In 1979, Lenore Walker developed a model for the cycle of abuse in domestic violence situations. It was characterized by three phases:
(1) a tension-building stage in which the abused partner is submissive and walks on eggshells to avoid an outburst and the abusive partner becomes increasingly demanding, controlling and irritable;
(2) a violent episode that erupts after the tension builds to a high point, where the abused partner may fight back or try to get away; and
(3) a honeymoon period where the tension drops completely immediately following the episode as the abusive partner expresses remorse for the behavior and the abused partner feels relieved and hopeful that the episode is over, but also resentful about the abuse.
Traditional Model of the Cycle of Abuse
This model was a breakthrough because it provided an understanding of how abusive relationships keep abused partners trapped in the cycle of violence because the honeymoon period offers him or her a glimpse of a “normal relationship” and hope that the abusive behavior has come to an end.
Relationships with narcissists, though abusive, do not follow this pattern, however.
This is crucial to recognize because understanding the differences help to highlight how abused partners are locked in the cycle of abuse in different ways. This understanding can help pave the way to breaking the cycle and helping partners go no-contact.
The Cycle of Abuse in Narcissistic Relationships: Idealize-Devalue-Discard-Hoover
The primary theory that has been offered for how narcissists abuse their partners is the three-stage idealize-devalue-discard model.
In the idealization stage at the beginning of the relationship, the narcissist puts his or her partner on a pedestal and showers them with excessive praise and attention, causing what I’ll call “soulmate syndrome” and extreme emotional bonding.
At some point, the narcissist’s partner will fall off the pedestal usually due to no fault of his or her own. Narcissists have exceptionally thin skin and consider unusual things to be criticisms and then react worse to those perceived criticisms than non-disordered people do.
The narcissist will begin to see his or her partner as flawed or even grow bored based on these things that come up over time and the devaluation phase begins, that is characterized by verbal abuse, withholding, humiliation, smearing, and various forms of betrayal on the part of the narcissist.
Meanwhile, the partner has no idea why the relationship has gone from so wonderful to such a nightmare.
Finally, when the narcissist no longer sees any value in the partner, perhaps if the partner is demanding to be treated with respect, for example, or has reacted in a way that the narcissist perceives negatively, the narcissist may discard the partner and the relationship for a new one with someone else who is “new” that he or she can idealize.
Often these discards are temporary and narcissists usually return to “hoover” their partners back into entanglements with them if they become convinced there is still something to be gained, even while in the midst of these new overlapping relationships with others, and the cycle can continue again and again.
Narcissistic Model of the Cycle of Abuse
Although it is very different, there are a couple of similarities in this model to the traditional cycle of abuse.
1.The “idealization” stage of the narcissistic cycle of abuse and honeymoon period in the traditional model are both phases where positive bonding is promoted that make it difficult for the abused partner to leave. There are distinct differences, however, which I’ll discuss below.
2. There is rising tension in both cycles which leads to a discard in the narcissistic cycle of abuse and a violent incident in the traditional model. In the narcissistic cycle, there may be many incidents of abuse of varying types during the devaluation period prior to the escalation to a discard.
There are more differences than similarities between the two models, however.
Narcissists Flip the Script and Inflict Further Forms of Psychological Abuse
Mental health counselor Christine Hammond proposed another model of narcissistic abuse that takes into account the motivations of narcissistic abusers. When applied to the narcissistic cycle of abuse, it further highlights the difference between that cycle and the traditional cycle.
Narcissist’s Motivations in the Cycle of Abuse
In her model, she explains that the narcissist starts to feel threatened by something that his or her partner has done and then abuses his or her partner. This corresponds with the devaluation phase of the narcissistic cycle.
What her model contributes to the understanding of the narcissistic cycle of abuse is a deeper understanding of why and how the traditional model of the cycle of abuse is not adequate to explain why people stay in relationships with narcissists.
In fact, whereas the traditional model describes how partners in traditionally abusive relationships stay in abusive relationships because the honeymoon period convinces them that there is no longer a reason to leave, narcissists entirely flip the script to lock their partners in through a variety of methods beyond the “idealization” phase (the equivalent of the honeymoon period).
In the traditional model, abusers feel remorse for their outbursts and then come back to try to woo their partners back with promises to change. This is what kickstarts the honeymoon phase.
In narcissistic abuse, however, narcissists flip the script. Narcissists convince themselves that they are victims of their partner’s responses to their abuse or requests for boundaries or respect, and thus it leads to a rejection or a discard and often to the narcissist engaging in a smear campaign against the person they abused.
In other words, the nature of the disorder leads them to believe both that they are the ones being victimized and that they are justified in the abusive behavior because of it.
Then, as a result, the partner will try to appease the narcissist in order to stop the devaluation or avoid a discard, which strokes the narcissist’s ego. This is the opposite of what happens in a traditional model where it is the abuser who feels remorse and attempts to hold the relationship together. Narcissists, in contrast, rarely apologize or feel as if they have done anything wrong.
In the traditional model, Walker notes that the partners often feel resentful about being locked in the relationship by this cycle.
This is not so in narcissistic relationships. Because they absorb the narcissist’s version of events which includes projection by the narcissist and taking on blame for the problems in the relationship, they often get abuse amnesia and have fewer negative emotions toward their own abuser, a feature orchestrated by the narcissistic abuse that is itself abusive.
When we combine the two models, it looks something like this:
The cycle continues through the continued control of the partner’s behavior by the narcissist.
Were you aware of just what the narcissist is doing at each stage, and how you respond to it?
I know I wasn’t.
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Other articles like this one:
- To Get Over a Narcissist You Absolutely Must Do This
- What a Narcissist Says About Breakups: They Never Let You Go
- The Five Relationship Outcomes If You’re With a Narcissist: Which One Will You Choose?
- Eleven Things That Can Happen Before Going “No-Contact” and Meaning It
- What Cruelty By a Narcissist Looks Like
- “Not My Boyfriend” Syndrome: The Narcissist’s Best Weapon is Our Own Denial
EDIT: Apparently, I am not the first to notice this pattern. I would like to give credit to Despair2deliverance for also taking Hammond’s model of narcissistic abuse cycle and applying it to the idealization-devaluation-discard cycle.
This seems to strengthen the theory that the cycle is different from other types of abuse, but that it is systematic and can be recognized.