A lack of boundaries is one of the biggest issues that victims of narcissistic abuse face. Boundaries are imaginary lines that separate our thoughts, feelings, emotions, needs, physical space, and responsibilities from others. Without boundaries, it is unlikely that a relationship will be mutual, respectful, and/or emotionally close. It is for this reason that it is important to be aware of the main causes of a lack of boundaries in a narcissistic relationship.
Generally speaking, narcissistic relationships lack boundaries because the victim is not accustomed to setting boundaries because of past relationships (e.g. an abusive childhood upbringing) or because of the manipulation that narcissists use to make their victim believe that they can’t set boundaries.
This article will provide you a thorough exploration of the different reasons that narcissistic relationships lack boundaries. We’ve also created a short video (see below) that contains the key points of our article What Happens If You Don’t Set Boundaries With a Narcissist to give you a clear understanding of the importance of setting boundaries in all of your relationships.
A Short Video About What Happens If You Don’t Set Boundaries In a Narcissistic Relationship
Narcissistic Relationships Lack Boundaries Because the Victim Isn’t Accustomed to Setting Them
One of the biggest reasons that people find themselves stuck in a narcissistic relationship in adulthood is because of an abusive/unhealthy childhood upbringing. When a child grows up in an abusive/unhealthy environment, their definition of healthy relationships and love gets severely corrupted. They are taught from a very young age that they should justify, rationalize, and normalize abuse.
This is so dangerous because the justification, rationalization, and normalization of abuse is a form of cognitive dissonance. This is a theory that suggests that when we experience an inconsistency among belief, behavior, and information, it causes a lot of psychological tension. To ease this tension, we will change one or more of the elements that are causing the inconsistency to make everything consistent.
In narcissistic relationships, this manifests in the form of the justification, rationalization, and normalization of abuse (e.g. a woman convinces herself that she isn’t being abused by the narcissist in her life by convincing herself that what she is experiencing isn’t because she is a bad wife. This rationalization allows her to escape the psychological agony that would come from acknowledging that what she is experiencing is abuse).
Narcissistic relationships are held together by cognitive dissonance. It allows the narcissist to remain in power and control of the victim despite the intensity of the abuse that they are subjecting the victim to. If someone were to enter a narcissistic relationship already accustomed to justifying, rationalizing, and normalizing abuse, they wouldn’t have the slightest inkling to set boundaries to protect their thoughts, feelings, emotions, and needs.
As if that isn’t bad enough, the emotional unavailability, unresponsiveness, and inconsistency that abusive/unhealthy primary caregivers have with their children prevents the children from getting the validation, admiration, and reassurance that they need to develop a realistic sense of self, perception of the world around them, and have a healthy cognitive development.
This level of emotional neglect is horrifying because it doesn’t give the child any information that would teach them how to set boundaries that would protect them from the manipulation that narcissists use to gain power and control over their victim.
A simple example of this would be if someone grew up watching a single parent who had multiple partners throughout the person’s childhood. This parent would constantly be introducing new partners, talking about settling down with them, and then ending the relationship a few months later. Someone who grows up watching this dysfunctional cycle is going to have a corrupted definition of healthy relationships and love.
This will likely make it very difficult for them to set boundaries that are designed to protect themselves from abusers such as having realistic expectations for relationships, protecting one’s own thoughts, feelings, emotions, and needs, and paying attention to the behavior of someone else, not just their words.
Narcissistic Relationships Lack Boundaries Because Narcissists Manipulate Their Victims Into Believing That They Can’t Set Boundaries.
There are many different manipulative techniques that allow narcissists to prevent their victims from setting boundaries in the relationship. Generally speaking, these techniques exploit powerful emotions such as love, fear, and doubt.
To understand the “logic” behind the manipulative techniques that narcissists use to prevent boundaries from being set, you have to understand how boundaries threaten their fragile sense of self.
It is believed that narcissism originates from an abusive childhood upbringing with emotionally unavailable, unresponsive, and inconsistent primary caregivers who don’t mirror their child’s thoughts, feelings, emotions, and needs.
This means that the narcissist never got the validation, admiration, and reassurance that they need to construct a sense of self and have a healthy cognitive development. This forces the narcissist to search their external environment for the validation, admiration, and reassurance that they need to construct a sense of self.
A really simple example of this would be a child of unavailable, unresponsive, and inconsistent primary caregivers constructing their sense of self out of the validation, admiration, and reassurance that they get for being a really good basketball player.
This is dangerous because it teaches the narcissist that their true identity isn’t good enough to be validated, acknowledged, admired, loved, or wanted by others. But because of their emotional immaturity, they are incapable of using healthy forms of emotional regulation to manage these emotions.
It is for this reason that narcissists rely on validation, admiration, and reassurance so much. They use it to construct a false sense of self that can suppress their negative emotions deep within their subconscious so that they don’t compromise their emotional stability.
We highly recommend that you check out our article How Are Narcissists Made for a lot more helpful information about this topic but as you can imagine, this approach to constructing a sense of self is emotionally inadequate and makes it extremely fragile.
Narcissists constantly have to be on the lookout for potential contradictions to their false sense of self. One of the biggest contradictions that narcissists often come across are healthy boundaries.
For narcissists to get the validation, admiration, and reassurance that they need to construct a false sense of self that helps them regulate their own negative emotions, they have to be in total control of their victim’s thoughts, feelings, emotions, and needs.
Boundaries are imaginary lines that separate our thoughts, feelings, emotions, and needs from others. It is for this reason that narcissists do everything in their power to remove them from their relationships. Sadly, they are very good at doing so.
In the coming sections we have outlined each manipulative technique that narcissists use to prevent their victim from setting boundaries. Each section clearly defines the techniques but after you’ve read about all the techniques, we’ve created a short section that summarizes how each technique prevents victims of narcissistic abuse from setting boundaries.
Stonewalling is when a narcissist refuses to participate in communication or connection in a relationship. The most common forms of stonewalling that narcissists use are the silent treatment, gaslighting, and intimacy anorexia.
The silent treatment is when a narcissist simply stops verbally or electronically communicating with their victim. Gaslighting is when a narcissist doubts or denies reality. Gaslighting with ultimatums occur when a narcissist threatens the victim for expressing their own thoughts, feelings, emotions, and/or needs (e.g., “If you bring this up one more time I am going to leave you!”).
Intimacy anorexia is a term that has been crafted by Dr. Doug Weiss, an internationally recognized licensed psychologist, therapist, intimacy anorexic and sex addiction expert, that is used to explain why some people “actively withhold emotional, spiritual, and sexual intimacy” from a partner.
We’ve created a short video (see below) about intimacy anorexia and the connection it has with narcissistic abuse. It also summarizes a survey that we did among 300 survivors of narcissistic abuse to highlight how common intimacy anorexia is in narcissistic relationships.
A Short Video About Intimacy Anorexia In Narcissistic Relationships
Mirroring in a narcissistic relationship is when the narcissist gathers a ton of information about their victim’s identity and uses that information to create a falsified identity that is designed to fill a void in the victim’s life.
In romantic relationships, the void that is being filled is the victim’s definition of the ideal love. This is often done through a manipulative phase called the love bombing phase where the narcissist will bombard their victim with acts of love that align with the victim’s definition of healthy relationships and love.
In a family setting, the void that is being filled is often an emotionally available, responsive, and consistent family member (e.g., the son of a narcissistic parent has signed a professional contract with an NFL team and will be getting a lot of money. The narcissistic parent, who has been neglectful for son’s entire life, sees this as an opportunity to get some money. This parent begins to show up to every game that the son has, spending time with the son, telling him that they are so proud of him and love him, etc.).
In a work environment, the void that is being filled is the victim’s career. The narcissist will mirror their victim by pretending to want to help advance their career in one way or another. (e.g., a narcissistic boss pretending that he/she wants the victim to be their replacement by mentoring them or a narcissistic colleague pretending to show the victim the ins and outs of the company so that they can hit the ground running).
What mirroring does is it manipulates the victim into believing that the narcissist is someone who they need to be the best version of themselves. When done correctly, mirroring creates an incredibly powerful bond between the victim and the narcissist that takes months, years, and sometimes even decades to break.
Narcissistic rage is an explosive, unpredictable, and unjustified response that narcissists have when their sense of self is contradicted. The reason for this is that when a narcissist experiences a contradiction to their false sense of self, it triggers all of their suppressed negative emotions.
They are too emotionally inadequate and immature to manage these negative emotions through healthy forms of emotional regulation so what they do is they go into a rage to project their negative emotions onto the person or thing that contradicts their false sense of self.
The need for revenge, for righting a wrong, for undoing a hurt by whatever means, and a deeply anchored, unrelenting compulsion in the pursuit of all these aims which gives no rest to those who have suffered a narcissistic injury – these other features which are characteristics for the phenomenon of narcissistic rage in all its forms and which sets it apart from other kinds of aggression – Heinz Kohut
Projection is a defense mechanism that occurs when we take aspects of our identity that we find unacceptable and place them onto others (e.g., a woman feels guilty for being attracted to one of her co-workers so when her husband speaks about a female from work she accuses him of being attracted to his co-worker instead of acknowledging her own feelings for her co-worker).
What the Heinz Kohut’s quote really highlights is that when a narcissist goes into a narcissistic rage, they are trying to make their victim feel as badly as they do on the inside through invalidation, devaluation, degradation, humiliation, and fear. If they are able to do this, they can project their emotions instability onto their victim because they have someone to point their finger at and tell themselves, “I’m not the insecure, weak, vulnerable, and inadequate one, they are.”
How Does Stonewalling, Mirroring, and Narcissistic Rage Cause a Lack of Boundaries In Narcissistic Relationships?
As we mentioned before, these manipulative techniques exploit powerful emotions like fear, love, and doubt. When it comes to stonewalling and narcissistic rage, the emotions that are most often being exploited are fear and doubt.
When a narcissist explodes into a rage or stonewalls because the victim refuses to let them control their thoughts, feelings, emotions, and needs, it creates a lot of fear within the victim. They would be concerned for their safety, fearful of losing the narcissist, or even doubtful about their perception of the situation.
They might decide that the safer option is to be less strict with their boundaries so that they don’t cause problems in the relationship. Mirroring presents similar problems as well. When a narcissist is able to convince their victim that they are the perfect person for them, it manipulates the victim into feeling like they don’t need to set boundaries because the narcissist knows what is best for them.
If the victim does decide to set a boundary and receives some pushback from the narcissist, they could decide to drop their boundaries out of the fear of losing the narcissist or because they are doubting themselves (e.g. “Why do I need to set boundaries with someone who cares about me so much? I do this with every relationship that I have… I will find some way to ruin it…”).
What Should You Take Away From This Article?
Narcissists work extremely hard to prevent their victim from setting boundaries in the relationship. With the help of manipulative techniques like stonewalling, narcissistic rage, and mirroring, they are often able to do so. In addition to this, when you grow up in an abusive environment, it corrupts your perception of healthy relationships and ability to set healthy boundaries. The combination of the two is the reason that narcissistic relationships often lack boundaries.
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De Azevedo Hanks, Julie. The assertiveness guide for women: How to communicate your needs, set healthy boundaries, and transform your relationships. New Harbinger Publications, 2016.
Määttä, Marju, Satu Uusiautti, and Kaarina Määttä. “An intimate relationship in the shadow of narcissism: What is it like to live with a narcissistic spouse.” International journal of research studies in psychology 1.1 (2012): 37-50.