Why is Leaving a Narcissist so Damn Hard?

Marlena Bontas
8 min readMay 19, 2022

Victims of abuse struggle with the question “Why can’t you just leave?”

Photo by Oleksandr Pidvalnyi on Pexels

Are you also annoyed by those who ask you “Why can’t you just leave?”? It’s frustrating, isn’t it? People just don’t understand the risks involved in leaving a narcissistic person, whether it’s a spouse, partner, friend or parent.

Those who’ve never been in an emotionally abusive relationship don’t know what’s going on in the mind of the victim.

I believe that people who stay in abuse for months, years and even decades suffer from a severe form of a trauma bond.

I assume that if you’re reading this article it means you are or were in a narcissistic relationship for years.

You certainly remember the mindset you had during the time you wished you could just up and leave them. You may have had a full-time job but perhaps your finances were controlled by your abuser (I know that mine were).

Or maybe the abuser threatened you that if you were to leave them, they’ll cause you to lose your job or take away your kids. Or worse, they’ll make sure they’ll find you and make you go back to them. I’ve heard a woman say that her abuser threatened to light up her car if she left him (which he did).

They may also say things like:

You’ll never get away from me or

We are a family and family is forever or

You cannot leave family or

We were meant to be together forever or

Untile death (this was the text written on the knife that Johnny Depp got as a present from his ex-wife, Amber Heard)

For those living with a narcissistic individual, life is better when you’re walking on eggshells because, at least, then you know what to expect.

However, when you leave an abuser, you don’t know what they might do. There may be retaliation.

Why? Narcissistic individuals feel threatened at the thought of losing the ability to control their victims. For them, a most important thing is to maintain the relationship’s status quo: “I abuse you and you sit still and take it like a champ.”

Narcissists get their need for validation and security from controlling another person and making them feel small. That’s how they work. If you take this away from them, their entire world will crumble.

When you break up with an abuser, please remember that they will not miss you. They will instead miss the ability to pull your strings and use you as a puppeteer uses their doll.

Photo by Ollie Craig on Pexels

So why is it so hard to leave if they’re so horrible? Even if there are threats involved, it must be easier to be out than in, right?

This is when trauma bonding comes into play.

Trauma bonding is a psychological phenomenon that happens when people stay in a long-term relationship with a dangerous person. The brain quickly adapts to feeling like your life is in danger and you need to find a way to survive.

It can even make you think that life with an abuser is exciting because every day something dramatic happens. Later on, if you leave the toxic person and go on having healthy relationships, you might feel bored or frustrated.

Why? Your brain is in ‘trauma bond’ mode. You still haven’t healed from the traumatic event of living with an abuser.

Your brain on trauma

In the face of abuse, the brain learns to adapt to the reality of abuse by bonding with the abuser. There are also the following biological and psychological mechanisms involved:

  1. Fight, flight, freeze or fawn

During your relationship with an abuser, you can experience the fight, flight, freeze or fawn reactions.

My method is a combination of freezing and fleeing.

Whenever my mother yells at me or puts me down, I just freeze and can’t mutter a word. After a few seconds, I realize it is time for me to get out of there so I flee.

She usually leaves me alone if I don’t fight back.

2. The dopamine response

This is tricky. When your abuser is calm and behaves nicely towards you, it triggers a dopamine response in your brain. This means that you experience actual pleasure in your body when you’re treated nicely by your predator.

Think of those times when your narcissist has brought you flowers or took you to expensive restaurants or booked trips overseas to try and ‘make it work with you’.

Unfortunately, this makes you work even harder to win the predator’s attention and validation. To do so, you’ll need to know you’re in this relationship long-term.

Dopamine is a powerful motivator that keeps you loyal to your abuser. Remember that when you find yourself beating yourself up for not leaving him. It is not that easy!

3. The role of oxytocin

Oxytocin is a feel-good hormone that is triggered in a relationship with an abuser. When you’re in those few calm moments with your partner or family member, you may think ‘they’re not that bad’ because they are nice to you.

That will help ease the feelings of anxiety that you have around them.

The truth is, almost all abusers have moments when they’re nice and reasonable to their victims. They can show signs of normal behaviour that will, in turn, make you think they’re just a ‘flawed person’.

But have you watched “Extremely wicked, shockingly evil and vile” on Netflix?

If you had, you’d remember that Ted Bundy had a loving relationship with a woman just before he went on killing and raping females. My point is to take those nice character traits with a grain of salt. Just because an abuser is nice sometimes, it doesn’t make him less dangerous to you. This also can’t erase the bruises on your skin or in your soul.

4. Thinking you’re strong enough to take it

This is a common mindset of victims of emotional abuse. They believe they cannot just walk away because they’ve learned to tolerate the abusive behaviour and they got stronger and wiser as a result.

However, you must remember that relationships were not meant to be tolerated or endured. You stay with a person (even if it’s a family member) as an adult because you want to and not because you have to stay.

Adults can do what they want and don’t have to be in a situation that’s undesirable to them.

As opposed to children, grown-ups can choose their relationships. That means they can choose to walk away from a toxic family member or spouse to feel better about themselves.

5. “But I love him”

Another mechanism involved in the trauma bond is the ‘love addiction’.

Love addiction is a phenomenon where a victim of emotional, physical, sexual or mental abuse falls in love with the aggressor.

This type of love is not healthy, as you can imagine. However, it does help the person become less threatened by the abuser in their life.

If they feel like they care about what happens to the abuser maybe their situation is not that bad. They can tell themselves the reason they haven’t left is because they’re in love.

And who doesn’t understand being in love?

However, the feelings you may have for a toxic person are one-way. A narcissist doesn’t experience love as others do. They look at abuse as a sign of love.

If you don’t abuse the other person it means you just don’t care.

Staying in this kind of relationship will cement the belief that you’re not worthy of love and that abuse is normal.

6. Toxic compassion

Some people stay with their abusers because they have too much empathy for them. You might truly want to help your narcissistic mother by taking her calls daily and listening to her complaints. Why? She’s lonely and has no one to talk to.

But have you gotten the same treatment from her? Has she ever allowed you to talk about yourself for hours or complain about your problems without going into a narcissistic rage because you make everything about you?

Surely not.

See, narcissistic people subscribe to the idea ‘It’s my way or the highway’. If you don’t agree with this one-way relationship style, you might just well leave because they don’t do ‘healthy’.

Next time you’re sad about your mother’s loneliness, think about the times she was sad about your situation. Can you count on one hand the number of times she had empathy for your problems?

I cannot do the counting because mine never showed empathy for me.

7. The guilt response

Trauma bonding is also strengthened by guilt.

The thought of leaving your abuser is unsettling to you because you think you’re responsible for the narcissist’s emotional state.

If you leave them, you’ll hurt them and you can’t just hurt another person.

However, remember that no adult is tied for life to another.

No law says leaving a person you’re in a relationship with is illegal. Thus, you have nothing to feel guilty about if you walk away.

The guilt response was taught to you at an early age.

Narcissistic parents know how to make their children responsible for their own emotions and problems. If you choose to act in a certain way as an adult, you’ll need to risk upsetting your narcissist.

That’s because any action you take won’t be good enough for them.

Abusers are never satisfied with you and your actions. So why not do what you want by leaving their pitiful selves behind?

What to do?

First, become aware of the feelings of love and attachment you have for your narcissist.

Second, do not try to lie to yourself about the reality of this relationship. Yes, they’ve hurt you by conducting a smear campaign against you. Yes, they’ve caused you to lose your job. Yes, they talk trash about you to your friends or relatives because they hate you and want to cause you pain.

Yes, they envy your empathy, integrity and kindness. They cannot stand how better you are than them and for this, they need to break you down with put-downs and belittling statements.

Do not go into the fantasy that the abuser loves you and is trying to make this relationship work. Keep yourself rational about who they are. If emotions of love and compassion come over you, remind yourself of the time they’ve called you ‘stupid’, ‘lazy’, ‘crazy’ or ‘irresponsible’.

Another tip would be to keep a list of all the abuses the narcissist has done and all the hurtful things they have said. Read that list weekly to keep your feet in reality.

Remember that narcissistic people are master manipulators and they can give you the idea that you’re number one for them. Don’t believe them. This manipulation method is called love-bombing and is done to obtain something from you.

They don’t believe you’re number one. They don’t even think you’re a good person or worthy of their time and attention. However, they need to play the role of the ‘nice guy (or girl) to pull you closer.

Losing you will feel like death.

Therefore, they’ll try hard to keep you painfully close to their sick and twisted world.

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Marlena Bontas

Content writer, tea drinker, English-Romanian girl living abroad. Writes about NPD, relationships, health, finances and business.