In Part 1 of this two-part article, I began describing an expanded cycle of narcissistic abuse. It takes into account the dynamics of the relationship by showing why the narcissist devalues, discards, and hoovers and then why the partner then reacts as he or she does. By showing what motivates narcissists to behave as they do in relationships through how they think, it becomes clearer why relationships with them are so destructive and end as they do.
In Stages #1-6, as described in Part 1, the partner is drawn into the relationship by the narcissist, who uses a false persona that is molded to fit the partner’s needs and desires. This stage eventually ends, however, when the narcissist is wounded by something the partner does. The offense is not something that a neurotypical person would find offensive– it is something such as the partner saying “no” to the narcissist.
Narcissists do not respect the boundaries of others and feel offended when others put their own needs over those of the narcissist. Thus, the narcissist will lash out and do things to harm the partner in response in order to soothe the narcissistic injury. When the partner confronts the narcissist about how he or she has been treated, the narcissist cannot face his or her actions and will avoid admitting to the wrongs through gaslighting, blameshifting, stonewalling or other tactics.
Below is a continuation of the remaining stages.
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.
After several instances of this mini-cycle within the larger cycle (Stages #2-7), the narcissist becomes completely disillusioned with the partner as the partner continues to “disappoint” the narcissist with normal human behavior, and meanwhile, the partner becomes baffled about what happened to the wonderful person they met at the beginning of the relationship.
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.
Why the Cycle Can’t Be Broken
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 goal posts 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 and beginning the road to recovery.