When we are in relationships with narcissists, we are constantly trying to figure out how to change course. 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.
The Expanded Cycle of Narcissistic Abuse:
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.
This model is succinct and provides a lot of insight that slices through the initial confusion. It lacks a thorough explanation that helps to explain why 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?
In another article, I described a different model that incorporates the narcissistic viewpoint and how they see themselves as victims to explain why they treat their partners this way in each of the three stages and then why the cycle repeats.
Even this model, however, can leave us with the question, can the narcissist change if I do something different to show them that they don’t have to react that way to me or to devalue me?
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.
What would an expanded cycle of narcissistic abuse look like? Something like this:
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 and 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.
Part 2 of this article will examine Stages 7-12 of this expanded cycle and put the entire cycle together to explain why nothing we do can change it.