Last Updated on August 15, 2022 by Alexander Burgemeester
The cycle of abuse follows a familiar pattern: tension, an abusive incident, reconciliation, and a period of calm.
Abuse, followed by remorse, followed by things feeling okay is part of what makes people feel like they can get through an abusive relationship, thinking it will eventually get better.
The narcissistic cycle of abuse is a bit different though, with the cyclical nature played out with subsequent partners. First comes love, then comes abuse, and finally a breakup before the narcissist moves on to their next victim.
The old adage “history does not repeat itself, but it does rhyme” is particularly true regarding narcissists.
While the cycle of abuse may not follow the exact same trajectory for every relationship, there are a few steps that people with narcissistic personality disorder have in common.
What is the Narcissistic Cycle of Abuse?
When you’re in the circle of abuse with a narcissist, their brand of emotional terror can feel very unique and personally damning, but the strategy they follow is fairly similar with each partner.
It typically comes in three stages, though a narcissist’s need for emotional supply creates a natural ebb and flow from one stage to the next.
This is the stage in the narcissistic relationship cycle that initially hooks the victim and it’s often what makes them return to the narcissist after things get bad.
In the beginning, narcissists shower their victims with praise and admiration, a technique known as “love bombing”.
A telltale sign of love bombing is that you feel the relationship progressing too fast. Narcissists have a grandiose sense of themselves, and that translates to how they feel about their relationship.
They might declare you soulmates after the first date. You’re being put on a pedestal from the beginning, which means you have nowhere to go but down in the eyes of your narcissistic partner.
Narcissists make their partner feel like the center of the universe, but all that praise has little to do with their partner’s value as a person and everything to do with how the new relationship makes the narcissist feel; they are reflecting the positive emotions that they feel about themselves.
Unfortunately, the immediate bond and heaping helpings of praise can also be addictive to the victim, which is one reason so many people return to toxic relationships with narcissistic partners.
All good things must end, and with a narcissist, it all comes crashing down in a relatively short period.
While narcissists idealize their partner in the early stages of the relationship, they start seeing the cracks in a matter of months, after which this is all they can focus on.
The devaluing phase is a reflection of how the narcissist is feeling about themselves. They’re no longer riding the high of a new relationship, and the disappointment over that is taken out on their partner.
To regain their ego, they lash out at the partner and belittle them until they feel strong again.
Depending on the narcissist’s emotional state, they can vacillate between the idealization and devaluation stage.
One minute they’re madly in love, and in the next their partner can’t do anything right. This back and forth is incredibly damaging to their partner’s psyche and makes them much easier for the narcissist to control.
While the devaluation phase is no picnic, it’s the discard that partners of narcissists fear most. During this stage, the narcissist seems to just walk away.
Sometimes they will speak out against their former partners to any mutual friends that will listen, but most of the time they simply leave with barely a word of explanation.
When a narcissist discards the partner it’s because they are no longer getting what they need out of the relationship.
Their partner isn’t providing the ego-boosting supply they desperately crave, even when they’ve trained their partner to provide it during the devaluation stage. Sometimes only a new partner will do.
The discard phase isn’t necessarily final though. Many narcissists return to a former relationship when they need an extra bit of supply.
Sometimes this will be short-lived, but other times they’ll fall back into familiar habits and the cycle of abuse starts all over again. Many narcissistic relationships go through several discard phases before a final discard actually occurs.
Sometimes this is a relief for the abused partner, but more often it leaves them confused and distressed.
How Does the Cycle of Abuse Work?
While narcissistic abuse might seem fairly linear, it’s actually a cyclical process, and most victims encounter each state a number of times before they leave the relationship.
For example, the narcissistic discard phase appears final, but many narcissists utilize it as part of a hoovering technique. After the devalue and discard phases, the narcissist moves on to another partner or at least tries to.
Once they become bored of this situation, they will often return to their previous partner, showering them in praise and talking about why they should have never left.
This is all part of the narcissist mean/nice cycle though, and it won’t be long before they begin devaluing their partner again.
The idealization and devaluation phases can flip flop many times throughout a relationship, with the narcissist abusing their victims, apologizing for their behavior, and expressing admiration for their partner.
Before long though, they’ll be criticizing and putting their partner down until they are completely broken and powerless, but even this isn’t enough to satisfy the narcissist.
The partner has stopped fulfilling their need for supply and they carry out the same narcissistic discard as before – walking away with seemingly no regret or emotion of any kind.
Whether this happens again depends on whether the narcissist sees more supply to be squeezed out and whether their partner is willing to tolerate further cycles of abuse.
How Do I Stop the Narcissistic Cycle of Abuse?
Halting the cycle of abuse is no easy task; it’s why many victims of narcissistic abuse stay in these relationships for months or years after the devaluation stage begins.
The first step in getting away from an abuser is understanding what constitutes abuse and how it affects you.
Why is Narcissistic Abuse so Damaging?
Narcissists leave many scars on their victims, specifically in how they perceive relationships, trust other people, and even how they experience the world.
What Does Narcissistic Abuse Do to You? Recent research using brain imaging technology has found that narcissistic abuse causes many of the same problems as traumatic events like war and natural disasters.
Many victims of narcissistic abuse develop PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) and have the symptoms to match it.
Narcissistic abuse has a negative effect on the hippocampus region of the brain. This is where memories are converted from short-term to long-term storage.
Thus, abuse survivors have more trouble with recall and sometimes have difficulty learning new subjects. The prefrontal cortex is where decision-making occurs, and those who have spent months or years inside a relationship with a narcissist often cannot make plans or focus their attention.
Then there’s the amygdala, which is thought to be one of the major controllers of our emotional reactions. Those experiencing abuse have a harder time regulating their feelings, leading to anxiety, depression, and other mood disorders.
What is Narcissistic Emotional Abuse and What Does It Look Like?
Abuse can come in many flavors, and a narcissist is likely to try a few to figure out what works – what takes your power away and leaves you under their spell.
At its core, narcissistic emotional abuse is about the narcissist controlling their partner’s behavior. To do this, they need to break them down to the point that they look to the narcissist for all of their validation and worth.
These are some of the most common forms of narcissistic abuse.
- Gaslighting – narcissists like to control the narrative and will tell you things happened differently from reality.
- Withholding Love – a narcissist needs your attention to thrive, but they know holding back affection and love is one of the surest ways to keep a hold on you.
- Telling Lies – nothing is more important to a narcissist than their ego. Manipulating the truth protects that ego and eliminates accountability.
- Insults – it’s much easier to control you once you feel like you deserve to be treated poorly. You’ll be told that you’re worthless and should feel lucky to have the narcissist in your life.
- Exerting Control – narcissists want you to know that they are in control of your life. You can only make decisions with their permission.
How Do Victims of Narcissists Feel?
Everyone who’s experienced the pain of narcissistic abuse feels differently, but there are some feelings that are fairly common for all victims.
- Isolated – narcissists do what they can to separate you from your loved ones.
- Indecisive – every decision is criticized, making the right choice feels impossible.
- Physically Unwell – narcissistic abuse can cause upset stomachs, insomnia, and fatigue.
- Dissociated – your body no longer feels like your own, a natural reaction to prevent you from feeling the sting of abuse so acutely.
- Depressed – it feels like there’s no way out of this cycle of abuse.
6 Ways to Stop the Narcissistic Cycle of Abuse
Escaping the cycle of emotional abuse is never easy, but it is possible and absolutely necessary if you want to maintain your own mental health. These are some of the key steps in leaving someone with narcissistic personality disorder.
1. Understand that you’re being abused
Narcissists have a knack for blaming their victims, telling them that they’re too sensitive, they’ll never find anyone that will treat them better, and gaslighting them into believing the abuse didn’t happen in the first place.
You should write down abusive actions so you don’t forget them or become convinced that things unfolded differently.
Once you see that all the love bombing and instant emotional connection is just a front for the devaluation and discard stages down the road, you can start your journey away from this relationship.
2. Set boundaries.
Narcissists are incredibly self-absorbed and have no trouble violating your personal space.
Sometimes this is intentional, but at least in the initial stages, the narcissist is simply incapable of understanding your needs or boundaries.
Lay some ground rules for your interactions with them; this may lead to some narcissistic rage, but letting them know you expect boundaries should make for better interactions in the future.
3. Get your guard up.
Narcissists fight dirty when they’re hurt and you need to go in expecting that. They may start a smear campaign, attempting to set your friends, family, and even coworkers against you.
Narcissists are always trying to get others on their side, but if you’re prepared for the campaign, you can counter it.
4. Don’t accept promises, demand action.
Narcissists are great at telling you what they’ll do in the future. Unfortunately, they rarely follow through.
If you’re going to stay in a relationship with a narcissist, but want the abuse cycle to stop, demanding immediate change is a must. Set concrete steps for what they need to do if you’re to continue this relationship
5. Get help.
Walking away from an abusive relationship is incredibly difficult and you’ll need some support. Friends and family can be helpful, but they’re not always equipped to deal with a complicated situation like this.
Fortunately, there are resources out there – therapists, lawyers, and nonprofits focused on abusive relationships. They’ve seen what narcissistic abusers are capable of and know-how to get you out as quickly as possible.
6. Walk away unannounced.
The narcissist might act remorseful, tell you they can change, and then go back to their old ways a week or two later.
Many survivors of narcissistic abuse will try to make it work, and it is possible that the narcissist can change with proper boundaries and expectations.
However, most narcissists will not want to stay in a relationship with these restrictions because it won’t be fulfilling their needs.
In that case, it’s better for both sides to walk away instead of going through another round of abuse.
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