Note: Belinda is a composite of many individuals who have come to me for counseling over the years. Jake is a composite of their intimate partners.
Belinda didn’t know that Jake had a serious psychological disorder when they got married 10 years ago. She saw him as a normal man with the ability to love her. She thought they would be happy together.
In the first two years of their marriage, they showered each other with attention. But after the children were born, she didn’t have as much time to spend with him. That’s when he became cold and insensitive. She felt suffocated by him and uneasy in his presence.
Before the pandemic, she could escape for a while into other activities that comforted her and gave her a sense of accomplishment and fulfilment. But now with both of them working at home, she couldn’t avoid his ridicule and somber moods. Sheltering in place made her realize she couldn’t continue to tolerate her husband’s behavior.
She found a counselor and began weekly online therapy sessions. The counselor is helping her understand what is actually happening in her marriage.
Belinda is recognizing that Jake’s behavior is Narcissistic abuse. She is seeing the underlying reasons behind his actions. She is beginning to realize the effects of abuse and build back her self-esteem after years of psychological harm.
Here’s what Belinda is learning from her counseling sessions:
Recognizing Narcissistic Abuse
Jake uses coercive control to create an imbalance of power in his relationship with Belinda:
He misleads her about his intentions and actions. He breaks promises and gets angry when she tries to hold him accountable.
He distorts the truth and claims she has thoughts and feelings that she doesn’t have. He twists her words and makes irrational accusations.
He taunts her about what she eats, what she wears, and how she expresses herself.
Unless she responds in the way he expects her to, he disagrees with her and reproaches her for being difficult.
Even though they both work full-time, he insists she do all the housework and cooking and take care of their two young children. Sometimes he agrees to help, but she has to remind him so many times that she gives up and completes the task herself.
He complains when she wants time on her own with her girlfriends or to enjoy a solitary activity. But he feels free to go out with his friends whenever he wants to.
Jake switches between loving and hurtful behaviors toward her. He is likeable and well mannered when others are around, but he’s callous and dismissive when alone with her.
Belinda is deeply disturbed by Jake’s pressure on her to have sex with him every night. She doesn’t understand why he still finds her desirable when he is so dissatisfied with her otherwise. She doesn’t feel emotionally safe with him and their relationship makes no sense to her.
When Belinda tries to talk with Jake about the trouble in their relationship, he refuses to have a meaningful discussion to reach a resolution. He tells her that she needs to get help, that it’s all her fault.
How is Jake’s abuse harming Belinda?
The Effects of Narcissistic Abuse
Belinda exhausts herself trying to gain Jake’s affection and approval. She tries to accept, tolerate and excuse his behavior. But every approach she takes, whether kind and patient or angry and upset, doesn’t get through to him.
She suffers through long hours of confusion and anguish trying to figure out what is going on in her marriage. As a result of Jake’s persistent criticism, she struggles daily with self-doubt and a lack of confidence in herself. She often thinks: Is it me or him that’s causing the trouble in our relationship?
Belinda deeply regrets that she compromises herself and disregards her needs and feelings. She has lost much of her vitality and become anxious and depressed. She has unexplained headaches and gastrointestinal distress.
She feels desperately alone, but is embarrassed to tell her family and friends about the trouble in her relationship. Jake presents a favorable side of himself to others, and it’s difficult to describe the distressing interaction between them. She convinces herself that no one will understand because her husband isn’t violent and doesn’t hit her.
Meanwhile, Belinda holds on to her hopes that Jake will change. But there is no evidence for real and lasting change.
What is causing the destruction of their marriage?
Inside the Mind of a Narcissistic Abuser
Behind his attractive façade, Jake is hiding a profound sense of inadequacy, fear, emptiness, despair and the expectation of abandonment. He is terrified of exposing his vulnerability. Whenever these painful feelings come up, he turns against Belinda.
His abusive behavior toward her is an outer expression of his inner turmoil. He harbors old, limiting beliefs and fears about himself and others that he acquired during his youth. Based on painful experiences from the past, he believes that Belinda is trying to shame him and make him feel bad like his parents had.
Jake can’t face his painful feelings about himself, so he spends a great deal of time and energy concealing them. He focuses on her to divert attention from his disturbing thoughts and sees her as the source of his pain. He doesn’t care that she is deeply hurt by the way he treats her. He has cut himself off from his own emotional pain, so he can’t acknowledge her pain either.
He ties everything she says or does to his sense of self-worth. If Belinda praises him and tends to his every need, he feels good about himself. If she expresses a need, feeling, or opinion that he doesn’t agree with, he sees her as a threat.
Jake will never realize the destruction he is inflicting on himself and his wife and children until he undergoes the appropriate therapeutic intervention. If he has the courage to face his demons, a skilled therapist can help him uncover and feel the pain, fear, and emptiness he has spent his life avoiding. When he reconnects with the part of himself he has suppressed, he can make peace with the past and be more fully present.
If Belinda stays in her marriage, what can she do to protect herself from Jake’s psychological condition?
Protecting Self-Esteem From Narcissistic Abuse
When Belinda comprehends the underlying dynamics of Narcissistic abuse, she will be in a better position to deal with it for what it truly is.
She must understand that Jake’s punishing behavior is not her fault. It’s not the result of what she feels are her inadequacies. His abuse has nothing to do with her looks, intelligence, personality or any other character trait.
She will never be able to say or do the right thing unless it feeds his need to feel power and success over her. In his mind, if he’s superior, he isn’t inadequate and won’t be rejected.
She will learn that she can’t fix, change, rescue, or make her husband happy or love him enough to make him treat her with respect and kindness.
She will realize that the more she compromises herself by trying to appease her husband, the more entitled, demanding and ungrateful he will be. In his mind, he feels justified in blaming her for all the trouble in their relationship.
She will accept that Jake’s abuse will get worse because each assault is the basis for the next.
She will recognize that if she plays into his attempts to manipulate her, she will allow herself to be vulnerable to him. She needs to do this instead:
Don’t aid or “ADE” his behavior: Don’t argue with him, defend herself against irrational accusations, or explain her actions. If she does, she is validating his attempt to blame her for his inner turmoil. Jake’s covert and overt assaults are designed to provoke a reaction. She must learn not to give him the reaction he is seeking. (More on this response in a future article.)
Be true to herself: Break any habitual response in an attempt to elicit Jake’s empathy. Examples include taking the blame when it’s not her fault, discounting his abuse, and supressing her own needs and feelings. She must build back trust in her own intuition and act in accordance with how she really feels. Her goal is to walk away from oppressive interaction with Jake without compromising herself.
Emotionally disconnect from Jake’s unhealthy behaviors: Refuse to have moods, thoughts, choices, or change plans because of him. Start meeting her own needs by making different choices and acting on them. Learn how to make herself less vulnerable to abusive treatment. Focus on the well-being of herself and her children.
Lower expectations: Expecting the best from Jake will leave her feeling blindsided and hurt. She must continue to believe that she will be okay once she removes herself from the situation and stops giving him the power to hurt her.
Notice how often her inner critic comes up: When she is self-critical, she is essentially doing the same thing that Jake does to her. Catch herself whenever she engages in a critical or negative thought about herself and stop it! Talk to herself in ways that are reassuring, approving, and loving. She may not be able to stop self-criticism right away, but she can balance it with self-praise.
Set reachable goals: Be careful about setting impossibly high standards for herself. This sets her up for failure when she makes mistakes or can’t attain success. Setting small, reachable goals instead of large ones will build her confidence and self-esteem.
Nurture herself: She is the only one who can give herself the nurturing she needs. The more she nurtures herself, the more healing she will experience. Find a hobby or activity that makes her feel good and restores a healthy sense of self.
It will take time for Belinda to put these new ways of thinking into action. The unfortunate truth about Jake’s psychological disorder and what to do about it runs counter to her core beliefs about love and relationships. Taking a stronger and more informed approach to her relationship is as much a victory over her own faulty thinking as it is over the effects of her husband’s condition.
Meanwhile, it will still be difficult to live with Jake. Until he faces his pain and reconnects with his substance and value, he will not be able to access the fullness and warmth of human presence that is so essential to a nourishing relationship.
Support and guidance from her counselor can help her take the steps necessary to protect her emotional health and that of her children.