Updated: Sep 9, 2021
Recovery doesn't begin until the person who has suffered at the hands of a pathological person can deal with the most distressing symptoms and that is intrusive thoughts and cognitive dissonance. Both of these symptoms are related to PTSD. In Sandra Browns book "Woman who Love Psychopaths" she talks about how these symptoms are severely disturbing and how they can be managed.
Intrusive thoughts are unwanted images and thoughts that replay in a persons mind obsessively and cannot be controlled. The unique characteristic of intrusive thoughts after a pathological love relationship is that they are usually pleasant thoughts of the disordered person. Usually when a person suffers a trauma such as rape these thoughts are violent in nature. But for the abused in this case it is just the opposite. She lives with the past memories of when he was on his best behavior. When a person dwells on the past they are depressed and therefore she suffers from depression.
On the flip side, we have the other set of intrusive thoughts that creep in during the aftermath and that is "What is he doing now?", "Who is he with?" ,"Is he happy?". These intrusive thoughts that she also experiences are future thoughts and cause anxiety.
If you are depressed you are living in the past. If you are anxious you are living in the future. If you are at peace you are living in the present. ~ Lao Tzu
Intrusive thoughts can cause a spike in adrenaline release which turns into a viscous cycle of intrusive thoughts = more adrenaline and this cycle begins to snowball. Eventually the abused may begin to appear mentally ill if these thoughts cannot be controlled. It may impact her career, parenting, and any other focus she may have. According to Brown who has spent over 30 years studying pathological love abuse, these intrusive thoughts are triggered by the victims resistance to accept something. To stop the intrusive thoughts she must face her resistance. For example:
"If I accept he is psychopathic/narcissistic then there is no hope of reconciliation."
"Will he be happy with someone else?"
"If I picked him what does that say about me?"
Intrusive thoughts are the minds way of not dealing with information and feelings we do not want to deal with. The longer they are not dealt with the longer she will suffer. Practicing mindfulness and living in the present moment will decrease feelings of anxiety and depression until she can face her truth about him and the relationship.
Cognitive dissonance is the the other hallmark symptom of pathological abuse that prevents full recovery. Cognitive dissonance is holding two different conflicting beliefs at the same time. When in a relationship with a narcissist or psychopath they are like two different people, Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde personalities. She has learned that he has a good side and a bad side and she has developed belief systems to deal with each side, causing her to develop cognitive dissonance. According to Brown this battle between these two belief systems starts a battle inside her mind causing intrusive thoughts which increases cognitive dissonance and the two symptoms begin to feed on each other.
In order to stay in the relationship she has to change her core beliefs and attitudes. She will do this by making excuses and rationalize his behaviors so that she can justify her decision to stay. This causes cognitive dissonance because she sees his bad behavior and wants to leave but then he does something good so she stays. For Example:
Ann and James are at the bowling alley when James starts to accuse Ann of something she did not do. Ann begins to think "he is not right and I need to leave him". A few minutes later James is kissing her on the head and being kind, so Ann stays.
The example above is a constant pattern that plays out between Ann and James.
The other part of cognitive dissonance that plays out in her mind is that she is unable to keep a consistent view of who he is in her mind. She doesn't ever really conclude fore sure "who he is". She never stops going back and forth between the images of him as good and the images that he is bad for me.
Making a list of his inconsistencies with one column for good behavior and one for bad behavior will help you hang on to the fact that he is inconsistent and therefore pathological. If it helps throw the good list out and hang on to
the bad. Healthy people show up with a true core self that does not change the way a disordered person does.
I am trained in evidence based treatment for people who have suffered from this kind of trauma. Please reach out to me if you are having a hard time moving on from the aftermath of pathological love.