Domestic abuse and violence is an endemic problem in society and one we need to solve. Currently, 2.3 million people are at risk of abuse in England and Wales from a partner or family member according to Women's Aid and that situation will be heightened by the Christmas holidays and working from home where families are forced to spend more time alone together. Domestic violence and gaslighting cut across class and gender. It's often hard for family and friends to spot a person who is being abused unless the evidence is visible and there is still a cultural taboo or a concern that the victim won't be believed.

How to Spot a Narcissist

What if you knew how to look for the early signs of toxic behaviour in a potential partner and you could choose not to enter into a relationship before it has the opportunity to overwhelm and destroy your confidence, sanity and self-determination?

What are the first signs of a problem developing in a codependent relationship with a narcissist? Let's ask the expert.

Psychological therapist, counsellor and author with 30+ years’ experience, and a specialist in toxic relationships including domestic violence, narcissism and co-dependency, Michael Padraig Acton, explains why lockdown exacerbated levels of domestic violence, what we might expect to happen as this pandemic continues to impact our lives, and offers expert advice to help victims escape domestic violence. His new book, Power of You: Learning How To Leave (A Practical Guide to Stepping Away from Toxic Narcissistic Relationships).

Power of You is available from Waterstones and all good book outlets.

Michael says, "In my experience, the first symptom of being in a toxic relationship is often a vague feeling of confusion. The narcissist rarely unleashes his or her full pathology on their partner in one blast, revealing their flaws in small ways at first. By the time the narcissist is out of the shadows, their partner has been worn into such a state of psychological exhaustion that they are unable to form the protective boundaries that are part and parcel of a normal healthy relationship.

How to Escape a Toxic Relationship - Picture Getty Images

"Following an episode of abuse, the narcissist can often disarm their victim through a twin process of carefully apportioned blame: “If you hadn't made me look so bad in front of my friends, I wouldn't have been so angry,” and mock remorse: “I love you so much; I promise this will never happen again.” The process works a treat on the codependent partner who accepts the poisoned chalice and redoubles their efforts to give the narcissist what they need.

"As the unhealthy bond continues to develop and becomes embedded, verbal and physical abuse often escalates, which inevitably leads to serious psychological - and sometimes physical - harm."

Couple Holding Hands

Here are some of the warning signs I commonly associate with narcissists:
• A lack of humility. True narcissists are 'never wrong' and never feel remorseful. Although they may apologise for a situation, this will almost always be accompanied by a thinly-disguised excuse with the victim blamed in some way.
• Since they believe they are never wrong, narcissists often react angrily when criticised.
• Narcissists are skilled at commanding the attention and admiration of others, often boasting about their achievements.
• Narcissists are so disconnected from themselves that they can't even begin to relate to others on an emotional level. Empathy and—by extension—love, are alien concepts to them, although they are often able to put on an act to cover up this deficiency.
• Narcissists will often call and text their partners excessively; this controlling behaviour is often misconstrued as a sign of love and commitment.
• Narcissists without attention will become sulky, depressed or angry.
• Narcissists despise normality and see themselves as above everyday concerns (which rarely provide them with the special attention they crave). This can mean they fail to hold down a job or handle finances responsibly, often deliberately engineering crises to direct attention on to them.

Not every box above needs to be ticked. Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD) is more about an attitude and, narcissists, like all humans, are individuals. Thus, there may be exceptions to the rule and even 'typical' narcissists may show more of one trait and less of another. Regardless, everyone with NPD governs, controls and feeds on their intimate partner, child, sibling, close friend, or parent to survive.
I find that one of the most shocking realisations that often confirms a narcissist's lack of empathy is their response when their partner is having a bad time and needs support. As the narcissist is forced to give out attention they will immediately become sulky or resentful, blaming their partner for selfishly focusing on their needs. The narcissist is actually incapable of giving out genuine warmth despite their sophisticated ability to mock concern when around other people.
For others to assert their needs is a sign of rebellion to the narcissist, who may punish them for their neediness, even if they are sick.

How to Get Help
If you realise that you are in a toxic relationship, the important messages are to try to avoid making a knee-jerk reaction, to prioritise safety, and where domestic violence is involved, to contact the relevant agencies for support as soon as you are safe to do so (police, domestic violence helplines, etc.).

Counselling Session - Picture By Pricilla Dupreez

Michael Padraig Acton (B.Ed., M.Ed. (Psych.) Hons., M.A. C.Psych., P.D. C.Psych., BPSsS., BACP (Accred)) is a psychological therapist, counsellor, systemic life coach and author with over 30 years clinical experience. Working in London (UK) and Fort Lauderdale (US), originally from England and Ireland, Michael specialises in helping couples, families and individuals. He has extensive training in approaches including applied clinical and counselling psychology, CBT, psychoanalysis and psychodynamic, Jungian, Gestalt, systemic and transactional analysis, as well as holistic forms of the therapeutic alliance such as mindfulness.
As mostly a single parent for his daughter’s upbringing and had no parental support as a child, Michael left Ireland, the Catholic church and his home behind at the age of 17 having spent months struggling to survive meningitis. Despite being homeless and sleeping rough in a friend’s car, Michael had a moment of realisation that for the first time in his life he was completely free. He moved into a tiny bed-sit with a shared kitchen and bathroom in Gravesend, Kent, working as a waiter and barman to make ends meet, before deciding to pursue a career as a teacher. This took him around the world.
After experiencing counselling psychology in Australia, both as a client and a pastoral care provider at the college where he taught, he soon realised his future lay in that direction. He applied for a conversion course to become a graduate member of the British Psychological Society and went through clinical training at Dundee University.
Michael’s first clinical role was at Dundee Royal Infirmary, before moving to Sussex to study, work and research alongside Dr Mick Burton and Professor Mic Cooper on psychodynamic and family/young person’s therapy. Michael has worked within the NHS in pain management and drug dependency units, adolescent and young people’s clinics and with Relate’s couples counselling programmes, in addition to counselling HIV and AIDS patients for a charity.
In 1998, Michael was asked by The London Institute to set up a private practice in West London based upon his work experience with families, couples and substance abuse; identity issues; life crises, and gender dysphoria, as well as his research and work with lesbian, gay and bisexual issues. In 2004, he took a sabbatical to work and travel in America and Australia. During this time he researched suicide prevalence and prevention and worked with shamanism alongside native people. After his sabbatical, he returned to the UK to resume his practice, and be close to his daughter and grandchildren. He now continues to divide his time between the UK and the USA. Michael still travels worldwide to support people in his consultant’s role. All his work is enveloped by Rogerian core values of empowerment and the importance of the therapeutic integrative relationship. He is a genuine, caring and thoughtful professional with scholastic and real human values.
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