A friend of Lina’s once asked if she was afraid of her partner Eric. She was shocked and immediately said no, but wondered why her friend would ask such a question. It was only after she left him a few years later that Lina realized two things. Eric had many characteristics of a narcissist, and she had been emotionally controlled and abused by him. She wasn’t afraid of him physically, but she gradually gave up her autonomy through a combination of his love bombing her, and fear of abandonment as he would pull away when she didn’t go along with what he wanted.
Lina wasn’t a poster child for childhood abuse and she minimized the effect of neglect. Her parents were busy. They always fed and clothed her and there was no violence at home. She didn’t have it so bad. They moved a lot for her father’s job and she got used to being self-sufficient. She found people to hang out with but never developed deep friendships. In Grade 10, she was bullied by three “mean girls” and spent a miserable year hiding out in bathrooms at school and her room at home. Thankfully they moved again that summer, and for the rest of high school she kept to herself.
Lina’s relationship with Eric began in her 3rd year of university. She had dated occasionally but with him she felt seen and protected for the first time in her life. He expressed outrage at the girls who bullied her, and at her parents for not noticing and standing up for her. He also criticized her older brother, who now lived in a different city, but who should have taken care of her. He felt sorry for her that she had been alone and abandoned, and he was here for his “baby girl” now. She soaked it in.
She didn’t see the pattern in his tactics until much later. Family visits became uncomfortable. He would often pick a fight just before they got in the car to go to her parents for dinner, and she would be rattled and walking on eggshells the whole time. On the way home he would make snide comments about her family. If she tried to defend them, he would get angry and look at her like she was too stupid to see the truth.
He was still charming at home and made her feel like she was his whole world. They were a team, and after graduation they moved in together. She met a few new friends at work, but he always made an excuse when she suggested getting together with them. She gradually gave up. They went out with his drinking buddies, or they stayed home.
She joined a meditation group through a friend at work and he initially encouraged her, saying he hoped it would help with her anxiety. He was sick of her being so uptight and ruining their fun. Later, when she became more serious and committed to attending a monthly retreat, his last words on her way out the door was that he hoped she didn’t feel guilty leaving him alone while she had fun with her “cult buddies”. She began to dread bringing it up and stopped meditating when he was home.
The difference between how she was treated by him and her meditation friends began to sink in. She quietly began to stand her ground and realize how he controlled her through a mixture of charm, manipulation, and eroding her trust in herself. It was during this time that he asked her to marry him and began painting a picture of how wonderful their life would be with children. His behavior became more extreme, and he alternated between crying over how he was feeling abandoned by her or raging followed by love bombing.
Lina decided to go to a meditation retreat, her first in almost a year, and had a huge fight with him about it. She went anyway and spent the whole weekend crying and trying to figure out what to do. She reached out to a friend who validated her perspective and helped her get out. In the months that followed, the fog began to lift and she could see more clearly.
Eric probably wasn’t extreme enough to have been diagnosed with malignant narcissism but he had many narcissistic traits. He emotionally abused her for years without her realizing it. She was vulnerable to his charm and attention because she had such a hole in her heart. On her own, being able to think things through without his contempt, she gradually recovered her sense of trust in herself. She experienced being on her own side. Now she loves and protects herself.
From Lynn’s upcoming book Ordinary Trauma, Extraordinary Healing: Inspiring Stories and Powerful Practices to Heal the Pain of Being Human