While the idea of “sheltering in place” is meant to keep us safe and help our communities flatten the curve of the coronavirus that is threatening our population right now, there is one part of the population that may be in more danger than ever – and which continues to suffer in silence despite growing awareness of its concerns.
As it turns out, not all of us are truly “safe at home.” While everyone is talking about domestic violence victims, not many people are mentioning those who are suffering from emotional and psychological abuse at the hands of a toxic partner or family member – often referred to as narcissistic abuse.
In combination with the stress and cabin fever that most of us are experiencing, narcissistic abuse in toxic relationships is making life even more unbearable for literally millions of people.
In fact, according to Narcissistic Abuse Awareness Day founder Bree Bonchay, more than 158 million people are affected by narcissistic abuse in the U.S. alone.
“We must not get to the end of this public health emergency and look back on it as a period when a ‘secondary’ predictable disaster was allowed to happen,” said End Violence Against Women Coalition Director Sarah Green in a statement.
Why is the stay at home order so dangerous for people in toxic relationships?
Most abusers need to feel like they’re in control of everything in their lives, including and maybe especially their partners and children.
And, according to what Katie Ray-Jones, chief executive of the National Domestic Violence Hotline, told the New York Times recently, the hotline has seen a spike in calls from victims of abuse who need help.
“We know that any time an abusive partner may be feeling a loss of power and control — and everybody’s feeling a loss of power and control right now — it could greatly impact how victims and survivors are being treated in their homes,” Jones said, adding that she expects to see both the intensity and frequency of abuse escalate, even if the number of victims doesn’t increase during this crisis.
The fact is that even healthy couples are going to feel the pinch when they’re spending 24/7 together with no hope for relief in the foreseeable future. But when it comes to a toxic pairing, things get even more difficult.
Living with a Narcissistic Abuser
Life with a narcissistic abuser is never easy. But the current state of our society intensifies the abuse for a number of reasons.
For example, during “normal” times, a victim of narcissistic abuse is often grateful for the times they (or their abuser) can be away from home.
Whether it’s going to work, or running the kids to their various appointments and practices, going to the gym or meeting up with friends, the toxic partner and the victim are normally separated for at least some of the time during the week.
These little breaks offer sweet relief from the ongoing emotional torture, manipulation and mind games served up by the abuser. In so many ways, they make life tolerable, even if the victim isn’t happy.
But thanks to the current shelter-in-place order most of us are dealing with, home is far from safe for victims of narcissistic abuse as more time together means more opportunities for verbal, emotional and psychological abuse.
Real Narcissistic Abuse Victims & Survivors Speak
I asked members of my online support groups how they are doing during this difficult time, and their answers were shockingly poignant. Their names have been changed to protect their identities.
“Every morning is like waking up to a really bad version of ‘Groundhog’s Day’ that I can’t escape,” says Mallory, who is still living with her abuser. “Every morning, you have to push yourself to be grateful for life itself, pray for the strength to survive this period of time and plan your escape.”
Becky, a nurse, is currently in lockdown with her abuser, though she had been making plans to leave before the shelter-in-place order had been announced. But then, she says, “we got into an argument and he punched a door. He broke his hand and now he needs surgery.”
“I’m isolated, immunocompromised, and now get to deal with how horrible he is when he is on pain meds and recovering from surgery. I’m still working out how I am going to cope with this,” she says, but adds: “I’m a nurse so I feel like I have an obligation to help another person in need, regardless of my personal relationship.”
Alica, who is still stuck in the situation with her abuser, says that this situation has helped her see that she really needs to get out of the relationship.
“I was doing a lot of avoidance and (kept thinking to myself) ‘well, maybe it’s not so bad'” Alicia says. “Now I see that I need to take some responsibility and do what’s best for me.”
Isolation is Already an Issue for Narcissistic Abuse Victims
It’s also important to remember that psychological abuse often involves isolation from outside friends and family members.
The fact is that most victims of ongoing emotional and/or psychological abuse already have to deal with being isolated by their abusers – whether directly or indirectly.
This may come in the form of directly forbidding the victim to socialize or visit with certain people. Or, in some cases, it may seem to be the choice of the victim.
This happens when the abuser makes visiting with others so uncomfortable (during visits or afterward by harassing the victim for something that happened during the visits) that the victim just gives up and self-isolates from those people.
“I’m grateful every day that I’m not with my covert narcissist husband,” says survivor Marea R. “I don’t know how I would survive (this stay home order) if I was still with him.”
Even abusers who don’t live with us can be an issue during this time, as explained by narcissistic abuse survivor Reece R., who told me, “I don’t even live with my narcissist dad, but he was harassing me literally because of the virus. He was using it as an excuse.”
Children and Toxic Parents
Children are especially at risk of emotional and psychological abuse during this time, as one survivor, Bob, who left his abusive wife six months ago, explains.
“My children complain that she carries on like the lockdown rules don’t apply to her,” Bob says. “Of course they don’t – not rules that stop her getting out and getting the adoration and attention she needs in order to breathe.”
He added that his kids are worried about what this means for their health.
“My 13 year old actually said ‘it’s like I have to parent my parent.'” Bob says. “It’s so difficult to discuss with them in an age-appropriate way how they could deal with this – so difficult to find constructive advice that isn’t ‘your mother is a raging narcissist.'”
The Health Risks Associated with Grandiosity
Many survivors report that the narcissistic abusers in their lives are completely disregarding the shelter-in-place order. For example, one support group member, Natalie, who isn’t living with her abuser, says he has not taken the quarantine seriously.
“He continues to go out in public, go shopping and do everything else he can as if life is normal,” Natalie says. “It’s like he thinks he’s too good to catch this illness; it’s very selfish…it really shows his grandiosity to think that it’s OK for him to go on doing everything that he is not supposed to do during the quarantine without regard to anybody else, even his elderly parents.”
Beware the Quarantine Hoover
Narcissists and other toxic people are known to return to abandoned partners repeatedly in a move the narcissistic abuse recovery community has deemed “the hoover maneuver.”
Named after the famous vacuum cleaner company, hoovering is what we call it when the abuser tries to “suck you back in” after the discard.
This can be drama-related, or it can be an attempt to reconcile the relationship. It may also be an attempt to get you to break no contact.
As Danielle, a recovering survivor of narcissistic abuse explains, “I let my narcissist back in and he was so kind and sweet.”
She believed he’d changed because of his love for her, she says, noting that he even wanted them to live together, buy a home and get married in a couple of years.
“I fell for it,” she says, adding that one day, he called her and after a random conversation, it was like a switch had flipped.
“Out of the blue, he told me if I was fat like I was before he met me, he would not like me,” she says. “Then I knew to run.”
Danielle reports that she did exactly that and has currently been no contact for two weeks.
“I’m not interested in ever talking to him again,” she says.
Loneliness is no reason to get back into a toxic relationship!
Another survivor, Mattie, says that the pandemic has made it harder to resist the hoovering.
“His hoovering has never been so attractive and his love bombing has never been more needed,” Mattie says. “Being trapped inside like this, away from society is killing me. Maybe things are different for introvert survivors of narcissists – but as an extrovert, I can’t stand this.”
Getting lonely is hard for an extrovert, and Mattie says that her ex offers her “a bit of reprieve from this isolation.”
Michelle, another survivor, says her ex is actively hoovering.
“I am handling it,” she says. “It is the normal in and out energy.”
Michelle says certain affirmations have been helping her get through the tough moments. Her favorites?
“What you allow will continue”
“Forgive yourself first.”
“If they show you who they are, believe them the first time.”
Are you currently sheltering-in-place with a toxic person? How are you managing? Share your thoughts, ideas and experiences in the comments section below, and let’s discuss it.