Complex Trauma and Relationships

Why is it so hard?

We fight to connect, to find the love we want, but we still get stuck in the same old patterns.

Sarah was in her late 30s.

A vibrant, attractive woman with a new career, she was surprised at her own ability to attract the most challenging people into her life. Friends, lovers, flatmates, colleagues. They all ended up exploiting, obstructing and clashing with her.

What was she doing wrong?

Well, nothing….and everything.

The child of narcissistic parents, Sarah had grown up fighting vainly for recognition and validation. Her parents had been far more interested in their careers - and their children’s ability to reflect glory onto them, than on Sarah or her sister’s emotional needs.

This intense self-absorption left little room for empathy or validation.

Sarah was often left to her own devices. Her parents ignored her unless she did something that they believed would reflect badly on them. Like a heat seeking missile, Sarah’s mother Maggie would then become intrusive and controlling, her own anxiety around appearances and social acceptance motivating her intense criticism and judgement towards her children.

Maggie often dined out on tales of Sarah’s “badness,” embroidering and exaggerating sibling rivalry into narratives of malevolence and near criminality.

The real and normal rivalry between the sisters was exacerbated and exploited by Maggie’s to feed her need for power and control. She pitted the sisters against one another in competition for her approval and affection.

Because of this, Sarah never got the opportunity to repair her relationship with her sister.

Even today as adults with their own lives, they are wary and distant, not able to grieve what was lost to them in childhood - or to make amends.

Both sisters grew up in a household where there was no room for vulnerability - or empathy. Through parental modelling their pattern for relationships became based around exploitation and competition, rather than caring. Their ability to trust was severely hampered by their parents neglect and cruelty - and their unrelenting criticism.

The two girls were never allowed to just “be”.

For Sarah and most of those who have been raised in narcissistic families, its an arduous pathway towards healing.

Its not always possible to change others, but we can change ourselves and how we relate.

Attracting the right people into our lives is always a challenge for those who have grown up with exploitative relationships.

We have been trained not to value or even acknowledge our own boundaries, because boundaries were not convenient for our narcissistic parents. We have also been trained to view relationships as mutually exploitative rather than opportunities for intimacy and connection.

In her book on overcoming parental narcissism, therapist Elan Golomb points out that narcissists view others as “automats,” existing solely to provide them with supplies of affection, approval and support.

Although they would never admit it, narcissists depend on others for their self-esteem.

When the supplies of approval and support dry up or the unwitting supplier has the temerity to ask for their own needs to be met, they are blustered, demeaned or bullied out of their requests, coming to doubt their own needs, thoughts and beliefs.

For the children of narcissistic parents, this is very destructive. They grow up in an atmosphere of power and control - and manipulation. They have been left with the damaging legacy of parental self-absorption.

For these silent victims, parental narcissism created a void where the growing child’s connection to self should be. Emotionally neglected and abused, these children were forced to deny their own needs in order to be loved. As adults they find themselves playing out the scripts that their parents have given them, without even understanding why.

Children of narcissists often attract others who have been similarly wounded.

We can end up being bruised or neglected, our friends and partners too wrapped up in their own wounds to take care of us. Often our friendships are one sided, with our generosity exploited by others who suddenly become unavailable when we need them most.

Or perhaps we might be the ones who take without giving, settling for relationships that are functional rather than intimate and for friends who can’t really be themselves around us. This may seem like a victory, but in the long run, we are the ones who miss out.

Fo Sarah and others like her, the answers are not easy.

With time, self-awareness and reflection, we can take a look at our values and what we really want in our lives. Therapy can help us explore the reasons for our inner emptiness and lack of fulfilment.

Psychotherapy with an empathetic therapist can help us understand our difficulties with relationships and pick apart the damaging legacy of parental narcissism and emotional abuse.

As we learn to better understand ourselves and others, we can begin the difficult journey towards meaningful connection and real intimacy.


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From The Recovery Room Blog