Intimacy and Abuse
By: Dr. Sam Vaknin
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It is an established fact that abuse – verbal, psychological, emotional, physical, and sexual – co-occurs with intimacy. Most reported offenses are between intimate partners and between parents and children. This defies common sense. Emotionally, it should be easier to batter, molest, assault, or humiliate a total stranger. It's as if intimacy CAUSES abuse, incubates and nurtures it.
And, in a way, it does.
Many abusers believe that their abusive conduct fosters, enhances, and cements their intimate relationships. To them, pathological jealousy is proof of love, possessiveness replaces mature bonding, and battering is a form of paying attention to the partner and communicating with her. Psychopaths and narcissists possess “cold empathy”: the ability to “see through” people and instantly discern their vulnerabilities, fears, and needs. They leverage this knowledge to foster faux-intimacy with a select few.
This “targeted intimacy” helps to condition the abuser’s nearest, dearest, and closest and transform them into a “flock” or an “audience”: members of his mini- cult. Targeted intimacy is exclusionary (excludes everyone outside the "cult"); ephemeral (wanes when no longer useful); and utilitarian (intended to manipulate the recipient of the intimacy and its ostensible beneficiary.)
Targeted intimacy is triggered when the abuser sets a goal and embarks on a charm offensive intended to re-acquire a potential source of narcissistic supply or of material benefits by idealizing her. His needs satisfied, the abuser’s warm interest in his target abruptly dissipates and he turns cold and distant, devalues and discards. He blames his prey for this startling about-face: she made him withdraw with her nagging, insensitivity, dumbness, insufferable character, hypocrisy, evil designs, and so on.
Such habitual offenders do not know any better. They were often raised in families, societies, and cultures where abuse is condoned outright – or, at least, not frowned upon. Maltreatment of one's significant others is part of daily life, as inevitable as the weather, a force of nature.
Intimacy is often perceived to include a license to abuse. The abuser treats his nearest, dearest, and closest as mere objects, instruments of gratification, utilities, or extensions of himself. He feels that he "owns" his spouse, girlfriend, lovers, children, parents, siblings, or colleagues. As the owner, he has the right to "damage the goods" or even dispose of them altogether.
Some abusers are scared of real intimacy and deep commitment, afraid of the intolerable hurt wrought by an eventual and inevitable abandonment. They have been taught to consider themselves unlovable and unworthy of being loved. Being hated and feared is within their comfort zone: they know the ropes of intimidation and alienation as means of controlling their environment and rendering it less threatening.
These abusers lead a "pretend", confabulated life. Their "love" and "relationships" are gaudy, fake imitations. Such an abuser seeks to put a distance between himself and those who truly love him, who cherish and value him as a human being, who enjoy his company, and who strive to establish a long-term, meaningful relationship with him. He becomes emotionally or physically absent, or “ghosts”.
Some abusers even turn a blind eye to their intimate partner’s sexual or emotional liaisons with others, allowing her to develop and maintain a parallel life as long as she continues to observe her “contractual” obligations to provide services and companionship. Such emotional absenting can take many forms: from workaholism to sexual swinging.
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Abuse, in other words, is a reaction to the perceived threat of looming intimacy, aimed at fending it off, intended to decimate closeness, tenderness, affection, and compassion before they thrive and consume the abuser. Abuse is a panic reaction. The batterer, or the molester, are scared out of their wits: they feel entrapped, imprisoned, shackled, and insidiously altered. By dishing out egregious maltreatment, they seek to both shatter the impending intimacy and to stress-test the partner’s commitment to the non-intimate form of relationship on offer.
Lashing out in blind and violent rage they punish the perceived perpetrators of intimacy. The more obnoxiously they behave, the less the risk of lifelong bondage. The more heinous their acts, the safer they feel. Battering, molesting, raping, berating, taunting are all forms of reasserting lost control. In the abuser's thwarted mind, abuse equals mastery and continued, painless, emotionally numbed, survival.
Early in life, the abuser had been abused by the very people who were supposed to “love” him. As an adult, he abuses the people who truly love him! This is his way of righting this wrong and restoring symmetric justice.
Fear of Intimacy: The Case of the Narcissist
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compulsion was first described by Freud and was initially applied mostly to
mate selection and other life choices. It is now considered more widely as any
behavior that seeks a goal and then, when it is within reach, undermines it by
withdrawing and absenting oneself.
In victims and survivors of abuse, avoidance is a post-traumatic reaction triggered by memories of agonizing abuse. Any approach to a potential intimate partner causes panic and rage, some of it self-directed. Abrupt and incomprehensible withdrawal follows, intended to avoid these ego-dystonic negative emotions.
Avoidance is multifarious: cheating, addictions, itinerancy, numbing, dissociation, passive-aggression, reactance (defiance), impulsivity, recklessness, or lying are all manifestations of the terror of intimacy and the pain that it often brings. Avoidance is closely associated with mood lability and dysregulated emotions.
In a way, avoidance is a form of signalling, a cry for help, a way of begging the partner: please let me go! I am so broken and weak that I cannot even leave and extricate myself!
narcissist wants his intimate partner to “love” (admire) his False Self, not HIM.
True intimacy (loving the real person) challenges the veracity of the false self and undermines the narcissist’s grandiosity by exposing him for the empty fake that he is or believes himself to be (“impostor syndrome”).
The narcissist feels threatened and nakedly transparent and vulnerable when his mate loves him for his essence, for the quiddity of who he is. He reacts to such authentic emotions with panic, extreme abuse, and flailing rage which borders on hatred.
A phobic fear of intimacy betrays a deep distrust of the world as a benevolent place and of the future as an agreeable time. This hurt-aversion apprehension results in reticence: a reluctance to expose one’s vulnerabilities lest they be leveraged and abused and a refusal to commit to any long-term relationship owing to a catastrophising mindset (“it is all going to end badly anyhow, so why risk the pain?”)
The inner dialog, inner script, of people who fear intimacy is comprised of several strands:
This (potential) intimate partner will destroy my life. I will be left with nothing and no one;
I am no good. I am crazy. I will hurt this (potential) intimate partner and destroy his or her life. I must get away from him/her for his/her own good;
Devaluing the (potential) intimate partner: focusing on his weaknesses, shortcomings, mistakes, misjudgements, and failures;
Imagining the future with the (potential) intimate partner as bleak, unpleasant, with bad, painful outcomes (“He will anyhow leave me, hurt me, or living with him will be dull and oppressive”);
Distrusting the (potential) intimate partner to make one happy, disbelieving his/her intentions, feeling that (s)he is manipulating and imprisoning one;
Doubting one’s own judgement, one’s ability to choose right and appraise the situation correctly;
Diffuse anxiety, an uncomfortable but fuzzy sensation that something real bad is happening or about to happen and one needs to get away before the catastrophe hits.
such a primordial and basic need that, when deprived of it for prolonged
periods of time, people are driven to despondence and seek substitutes, even in
Instant intimacy, fake intimacy, simulated intimacy, and transient intimacy are all widely preferred to no intimacy at all. Hence the skyrocketing incidence of casual sex and the pervasiveness of dating and cheating apps. Intimacy with anyone whosoever is vastly better than no intimacy whatsoever.
When starved for intimacy, people con themselves into shared psychoses with others, abuse substances to dull their senses and remove inhibitions, somatize intimacy (use sex to feel intimate), or reframe intimacy (for example: by joining cults or reference groups). In extreme cases of recurrent failures to generate intimacy, people resort to self-intimacy: a solipsistic and schizoid attempt to become their own best friends and companions in lieu of the frustrating objects out there.
The self-intimate glorify aloneness within an ideology of personal autonomy, agency, and self-sufficiency. They interpret feeling lonely and the need for significant others as weaknesses of character and zealously castigate both as forms of social control, chauvinism, patriarchy, feminism, or pathological self-delusion. Narcissistic self-intimates conflate separateness with uniqueness and accomplishment.
We abuse and hurt
the people we love most because we feel safe to do so. We misbehave and break
all the rules, we even cheat on and betray our most significant others because
we know that they will take us back, no matter what, that they will accept us
and love us unconditionally.
Home is that place you return to after you have screwed up really badly. It is that refuge and shelter where you can crash when no one else will have you. It is that oasis of idiosyncratic familiarity, the calm that comes with the knowledge that you had arrived at the end of the line and found it hospitable.
You can rely on people who truly love you to pick up the pieces and put back together your Humpty-Dumpty. Indeed, this willingness to tolerate yet another escapade or worse is the hallmark and ultimate test of love.
So, you let your hair and guard down, you violate every edict and principle in the book, you torture the people who mean most to you. Because you know you safely can.
If you are afraid
of intimacy you will choose a partner who is equally afraid of intimacy. We
all seek love or at least companionship, but some people dread them even as
they look for them (ambivalence). The intimacy-averse members of a dyad will
both make sure to travel alone a lot, keep exhaustingly busy, be absent from
home, withhold sex or abstain from it, cheat on their mates (have emotional and
sexual affairs with others), and so on. But, most importantly, they abuse and sadistically
torment each other.
Why the compelling need to hurt the partner?
The obvious answer is that abuse and intimacy are mutually exclusive. In an abusive relationship, there is little risk of intimacy and lots of avoidance. But there are two additional reasons:
1. People with fear of intimacy have intense and overpowering emotions of shame and guilt. They choose abusers as their partners because being abused is their comfort zone and affirms their self-perception as bad and worthless, whorish, dumb, and deserving of punishment. They force their mates to abuse them (projective and introjective identification).
legitimizes and justifies cheating, adultery, infidelity, and extramarital
dalliances ("he is abusing me, so he deserves what I am doing to
him"). Sex addicts, adrenaline junkies (like psychopaths), labile people
with emotional dysregulation (borderline and histrionic personality disorder),
and somatic narcissists are all in need of sexual novelty and constant
conquests to regulate and stabilize their sense of self-worth, self-confidence,
So, these kinds of partners need abuse as an excuse: "Of course I am promiscuous and am cheating on my partner all the time with many others! It is all his fault: he is abusing, rejecting, mistreating, and humiliating me! He deserves his punishment - and I need to feel desired, wanted, loved, and cared for again!"
There are two ways
to regulate intimate relationships: via intimacy
or with romantic jealousy.
Mature partners achieve a workable balance between togetherness and personal autonomy. They engender intimacy via both communication and actions. Intimacy feels so good that no one in his right mind will exit such a bond. Thus, both abandonment or separation anxiety and romantic jealousy are absent in healthy relationships: object permanence (constancy) is accomplished.
When one of the partners is a codependent or a borderline and the other is a narcissist or a psychopath or a histrionic (common combinations), or when both partners suffer from mood disorders, they cannot achieve or maintain even minimal intimacy. Instead, they mesh, merge, or fuse.
This fusion fosters intolerable abandonment or separation anxiety. The only way to regulate this anxiety is to make sure that the partner doesn't jump ship. This is done by provoking his/her romantic jealousy (a reaction to anticipated loss). Indiscreet extramarital affairs, flagrant promiscuity, ostentatious flirtatious or seductive behaviors with strangers, provocative speech or dress, and hints of impending breakup - are all ways to provoke the partner into sitting up and paying attention and to raise her/his "value" in his/her eyes ("I am desirable and irresistible to other men/women"). The instigator wants her counterpart to set boundaries and put his foot down as proofs that he cares.
Alas, such behaviors precipitate what they had been meant to prevent and have the exact opposite effect to the one intended: anticipating loss and pain aversion combine to drive the injured party away and actually guarantee eventual separation and abandonment.
Prolonged abuse in
an intimate relationship changes some women and so profoundly alters their
psychology and behavior that they are rendered unrecognizable even to
Having emerged from the black hole of a dysfunctional liaison, these broken, vulnerable women are transformed into the dark mirror images of their former selves.
Having been faithful before, now they become sexually promiscuous. They avoid intimacy, trust no one, develop addictions, abuse alcohol or drugs, engage in a panoply of reckless behaviors and, generally, self-destruct.
Why is that?
A woman with a pre-existing mental health condition would internalize the abuser's rejection of her and the sentence he pronounces: "You are worthless, bad, a slut, crazy, stupid, and repellent." She would behave in ways that conform to her abuser's already internalized voice (introject) and confirm it. Such congruence is intended to avoid dissonance (an inner conflict).
To some people,
intimacy is like Kryptonite, both sought after and feared. The result in an
intricate and crazymaking dance dubbed "approach-avoidance repetition
compulsion". Another aspect of this ambivalence in what I call the "menu-scraps dichotomy".
Those who truly seek intimacy want the entire menu of interpersonal
togetherness: from intensive talking to romanticized sex. The
intimacy-challenged make do and are fully satisfied with scraps: they feel
threatened and overwhelmed by the totality of the intimacy menu. They get by on
occasional snippets of talk, rare sex, and swathes of personal space and time
The two types are utterly incompatible and make each other profoundly unhappy. Yet, oddly, they are inexorably attracted to each other. The menu types are parental fixers by nature and the scraps persons crave the unbridled and unconditional intimacy proffered by their antitheses - dread it as they do.
Mixed couple invariably end up in a mushroom cloud of agonizing mayhem and unmitigated catastrophe. They may drive each other to insanity and suicide and, at the very least, subject one another to excruciating pain as the menu tries to alter and modify the scraps and the scraps withdraws further and farther and resorts to desperate measures such as cheating or reckless behaviors in order to undo the bond and revert to pristine loneliness.
Everyone has an
attachment style. But some people have "flat attachment": they
are incapable of any kind of bonding or relatedness at all.
Flat attachers regard other people as utterly interchangeable, replaceable, and dispensable objects or functions.
When a relationship is over, people go through a period of "latency": mourning the defunct bond and processing the grief and withdrawal symptoms associated with a breakup. Flat attachers react to the disintegration of even the most meaningful or primary relationships by becoming defiant and mad rather than heartbroken and sad.
Not so the flat attacher: he or she transition instantaneously, smoothly, abruptly, and seamlessly from one (in)significant other to the next "target" and fully substitutes a newly found beau, lover, mate, or "intimate" partner for the discarded one whose usefulness has expired for whatever reason.
Many narcissists and almost all psychopaths are flat attachers. In 1995 I coined the phrase "idealize, devalue, and discard". I should have rather said: "idealize, devalue, discard - and replace"
Flat attachment is often confused and conflated with commitmentphobia (fear of committing to a joint future). But while flat attachers are constitutionally incapable of bonding with others, commitmentphobes anticipate with anxiety the expectations that their attachments to others engender and the emotional and pragmatic outcomes of such liaisons. They are merely avoidant, not wholly emotionally vacuous.
increases with time spent together. But the more time you while away with a
narcissist, the less intimate you get!
This effect - reversed intimacy - is an outcome of the fact that one is interacting with the narcissist's False Self: a piece of grandiose fiction, a placeholder where an entire person should have been.
Traumatized victims of narcissistic abuse have therefore learned to emulate the narcissist (himself in a post-traumatic state). Like him, they slap a label on their tormentor and then ignore him and relate only to the label ("total labelling"). Where no intimacy is possible, stereotypes take over.
There is a lot more to every narcissist than his disorder. Yet, following my pioneering work 25 years ago, people reduce the narcissist to a figment, to merely his pathology. They ignore the person behind the persona, the core in the narcissistic nuclear meltdown. This renders any type of meaningful communication with the narcissist all but impossible and inefficacious.
People react to
rejection in intimate relationships with frustration and, as Dollard taught us,
frustration provoked aggression.
But aggression has two major forms: internalized and externalized. When aggression is internalized, directed inward, at the the rejected individual, in an orgy of self-loathing and self-hate, the outcomes are: impotent and diffuse anger, depression, delusions, suicidal ideation, reckless and self-destructive behaviors, loss of impulse control, and, in extremis, psychosis.
When aggression is externalized, it targets the cause of the frustration - the rejecting party. Such aggression involves rage (fury), defiance, and acts intended to deeply and irrevocably hurt and traumatize the "offender". Though it is also brought about by impulsivity, externalized aggression is more premeditated and planned and accommodates delayed gratification.
People who fear intimacy
are mirror images of those with healthy attachment styles: they react with rage
and defiance to any attempt to love them, care for them, or get to know them by
inching closer to them or by becoming an integral part of their lives.
They dread commitment, stability, predictability, sharing, planning, collaboration, support, and help.
They prefer casual sex to any longer-term arrangement. They avoid deep emotions and involvement. They undermine any budding intimacy by distancing or absenting themselves emotionally and/or physically; by lying and confabulating; and by engaging in passive-aggressive, outright aggressive, reckless, and self-destructive behaviors which are also devastatingly hurtful to would be significant others.
The narcissist or psychopath cathect (invest with emotional and mental energy) only service providers of both genders and only for as long as they provide him with services and are optimally functional. Their cathexis is like a lens that focuses their energy where it affords the highest and richest yield.
Devoid of access to positive emotions and possessed only of cold empathy, both the narcissist and the psychopath are incapable of any form of attachment and intimacy, let alone love. Instead, they are transactional: they trade. They offer limited attention, adventures, sex, and money in return for sex, narcissistic supply, homemaking, personal assistance, fun, and sundry other companionable roles.
Consequently, the people in the narcissist's or psychopath's life are commodified: they become interchangeable, indistinguishable, and objectified as mere service providers. Narcissists and psychopaths have flat attachment.
Narcissists and psychopaths also exhibit short latency (grieving over breakups), despite overpowering object impermanence (inconstancy) and separation-abandonment anxiety. The only thing that survives a defunct relationship and a discarded and decathected partner are the vindictive grudges nurtured by narcissistic injuries (humiliation) and frustrations wrought by the now otherwise long-forgotten mate.
Men and women born after 1995
maintain an "intimacy cloud": their marriage or committed
relationship is only one liaison among a few and, sometimes, not even a
privileged or unique one.
In these post-modern arrangements within the hookup culture, the intimate partners compete for the time, resources, and access to sex of their mates with work colleagues, same-sex friends, friends with benefits, opposite-sex friends, former old flames, schoolmates, have been and wannabe lovers, and other denizens of the intimacy cloud with whom close and recurrent meaningful contact is maintained throughout the life of the primary couple.
Increasingly, even sexual and dating exclusivity are challenged by the members of these young generations. A full 3% now openly profess to regarding their boyfriend, girlfriend, or spouse as just another intimate or sex partner among many. They date others frequently and see nothing wrong with it. Another 10-15% are in consensual open relationships and 21% are in sexless dyads.
Consequently, among young men and women in committed primary relationships, behaviors hitherto considered egregious misconduct have exploded, even quadrupled in incidence: adultery, casual sex (one night stands), getting drunk or high with a friend and then sleeping over ("he is like a brother to me, not a man!"), all-nighter solitary bar-hopping, travelling on holidays with someone other than the ostensibly main intimate partner, chatting or picking up total strangers in restaurants and pubs, sharing drinks or hotel room ("crashing") with unknowns, and similar non-monogamous manifestations.
Scholars like Cleckley and
Karpman have noted 80 years ago that misandry and misogyny coupled with a
profound and abiding fear of intimacy result in psychopathic (antisocial)
behaviors in adulthood. L
Such people form "intimate" relationships that are anything but: they are impersonal, dysempathic, transient, objectified, emotionless, noncommittal, defiant, defensive, entitled, and founded on destructive envious competition, deceit, contumacious counterdependency, and self-defeating recklessness. The parties are loth to share or to disclose vulnerabilities in such adversarial settings.
It is small wonder that as our civilization becomes more and more narcissistic, both men and women adopt and emulate grandiose psychopathic males as role models, gurus, and guiding lights.
But in a feat of reverse mental engineering, this paradigm change also entails a surge in inter-gender conflict and hatred: both misogyny and misandry are off the charts. The genders get together either to have casual, meaningless sex - or to tear each other down triumphantly and abusively, also via rejection, withholding, and hurtful extreme misconduct and betrayals.
To sum it up:
Narcissists are looking for partners to provide 3 SSs: Supply, Sex, Services.
Narcissists couldn’t care less if you have a high level of empathy, a low, or none.
Empathy is a narcissistic injury: advice, help, support, sharing, expressing an interest (induces paranoia), and intimacy.
Life is a process of becoming via insight. Insight creates empathy.
Empathy is the foundation of learning because it allows for comparison.
All three are impossible without access to emotions. If you have access only to negative emotions you obtain cold empathy aimed at subsuming others, making them like you, avoiding growth and learning. Where emotions are inaccessible, narcissists attempt to grasp others and themselves analytically. But such knowledge is like cramming for an exam: it is not assimilated or integrated. It dooms to compulsive repetition like some demented being or badly programmed machine in a loop. The same lessons are rediscovered with every mortification (to learn the narcissist must first decompensate, deactivate all his defenses).
Access to positive emotions guarantees full fledged empathy via insight and learning and generates growth.
Narcissist rejects help, advice because he knows that he is incorrigible. He discourages intimacy because of his abandonment anxiety ("if they see my true face").
The narcissist reacts with aggression to any presumption of intimacy and rejects cruelly love and caring when offered to him (via sadistic frustration, withholding, rejection, and avoidance as well as active abuse). Such presumption of love implies equality, commonness, and knowability, challenges to his grandiosity.
Displays of emotions are fake, embarrassing.
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