time, your sense of self has changed. You’re hyper-vigilant to the abuser’s moods and ego gratification demands and wishes.
You’re overwhelmed and confused by their accusations and criticisms. Subsequently, you feel a compounded sense of shame. However, you’re so disoriented that you don’t know why you feel guilty of anymore. You just feel bad and wrong.
The Goal: Pointless control with no end to the abuse
Individuals or groups who use brainwashing techniques are deliberately trying to convert followers, change political allegiance or get people to buy their brand of soda. The ultimate goal is to break down your identity and replace your belief system to make you an obedient follower. Once they achieve their aims, the psychological torture stops because you’ve become a faithful acolyte.
Unlike professional terrorists, cult leaders and prison camp commandants, most abusive narcissistic, borderline, histrionic and sociopathic spouses, parents, girlfriends and boyfriends don’t have an end goal for their brainwashing techniques. They don’t know what they want. They just know that they want to control you in order to feel in control of themselves. This is why they don’t progress past the sixth brainwashing step and complete the process through the third stage, rebuilding the self.
By remaining stuck in the possibility of salvation stage, you become locked into perpetual hoop jumping mode. She says if you do x, y and z she’ll finally be happy. You do x, y and z and then she either has a new set of expectations, demands and requirements or tells you that you didn’t do x, y and z to her satisfaction or that you only did it to make her happy not because you wanted to do it. You’re caught in a maddening cycle of trying to please her and not being able to please her with no relief or “salvation” in sight.
How can you make it better?
You can’t. The only way it gets better is if you get out of the relationship, reclaim yourself and your life and begin the work of healing. Oftentimes, a borderline, narcissistic and histrionic person’s moods, beliefs and realities change from day to day and, in extreme cases, minute to minute. They want whatever their current mood or insecurity dictates and change their beliefs, demands and perceptions accordingly.
The only doctrine they offer is, “You’re wrong and bad, it’s all your fault and it’s all about me, my needs and my feelings.” They tell you, “You need to fight for me” or “you need to fight for this relationship” (never mind that she is the one who is destroying it). This keeps you destabilized and in a perpetual state of guilt, shame, hyper-vigilance and confusion. Again, this makes you easier to manipulate and control.
These individuals put you into no-win situations or double binds and keep raising the bar of their expectations for as long as you let them, or until they become bored with you and seek fresh supply. You never get to reach the third stage of a new identity that brings some relief. You stay stuck in the cycle of abuse where you’re psychologically tortured you until there’s nothing left of you.
Next week, I will discuss other aspects and techniques of brainwashing and how you can deprogram yourself.
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Counseling, Consulting and Coaching with Dr. Tara J. Palmatier, PsyD
Dr. Tara J. Palmatier, PsyD helps individuals work through their relationship and codependency issues via telephone or Skype. She specializes in helping men and women trying to break free of an abusive relationship, cope with the stress of an abusive relationship or heal from an abusive relationship. She combines practical advice, emotional support and goal-oriented outcomes. Please visit the Schedule a Session page for professional inquiries or send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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