Very early on, my former partner suggested moving to a village. I wanted to stay put, but before long he convinced me that moving elsewhere would be "a romantic start to close the past." And so we did. A year later, he guilted me into a four-hour daily commute. "If we’re in London, I’m worried I'll get back into drugs," he said by way of explanation.
My story of geographical isolation echoes those of other women who have been involved with narcissists. But what if you’re around a sophisticated narcissist who plays his game slowly and subtly, so you lose your sense of reality and identity, and they start to dictate your life? Here’s how to recognize the clever ways a narcissist isolates you.
He or she isolates you from your longtime friends and family.
A sophisticated narcissist doesn’t explicitly forbid you to spend time with the people who are important to you. Instead, they might charm these people, and says things like, "She’s cool; I like her." But later on, they might say something like "She's really shallow—I'm not sure she's good for you."
He or she engages in intermittent reinforcement.
The problem with being with a narcissist is that it isn’t all bad. Enter intermittent reinforcement, where you get treated well enough on some days, and it confuses you into continuing with the relationship. A part of you takes the times he can be decent or kind as evidence that he’s a good person. So eventually, you willingly isolate yourself, following your narcissist's terms.
He or she pre-warns you about the things you cannot say.
Early on, my narcissist often remarked that he couldn’t understand why couples spoke to others about problems. "It’s between the two of them," he would say. "Someone will get paranoid otherwise." That planted the first seed that I should shut up.
He told tales about his exes, family members, and business partners cheating or abandoning him, justifying it with, "You know my history, that’s why I get paranoid, and that’s why you can’t do this." This way, he got narcissistic supply and expected me to overlook his abuse. So for years, I kept it all a secret, hoping to give him a loving environment where he could heal from his mistrust. By doing that, I became emotionally isolated, feeling as if no one could understand what I was experiencing.
He or she isolates you from your hobbies.
At one point, my ex accused me of having an affair with my singing teacher. Upon realizing her gender, he went so far as to tell me I was gay. Eventually, an hour of singing wasn’t worth eight hours of his paranoid hounding.
Slowly but surely, my life shrank as I gave up yoga, dresses, and perfumes. Even the things I pursued at home, under his watch, he’d put down. "You have poor taste—I know, because I went to design school." He smirked. The things that give us joy and nourish our soul shape our identity. Cut off from them, we eventually lose our sense of self, feeling unanchored, and become prime targets for more abuse.
He or she stops you from making new friends.
He stared me down whenever I spoke to mutual male friends, then he accused female friends of ferrying me to see my lovers. Eventually I started seeing myself through his eyes—was I really the coquet he thought I was? And when I stopped seeing my friends, he called me a loser, offering to save me from my unhealthiness.
He or she sabotages your career.
I’ve met many a woman who were subtly persuaded to give up their careers to start families, and then become financially dependent, so they couldn’t leave. The narcissist may up the ante with statements like, "You’re not suited to working" or "Why are you working so hard? Don't you care about me?"
My ex continuously sabotaged my studies with abuse. Then he stalked me at meetings, insisting I wasn’t there, to justify that I shouldn’t work. Then he diverted emails on my website from to a mysterious mailbox—anything to make me dependent.
He or she gaslights you.
Gaslighting is when someone screws with your reality and then says you’re crazy. This is a common way narcissists justify abuse: Instead of telling you that you need help, they break you. Eventually, when you cannot trust your own senses, you become beholden to the version of reality the narcissist paints.
Common methods include messing with the way you arrange your environment, insisting you did or said something else, and telling you you’re abusive. My narcissist would corner me and force me to repeat details before laughing at me and saying, "Look at you, you’re crazy."
He or she takes away your phone.
The first time it happened, I was mortified: He confiscated my phone in front of friends, saying he was teaching me lessons in nonattachment. As a millennial, my phone is my portal to the world around which I organize my life. Then he started taking my devices away regularly, threatening to smash them, especially on the nights when his abuse escalated and I needed to run away.
It doesn’t matter if someone justifies why they are "jealous" of your phone or says that you need a digital detox—no one should take away your means of communication. The most important thing to know here is this: Like myself and many other women, you can get out and write your new chapter. You can reclaim who you really are. I believe in you.
This article was written in collaboration with psychologist and coach Jonathan Marshall.
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