Can a Man Who Was Emotionally Abused By His Narcissistic or Borderline Wife or Girlfriend Have a Relationship with a Healthy Woman?
Hi Dr Tara,
I had some questions after reading Why Men Are Attracted to Crazy, Emotionally Abusive Women and the question from Anonymous in your last post, Can a Man Break the Cycle of Emotional Abuse After Being with a Crazy Narcissistic or Borderline Wife or Girlfriend?, could’ve been written by the man I was just dating! I know your site and advice are geared toward men, but want to say how helpful I find the information you provide. I’m also hoping you can shed some light on my situation.
I stumbled across your site while trying to find answers about why a truly decent man with a history of horrible relationships and a Borderline Personality Disorder mother wouldn’t be able to accept (or reciprocate) the love of a kind and emotionally healthy woman (although I don’t feel like I am that now!) even though he seems to want to. Intellectually, I know it has nothing to do with me, but the whole situation was so confusing toward the end that I started to feel like it was me and that I wasn’t good enough. I still have doubts about some of the decisions I made, which is why I’m posting this.
He held me at such a great distance most of the time while telling me I was the greatest girl he’d ever met. He almost never opened up about anything personal in 6 months, but near the end I got tidbits about his mom and some of his exes. None of it sounded good—mostly a series of women who made him feel terrible.
When I ended the relationship, I explained that I couldn’t keep feeling like sh** and confused and pulled around all the time. He said he was surprised by what I was saying because it sounded so familiar except he was the one who usually said that stuff. He was never mean to me though, just thoughtless—similar to what you said about the abused becoming the abuser in your response to Anonymous.
I said I have a lot to offer and deserve to be with someone who knew, at the very least, whether or not he wanted me to be his girlfriend after 6 months. I said I felt like a place holder until someone better came along. He said didn’t see me that way and was also confused because he’s never known another woman as good as me. He asked if we could try again after he sorts himself out. I said I won’t make promises I don’t know if I can keep, but would like him to be in my life. The conversation ended well and seemed fine and friendly.
Did I do the wrong thing by ending the relationship? Did I bail out just when he was starting to actually get to the point where he could open up to me? In your response to Anonymous, you said he should just “ride out the weirdness.” What if the woman can’t ride it out? Did I compound the trust issues he already had? I don’t think so, but the whole 6 months we were together were so confusing and so filled with “give a little and then run and hide a lot,” that I don’t really know anything.
I care a great deal for this man and don’t want to be just another woman who lets him down. I’m also afraid that I may not have been patient enough. Maybe if I’d just waited a little longer… but then I don’t think it’s unreasonable to want to be in a committed relationship with someone after 6 months—yet the thought still pops up.
Since this site is about men who have been through the same things my ex has been through, I’m hoping you could give me some insight. What it is that he needs before he is capable of a loving relationship? Did I do the right thing for both of us by ending this relationship since he wasn’t ready? I’ve never dated a man with his background and want to gain a little more understanding since I truly care.
My site is geared toward men, but women are absolutely welcome to participate in my blog. Women who date or marry a man who’s been emotionally abused are definitely affected by the aftermath of his previous abuse. It’s sort of like being the girlfriend/wife of a veteran with PTSD.
I was once in a relationship similar to the one you describe. It left me feeling confused, angry, not good enough, and questioning my own sanity. There’s something extremely intoxicating about hearing, “I’ve never known a girl like you before. You’re so kind and understanding. No one has ever been this nice to me.” It makes you determined to be even more loving and try even harder to help him heal. Sometimes this is possible; sometimes it isn’t. It depends on the length and severity of the man’s history of abuse and his ability to tolerate the strangeness and discomfort of not being abused by someone who loves him.
Men who’ve been involved with emotionally abusive women need to go through a period of “deprogramming” and relationship “re-education.” Being with crazy, abusive narcissistic or borderline women warps these men’s perspective on love and relationships. They view crisis, criticism, conflict, drama, insults, neglect, etc., as normal because, with these women, it is the norm. Sometimes, it’s difficult to break this pattern because of the rush from being on constant high alert and the exquisite thrill of the rare occasion when these women are nice to them.
Men who don’t have a previous history of being emotionally abused have a much better prognosis when it comes to having healthy relationships in the future. They can remember how it feels to be treated well and they want to have that experience again.
These men were somehow sucked into a relationship with an emotionally abusive, BPD/NPD woman. The abuse is just as disorienting and damaging, but they’re better equipped to heal and move on to healthier relationships.
Men who had an emotionally abusive, distant and/or intrusive parent(s) who believe love is supposed to hurt and, on some level, get turned on by the abuse. It sounds like your ex is in this group. These men equate the conflict, crisis, chaos, conditional or transactional love/acceptance, and the exquisite tension of trying to please the NPD/BPD woman while avoiding her wrath with “chemistry.”
If these men are able to enter into a relationship with a healthy woman in which the tension is absent, it feels “off” to them. They generally can’t articulate what’s missing, which is very confusing for them and you. If they’ve never met anyone as wonderful as you, then what’s the problem?
The problem is that they don’t have a mental roadmap of what a healthy relationship is. You don’t compute. Consciously, they know that they hated being criticized and abused by their exes, but it’s what they know. It’s familiar. Change is scary; even a change that you want. It means dredging up and acknowledging a lot of painful memories they’d rather not deal with and/or they don’t want to stop nursing these old wounds because it means letting go of the past and moving on.
These men often get stuck in a weird, in between twilight space. They don’t want to be abused anymore and desperately want to be in a healthy relationship, but miss the adrenaline rush from the drama and conflict. Intellectually, they want something different, but can’t quite get there.
Many of these men just can’t seem to let go of the self-destructive impulse to recreate their abusive relationship(s) from childhood with a woman (or series of women) in the present who is the psychological embodiment of the abusive parent(s). They’re drawn to these women because they’re seeking an emotionally corrective experience, which is never going to happen. “If only I can make Emotionally Abusive Annie love me and be nice to me, it will mean that I really am a good person, deserve to be loved and then everything will be ok.”
This is what I call being in the right neighborhood, but knocking on the wrong door. Part of the healing process does involve having an emotionally corrective experience, but he’s not going to get it with a woman who has the same traits as his emotionally abusive parent(s). He’ll only experience this phenomenon with someone who is capable of love and acceptance. He may need to address these issues in a therapeutic setting before trying with a “civilian.”
When these men meet a healthy woman woman, the thrill of being abused and the possibility of being able to stop the abuse vanishes (i.e., winning acceptance and love from a woman who isn’t capable of it). They miss that. Other reasons these men can’t fully transition into healthy relationships include not being able to let go of the “knight in shining armor” thing or the Stockholm syndrome effect.
They find the lure of crazy, emotionally abusive women all too seductive and, unfortunately, being patient with them, hanging in there, and giving them time usually only results in wasting your time.
This is truly heartbreaking because these men have many wonderful qualities, but sometimes, people are just too damaged. You can’t help someone else by sacrificing yourself. Well, you can sacrifice yourself, but that won’t help the other person to change. I believe these men can break the cycle, but they have to consciously work at it while mourning the loss of the past.
Men like your ex can find their way out of the in-between world they inhabit, but they have to be the ones to pull themselves out of it and that requires a lot of work and probably some professional help. You can’t do the work for him.
Additionally, some men who get stuck may begin to behave like their abusive exes when they’re involved with a healthy woman. They recreate the abuse pattern that’s familiar to them, in which case, you must end the relationship.
I don’t think you did the wrong thing by ending your relationship. He’s the one who needs to resolve his issues and ride out his weird feelings and confusion; not you. You did not compound his issues. If anything, you’ve shown him that a person has the right to be treated well in a relationship and the right to move on when the relationship becomes hurtful.
By your account, you were extremely patient and gentle with him. You didn’t blame him when you ended the relationship. You told him how you were feeling and that you needed to take care of yourself.
The emotional pursuit and distancing behaviors, which you describe as “give a little and hide a lot,” aren’t unusual for men like your ex. However, in their emotionally abusive relationships, they were the pursuers of intimacy, which NPD/BPD women avoid. I’m sure he didn’t know how to handle it when you not only didn’t avoid emotional intimacy with him, but sought it out.
You did not let this man down. You showed him that kind and loving women really do exist. As you point out, he’s just not ready for a healthy relationship yet. Sadly, he may never be if he won’t confront his past and make the conscious choice to move forward.
You need to figure out if being attracted to men with these issues, who can’t commit to a healthy relationship is a pattern for you, what it means, and start making different choices. If you have a pattern of being attracted to men with emotional abuse histories and/or who are otherwise emotionally unavailable, this may be an issue of your own that you need to resolve. It could be your way of avoiding intimacy and a reciprocal relationship.
If you do have a pattern of being attracted to or wanting to “save” someone like your ex, it might mean that you’re not ready to make yourself completely vulnerable to someone either. Perhaps you recognized this similar aspect in your ex, which made the attraction “safe.” In other words, a lasting, intimate, healthy relationship isn’t going to happen. I wonder if this is what’s going on with you?
If so, the good news is, you can un-stuck yourself. Consider this relationship with your ex another step in your development toward having a mutually satisfying, reciprocal relationship. Maybe you were trying to prove (to yourself) that you are “good enough” by trying to make him see that he should want to be in a relationship with you. Conversely, it sounds like he wanted to be in a relationship with a woman like you, but didn’t feel good enough about himself because of his abuse history. This can get very circular.
It’s important to really understand what happened in your last relationship. Look at it in the historical context of your previous relationships and see where it falls in your progression toward achieving what you consider to be your ideal relationship. Keep trying and don’t be afraid to ask for what you need in a relationship.
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Dr. Tara J. Palmatier, PsyD provides confidential, fee-for-service, counseling, consultation and coaching services to help both men and women work through their relationship issues via telephone and/or Skype chat. Her practice combines practical advice, support, reality testing and goal-oriented outcomes. Please visit the Shrink4Men Services page for professional inquiries.
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- 25 Signs your Narcissistic or Borderline Wife or Girlfriend is Traumatizing You
- Can a Man Break the Cycle of Emotional Abuse After Being with a Crazy Narcissistic or Borderline Wife or Girlfriend?
- Traumatic Love: Is your Narcissistic or Borderline Wife or Girlfriend Making You Sick?
Picasso’s Wounded Bird and Cat on chessaleeinlondon.