Why does a person stay in a toxic relationship?
How can she (or he) be so blind to that which is so obvious to others?
In my previous article for The Domino Principle, The 10 Reasons People Still Support Donald Trump, I asked and answered a similar question… why do some people cling to support of a President who is so morally reprehensible and so clearly and obviously antithetical to the bests interests of themselves and of America? And in another earlier article, The Destructive Dominoes of Domestic Abuse, I looked at the signs and signals of psychologically abusive and manipulative personal relationships. This column looks at how these two issues are deeply related.
Approximately one in three American women are involved in an abusive relationship at some point in their life. And approximately one in three registered voters show that they are susceptible to buying in to Trump’s gaslighting behaviors. This statistical similarity is likely not a coincidence. We can learn much from what is now playing out on the national stage about why gaslighting in personal relationships is so effective and why codependent individuals have trouble recognizing and leaving toxic relationships with partners who exhibit narcissistic characteristics.
For many of us who are not in such relationships and who are not therapists, our opportunity to see and understand these dysfunctional behaviors has been fairly rare.
Today we have an unprecedented window into this type of behavior on a massive scale. We have a President who is classically symptomatic of Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD) in a truly shocking manner, as well as exhibiting traits that include paranoia, sociopathy, and being an avowed sexual predator. And he has millions of codependent followers who fail to recognize his behaviors for what they are… and who are effectively controlled and motivated by his use of classical gaslighting techniques.
As John Gartner, a psychologist who taught in the department of psychiatry at Johns Hopkins University Medical School for 28 years, points out in USA Today (See: Donald Trump’s malignant narcissism is toxic: Psychologist): “Otto Kernberg, a psychoanalyst specializing in borderline personalities, defined malignant narcissism as having four components: narcissism, paranoia, antisocial personality and sadism. Trump exhibits all four.”
And Sean Wilentz, a professor of history at Princeton, has noted in Rolling Stone (See: Why Trump Is Not Mentally Fit to Be President): “We’ve had some very troubled presidents in our past, but their troubles are things like alcoholism, paranoia, you know, sort of garden-variety psychological maladies. This is different. This shows a dissociation from reality. We just haven’t seen anything like this before.” In the same article, John Gartner also notes: “He’s acting crazy, and he’s mad that other people aren’t seeing and believing what he’s making up in his own head.”
Codependency and Narcissism
A woman who is codependent acquires self-worth from pleasing her partner. She is often giving, sacrificing, and consumed with the needs and desires of others. Her situation becomes unhealthy if she finds herself in a relationship with an individual who is selfish, self-centered, controlling, isolating, and harmful to her — a classic narcissist. (Throughout this article, I have chosen the male gender to represent the narcissist partner and the female gender to represent the codependent partner, but of course either partner can be of any gender.)
(It should be noted that sometimes a codependent woman will willfully enter into a consensual relationship as the “submissive partner” to someone who becomes her mentor, protector and guide, and who uses the exchange of power in the relationship to enrich her life — sometimes called a D/s relationship. There is nothing inherently unhealthy about D/s relationships as long as they remain self-aware and consensual, and either party can withdraw their consent from the exchange of authority at any time.)
As takers and givers, narcissists and codependents tend to be drawn to each other. Such relationships can buzz with excitement in the early stages, but over time become quite unhealthy, and the codependent is often unable to disconnect herself from her narcissistic partner.
As Ross Rosenberg notes in The Dance Between Codependents & Narcissists:
“The codependent reflexively gives up their power; since the narcissist thrives on control and power, the dance is perfectly coordinated. No one gets their toes stepped on.
“Typically, codependents give of themselves much more than their partners give back to them. As generous — but bitter — dance partners, they seem to be stuck on the dance floor, always waiting for the next song, at which time they naively hope that their narcissistic partner will finally understand their needs.
“Codependents confuse caretaking and sacrifice with loyalty and love. Although they are proud of their unwavering dedication to the person they love, they end up feeling unappreciated and used. Codependents yearn to be loved, but because of their choice of dance partner, find their dreams unrealized. With the heartbreak of unfulfilled dreams, codependents silently and bitterly swallow their unhappiness.
“Codependents are essentially stuck in a pattern of giving and sacrificing, without the possibility of ever receiving the same from their partner.”
And as is noted by Michele Happe in The Relationship between Narcissism and Codependency:
“Codependents lack a healthy relationship with self. They are prone to put others first before their own needs. This is unhealthy.
“Narcissists also have an unhealthy relationship with self. They put themselves above all else. They use others toward their own ends and exploit relationships without feelings of guilt or remorse. They push blame off on others and are unable to see their own part in wrong doing.
“It is easy to see how codependents and narcissists get hooked up. It is like two pieces of the puzzle coming together. One is the easy mark for the other.”
“Once a person begins to recover from codependency, they are able to begin setting boundaries and standing up to the narcissist. It is very difficult for all humans to conceive of someone who is totally bereft of the ability to empathize and learn from previous mistakes. The primary mistake the codependent makes is to give the benefit of the doubt to the narcissistic partner because it is so hard to fathom someone could be so selfish and unyielding. Thus the dynamic begins.
“The good news for the codependent is that there is hope for recovery once they fully understand that the narcissist lacks that ability of compassion, which defines us as humans. Since codependents are quick to blame themselves for problems they are able to work well with a therapist to make changes. Not so for the narcissist. They are stuck in their own world of non blame and hence are pathological unable to change. How can one change if they are unable to see that there is anything wrong with them?”
Often, codependent women never gain sufficient self-awareness to recognize their relationship for what it is — they remain stuck in the “denial phase,” effectively blind to seeing that which is so seemingly obvious to others. Domino Principle #1, Deceptive Perceptions directly applies here, restating Feynman’s first principle: “You must not fool yourself, and you are the easiest person to fool.”
The codependent’s partner may sometimes treat her well in superficial and publicly visible ways, but she fails to be able to separate between deep and superficial behaviors and how the narcissist’s actions are not truly consistent with his words and promises. It is often stated that the codependent woman loves “Dr. Jekyll” while continually making excuses for “Mr. Hyde.” And as we know from case after case after case, despite intermittent “honeymoon periods,” over time “Mr. Hyde’s” behavior become more and more persistent as the codependent partner accepts and rewards the narcissist’s negative behaviors by staying.
Donald Trump and Narcissistic Personality Disorder
Trump is fascinating in terms of not only his own psychological and psychiatric issues, but also in terms of the cult-like following of people who relate to him in a manner very similar to the way in which codependent people interact with narcissists in their intimate relationships.
Not all people who are narcissists have Narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) — a mental disorder in which individuals have an inflated sense of their own importance, a deep need for admiration and a lack of empathy for others. But Donald Trump is classically symptomatic of NPD. The criteria used to diagnose narcissistic personality disorder include the following, as outlined by the Mayo Clinic (See: Narcissistic personality disorder):
- “Having an exaggerated sense of self-importance
- Expecting to be recognized as superior even without achievements that warrant it
- Exaggerating your achievements and talents
- Being preoccupied with fantasies about success, power, brilliance, beauty or the perfect mate
- Believing that you are superior and can only be understood by or associate with equally special people
- Requiring constant admiration
- Having a sense of entitlement
- Expecting special favors and unquestioning compliance with your expectations
- Taking advantage of others to get what you want
- Having an inability or unwillingness to recognize the needs and feelings of others
- Being envious of others and believing others envy you
- Behaving in an arrogant or haughty manner
Although some features of narcissistic personality disorder may seem like having confidence, it’s not the same. Narcissistic personality disorder crosses the border of healthy confidence into thinking so highly of yourself that you put yourself on a pedestal and value yourself more than you value others.”
Some have claimed that Trump does not fit a diagnosis for NPD because “Personality disorder requires the presence of clinically significant distress and/or impairment.” (See ‘Crazy like a fox’: Mental health experts try to get inside Trump’s mind). They argue that because Trump has become president, he has benefited from his symptoms rather than be impaired by them. This argument seems tenuous at best. One can make a very strong case that, based on his performance of the first six months of his presidency, Trump is indeed highly impaired, and his impairment has placed him on a path that has a high probability of resulting in dire consequences for the American people, and for himself. One should not have to wait for a cult leader to have himself and all of his followers drink poison before pronouncing him to be distressed and impaired… Trump has shown repeatedly that he will not be derailed from pursuing a path of self-destruction, and it is only because of our system of checks and balances from our legislative and judicial branches that Trump’s impairments have not yet created more damages than they already have.
For people who are disassociated with reality, the delusions they may experience become their reality. They may truly believe the falsehoods they tell, and have no trouble shifting from one falsehood to another on a whim without ever seeing a contradiction in the way a mentally healthy person would. And they may be fundamentally unable to comprehend the inevitable consequences of their actions in a way mentally healthy people do. These all seem to be significant issues for Donald Trump.
And while that may be just fine for him, for the rest of us, who live in a world where our realities are required to align with the empirical world, that is troubling indeed. In the words often attributed to Ayn Rand: “We can evade reality, but we cannot evade the consequences of evading reality.”
Abnormal “gaslighting” behaviors exhibited by the narcissist (and by our President) are aimed at controlling and disorienting the individuals they are psychologically abusing. Such techniques often include belittling and dismissiveness; exaggeration; self-aggrandizement; self-victimization; projection; blatant lying; rewriting history and reality denial; normalization; blame reflection and deflection; deconstructive conditioning; idealization and devaluation; bullying, shaming, raging and threatening; fear mongering; isolationism; false equivalency and much more. (See: Shahida Arabi’s excellent article: 20 Diversion Tactics Highly Manipulative Narcissists, Sociopaths And Psychopaths Use To Silence You, Stephanie Sarkis’ column: 11 Signs of Gaslighting in a Relationship, and The Independent’s The Cult of Trump.)
Many books have been written about the use of gaslighting in toxic relationships, and there is little doubt that many books and Ph.D. theses about Trump’s use of gaslighting will be written in the coming years. My aim below is to point out just a few of the instances where my direct experiences have demonstrated similarities between these two situations.
Gaslighting leads to denial of reality, and the strength of that denial can be quite powerful indeed, even when faced with direct and overwhelming evidence to the contrary. Consider, for example, the substantial number of people who refuse to acknowledge that Trump is a sexual predator and abuser even after hearing him admit to sexually abusive behavior in his own words, or who after reviewing the facts of Trump’s multiple accusations of rape or attempted rape, fail to grasp that this kind of behavior makes him fundamentally unfit to make presidential decisions in ways that go light years beyond Hillary’s poor judgement with her e-mail server.
Compare this to the codependent woman who refuses to acknowledge that she is in a relationship with a deeply disturbed person even after reading him state, in his own words, what a bad person he is, while he tries to threaten someone he wants to isolate her away from. In some cases, it is a basic unwillingness to believe what is right in front of her, while in other cases the codependent partner can grasp that her partner is sometimes not a good person in certain contexts, while still refusing to believe that her partner will eventually express those same character traits towards her. But of course he inevitably will… it is a core part of his personality, just as Trump’s abusive treatment of others is a core part of his. Trump even directs his abusive behavior towards Jeff Sessions and Mitch McConnell, two of his most complicit accomplices in furthering his autocratic and illiberal agenda. (See: Donald Trump’s shocking disloyalty.)
Blame Shifting — It is NEVER the Narcissist’s Fault
A normal, healthy person would usually react to a discovery that their spouse was considering leaving by asking what they had done to cause their spouse to feel compelled to want to leave, and/or they would ask what needs their partner had that they had failed to meet. But the narcissist reacts in a completely different way. He creates a wide variety of fictions to divert attention from the real cause of the situation, which is himself. He might invent stories about how others actively tried to steal his partner from him, or he might tell his partner that her behavior is an abnormal hormonal issue and that she should be medicated and/or seek therapy. Warning sign #4 in Angela Atkinson’s article: Toxic Narcissism in Relationships: Top 10 Warning Signs You’re Being Gaslighted notes:
“When a narcissist is lying or manipulating a friend, coworker or loved one, and isn’t getting his way, he may turn up the intensity by questioning your sanity. You might be called paranoid, stressed out—too sensitive or even hormonal. He might even tell you that you need therapy or meds to get through it. Again, it’s all about being in control.”
We see similar behavior from Trump. He not only constantly takes credit for the good things that happen that are not the result of his actions, he continually and repeatedly shifts blame on to others for things that are the result of his failings and inaction. He takes no action to deal with Russia’s tampering into our election process (which benefits him greatly), while blaming it (and so many other things) on Obama’s failure to deal with it. He promised to deliver a replacement for Obamacare that would deliver better healthcare at lower cost, and when the only concept he could come up with to replace Obamacare delivered worse healthcare at greater cost, he blamed the people who called out his bullshit for what it was, instead of taking responsibility for his failure to do what he had promised.
When abusers defend themselves against their own unpleasant impulses by denying their existence while attributing them to others, it is a distortion technique psychologists call “projection.” Abusers are often masters at projection, falsely accusing the victim and others around them of the negative behaviors that they engage in themselves. (See: The Projection President, and Donald Trump is a Terrible President, According to His Own Tweets About Obama, and We the Victims: Trump’s Paris accord speech projected his own psychological issues all over the American people.)
Consider the case of the narcissist who stalks his partner by putting spyware on her computer, by tracking her location via her cell phone, and by trying to break into the phone account of someone whom he suspects she might be talking to while at work… and then he accuses someone who challenges his ability to treat her this way by accusing them of stalking her… that is projection! If someone tries to help his partner see through his distortion and his attempts to gaslight her, he might accuse them of trying to brainwash her, again projecting his gaslighting practices upon someone helping his partner try to find clarity.
We see similar behaviors from Trump, who frequently makes up false stories and retweets untrue articles from low quality news sources, while simultaneously decrying as “fake news” articles that come from quality sources that employ high journalistic standards for vetting and fact-checking their stories.
As Seth Meyers has noted: “It’s almost like Donald Trump is a time traveler sent to warn us about himself.” Whenever he accuses someone of having a negative trait, it provides an insight into his own behavior, not the behavior of the person whom he is accusing, and he constantly reacts to others by projecting upon them the way he acts or would act in a given situation.
In this tweet from 2013, Trump was ostensibly talking about Obama, but his words strongly foreshadowed his own reckless behavior when he found himself in a similar position (See, for example: Why Trump Is Wholly Unsuited to the North Korea Crisis):
Be prepared, there is a small chance that our horrendous leadership could unknowingly lead us into World War III.
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) August 31, 2013
Trump, who has been a poster-child for sleaze, corruption, and poor management throughout his life (and especially while within the White House), notably projected his own failings on former FBI Director James Comey and Congressman Adam Schiff, two public servants who have been pretty much beyond reproach for their strong integrity and ethical values:
“He’s a showboat, he’s grandstander, the FBI has been in turmoil,” Trump said of Comey in his interview with Lester Holt. “You know that, I know that. Everybody knows that. You take a look at the FBI a year ago, it was in virtual turmoil, less than a year ago. It hasn’t recovered from that.”
Sleazy Adam Schiff, the totally biased Congressman looking into "Russia," spends all of his time on television pushing the Dem loss excuse!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) July 24, 2017
Motivation Through Fear, Shame and Guilt
As I discussed in some detail in my earlier article, Let’s Make America SMART Again, Trump constantly uses a variety of gaslighting techniques to create doubt and confusion; turn lies into half-truths; and use fear to motivate irrational actions. Narcissists use these very same techniques to control their codependent partners. Fear, guilt and shame become powerful tools in the narcissist’s arsenal. If their partner should think of leaving, the narcissist will do everything they can to create doubt and fear regarding the quality of life they will experience without them. He will also bombard his partner with guilt and shame over how his life will be affected without her being there.
Isolation is a key component of any psychologically abusive relationship, and it manifests itself in Trump’s world in a wide variety of ways. The alternative realities that Trump creates are often fragile — Trump actively makes efforts to isolate himself from those who disagree with him or those who would disturb his view of the world when his world view is not consistent with reality. He surrounds himself with advisors and family members who know to only give Trump external information that tells him how wonderful he is, that highlight how people idolize him, and that reinforce his distorted world views.
As is typical for many leaders in cult-like scenarios, Trump’s followers believe that only he has the truth. They believe this because he has told them it is so (this kind of circular reasoning makes no logical sense whatsoever, but the gaslighted seem to easily buy into it). Trump’s Twitter account provides him a direct conduit to preach his version of truth to his followers. He blocks people on Twitter who try to disturb his delusions. Anything, like the mainstream media, that does not echo his views then becomes lies and fake news. This effectively allows him to isolate his followers from reality.
Trump’s efforts to build a US-Mexico wall, his travel ban, his deportation roundups, and his attempt at immigration reform are part of Trump’s efforts to isolate America from others, and create fear towards others, who are different than his chosen group.
A narcissist/codependent relationship is often similarly focused on the narcissist being the singular source of truth. If the narcissist can isolate the codependent partner from reality and all those who might help her see the world without distortion, then he believes that challenges to his distortions will go away. Similarly, if he can isolate his codependent partner to get her away from everyone who knows she is in a psychologically abusive relationship, then he might rationalize that doing so will give them a “fresh start.” In his mind, the problems in their relationship are not a result of his psychologically abusive behavior — rather, they are a result of those people who would disturb his ability to control his partner. If he can isolate his partner from anyone who would disturb his distorted reality, then all their problems will magically disappear.
Of course, this isn’t how life works at all — the problems in their relationship are fundamentally rooted in the core dysfunctionality of the narcissist/codependent dynamic.
Reality Distortion Fields
Taken together, gaslighting techniques allow the narcissist to bring those close to them into their “reality distortion field,” thereby engendering a cult-like following. By rewriting history, distorting facts, omitting critical details, shifting blame, exaggerating, and using false equivalencies, they persuade others to join their alternative reality. Trump’s recent blaming of “both sides” in response to the violence in Charlottesville, equating those who marched and murdered to support a white nationalist agenda with those who marched in opposition, is an example of false equivalence. His retelling the story of his response to that event at a rally in Phoenix, leaving out his “both sides” comment in the retelling, is an example of omitting critical facts to rewrite history. Trump, in fact, averages making around five false or misleading claims a day (See: President Trump’s list of false and misleading claims tops 1,000).
Trump, who has often tweeted admiration for the late Apple co-founder Steve Jobs, has much in common with him. Both are/were highly driven individuals who achieved significant public prominence. Both men accumulated significant wealth at times in their lives. Both men are/were extremely vindictive, with nasty tempers and extreme inferiority complexes. Both individuals operated on the presumption that what people believe to be true is far more important than what is actually true — and they were both extremely adept at defining alternative realities and getting people to believe in them. Both Jobs and Trump have been known for living in a “reality distortion field” that gives/gave them the ability to convince themselves, and many others, to believe almost anything.
Yet there are some key differences between the two men. Jobs was extraordinarily gifted in terms of his sense of design and his perception of the characteristics of successful products. While he frequently utilized smoke and mirrors to reach his objectives, he did in the end repeatedly create not only “deals” but also real products and value that has made the world a better and more productive place. In this regard, Trump is virtually the antithesis of Jobs. Trump seems to only be gifted as a con artist, building a career most often typified by dishonest business practices and graft. (See, for example: “A Peek Inside Trump’s Smoke and Mirrors Tour” and “The Moral Foundations of Trumpism,” and Donald Trump vs. Steve Jobs: The tale of two con artists.)
Gaslighting results in reality distortion fields in toxic relationships as well, but in such cases, only one person (and perhaps a few other close family members) lives in the reality distortion field. The codependent partner is often too meek to challenge the absurdities the narcissist fabricates in creating alternative realities. The abuser also continually tries to isolate the codependent partner from everyone who knows the truth and can help her see clearly.
Exiting the State of Denial
At the end of the day, we live in a nation where one third of the electorate has shown a susceptibility to gaslighting, and is unable to acknowledge that a man who they have heard boast of being a sexual predator is, in fact, a sexual predator. They are unable to realize the repercussions, as the dominoes inevitably must fall, of having a man with the character and (lack of) judgment of a sexual predator being president of the United States. They are unable to understand, despite his being classically symptomatic of narcissistic personality disorder, that they have a president with this disorder, and/or that having a president with this disorder is an extraordinary problem and risk for the future of America.
But as I’ve stated before… this isn’t fundamentally about Trump. It is about us. If one disturbed and delusional man with a podium is able to drag America into the darkness, then America as a nation is sick — sick in a way in which it isn’t surprising that one third of women experience psychologically abusive relationships during their lives, and that many of them will find themselves unable to find the strength to leave.
The inability of so many to grasp this reality, even after witnessing more than six months of Trump’s extraordinary degree of dysfunction in office, is truly the most terrifying political development for our world since World War II. Until we find a way to again place value on education, the scientific method, and the notion that we can’t just make up reality to fit our liking, there will be openings for those who seek to destroy the core values this nation was founded upon, as well as for those who subject their intimate partners to psychological abuse. Coupled with education must also be giving people the coping tools they need to recognize and repudiate gaslighting behaviors when they encounter them.
Sometimes those in toxic relationships awaken to leave the “denial stage” and enter the “acknowledgement stage,” in which they come to realize and admit the unhealthy nature of their relationship. And sometimes, they are even able to find the strength to leave and they enter the “escape stage.” The same holds for the gaslighted followers of POTUS. In both cases, pointing out the “facts” to the codependent is rarely the catalyst in helping them move forward in a healthy direction. This is because we are highly resistant to admitting to ourselves that we have made errors of fact or judgment, and also because the entire point of gaslighting is to pervert and distort facts, and to isolate the codependent from those who truly care about her and try to help her see her situation with clarity (See also: Why Facts Don’t Change Our Minds and Why Fact-Checking Doesn’t Faze Trump Fans). What does help is for the codependent to have a network of compassion and support, from those who can help her see through the narcissist’s reality distortion field, without condemning or judging her for having stayed or tolerated it in the past.
And in the case of helping people move outside of Trump’s Reality Distortion Field, one of the best ways to encourage people to shift their perspective is by sharing appropriate stories (like this one) on social media sites like Facebook and Twitter. Individuals won’t often be persuaded by the facts, but over time peer pressure will help some people slowly shift their views as they see more and more friends whom they respect refusing to support POTUS’s negative actions and regularly calling out his gaslighting conduct as unacceptable. (See: Is Trump Just Another Toxic Cult Leader? and Trump Fits the Profile of a Classic Cult Leader. Can His Followers Be Saved.)
The codependent doesn’t get a fresh start by isolating herself from everyone who knows the truth about her circumstances, and who cares enough about her to be willing to tell her the truth. She doesn’t get a fresh start by denying reality, by ignoring overwhelming evidence that she is in a psychologically abusive relationship, or by acquiescing to the narcissist’s attempts to manipulate her through guilt and gaslighting. The only way she gets a fresh start, the only way she starts on a path to healing and a life free of distortion, is by getting away — far, far away — from the narcissist and his reality distortion field. And those who truly care about her will never give up hope that she will someday find the clarity to do so.
Because sometimes darkness can show you the light.
Note added September 9, 2017: A few minor edits, along with the “The Problem Isn’t” graphic, were added post-publication. Additional minor edits were made January 28, 2018.
Note added July 6, 2018: These two graphics help summarize much of what was discussed above:
Note added July 16, 2018: This article, What It Means When a Narcissist Says “I Love You”, is quite insightful and well worth reading.
Note added October 6, 2019: This excellent article, Unfit For Office, by George T. Conway III in The Atlantic goes into considerably more depth on the application of each of the diagnostic criteria of Narcissistic Personality Disorder to the presidency of Donald John Trump.