When we are in relationships with narcissists, we are constantly trying to figure out how to change course. Anything other than go no contact.
For example, if we could just explain to the narcissist how his or her behavior is hurting us, then perhaps they would stop.
Things never align. We never reach the elusive place where they are fulfilling our psychological relationship needs in a way that each member of a normal couple does for one another. Instead, we find ourselves becoming weaker and more exhausted trying to do things that are beyond the bounds of what we should be expected to give.
It’s a merry-go-round we either ride until we’re sick or that we finally stumble off of when we realize it will never stop on its own.
Understanding why these are the only two options is the secret to saving ourselves.
Why Going No Contact is So Hard
The idealize-devalue-discard model for explaining narcissistic abuse is valuable for understanding the three different primary ways that the narcissist treats us throughout the relationship.
First, we are put on a pedestal and viewed as the love of the narcissist’s life. Then, we are denigrated as if worthless and subjected to some of the cruelest treatment we have ever endured. Finally, we are thrown away and ignored as if we never existed. The cycle repeats.
But why do these three stages occur? Why would anyone idealize then devalue that same person and then why would the person who is idealized and then devalued and discarded not exit the cycle immediately?
This is the trap we can get caught in. A deeper understanding of the dynamics of the relationship based on the narcissist’s disordered view and subsequent actions which then result in the partner’s reactions helps to show:
- How the narcissist guides the relationship toward dysfunction, and
- That the partner cannot do anything that results in a different outcome because everything that the partner does is filtered back through the narcissist’s dysfunctional lens.
As a result, the partner slowly becomes dysfunctional as well in order to exist within the confines of the relationship. Healing and a restoration to healthy ways of interacting in the world can only be possible when the relationship ends.
Yet, while in the relationship, it can feel impossible to break away and go no contact.
What would an expanded cycle of narcissistic abuse look like? Something like this:
The Expanded Narcissistic Cycle of Abuse
Stage 1. The Narcissist Love-Bombs the Partner
This is the first stage in the cycle in any relationship with a narcissist, previously noted as the idealization stage. As the narcissist idealizes the partner, both experience an emotional high that chemically simulates cocaine when certain neurotransmitters are released in the brain.
The narcissist puts the target on a pedestal and, when doing so, begins to mirror both the physical actions and personal likes and dislikes of the partner. The narcissist creates an emotional “safe space” of utter acceptance that induces positive feelings of love, trust, and vulnerability.
It is a reflection of all that the partner wants to hear and see, based upon what the narcissist has learned of the partner’s identity and background. There is fast “familiarity” and “future-orientation” in the relationship, accompanied by grandiose statements about destiny or a once-in-a-lifetime connection.
For narcissists, this time of idealization is what they crave most, as it is when they receive the purest form of their own idealized view of themselves reflected back to them from their new partners. The more perfectly they reflect back what the partner wants to see, the better the narcissistic supply they will receive.
This is the stage that draws us into the cycle in the first place, thus, in the graphic, it is the entry point. It also establishes itself as set apart from all of the other stages, as once the partner is hooked into the cycle through this stage, it will fade away and only glimpses of that side of the narcissist will ever be seen again.
Stage 2. The Partner Inevitably “Disappoints” the Narcissist
The idealization stage may last weeks, months or even a year or longer, but it cannot be maintained because it is built on illusions about who the narcissist truly is, and because it is not supported by the principles that must comprise a healthy relationship, such as mutual trust, honesty, and commitment. The narcissist has manufactured a false persona that doesn’t truly exist.
There are many things that can begin to alter the way the narcissist interacts with the partner:
- The narcissist becomes bored with the relationship or partner as the problems of the real world start to interfere. For example, the partner comes to him or her with real world problems and the narcissist doesn’t want to deal with those. When the real world pierces through the idealized one, the narcissist starts to feel life sliding into mediocrity. He or she can no longer keep the emptiness and sense of worthlessness at bay and, in addition, becomes irritated that he or she has to focus on someone else or someone else’s problems.
- The narcissist is keeping secret lives and it’s starting to cause a strain on the relationship in one way or another. Narcissists have a sense of entitlement about having two sets of rules about their extracurricular activities, such as lying and cheating, but this can result in two things. First, the narcissist never truly trusts his or her partner because he or she projects all of the secret behavior onto the partner. As a result, the narcissist tries to control him or her, causing unnecessary strain on the relationship. Second, the partner’s intuition may tell him or her that something is off, and the narcissist may begin to gaslight him or her. Either of these things may lead the narcissist to become irritated with the partner, despite the narcissist being the one to engage in the betrayals.
- The narcissist starts to see flaws in the partner. These flaws can range from choosing a night out with friends or engaging in hobbies to saying no, to not letting go of asking questions about suspicious behavior, to merely holding a different opinion. When the partner does not make the narcissist the center of attention, the narcissist feels offended.
- The narcissist begins to feel threatened by the partner’s autonomy. Narcissists like to know what the partners are doing at all times. They don’t like to be “outshined,” even if they also look good by association. Furthermore, they can be threatened by a partner’s independence or by a partner knowing more about a subject or having more of something than the narcissist does. This might mean that the partner will abandon or reject the narcissist, and narcissists need to feel in control at all times.
What’s interesting is that narcissists do not see any of these things as problematic because of their own perceptions or as a result of their own actions. To them, these things are all problematic because the partner will not do or stop doing something.
The issue, for the narcissist, is that the partner is “disappointing” the narcissist by not living up to his or her generally excessive and inappropriate expectations and so the narcissist feels resentful and unappreciated:
“Look at all this effort I put in to give her everything she wanted. This is the thanks I get. She doesn’t even know how lucky she is.”
Stage 3. Narcissistic Injury Occurs.
The narcissist feels disrespected and slighted by the partner’s lack of acknowledgment of the surface-level actions he or she shows– the kind words, the trips, the sex, the gifts, the promises. What the partner has been providing all along is no longer good enough because the narcissist demands that the real world stay suspended forever and the partner forever keep him or her at the center (while he or she does whatever they want in secret).
This is where we usually hear phrases such as:
“Nothing I do is ever good enough for you.”
“If you loved me, you’d do [x].”
“All you want to do is argue.”
“I don’t have to tell you anything.”
“You always have to bring up [x] and ruin everything.”
“You’d better call me back in five minutes or it’s over.”
Meanwhile, the partner is completely baffled about what is happening. Where is the person they fell in love with? Why is the narcissist so angry? Statements like these from the narcissist come from a place of entitlement and trying to maintain control.
Stage 4. The Narcissist Devalues the Partner.
At this point is when the verbal abuse begins. The narcissist might start to denigrate the partner for the “disappointments,” for not meeting his or her high expectations. They usually verbally abuse and humiliate the partner, even on qualities they once praised.
The narcissist is reminded or his or her own fears and insecurities when partners do not conform to expectations or cannot be controlled. This incites narcissistic rage and so they lash out at the partner in revenge.
They feel wounded by what they perceive as the partner not “playing along” and seek to take back what the things they gave when morphing into the “perfect partner,” so try to tear down the very ways in which they built the partner up.
Narcissists suffer from something called “object constancy.” If you’re not with them, you’re against them. If you have caused them a narcissistic injury, they see your actions as intentional attempts to disrespect them. Once you are placed into the “bad” category, you are viewed as the enemy.
Their devaluations of you are viewed as justified and, because they also have low empathy, there are almost no limits to what they are willing to do to hurt you. They will employ the “nuclear option” to destroy you and discredit whatever it was you did that caused them the narcissistic injury.
Stage 5. The Partner Confronts the Narcissist Over Being Devalued.
The partner will be crushed but also completely baffled by what is now taking place for several reasons.
First, the extreme devaluation by the narcissist will be at complete odds with the soulmate persona that was portrayed at the beginning of the relationship.
Second, the partner will be blindsided by it. It will seem illogical, and the partner will not be able to figure out what caused such an extreme reaction.
Finally, once the narcissist cools off, he or she may pretend as if the incident of devaluation never happened or was no big deal. The narcissist may have diffused the narcissistic injury through the harmful abusive behavior or engaging in other behavior in secret, and now that the damage is under control, there is no motivation to act. The balance has been restored for the narcissist and everything feels normal again– to the narcissist.
To the partner, however, nothing feels normal. Hurt and confused, he or she confronts the narcissist to get an explanation that will make this behavior make sense.
Stage 6. The Narcissist’s Defense Mechanisms Kick In.
This is where the narcissist will begin to engage in a variety of verbal tactics to deflect, project, gaslight, blameshift, and even stonewall.
You’re too sensitive.
That’s not what I said. You heard me wrong.
Well, what about that time you said [something unrelated]?
I have been really stressed out. I’m sorry– it won’t happen again.
Can’t we leave this in the past? I told you I’d never do it again. If you can’t stop talking about it, I’m leaving.
This is all part of the word salad that narcissists use in circular conversations that minimize partner’s pain, avoid taking responsibility and keep their abuse and the real nature of the relationship hidden.
What narcissists cannot accept is that they are wrong or and even to hear that they have harmed their partners is to feel criticized by them. It sparks feelings of weakness and shame to hear from them that they have done something that is less than perfect and are the source of why partners now are not providing them with the narcissistic supply they crave.
Stage 7. The Partner Tries to Hold the Relationship Together While Maintaining His or Her Self-Respect and Autonomy.
The path that the relationship has taken to this point defies logic, and so as the narcissist offers excuses and explanations, at this point, the partner will likely accept them to resolve cognitive dissonance. Otherwise, we have to accept that there is something wrong with the person with whom we have been interacting.
There are two possible choices based on what we have experienced in the relationship:
- The person we are with is disordered, as evidenced by the things about our actions that seem to upset him or her, and the fact that he or she can seem to switch love on and off like a light switch and willingly inflict devastating destruction on us. OR
- There is a misunderstanding and the excuses that come out of the narcissist’s mouth are genuine; if we can just do the right things, all of the “bad times” will stop and things can be as they were in the beginning.
This is the stage where partners begin to unknowingly be drawn into and buy into the narcissist’s distorted reality. Once reaching this stage, partners begin to lose touch with their own intuition and judgment.
Stages #2-7 form a mini-cycle within this larger cycle. Within this mini-cycle, the narcissist becomes completely disillusioned with the partner as the partner continues to “disappoint” the narcissist with normal human behavior. Meanwhile, the partner becomes baffled about what happened to the wonderful person they met at the beginning of the relationship.
This mini-cycle may repeat for some time until the narcissist’s cruelty progresses.
Stage 8. The Narcissist Gives a Silent Treatment or Discards the Partner
At this point, the partner has generally become very traumatized by the emotional and psychological abuse perpetrated by the narcissist. Without realizing it, he or she has been slowly pulled into the narcissist’s reality, which is extremely volatile and unhealthy for the partner and his or her “fight or flight” mode may now be triggered.
Some of the ways it may manifest itself are withdrawing emotionally out of fear of having to walk on eggshells (flight); anxiety over the consistent feeling that something is off so asking questions when something doesn’t add up to avoid being hurt again by another betrayal (fight); feeling so hurt and broken-hearted over what has happened, that depression sets in (flight); reacting or trying to stand up for oneself when provoked by further devaluation (fight).
The narcissist is disgusted with the partner’s behavior, whether it comes from the “fight” mode or the “flight” mode. To the narcissist, the partner is either combative, abusive and jealous, or crazy and never satisfied, or is self-absorbed and inattentive.
The narcissist views the partner as the cause of the issues because he or she lacks the insight to understand and accept how his or her perceptions of the partner’s normal human reactions have resulted in this pattern, and also how his or her reactions to it are unacceptable.
To avoid having to confront the totality of what he or she has done, the narcissist will give a silent treatment or even discard the partner and disappear at this stage for days or weeks at a time– or even longer.
Stage 9. The Partner Suffers Crippling Pain, Doubt, and Confusion
The entire relationship to this point has been held in place by the dominance and control of the narcissist through hundreds or thousands of instances of emotional and psychological (and sometimes physical or sexual) abuse.
The emotional and psychological abuse tactics are important because it is these tactics that were invisible and that eroded the partner’s sense of self. The partner has at least partially adopted the narcissist’s points of view, which range from:
- the partner is too sensitive
- the partner has caused or magnified the issues in this relationship
- the relationship is special and it provides benefits to the partner that he or she doesn’t want to lose, such as the connection that the narcissist established with him or her at the beginning of the relationship
In contrast, the harmful ideas that have been downplayed, ignored and hidden through the emotional and psychological abuse are:
- the narcissist’s view of the partner is fluctuating between extremes (which is not normal) and the fluctuation itself does not represent love but control
- the narcissist is trying to suppress and deny the partner’s lived experience of the relationship as painful and confusing
- the partner has been enduring and then reacting to the narcissist from a position of extreme volatility and abuse
During the silent treatments, the partner will suffer tremendously as his or her reality has been warped through the manipulation of events– the narcissist putting on a show of being a loving person with surface-level actions and promises but without the commitment and support underlying such a relationship. Further, the narcissist does not take responsibility for the harmful behaviors that undermine the soulmate facade that he or she has conveyed.
The partner will likely feel panicked that the narcissist is gone, after having taken on the view of the narcissist, which has instilled doubt in his or her own intuition and judgment. He or she will likely miss the narcissist and wish for another chance to try to “get things right” so that everything will only go back to the way it once was, the way it was during Stage #1.
The partner may be hurt by what the narcissist has done and may believe there is still some way to reconcile the narcissist’s hurtful actions with the dream that the narcissist has fed him or her if only he or she would stop talking about them– as if talking about them is the problem, and not the fact that the narcissist acted hurtfully.
Stage 10. The Narcissist Hoovers.
The partner is extremely vulnerable to being drawn back into the relationship. Even if the partner doesn’t reach out to the narcissist, whether for answers or any other reason, the narcissist will likely reach out to the partner in hoovering attempts.
The narcissist hoovers once he or she feels that the partner is conciliatory enough in some way to accept that it is the narcissist who is the true victim or that the narcissist will not have to work very hard to gain back control over the partner.
The partner will “forgive” the narcissist and stop asking questions or look the other way. The partner will apologize for being too “needy” or “jealous” or for lashing out in response to being repeatedly devalued or baited (the narcissist’s context of abusive control is conveniently ignored).
The narcissist may apologize too and promise change in an attempt to hoover if necessary, but the acknowledgment of the wrongs done will lack insight and any explanations and excuses will be shallow and unsatisfying. The narcissist will not be able to offer explanations for what they have done that make sense. They will promise not to do it again (whatever it is), but nothing changes.
On the surface, things may be good again for the moment, but underneath, the foundation is still rotten. All the partner wants is for the confusion and pain to stop, and so it does– for a price.
Stage 11. The Relationship is Restored But the Partner is Conditioned to Expect Abusive Treatment.
The purpose of the silent treatment and discarding is to teach the partner a lesson: if you behave this way (“if you don’t do as I want you to do”), I will shut you out of my life. Furthermore, the narcissist will often try to crush the partner in the most devastating way possible as they do it.
The things that happen that get partners shut out of the narcissist’s life, however, are normal human behaviors and expectations within relationships. Those actions may include the freedom to engage in self-autonomic behaviors such as enjoying evenings with friends without being monitored or speaking up and reacting to abusive comments or behaviors in kind after months or years of being subjected to an abusive environment.
The expectations may include being heard and validated when one has been violated and betrayed– or to not be violated in the first place.
The narcissist views the partner’s actions as problematic simply because they inconvenience or illicit negative feelings in the narcissist and the narcissist does not put himself or herself in the shoes of the partner to see, first, how those actions and expectations are reasonable, and second, how someone having reasonable expectations is not an affront to another person– that two people co-existing is not a zero-sum game.
And so the cycle continues and Stage #2 starts again. The partner gives up more and more rent in his or her head while the narcissist behaves more and more erratically, getting away with more and more.
The longer a partner stays, the more emotional trauma is inflicted, and the harder it can be to get away as the identity erosion occurs, learned helplessness sets in, and the partner forms a trauma bond with the narcissist or develops Stockholm Syndrome.
Stage 12. The Partner Goes No-Contact with the Narcissist.
At some point, the partner must make a decision to go no-contact with the narcissist in order for the relationship to ever truly come to an end.
This happens when the partner recognizes the abusive pattern for what it is and understands the cycle in which he or she is caught up. No-contact is something that must be initiated psychologically by the partner, regardless of the status of physical contact between the two.
It means that the partner recognizes the true harmful nature of the relationship and that the narcissist will never change.
The partner makes the intentional choice to cut the narcissist from his or her life forever, and block all methods of contact.
The End of the Relationship and Going No Contact
If you decide to do everything the narcissist wants and subsume your identity and well-being for that of the relationship and the narcissist, would that create a happily-ever-after?
Here are some reasons why it would not.
- Everything you do might be interpreted as a threat even unintentionally and there’s no way to predict or prepare for what might set off a narcissist.
- Nothing you do will ever be quite good enough; the goalposts move dependent on the narcissist’s moods and whims. In addition, if they are feeling fragile because of something someone else did, they may take it out on you and suddenly, what you’re doing isn’t even satisfactory anymore.
- They always suspect you of being unfaithful and doing whatever they are doing. You’ll be constantly caught up in it, anxiously either trying to confine your life so that they aren’t suspicious or convince them they are wrong. Yet you’ll never be able to prove to their satisfaction that you aren’t doing the things they accuse you of.
- It’s hard to stay open and loving to someone who intermittently hurts you and blatantly cheats on you or is cruel to you in other ways. Your withdrawal, depression, anxiety, learned helplessness or other results of trauma are all offensive to narcissists because they remove your focus from them. They will view you as self-absorbed and selfish when your attention is not solely focused on them, and are unempathetic to your emotional needs for any extended period of time.
In other words, there is no pleasing a narcissist.
Stages #2-11 keep us confused about the outcome for as long as possible using Stage #1 as the elusive future that never arrives.
At some point, when it becomes more painful to be in the relationship than to leave it, we come to the devastating realization that the only way to break the cycle is to exit it by moving to Stage #12, go no contact, and beginning the road to recovery.