Cognitive and conceptual similarity and the formation of new relationships

The formation of a new relationship is ultimately important once you feel that you regained strength having left the narcissistic relationship behind. This is important because through the new relationship you will finally find diminish the impact of the former abuse, through an evolving process, your former identity. Even if this new relationship itself is narcissistic or contains abusive elements, it will enable you to put the abuse of the narcissist into perspective. Additionally, you are then in the position to recognize abuse more quickly and respond to it by either addressing it or leaving this new relationship pronto. As long as you remain single there will always be moments where you find yourself doubting yourself and the role you played within the narcissistic relationship. The fact that you have been damaged, should not mean that you should not seek a relationship even if it does not work out. However, when together with a new partner, you will have to insist that aggressive arguments, abuse and discord are not only not your fault but that they have no place within a mature relationship. Assert your position and say 'stop' when it feels wrong. Take a step at a time and ensure that you are healing and that the new relationship enhances both your partner's and your life. Interestingly, the speed I kept forming new relationships leaving old ones behind increased dramatically until I didn't want another new relationship. By that time, I could not even remember what the narcissist looked like. Additionally, the things I had written about all the pain appeared to me as if someone from a different planet had written it. I asked myself the question: Was is really possible that you questioned yourself to a point where you wondered whether you were sane? It all felt like a life time away from me. I am sure several of these relationships I went into subsequently to the encounter with the narcissist (she no longer is my narcissist) have helped a great deal.

Some of these relationships were quite bad, others crazy and some really sweet. A lot of these people (women) have given me a lot. I hope I in return have given much to them. But one thing is for sure. They really put the narcissist into perspective and made her look like a creature born in hell.

I still appear not to have met Ms Right, but this has become a quest which is so much less important than it used to be. I met so many inspiring and lovable people, I am not even sure whether I need to meet her. I particularly met one woman who set a benchmark for me. I guess that was most important.

Back to the issue of forming new relationships: After the 9/11 events, a study was carried out comparing three groups of the 9/11 survivors. One such group was given counseling, the other group received no help and the third group formed a self-support group. Interestingly, the self-support group had been able to generate a overall improved emotional life, while the group which received counseling had worsened. People who had not received any support too felt better but not as much as the self-support group. The formation of a new relationship with another partner can exactly be this: a self-support group and the the moment when you finally and truly overcome the npd relationship. These relationships might not last, but if you have been able to help each other, much is gained.

However, even within such a new relationship and especially within the formative stage, you will encounter two issues which are to do with conceptual and cognitive similarity. However, before we discuss this issue, a definition of these two similarities might be useful.

Cognitive similarity: Cognitive similarity is when two situations resemble each other without you actually performing a conscious comparison. For instance, showing affection to your new partner (e.g. kissing) will automatically resemble a previous situation where you had shown affection to the narcissist. You can become aware of such similarities through a post-analysis of events but most of the time you might not be consciously aware of such similarities. Cognitive similarity works fast and has a direct impact on the nervous system and in effect on your body.

Conceptual similarity: Conceptual similarity is when you consciously perform a comparison. For instance, you might think that your new partner enjoys a certain type of music or food and you might compare this with the type of music or food the narcissist enjoyed. You are always aware of such similarities because you choose to make these comparisons. Conceptual similarity works slow and can change according to the disposition you are in.

Now, in the context of the formation of a new relationship both similarities can produce much confusion and can evoke unrealistic fears. This is, a certain situation with your new partner, might be cognitive similar enough to a situation with the narcissist, and this will trigger the fear, that you are confronting a narcissist again. This can be of such intensity that you actually see the narcissist in your new partner and that you and (s)he become in a sense depersonalized (while psychology uses the term depersonalization meaning that a person her/himself feels alien about her/himself, we use the term here more freely meaning that the other person appears as alien). I have been approached by survivors who have experienced such situation which are very frightening for the survivor just as much as for the new partner. The only way of escaping the effects of cognitive similarities is through post-analysis. You will have to sit down and think (talk to your partner or therapist) which event triggered such fear. Once you understand which event triggered this fear, you can rationalize this event and explain to yourself and your new partner what has happened. You also learn how to avoid situations where such events take place. It is also important to accept that the cognitive similarities between your new partner and the narcissist are coincidental and hence are of no significance. A word about avoidance: While it is acceptable to avoid triggers during the healing process, the goal is to be able to deal with such triggers in th future again.

Conceptual similarity is much easier to handle than the cognitive similarity. Once you find yourself in a situation where you actively make comparisons between your new partner and the narcissist, you simply have to interrupt these thoughts. Sometimes, these thoughts are automatic. In this case you have to listen out for them, identify them and then interrupt them. For instance, if your new partner enjoys the same music as the narcissist, explain to yourself that this music does not belong to the narcissist but has been enjoyed by many other people. Thinking this way, you can interrupt the comparison and prevent conceptual similarity to trigger fear.

Still, it must be emphasized that reconnecting with friends, establishing new friendships, making use of support groups and other services and dedicating time to work and hobbies, is quite possibly more important.

Dr. Ludger Hofmann-Engl


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