Do you feel devastated each time the narcissist breaks promises?
Maybe this sounds familiar…
You recently settled into a vague sense of security after the narcissist swore on their mother’s grave that they wouldn’t (insert relationship crime) again, yet you discovered they broke their “sacred” promise. Perhaps they…
- Swore they’d stop cheating, but you discovered they not only cheated again, they never stopped
- Swore they’d try to be a better partner, spouse, friend, or parent, but after a short period of charades, they went back to the same ole, same ole
- Swore they’d find gainful employment, and you found out they were not going on interviews, but visiting a lover
- Swore they’d be fair and civil during the custody hearing, but you got sucker-punched when you went before the Judge
- Swore they’d stop being insensitive, stop raging, stop lying, but you realized it was all just more lies
Consequently, you not only loathe the narcissist, but you also loathe yourself for falling for their lies once more. You feel the punch of indignation in your gut and your fight-or-flight reaction kicks into overdrive.
Why the heck do they do it? Do they get some sick enjoyment out of it? Is it to prove to themselves (and you) that they can do anything they want and you’ll keep taking them back? Is it their sadistic sense of entitlement?
Among the horrid relationship crimes that one endures from the narcissist in their life, habitually broken promises are the worst. Why? Well, for one, it’s futile to blame a narcissist for being a narcissist. After all, they have a track record of being habitual liars. We can’t really expect them to change when they’ve given no indication that they can be trusted.
More importantly, though, these repeat offenses lead to learned helplessness, depression, trauma-bonding, and C-PTSD.
The danger of staying when the narcissist breaks promises repeatedly
Narcissists love to blame other people for their nasty behaviors. In turn, their targets typically respond by being more supportive, understanding, kind, or compromising in an effort to persuade the narcissist to halt their betrayals and cruelties.
Instead, what happens is, patterns of deception and denial are established. This may be to avoid the narcissist’s wrath or keep the peace, proving to the narcissist you’re not the crazy psycho they say you are but, underneath the surface, it’s a system of enabling. A system the narcissist fabricates from the very start.
Eventually, the target of this type of manipulation begins to feel powerless to do anything to stop the cheating, lying, disappearing, etc., believing they are resigned to accept their situation – even though this usually is not the case.
Abuse victims may soldier on, keeping a silent list of the narcissist’s dreadful traits and wondering when their betrayals will stop. However, these attempts to cope accomplish nothing but staying stuck in an impossible situation.
Disappointment is a constant and fixed component of a relationship with a narcissist. Below are the long-term repercussions of staying in the relationship when the narcissist breaks promises.
According to Britannica.com, Learned Helplessness is “a mental state in which a subject forced to endure stimuli that are painful or otherwise unpleasant, becomes unable or unwilling to avoid subsequent encounters with those stimuli, even if they are escapable, presumably because the subject has learned that they cannot control the situation”.
If you are familiar with the “Seligman Dog” experiments, the dogs were shocked repeatedly both when they completed a task correctly and also when they did not. The “dogs were so confused that they laid down depressed and GAVE UP and even whined–and this was Learned Helplessness that the dogs were experiencing”.
The Narcissist instills this in his or her targets through behaviors such as systematic brainwashing, inconsistent actions and words, blame-shifting, gaslighting, and more.
Or, you may simply be in a state of denial because you want the relationship to continue, still holding onto hope that things might eventually improve. Either way, these are all-inclusive signs that you’re being psychologically manipulated and on a path of irreparable annihilation.
In many cases, depression can be traced back to emotional trauma. In the context of narcissistic abuse, emotional trauma happens with single or repeated incidents of shaming, verbal attacks, and chronic incidents of infidelity. The eventual discard of the target of narcissistic abuse adds to any existing emotional traumas, leading to the overwhelming shock of the person’s equilibrium.
People who are emotionally traumatized often form limiting and self-defeating beliefs about themselves. These negative beliefs may include: “I’m unlovable”, “love hurts”, “I’ll never feel emotionally safe”, “no one truly cares about me” …many of which are the product of early childhood wounds and further exacerbated by the betrayals and cruel statements by a narcissistic partner.
Further, it’s not only traumatic events that cause depression but how we think about the events that often determines the level of strain we experience in the context of depressive episodes. A study by psychologists at the University of Liverpool found that traumatic life events are the biggest cause of anxiety and depression, but how a person thinks about these events ultimately determines the level of stress they experience.
Researchers from the University’s Institute of Psychology, Health, and Society analyzed the responses of over 32,000 participants to explore the causes and consequences of stress. The study — the biggest of its kind in the UK- found that traumatic life events were the single biggest determinant of anxiety and depression. However, the results revealed that a person’s thinking style was as much a factor in the level of anxiety and depression a person experienced.
You can see, then, how staying in a relationship with an individual who emotionally abuses you and repeatedly breaks their promises can cause crippling levels of chronic depression due to repeated emotional traumas, the nature of which is made worse by the limiting beliefs we form in response to the narcissist’s degrading verbal assaults.
A trauma bond is loyalty to a person who hurts you and they occur in very toxic relationships. Trauma bonds are strengthened by inconsistent positive reinforcement (cycling from mean to sweet and back again) and keep you hoping for something better to come. They occur in extreme situations such as abusive relationships and hostage situations and can be with a partner, ex, parent, co-worker, boss, or friend. You know you’re not safe around them, and yet, you stay in the relationship. Maybe, you even justify, rationalize, or make excuses for them.
In short, trauma bonds cause you to form a deep attachment to someone who is highly destructive to you. According to Patrick Carnes, Founder of the Gentle Path at The Meadows program, signs of trauma-bonding include the following:
- You find that others are horrified by something that has happened to you and you are not
- You obsess about showing someone that they are wrong about you, your relationship, or their treatment of you
- You find yourself missing a relationship even to the point of nostalgia and longing, that was so awful it almost destroyed you
- You find yourself putting your trust in someone who has repeatedly proven that they cannot be trusted
You may try to help them understand what they’re doing, trying to convert them to become a non-abuser. You may blame yourself for their behavior. The relationship appears to have positive qualities, which confuses the picture. But it’s important to keep in mind that the “nice times” are an integrated part of the abuse. When you stop making positive choices for yourself and any minor children you may have, the negative is outweighing the positive and the relationship has become deeply destructive.
Trauma bonds are intensely damaging and worsen over time the longer you stay in the toxic relationship. The recovery process can begin only when you, as the abused individual, is in complete acceptance of having been trauma-bonded and take steps to exit the relationship.
People who have been emotionally and psychologically abused typically display C-PTSD symptoms that can mimic bipolar disorder.
Judith Herman, the author of Trauma & Recovery, describes C-PTSD as a form of trauma associated with prolonged subjection to totalitarian control including emotional abuse, domestic violence or torture—all repeated traumas in which there is an actual or perceived inability for the victim to escape.  This may cause difficulty in regulating one’s emotions, explosive anger, and changes in self-perception which include shame, guilt, and self-blame.
Even more alarming, repeated emotional injuries shrink the brain’s hippocampus, which is responsible for memory and learning, while enlarging the amygdala, which houses primitive emotions such as fear, grief, guilt, envy, and shame.
In short, you habitually become hijacked by your freeze response, unable to form rational thoughts or reactions. Over time, this becomes your baseline state of being. It’s a cycle of emotional destruction of the most grievous kind.
What to do
When the narcissist breaks promises, giving them another chance only makes sense if they have dealt responsibly and completely with the consequences of previous failures. Otherwise, their requests for “second chances” are just attempts to live irresponsibly. Waiting for the narcissist to change may stem from not wanting to make the difficult decisions that are clearly called for.
Recovery from narcissistic abuse (along with the constant broken promises) begins with No Contact (or, in the case of shared custody, a strict program of Modified Contact). Narcissistic abuse creates a toxic addiction which is near impossible to overcome unless strong boundaries are implemented and communications are ceased altogether.
The narcissist’s presence damages your recovery, and you want to recover as quickly as possible. Otherwise, things will only continue to spiral downwards for you.
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 Traumatic life events biggest cause of anxiety, depression. (n.d.). Retrieved December 10, 2016, from https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2013/10/131016213223.htm
 Franco, F. (2018, October 8). The Unique Features of Complex PTSD. Retrieved May 20, 2020, from https://psychcentral.com/lib/the-unique-features-of-complex-ptsd/