This is a frequent question and an understandable one when someone has fallen in love with a narcissist who later changes drastically. In the beginning of the relationship, the person with narcissism often comes across as safe, attentive, and caring.
However, as true colors and pathological behaviors emerge over time, the partner longs to have that initial person back. The urge is understandable – to figure out how to help the narcissist in hopes of getting the relationship back on the loving track it started on.
Stress and abuse are difficult conditions to endure. For individuals who become involved with abusive partners, it is not uncommon for them to experience frequent frustration, pain, anxiety and perhaps even fear.
Under such conditions, it is easy for an individual to feel:
Cognitively Compromised (reduced ability to think logically)
A Change in Personality (e.g., withdrawn/submissive)
The brain is a unique organ because it reacts rapidly to perceived threats or stressors in our environment – whether those stem from dangerous situations or emotionally abusive relationships.
The amygdala, hippocampus, and hypothalamus are areas of the brain that process emotional information and memories. These areas are also associated with triggering one of the brain’s stress response systems.
Often, regions of the prefrontal cortex (PFCs), such as the ventromedial and dorsolateral regions, usually help regulate emotions and decision-making but can become compromised when exposed to the behavior of pathological narcissists.
This means, simultaneously, many of the emotional and survival regions of the brain become hyperreactive, while other brain areas associated with regulation and decision making become hyporeactive. This can leave a survivor feeling distressed, tense, and possibly frightened living with an abusive partner.
Our brain will not allow us to feel safe, authentic, and peaceful under conditions of threat: disrespect, control, entitlement, anger, punishment, immorality, blame-shifting, or intimidation. However, these are common core components of the narcissistic relationship.
Where is the Normalcy?
Overcoming Brain Biology to Leave
Making the decision and actively trying to leave an abusive narcissistic partner can be one of the most emotionally and psychologically challenging things a survivor will ever do. That’s because in addition to practical barriers, the brain’s own protective circuitry fights leaving in important ways:
The Addiction Response
Over time spent enduring narcissistic abuse, neurochemical dependencies can form between partners. Intermittent reinforcement of rewards and punishments leads to powerful dopamine spikes that reinforce addiction pathways chemically. The body literally craves the abusive relationship. Severing this addiction causes withdrawal symptoms and anguish. Leaving activates networks related to loss, grief, and relapse risk.
The Trauma Response
Unhealthy relationships with narcissists often involve episodes of trauma – experiencing threats, violations of dignity/autonomy, intimidation, fear states. The amygdala and frontal regions process memories of trauma, perceiving the relationship through a lens of danger. Breaking those established neural patterns is profoundly destabilizing, which translates into emotional chaos when leaving.
Can You Have a Healthy Relationship With a Narcissist?
Given the deeply rooted psychological and neurological dynamics at play – the narcissist’s own emotionally damaged behavioral patterns combined with the significant impairments in emotional regulation, decision-making, and trauma responses that emerge in their partners – the harsh truth is no.
A truly healthy, nurturing, mutually fulfilling relationship is simply not possible with an abusive narcissist.
The narcissist’s lack of empathy, hypersensitivity, chronic entitlement, and willingness to manipulate and punish to get needs met inevitably creates an anxious, chaotic, draining environment for those around them. And as we’ve seen, subjection to those behaviors fundamentally alters the brain over time, making it progressively more difficult to think rationally or experience emotional stability.
This does not mean, however, that healing cannot happen for those who have suffered narcissistic abuse. Understanding why healthy relating cannot occur is itself therapeutic. Additional work focused on rewiring thought patterns, processing trauma, addressing codependency issues, and learning strong boundaries will also unlock deeper recovery. The healthy relationship we ultimately need is with ourselves.