Important note - abuse can happen male to female or female to male or non binary to non binary, it doesn't matter. In this post the abuser is the husband and the victim is the wife. However, the principles are true regardless of who is doing the abusing.*
Abusive relationships are hard. They’re hard to be in, they are hard to get out of (and they're hard to stand by and watch an important person in our life live through). Abusers use crazy-making, gaslighting and DARVO to confuse their partners. Physical abuse leaves physical marks that can offer proof to the victim that they are being abused. And yet, somehow, victims still end up believing that being abused was their fault. This is something we understand as a society. Well, not understand. We look at it and think, “why would she stay with him? She’s in danger. She needs to get out before she gets even more hurt!” We find it confusing that she would remain with someone who beats her up. BUT we understand that often people stay in abusive relationships, even if we don’t understand the why - we just know that it happens.
Emotional and mental abuse leave equally damaging scars, yet because emotional scars can’t be seen they also can't be offered up as proof of abuse. This lack of proof makes it harder to leave. Emotional and mental abuse can come in a variety of ways. Let's talk about what it looks like coming from a narcissistic partner: A narcissist knows what cues people look for and actively presents himself how he knows others want to see him behave - which means their spouses see glimpses of how incredible their abuser is. He serves in his church, helps his mother, steps up as a dad (whenever there are others around), etc. Because he so often presents himself as everything a person could ask for, everyone who knows the couple will talk about how great he is, how lucky she is, and how cute their family is. But once inside and alone the behavior shifts.
These behavior changes add to the confusion of his wife. There is no proof of what she's experiencing but there is plenty of "proof" that her spouse is exactly who she hopes he is. And since she is the only one who ever sees the damaging, hurtful side she begins to believe the problems must be in her. ‘He’s great at work, his bosses love him, he’s different around me because I’m not patient enough/am too demanding/don’t see how hard he’s working/expect too much from him/etc'. She begins to fear that it is her own behavior that causes his poor behavior. Some women will go into a place of victim mentality - plenty of others will internalize the counsel "you can't change your spouse, you can only change yourself" which prompts her to start apologizing. ‘Hey, I realized I was being impatient yesterday, sorry about that. I’m going to try to do better.” This - these apologies - this is a narcissist’s bread and butter. If he can get his victim apologizing for HIS own behavior it feeds his need to believe that he has done nothing wrong. He can continue to hope that he's incredible, just like everyone outside the marriage believes, and that he has no need to change. His proof is in her apology. It shows him all the reasons his behavior was fine.
Apologies are dangerous with narcissists. They log away details about their victim to use later. So, for example, when she apologizes for not being patient he notes it. Then in the future when there is an issue he deflects his actions and says, “you need to be more patient! I’m trying! But I’m not perfect so be patient with me!” He already knows she's working on being more patient. She already knows she’s working on being more patient. He logically presented a need for patience. So if patience is what he’s needing then she just needs to work harder on giving that to him. When he lost his temper it was her fault for bringing something up instead of being patient with him. She can change that. She can fix that in the future. Since she is the cause of the behavior, all she needs to do is change herself and the behavior will end. ‘If I can communicate more like his boss does/interact with him more like his mom does/be patient with him like the bishop is he will start treating me the way he treats all of those people. I need to adjust. I can't change my spouse - I can only change myself.
As we look at abusive relationships from the outside it’s easy to point out all of the reasons there are for our friend to leave. We can see the hurt and the damage he is causing. However, when we look from the inside we see that she doesn’t leave because his abuse has created a reality where she truly believes she is the problem. And because she is the problem - she can fix the problem so there is no need to leave, just change.