The primary model that has been offered for how narcissists abuse their partners is the three-stage idealize-devalue-discard narcissistic abuse cycle.
It has some similarities to the traditional cycle of abuse in domestic violence situations, which was first developed in 1979 by Lenore Walker. Walker’s model was characterized by three phases:
(1) Tension-building stage: the abused partner is submissive and walks on eggshells to avoid an outburst; the abusive partner becomes increasingly demanding, controlling and irritable;
(2) Violent episode: erupts after the tension builds to a high point, where the abused partner may fight back or try to get away; and
(3) Honeymoon period: tension drops completely immediately following the episode; the abusive partner expresses remorse for the behavior and the abused partner feels relieved and hopeful that the episode is over; partner is 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. The honeymoon period offers the partner a glimpse of a “normal relationship” and hope that the abusive behavior has come to an end.
Relationships with narcissists, however, are different. Although they share some similarities to this cycle, they have their own pattern.
This distinction is crucial to recognize because understanding the similarities and differences to the traditional cycle of abuse helps to highlight what makes narcissistic abuse different.
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 Narcissistic Abuse Cycle: Idealize-Devalue-Discard-Hoover
Narcissistic abuse follows a highly-recognized pattern that, at first glance, appears more similar than different to the traditional cycle of abuse.
In the idealization stage at the beginning of the relationship, the narcissist puts his or her partner on a pedestal. The narcissist will shower the partner with excessive praise and attention. This fast-tracks the relationship and cases “soulmate syndrome” and extreme emotional bonding that is very difficult to break.
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 actions to be criticism. In addition, they react in a more volatile manner 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 once the partner begins to show signs of being a “real human.” The devaluation phase then begins. It 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.
Eventually, the narcissist will no longer see any value in the partner, perhaps if the partner is demanding to be treated with respect, for example, or has reacted to this devaluation 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. The narcissists usually return to “hoover” their partners back into entanglements with them, if they become convinced there is still something to be gained. This may happen even while the narcissist is in the midst of new overlapping relationships with others, and the cycle can continue indefinitely until the partner has the strength to break it off.
Narcissistic Model of the Cycle of Abuse
This video explains describes an expanded cycle that explains how our interactions with the narcissists and their distorted view of the world cause them to repeat this pattern again and again.
Cycles of Abuse: Rising and Falling Tension
By comparing the traditional cycle of abuse with the narcissistic abuse cycle, it is clear there are some similarities. These primarily concern the rise and fall of tension within the relationship.
- Rising Tension: Abusers in both the traditional model and in the narcissistic cycle begin to escalate abuse until there is some sort of “incident” that ends the period characterized by the positive atmosphere (either the “violent episode” in the traditional model or the “devaluation” stage of narcissistic abuse). 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 and disappearance of the narcissist for a period of time.
- Falling Tension: When narcissists return to hoover, they once again begin to idealize their partners–there is a reprieve from the devaluation. In the traditional model, the falling tension is characterized by a honeymoon period. In both models, positive bonding is promoted that makes it difficult for the abused partner to leave.
A closer examination of what happens within a relationship with a narcissist to cause the tension to rise and fall demonstrates the important distinctions between these relationships and traditional abusive relationships.
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
Hammond explains that at some point in the relationship, the narcissist begins to feel threatened by something that his or her partner has done. This is the tipping point when the abuse starts.
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.
The traditional model explains that partners in traditionally abusive relationships stay in the relationships because the honeymoon period convinces them that there is no longer a reason to leave. The partners believe the abuse is over. Abusers feel remorse for their outbursts and then return to try to woo their partners back with promises to change. This is what kickstarts the honeymoon phase.
Although partners in relationships with narcissists may also hope that the narcissist will change once the pattern repeats, the narcissistic abuse cycle describes how narcissists entirely flip the script to lock their partners in through other methods that are not present in traditional abusive relationships.
Narcissists and the Games They Play
Narcissists feel victimized by something that their partners have done. They feel they are justified in treating their partners negatively and punishing them or turning elsewhere for narcissistic supply.
The partner, meanwhile, is baffled. The more that the partner asks questions or makes demands to be treated with respect, the more the narcissist feels victimized and wronged.
Eventually, the narcissist will reject the partner. This results in a silent treatment or discard. The narcissist may engage in a smear campaign against the person they abused.
This is often not the end of the relationship, however.
Why does the narcissist return? He or she needs attention and the partner may be an easy source of supply. It may stroke the narcissist’s ego that they can get away with treating someone so horribly and then return so easily.
The partner is psychologically bound to the narcissist due to many of the devaluation tactics that have conditioned him or her that what has happened is his or her fault, and the partner will try to appease the narcissist if only “things will go back to the way they used to be.”
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. Unlike in the traditional cycle of abuse, narcissists are able to hide the fact through this pattern that abuse is even occurring. Narcissists are able to make the partner feel responsible for how the relationship has gone awry.
Because they absorb the narcissist’s version of events, victims of narcissists may often get abuse amnesia and have fewer negative emotions toward their own abuser, a feature orchestrated by the narcissistic abuse that is itself abusive.
NOTE: Apparently, I am not the only one to notice this pattern. I would like to give credit to my friend Hugh for also taking Hammond’s model of narcissistic abuse cycle and applying it to the idealization-devaluation-discard cycle.
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