None of us wants to be involved in another abusive relationship. How can we prevent it? I regularly hear from people who want to know the difference between narcissists, psychopaths and sociopaths and how to tell them apart. They want to know what to look for, in order to prevent another abusive relationship.
I propose another solution, one that is simpler and much more effective, and that doesn’t require us to become some sort of experts in diagnosing mental health disorders.
“I was addicted to a high that only my abuser could give me. Because the lower an abuser puts someone, the higher they can elevate them.”
~ Amanda Domuracki, Culture Shock, The Highs and Lows of Emotional Abuse
I t seemed that magic had entered our lives. It brought with it once-in-a-lifetime soul-mate love, true romance, amazing sex… We were swept off our feet and taken to an enchanted world just for two, one that floated like a bubble high above the mundane world below.
We never expected that bubble would burst. We believed the incredible intensity we shared indicated a deep connection, one that would last for a lifetime.
Normally, romantic love is an experience that fosters bonding and intimacy. That can’t happen if you’re with someone who isn’t capable of bonding and intimacy. You might not even realize those things are missing when you’re caught up in the extraordinary intensity of your experience and being manipulated and lied to. Smoke and mirrors distracts us from the truth.
“I have flown and fallen, and I have swum deep and drowned, but there should be more to love than ‘I survived it.'”
~ Lisa Mantchev, So Silver Bright
Intimacy has to do with trust, understanding, and feeling understood. People who are emotionally intimate can reveal their vulnerabilities without fear of being rejected, ridiculed or invalidated. Intimacy is based on emotional safety, acceptance, respect, and a mutual give-and-take. Without self-disclosure, there can be no intimacy—but intimacy requires that self-disclosure be met with empathy. Empathy means recognizing how someone else feels, understanding it, caring about how that person feels, and then expressing that care.
“There is nothing more intimate in life than simply being understood.”
~ Brad Meltzer, The Inner Circle
Intensity, on the other hand, is all about drama, anxiety, uncertainty, and fear. It’s all about push-pull, hot-cold, high-low.
“I was falling. Falling through time and space and stars and sky and everything in between. I fell for days and weeks and what felt like lifetime across lifetime. I fell until I forgot I was falling.”
~ Jess Rothenberg, The Catastrophic History of You and Me
“Intensity is being completely lost in the emotion of unreasoning desire. It is marked by urgency, sexual desire, anxiety, high risk choices, and the reckless abandonment of what was once valued. All-consuming euphoria similar to recreational drug use (addictive chemical reactions in the brain) …. loss of ability to make rational evaluations of what is true, valuable and worthy. Desire to be always close to that person at any cost.
An intimate relationship is one in which neither party silences, sacrifices, or betrays the self and each party expresses strength and vulnerability, weakness and competence in a balanced way …
Intimacy means that we can be who we are in a relationship, and allow the other person to do the same. ‘Being who we are’ requires that we can talk openly about things that are important to us, that we take a clear position on where we stand on important emotional issues, and that we clarify the limits of what is acceptable and tolerable to us in a relationship.”
~ Excerpt from DANCE OF INTIMACY, by Harriet Lerner, PhD
That’s simply not possible with a psychopath or narcissist. They aren’t capable of emotional intimacy, which means they aren’t capable of healthy relationships.
“The most important test of intimacy is to ask yourself the question, ‘Is this relationship a safe haven where I feel loved and accepted for being me?'”
Bonding created by intense emotional highs and lows is maintained by oxytocin (the bonding hormone) and powerful surges of euphoria-inducing dopamine during the highs. During the lows, there is intense craving for more.
Learning theorists have found that a pattern of intermittent reinforcement, which is positive reinforcement alternated with punishment (a pattern of abuse and reward), develops the strongest emotional bonds.
Intermittent good-bad treatment triggers biological changes as well as emotional ones. Going ‘cold turkey’ (having no contact with him or her) may seem impossible. It is the same as an addiction to drugs, alcohol or gambling. This is why you can’t or couldn’t stop thinking about them, despite knowing how bad they were for you.
“Powerful emotional attachments develop from two specific features of abusive relationships: power imbalances and intermittent good-bad treatment.”
~ Dutton and Painter
This addictive attachment is known as a Betrayal Bond or Trauma Bond. A trauma bond is a highly addictive attachment to an abuser. Signs of a trauma bond include the inability to detach and self-destructive denial.
Rhonda Freeman, PhD, a neuropsychologist who helps survivors of psychopathic and narcissistic abuse, expertly explains trauma bonding in her article, The Spellbinding Bond to Narcissists and Psychopaths – What’s Happening in the Brain?
“We cannot walk away, though, because without us realizing it, our abuser has become our human needle; our Drug Lord of Love. The person who owns our self-value and self-worth and who, in the name of love, can reject us into deep lows with a single glare, or send us to euphoric highs with one simple smile.”
~ Amanda Domuracki
“As the relationship goes on, the less safe you feel. That’s a red flag that there’s something really wrong.”
“Your life is loaned to you through an abuser. It is on his or her whim that you thrive, struggle, hope, and fear. In abuse, you can endure a thousand losses for a single, shimmering penny that proves you’ve won something… “
~ Amanda Domuracki
Brene Brown, sociologist and expert on social connection, conducted thousands of interviews to find the root of deep social connection. An analysis of the data revealed that it was vulnerability. Vulnerability here does not mean being weak. On the contrary — what it means is the courage to be yourself. It involves uncertainty, exposure, and risk. We may want to run from vulnerability, but it is an inevitable part of social relationships that are to become close and rewarding.
Emotional intimacy comes from being vulnerable enough to allow yourself to be fully known, and to be accepted and understood when you do. That creates the potential for true intimacy. It does come with the risk of rejection, but if you’re rejected you’ll know that you’re not a relationship you should continue.
To know that you are loved for who you are, and to know someone else in all of their vulnerability and to love them as they are, may be one of life’s most fulfilling experiences. Intensity, on the other hand, is the opposite of fulfilling. It’s draining, exhausting, crazymaking, and ultimately empty.
In future relationships we can ask ourselves, “Is this real intimacy or just intensity?”
Brene Brown — TED talk on the POWER of vulnerability
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“My mother, the most beautiful person in the world. She was strong, she worked hard to take care of four kids. A beautiful person. I started stealing her jewelry when I was in the fifth grade. You know, I never really knew the bitch — we went our separate ways.”
Quote from “Without Conscience,” by Dr. Robert Hare