Psychological abuse is part of Australia’s unacceptable level of family violence. It’s particularly challenging to recognise and often hidden behind closed doors. All in the Mind speaks to a family therapist who casts light on the manipulative, narcissistic techniques used by some perpetrators.
‘People will ask me, “How could you have let somebody like Greg into your life?”
‘The psychological abuse is a web that you find yourself in that you can’t really explain, and it’s really hard for other people to have any idea of why you’re caught in this place, backwards and forwards, to-ing and fro-ing.’
Australian of the Year Rosie Batty recalls her life trapped in an abusive relationship.
At the crux of the narcissism is the fear of abandonment, so if someone threatens to leave them, they have what we call the narcissistic injury … they will use everything they can think of to keep that from happening.DR KARYL MCBRIDE, THERAPIST
Batty, whose son Luke was killed by his father at cricket practice, is one of thousands of Australian women affected by domestic violence.
In fact, a woman is killed every week at the hands of a current or former partner. Drawing on her own devastating experience, Batty is now a tireless campaigner against family violence.
‘I look back now and I can’t believe I was in that space,’ she says.
According to Batty, psychological abuse, which often escalates to physical or sexual violence, is particularly challenging because it can be so powerful, yet hidden.
Family therapist Dr Karyl McBride has a rare insight into the damage psychological abuse can do. McBride specialises in narcissism, and helps her clients recover after being trapped in dysfunctional, narcissistic, and often violent relationships.
‘I do think the term “narcissism’ is used loosely in our culture,’ she says. ‘I think it’s misunderstood. If we look at the social media platforms or people taking a lot of selfies … who really cares?
‘[Narcissism] becomes a problem when that person is hurting others and is hurting others by not being able to care about them.’
Narcissistic personality disorder, or NPD, affects approximately 8 per cent of men and 5 per cent of women. There are nine traits listed on the disorder ‘continuum’.
‘The primary traits of narcissism that are damaging to relationships are the lack of empathy and the inability to emotionally tune in to others: their partners, their children, their friends,’ says McBride. ‘The the inability to be accountable; it’s not them, it’s always someone else’s fault.’
According to the therapist, the link between domestic violence and narcissistic behaviour is clear.
‘If someone doesn’t have remorse or if they don’t have empathy—which is just the crux of all of this—those are the kind of people who feel entitled [to] harm someone else, like they have a right to do that.’
The family therapist says that behind the charming demeanour of many narcissists lies a fragile self-image, most likely developed as a result of emotional neglect during childhood.
Listen: True stories of family violence
Their charm, says McBride, is often what dupes other people into relationships that later become abusive.
‘A lot of people that end up in relationships with them go through this kind of feeling of shame and beating themselves up. “How could I have done this? How could I have allowed this person to suck me into this?”‘
Feelings of connection, excitement and romance at the beginning of a relationship slowly disintegrate for people with narcissistic personality disorder.
The therapist says this is especially common when children are brought into the picture and only one parent is emotionally attuned to their needs.
‘That becomes a problem for the narcissist because then all of the attention isn’t on them—their life, their world and their activities. That’s when it oftentimes changes.
‘Then there’s verbal abuse, psychological abuse and emotional abuse. Sometimes physical and sexual abuse too.’
Consciously and unconsciously, narcissists employ a number of harmful psychological techniques on their partners and children. These can include the projection of their own feelings onto others, as well as complex, manipulative behaviours designed to evoke feelings of guilt.
‘People describe it as similar to living with a bully; these people eventually become bullies if they don’t get their way.’
The effect of this behaviour on intimate partners and family members can be devastating.
‘Usually what happens is the partner or the children will internalise negative messages. They will feel like they can never measure up to the expectations that the narcissist has of them.’
Leaving these relationships can also be extremely difficult.
‘The person who is with them becomes beaten down because living with a narcissist and trying to keep up with their narcissistic supply is exhausting.
‘At the crux of the narcissism is the fear of abandonment, so if someone threatens to leave them, they have what we call the narcissistic injury … they will use everything they can think of to keep that from happening.’
Read more: The mental disorder defence
Threats of stealing children or physical violence are not uncommon in this situation.
‘One of the things we see often is threats that they will keep you in court for the rest of your life until you are bankrupt,’ says McBride.
‘The narcissist wants to go to court. Court is the theatre for their grandiosity, and it’s all about winning. They are not really interested in mediating and cooperating and compromising, they are out to win.’
McBride works primarily with women, helping them to heal from the trauma they have experienced during and after toxic relationships with narcissists. She uses a five-step process.
‘The first step is accepting that this is really what they are dealing with, because if they don’t accept it they are going to keep wishing and hoping it will be different. Then there’s a long period of going through a grief process.’
The second step is separating psychologically from the abusive partner, no longer giving them power or allowing them to ‘push their buttons’.
‘The third step is really working on their own solid sense of self, because people describe that they kind of lose their sense of self when they are involved in a relationship with a narcissist.’
Step four encourages the client to deal with their ex-partner differently, so they’re able to communicate effectively, be assertive and set clear boundaries.
‘Then the last step is really what I call ending the legacy of distorted love. That’s just really working on their own life, their own parenting skills, their relationships with friends, so that they are not passing this on to their children and also not attracting other narcissistic relationships into their lives.’
Working through the trauma of a narcissistic relationship can be complicated by women’s ongoing love and compassion for their partner, despite their abusive behaviour.
In response to this, McBride says it’s important to see narcissism as a spectrum disorder. At one end are the low-level traits we all have, at the other full-blown narcissistic personality disorder.
‘If someone has traits along that continuum, but they are not high level or full-blown NPD, they can get treatment—marriage counselling may work,’ says McBride.
‘But the closer towards the full-blown NPD—they become close to untreatable. Then I think it becomes a matter of whether the person with them wants to live like that and be in an abusive relationship where their needs don’t get met.’
Ultimately, McBride believes families who have experienced domestic violence should have access to a court reform program which takes a therapeutic approach, where each member of the family can get therapy throughout the legal process.
‘This would be particularly helpful for the children, who are often deeply traumatised by dysfunctional family relationships.