Are you in a relationship with a narcissist? Sometimes it’s not easy to tell because dealing with a narcissist can be confusing. A narcissist typically causes you to question yourself and what you think is true, including believing whether or not they are a narcissist. If you’re extensively connected to this person — say, you’re in a long-term relationship or married to them — it can be particularly difficult to identify this toxic form of behavior. But one of the best ways to recognize a narcissist is knowing the signs of the narcissistic abuse cycle.
By understanding the key symptoms of narcissistic abuse, you can either get the help you need or help those who might be in a relationship with a narcissist. Let’s take a closer look at the narcissistic abuse cycle to help you get clear and find the peace and happiness you deserve.
What is the narcissistic abuse cycle?
“It can be hard to recognize when you are in a relationship with a narcissist because they are master manipulators; they are brilliant at adapting and lying to get what they need from other people,” Amy Launder, a BACP-accredited psychotherapist and psychological coach, tells Scary Mommy. However, she explains, the relationship cycle with a narcissist typically follows three stages: idealization, devaluing, and discarding.
This is the beginning of the relationship when everything feels amazing. Emotions are high and intense, and sunshine and rainbows. While everyone experiences the bliss of the honeymoon stage, the narcissist takes it one step further by placing their partner on a pedestal. You will feel like you’ve been hit by love, and that’s actually what’s happening. You might be showered with tons of gifts, phone calls, expensive dates, and all of the above. This is called “love bombing,” Launder says — it’s what a narcissist does to keep you hooked while slowly gaining control over you.
“It’s often described as a whirlwind romance, and victims tend to get so caught up in it that they can end up neglecting their friendships and other relationships,” says Launder, adding, “Common phrases from the narcissist during this stage are ‘I’ve never loved anyone like this before,’ or ‘No one else understands me like you do.’ This engenders a feeling of specialness and closeness in the victim.”
The honeymoon phase is now over, and this is when the narcissist’s true colors begin to show. There might still be some good times, sure, but there are also some definite red flags apparent if you know what to look for. Instead of growing closer, the narcissist begins to devalue and degrade their partner at this stage. “The narcissist starts to put their victim down, both in private and in public. It can be subtle, especially in public, and include phrases such as ‘You’re too sensitive’ (when you ‘overreact to a hurtful comment). It also involves a lot of sarcasm, which eats away at the confidence of the victim,” says Launder.
If you start to push back or question them, the narcissist may put the blame on you and paint themselves as the victim. Or, if you try to end the relationship, the narcissist will likely fall back to the love-bombing stage to reel you back in.
Elaborates Launder, “These two stages oscillate back and forth, each time with shorter and shorter periods in the love-bombing stage as the victim is now ‘hooked’ and their self-confidence shattered. The narcissist will use phrases such as ‘No one else would put up with your behavior’ or ‘No one else could love you like I do, I love you so much.’ The victim starts to feel and believe that they are unlovable — only to be loved by their narcissistic partner.”
Perhaps the most painful part of the narcissistic abuse cycle is when the narcissist pushes their partner away. Instead of navigating through conflict together and growing stronger, the narcissist will continue to reject and ignore you. If you seek any sort of resolution or ask for any understanding and empathy, you will be met with rejection. A narcissist isn’t interested in what it means to have a healthy relationship — they use connection only to fuel their own ego and agenda.
The worst part? The narcissist might seem to reject you only to reconnect with you later on, attempt to gain your affection with love bombing again, and ultimately reignite the cycle. “The relationship is very unlikely to ever end on the victim’s terms (at least not without external input such as friends, family, a therapist, and so on), as the narcissist will continue to ‘hoover’ the victim back in,” says Launder. “However, once the narcissist decides that they are done with the relationship, the victim will be discarded.”
Unfortunately, there’s even more hurt to be had in this stage. As Launder points out, “Not only does the break-up need to be on the narcissist’s terms, the narcissist also needs to ‘win’ the breakup. This means that they will leave the victim feeling completely unlovable (phrases such as ‘You ruined this’ and ‘No one will ever want you’ are common at this stage).”
Don’t be surprised if your ex strives to move on first and move on “best,” jumping into a new relationship pretty quickly. “They need someone to provide them with admiration and praise,” says Launder,” and they will make sure you know about it.”
How do you break the narcissistic abuse cycle?
Knowing that you’re the victim of a narcissistic abuse cycle is the first step in breaking the pattern. If you suspect as much, the following tips can help you move toward narcissistic abuse recovery.
Set boundaries. It’s important to set boundaries with a narcissist since they’re notorious for violating boundaries. If they don’t respect them (which they probably won’t), you’re entitled to walk away.
Demand action. Narcissists are famous for making empty promises with little follow-through. Demand action and changed behavior from them. Immediate change must be made if you’re to stay in a relationship with them.
Prepare for emotions. When you’re attempting to break the cycle, narcissistic abuse recovery can be challenging. No matter how important it was for you to walk away, emotional distress will follow, including symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), among other feelings. It’s key not to feel guilty or ashamed and seek the support you need.
Seek help. Therapy is critical when you’re trying to break from the narcissistic abuse cycle. Dealing with a narcissist is traumatizing and can bring up feelings of anxiety, shame, and depression. Focus on getting the support you need — through therapy and your friends and family — and do what you can to get the help you need.