The title of this post is admittedly a bit sensational, but the evidence is clear on this one: intimate partners of toxic narcissists often end up terminally ill, unless they’re also mentally or personality disordered. Why does this happen? It is because a narcissistic relationship is a highly targeted and exploitative one, and the victim’s body will eventually respond to the stress of abuse. Narcissists are, in fact, known for leaving a trail of human wreckage in their wake, and those who are closest to them – and to their chaos – can find themselves battling major health issues, including C-PTSD and aggressive cancers.
So what does this tell us? That toxic people create harmful environments to which prolonged exposure can be debilitating and/or deadly. Again this may sound dramatic, but I assure you it is not. I have heard horror stories of co-workers of narcissists who have lost their jobs as well as their minds due to a well-focused campaign of terror; observed children of narcissists (including my own) acting out after years of neglect and trauma, having been set-up to fail and deprived of the unconditional love and attention that all children require; and experienced firsthand the damage inflicted by my narcissistic father over many painful years of scapegoating, smearing and gossiping to no end.
But I digress. The focus of this post is the detrimental impact that a relationship with a narcissistic abuser has on the physical and mental health of their significant other. Much of it will still apply to other narcissistic relationships, since these abusers tend to use the same textbook no matter who the poor victim is. It is actually the children of abusive narcissists who suffer these relationships the most, but that topic is for another post.
The Invisible Assault
Every intimate relationship with a toxic narcissist involves a brutal form of psychological abuse that is generally invisible to the untrained eye. And although this sometimes escalates to include some form or another of physical or sexual violence, it certainly isn’t always the case.
This invisibility – the lack of physical evidence in a sustained assault – is exactly what makes this so incredibly dangerous. Narcissistic abuse is one of the most toxic forms of intimate exploitation of one person by another, yet without the physical evidence or witnesses, it is also almost impossible to prove. And since narcissists have no active conscience or sense of accountability, victims invariably find themselves trapped and alone in a state of immense shame, fear, and confusion. They are also continuously re-traumatized by the invalidating of their experience by almost anyone they try to explain it to.
In psychology, it is generally agreed that extreme narcissists are almost always sociopaths, and that sociopaths take pleasure in dominating and humiliating others. As their targets are broken down further and further, these abusers tend to ramp up their abuse, and this will eventually lead to a downward spiral through psychological hell that few victims ever fully recover from.
Profile Of Abuse
To be the unfortunate target of a narcissist’s con is to face a continuous onslaught of uncertainty and chaos, all while justifying your commitment to your abuser through an established bond of love and devotion. Narcissists expertly reel you in to spit you out in a perfected routine of idealization (love bombing) and devaluation (insults, comparisons, triangulation, smearing).
You see, narcissists don’t have relationships for the same reason normal people do; instead, they make advantageous deals. Incapable of love or genuine human connection, their mission in securing a partner is always about something they need at that very moment. Be it sex, money, attention, social connections or access to a particular set of skills, narcissists hunt for trophy wives, abiding assistants, high-status individuals, lucrative connections and so on.
Narcissists are also masters at perception management, which means they are adept at controlling how others perceive their environments. So although the victim may sense that something is amiss, they won’t recognize that they are actually being duped on every level. The narcissist holds no emotional attachment to any victim beyond their current utility. Yet it is not until the relationship has fallen apart and the victim has been instantly replaced that they suddenly realize that their relationship was a complete sham.
Mechanisms Of Control
Narcissists are dangerously proficient psychological manipulators driven by an insatiable need for high-value attention. Using a powerful push-pull method to condition and control, narcissists actively alternate deliveries of punishment and reward in a deliberate strategy aimed at keeping their victims unhinged, off-balance and easy to manage.
This very effective mechanism is called intermittent reinforcement and is one of the most powerful motivation tactics known to man. The victim is subjected to waves of idealization and devaluation that work to both keep their hopes up and manage down their expectations. By creating a traumatic bond between
abuser and victim based on the looming promise of a possible reward, intermittent reinforcement keeps victims hooked on the ‘drug’ of their abuser’s infrequent approval.
The abuse is carried out with such perfect subtlety that the victim experiences only insecurity, anxiety and an increased desire to prove herself and to please her abuser. The narcissist relentlessly coaxes her into giving and giving as he takes and takes but is rarely satisfied. When he is, he acknowledges her and sings her praises; when he isn’t, he is actively cold and uninterested. So abuse as a cycle of idealization followed by devaluation is in full swing throughout the life of the relationship.
Abuse By Proxy
The inability of the victim to recognize what is happening right under her nose is akin only to her forgivable assumption that nothing untoward is taking place behind her back. This is because one naturally does not suspect that which is inconceivable. But it is only a matter of time, as the stress of psychological abuse and emotional neglect will eventually wear the victim down. When this happens, cracks will start to appear in the narcissist’s charade and the victim will begin to question him and to retaliate.
At this point, the narcissist will begin actively undermining her to set her up for the final discard that he now fully anticipates will come later. Ever the wounded hero of his narratives, he gossips and spreads lies about her–expertly mixed in with a hint of truth–both for fun and preemptive damage control. And he does all this while lining up potential new targets for her replacement with his own victimhood serving as bait.
The victim still won’t fully grasp what is happening, but the toxicity is in the air and her health will have started to suffer. Bear in mind that the narcissist inflicts all this damage on the victim while
simultaneously reassuring her -in words only- how much he loves and respects her. This further ‹serves to add to her confusion and to keep her hooked to her abuser.
The Meltdown Begins
Unsurprisingly, this sustained state of fight or flight takes a
terrible toll on the victim. It’s exhausting to be constantly putting out fires, defending yourself against insult and sabotage, and trying to figure out
where you stand in your relationship. Narcissistic abuse is often described as feeling as if your life force is literally being sucked out of you. Confusion, anxiety and cognitive dissonance set in, causing
inflammation in the body and forcing it to react.
A weakened immune system initially results in frequent colds, migraine headaches, and mild depression. Then further along things get considerably worse. Digestive complaints, muscular and nerve pain, acne, depression, hair loss, stomach ulcers, painful menstrual cycles and general malaise are but a few of the ailments that usually follow. Often times these will be treated as psychosomatic illnesses -your doctor will no doubt have difficulty diagnosing you- but they are no less real in their manifestations or the danger they pose to overall health and wellbeing.
Sustained feelings of stress and anxiety are well known to be the root cause of many life-threatening diseases. The fact that victims tend to self-medicate further exacerbates the problem, accelerating the inevitable health crisis that eventually occurs. Without timely intervention, victims generally succumb to one ailment or another, either by developing a terminal illness such as cancer, heart disease, stroke or by finally arriving at death. The impact of psychological abuse on one’s mental health is also not to be taken lightly.
Narcissists Hate Sick People
Narcissists hate sick people. That bears repeating. Narcissists hate sick people. They similarly hate the very young, the very old, and the physically or mentally challenged. This is because people are simply objects to a narcissist: to be used when they are useful and worthless when they ‘serve no purpose’. And sick people are arguably worse than useless because they also divert valuable attention away from the narcissist.
All narcissists eventually abandon their sick, even if they first appear to stick around in the role of dedicated caregiver. They tend to use their ‘loved ones’ illness to harvest attention for themselves, but in truth, they are never anywhere near the ailing partner’s side. This further abandonment -the narcissist’s absence in their partner’s time of greatest need- is just another nail in the coffin for the victim and is usually when the final curtain is drawn.
Driving his victim to madness, suicide or death from disease delivers a grand rush to the narcissist’s ego. Death or insanity bring about a lifetime supply of ready-made psychological hooks for use on the next partner. Narcissists milk ‘their misfortune’ for all it is worth. They extract sympathy from their adoring fans and triangulate the replacement partner (most likely already in place by now) with the deeds of the dearly departed. And while the victim’s destruction may take on various forms, the end result for the abuser is always the same; as ever, he emerges unscathed and quickly works to reinvent himself.
How To Stay Alive After Narcissistic Abuse
If she finds the courage, the victim can choose to escape the narcissist to save herself. But there is always a risk of being driven mad by the smear campaign and ramped-up abuse that follows every separation from a personality disordered abuser. Smearing, gaslighting, isolation, financial depletion, public humiliation as well as negation of the abuse are enough to make anyone lose all hope in life. Victims often end up in a comatose state of emotional paralysis or are institutionalized or chose to suicide. Barring that, they may eventually succumb to disease and die.
However, escape is the only hope a victim has to save herself and is especially essential if children are involved. This should be carefully planned in advance to include a strong support system that covers medical care, legal representation (if required) and financial support. Depending on the severity of the abuse, recovery can take anywhere from several months to several years. Even if it is the narcissist who abandons the victim, there will be hell to pay. Narcissists never go quietly, as irrespective of who leaves who, narcissists tend to believe that they ‘own’ their victims for life.
There is no easy solution to this predicament. Staying alive and sane after narcissistic abuse can be a long and difficult road. But it can be done and it must be done. If you suspect that you are in a relationship with an extreme narcissist or sociopath, there is only one way to save yourself. You must get out now, establish a no contact policy for life, and never look back.