If you’ve been in a relationship with an emotionally abusive man, you have no doubt described the experience as living with “Jekyll and Hyde.” One day, he’s charming Dr. Jekyll. But all of a sudden, something shifts and vicious Mr. Hyde is revealed.
This is a hallmark of narcissistic personality disorder (also known as narcissism).
It’s a dizzying and exhausting experience, one few people can understand unless they have experienced it. However, once a target of abuse is able to identify these shifts in behavior (and what fuels them), she has the ability to distance herself emotionally from his destabilizing tactics.
Narcissistic Abuse as Attention Addiction
Narcissism is more than just how a person views himself; it has a lot to do with how he views others. If you’re not familiar with Narcissistic Personality Disorder, it can be summed up with “The 3 E’s”:
Exploitation- Using control and manipulation to fulfill their self-centered desires
Entitlement- Feelings of self-importance that require recognition and esteem from others (often to overcompensate for deeper feelings of insecurity and unworthiness).
Empathy Impairment- The inability or unwillingness to understand how others feel or how their actions effect others
While narcissism is considered a personality disorder, there’s some interesting research out there that suggests narcissism is actually very similar to addiction. Other co-addictions to sex, alcohol, etc. may indeed be present; but as it relates to narcissism, the abuser’s drug of choice is attention.
The “addiction view” of narcissism suggests that an abuser is addicted to feelings of admiration and importance (entitlement), and will abuse others (exploitation) without true remorse (empathy impairment) to get them.
Targets are mere objects from which to extract feelings of worthiness and superiority. A narcissist abuses people, much like an alcoholic abuses alcohol, to alter mood and cope with emotions.
Unfortunately for the target, the narcissist can use both positive and negative attention to get his “fix.” When it comes to positive attention, he may use love-bombing or hoovering to suck up to (and suck in) his target to get her close to him. But if she resists, he also receives power and validation in having the ability to bully her.
Abuse is Idolatry
To get to the heart of how to handle an abusive man, we have to understand that on a spiritual level, the problem we are really dealing with is idolatry. Rather than seeking his sufficiency in God, an abuser’s corrupted heart instead fixates on the idol of his target’s attention. The abuser habitually turns to the allure of power and admiration to find healing, rather than allowing God to mend his broken heart.
So many women get caught up in these relationships because they want to “help.” However, because the abuser is addicted to attention, her help only ends up enabling his idolatry by feeding his lust for validation (see our 5 Ways to Stop Enabling Abuse here).
And as we mentioned before, this happens whether she reacts positively or negatively to his efforts. To the narcissist, any reaction will do.
Once the target realizes she is “alcohol to the alcoholic,” she must do what she can to remove the idol of her attention, for his benefit and for hers. This is a challenge, but should be done in a spirit of encouraging him to identify his idolatry and instead, run after God to find his feelings of true worth.
Is “No Contact” Biblical?
“No Contact” is a method for dealing with abuse in which the target stops interacting with the abuser entirely. The idea behind it is to cut off the attention the abuser receives from his target (which now that we’ve talked about attention addiction and idolatry makes total sense).
We encourage women to seek No Contact as a means to handling an abusive situation after all other efforts to draw him to repentance have failed AND she has gotten herself to safety (see the steps to addressing sin as outlined in Matthew 18). Both Jesus and Paul both sanctioned limited interactions with people who have been removed from the church body for unrepentant sin (Matthew 18:17 and 1 Corinthians 5:11. Limiting contact is meant to not only protect the target, but also to help the abuser realize the gravity of his sin, that he would repent and turn to God.
And if you’re still not sure about what the Bible says about dealing with abusive situations, refer also to what Paul says in 2 Timothy 3:2-7 (ESV):
For people will be lovers of self, lovers of money, proud, arrogant, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, heartless, unappeasable, slanderous, without self-control, brutal, not loving good, treacherous, reckless, swollen with conceit, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God, having the appearance of godliness, but denying its power. Avoid such people. For among them are those who creep into households and capture weak women, burdened with sins and led astray by various passions, always learning and never able to arrive at a knowledge of the truth.
5 Tips for Going “No Contact” The Right Way
Get Your Heart Right. Going No Contact is not retaliation. It’s important to remember that forgiveness is still a vital element of this process. But Proverbs 22:24-25 warns, “Make no friendship with a man given to anger, nor go with a wrathful man, lest you learn his ways and entangle yourself in a snare” (ESV). Many women in abusive situations become abusive themselves. This is a known fact, not only in abuse psychology but obviously here in the Bible as well. However, removing our attention from an abusive person is designed to preserve our own hearts for righteous living by keeping us away from sinful influences. It’s important for your spiritual well-being, and for his.
Keep Emotions Out of It. Going 100% No Contact is usually not possible for a woman with children, however limited contact for logistical reasons only (pick ups, drop offs, etc) can still be very helpful as it keeps interactions more “business like.” This is known as the “gray rock method” in which you become about as interesting as a gray rock. Also, now that you understand the abuser’s tactics as a mean to getting attention for you, it should be much easier to spot his traps and ignore them. He will likely use both positive and negative attempts to get you to react to him, and break “no contact.”
Get Help. It can be helpful to have a third party involved when a difficult conversation is expected to occur. The third party doesn’t need to be involved in the dialogue, other than to keep the abuser accountable and protect the target if things start getting out of hand. This person could even be an off-duty police office whom neither of you know! Having such a conversation in a public place is another good idea.
Seek Safety. Remember that withdrawing attention usually makes abuse worse. Think about it- it’s just like an addict experiencing the withdrawal symptoms that accompany substance abuse. But for your benefit and for his, it’s important to do the hard work that is designed to protect your heart and draw him back to God. Whether he chooses to respond is up to him, but this is the tough love that only those closest to him can give. Work with local domestic violence resources to have a safety plan in place before engaging in any type of emotional or physical separation.
Get a Mentor. You are healing. You are changing. You are learning new ways of thinking and behaving. Sometimes, all this newness makes it hard to know what to do (especially if you still have to have contact with an abusive man). There were times when I was so sure I needed to contact my ex-husband but my mentor encouraged me instead to seek the Lord and wait on Him (and that always turned out to be the right answer). Godly counsel is vital in these situations so seek out a woman who knows the Lord and has experienced a similar situation.
Have you had to reduce contact with an abusive husband? What was your experience like? What tips do you have to share with your sisters going through the same thing?
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