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How Narcissists Flip the Cycle of Abuse to Keep Us From Leaving

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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.

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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:


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.

Kristen Milstead

Kristen Milstead is a narcissistic abuse survivor who has become a strong advocate for finding your unique voice and using it to help others find theirs.


  1. Hi, I wanted to reblog this but don’t see that option as available. I see FB, Tweeter and Google….I will copy and paste but let me know if I’m missing something.

    Thanks again!

    1. Kristen Milstead

      Hi! Ah, I’m so honored. WordPress informed me I can’t use the “Press This” button anymore since I have Plugins. :/ I don’t know what that’s about, but it now involves me doing some alternative through GitHub. I have the “Press This” button in my browser toolbar so I can reblog any article from anywhere though if that helps. I can send you the instructions if you want.

      1. Sure! The reblog icon is gone too, FYI.

      2. Kristen Milstead

        Yeah, that’s the same thing I guess. I don’t understand why they got removed because I changed something else unrelated. :/

  2. Searching for hope...

    Hi, I wanted to reblog this but don’t see that option as available. I see FB, Tweeter and Google….I will copy and paste but let me know if I’m missing something.

    Thanks again!

  3. This article perfectly describes what I went through for decades and I thank you for clearly mapping out the steps.

    1. Kristen Milstead

      Hi Carol: You’re welcome, and thank you for reading! -Kristen

  4. This article perfectly describes what I went through for decades and I thank you for clearly mapping out the steps.

    1. Kristen Milstead

      Hi Carol: You’re welcome, and thank you for reading! -Kristen

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    […] my last article, I illuminated exactly how narcissists pull this off by describing the narcissistic abuse cycle and […]

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    […] you’re on the outs or in the devaluation period, narcissists will use social media to do the exact opposite of love-bombing you.  For example, if […]

  7. Why Love-Bombing is the Most Dangerous Stage of Narcissistic Abuse | In the Shadows of the Fairy Tale

    […] It’s discussed frequently, but not often on its own.  It’s usually only discussed in conjunction with the other stages in the narcissistic abuse cycle:  idealization-devaluation-discard or sometimes idealization-devaluation-discard-hoover. […]

  8. To Get Revenge on a Narcissist, Do This | In the Shadows of the Fairy Tale

    […] described in the narcissistic cycle of abuse, narcissists are sensitive to feeling criticized by practically everything, but what […]

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    […] another article, I described another model that incorporates the narcissistic viewpoint and how they see themselves […]

  10. I’ve been reading this blog for awhile and like many others who come here, I was seeking answers. And I know, Kristen, that you’ve heard this a million times an will hear it a million more, but although there are slight differences in all of our stories, the script is remarkably the same for all of us.

    I was only with my N-ex for a little under a year yet the damage that he has wreaked, and still continues to do, is immeasurable. I became pregnant in that time, you see. And now we have a daughter. When you first started to post your blog, I was giving birth.

    I realized there was something wrong long before I had a name for it. And I left him before I even knew what the word was. My daughter was my saving grace because I KNEW deep in my soul that if I stayed, she would suffer for it. At the time I still believed I had brought all of it onto myself. There was obviously something wrong with me because, after all, he kept telling me so. If only I would just love him the way he deserved to be loved. Then he would kiss me, then he would hold me, then he would finally love me.

    But only if I earned it.

    And then I realized: What if he did the same to our daughter? Said the same things to her? After all, regardless if I was at fault or not, SHE was not. My daughter was innocent, she didn’t deserve that. I’m sure you see the disconnect, right? The perfect cognitive dissonance. If all of it WAS my fault then why would I be so scared he would treat our daughter that way? We were two separate beings, right?

    But no, deep in my gut or soul, or whatever it was that whispered to me to get out, to just LEAVE. There was no agreement between what that voice whispered and what I was trained to believe. The first time I felt her kick, I knew. Get out, get out, get out. I heard that every time her foot landed against my lower belly. I somehow knew he saw me as an extension of him, and he would see her the same way. We were not separate, not different, and she would be doomed if I stayed.

    So I left.

    But everyday I suffer. Some days are worse, some better, but there’s no escaping, no leaving. I can disengage, have limited contact, go gray rock, etc. But our daughter keeps us connected. We live in the same town, he is a 5 minute drive from my house. He knows where I work. And I am limited by what the court allows.

    He has punished me, he has used guilt, harassment, threats, etc. Sometimes the thought that I have 18 more years of this makes me despair.

    I am extraordinarily lucky in some respects. Funny how life can be a trade-off. I wouldn’t give up my daughter for the world, She is my light. I also have a mother who runs interference and is not fooled by him at all. And an attorney who called my ex a narcissist long before I ever mentioned it.

    Anyway, thank you, Kristen, for all that you do. I don’t know how much comfort it gives you for me to say this, but there may have been more than one reason for your journey; perhaps, to light the tunnel for others like me who are still going through it. But really, you never stop being a survivor do you? You can stop being a victim, but you will always be a survivor.

    1. Kristen Milstead

      Hi Teresa: Thank you so much for sharing your story here. I do see the cognitive dissonance you speak of regarding yourself and your daughter. It seems that for yourself, he had conditioned you to view it as a normal part of your time together, but when you pondered how he would treat your daughter you could view it objectively and yet it was the exact same behavior so it caused you to see the two different views. Seeing it from your daughter’s point of view allowed you to break through the spell. You describe it so well and you are so courageous for being able to break away. I am glad you have such a good attorney who understands what is going on and that you have your mother for support– and that you have your daughter too. You are too kind with your words. I’m so glad to know that my articles have been so helpful to you. Take care of yourself. -Kristen

  11. I’m currently in a heated battle with my husband whom this fits to a T! He’s convinced my daughter who is 21 that I’m on drugs again because of my past addiction. i have been clean for over 8 years, instead of owning up to his mental abuse and manipulation he has created a very dramatic tale and being that my past is the past it’s caused damage. He’s never wrong and just today i caught him on a dating and sex website but it’s not him even though it’s his username and exact email he’s going to lie instead of tell the truth! i’m broken and lost

    1. Hi Tracy: I’m so sorry for what you are going through. The best thing, as you already know, is to work toward trying to move toward thinking about if you can leave if the relationship is abusive. The damage will continue and only get worse. It is possible to do and there is a path on the other side that leads to a better life. Please stay strong! -Kristen

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