If you are recovering from or actively in a narcissistic relationship, emotional support platforms like Circles can connect you (anonymously, if you prefer) with peers who are also on the same journey. Circles provides support and connection through voice rooms led by peers and experts. Download the app or visit circlesup.com for more information.
Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD) is a mental health condition characterized by a pattern of grandiosity, an excessive need for admiration, and a lack of empathy for others. People with NPD often have an inflated sense of self-importance, believe they are special or unique, and require constant admiration and attention from others.
In a relationship, individuals with NPD can be challenging partners.
Narcissists tend to focus on their own needs and wants, disregarding the feelings and desires of their partner. They may become angry or defensive when their partner doesn’t give them the admiration or attention they believe they deserve. They may also manipulate or exploit their partner to get what they want and may even inflict physical abuse or emotional abuse on their partners.
It’s important to note that individuals with NPD are not necessarily “bad” people, and they may not be aware of the impact their behavior has on others. Partners who find themselves in a relationship with a narcissist should be aware of the various hallmarks of narcissistic behavior, including the narcissistic cycle of abuse, in order to make better choices and feel more empowered in their relationship.
Stages of the Narcissistic Abuse Cycle
When we talk about the narcissistic abuse cycle, we’re really talking about a pattern of abusive behavior that is characteristic of narcissistic relationships. The narcissist begins by idealizing the person they are in a relationship with, then devalues them, repeating the cycle until eventually discarding their partner when they aren’t of any further use to them.
Bear in mind that it’s possible to be in a relationship with someone who has narcissistic traits but doesn’t meet the full criteria for narcissistic personality disorder and that the severity of these traits can run on a spectrum. It’s important to understand the impact this behavior can have on your mental health and how to cope with narcissistic abuse when you encounter it.
The first stage of the narcissistic abuse cycle is known as the idealization phase. It’s the honeymoon stage of the relationship and is characterized by love bombing. Love bombing involves lavishing someone with gifts, attention, and affection in order to influence or manipulate them.
During this phase, the narcissist creates a sense of instant and intense connection with you. They go out of their way to make you feel unique and wonderful and may even appear to place you on a pedestal. This can happen in friendships, romantic relationships, or even professional relationships, but it always moves extremely quickly and fervently.
In romantic relationships, narcissists will make it seem as though they were instantly smitten by you and will shower you with gifts and compliments. It may seem innocent at first, but they will slowly introduce controlling tactics into the relationship, including making you feel guilty for spending time with others or breaking boundaries you may have set.
With a narcissistic boss, for example, you’ll quickly get the feeling that you are a dream employee and that they are dependent on you and only you to get certain tasks done. They may hint at raises and promotions that never materialize.
The next phase of the narcissistic abuse cycle is the depreciation stage. This stage may be introduced gradually, as opposed to the fast pace of the idealization stage. They may start dropping hints that you’ve made a mistake or done something to offend them or hurt their feelings. During this stage, the victim of narcissistic abuse will start feeling insecure.
Keep an eye out for behaviors like passive-aggressiveness, backhanded compliments, stonewalling, mind games, and even ridicule and humiliation. The narcissist may accuse you of doing things you didn’t do and badger you until you are unsure whether you actually did it or not. This is known as gaslighting.
The phrase comes from a 1938 play called Gas Light, where a husband manipulates his wife into thinking she’s losing her mind in order to commit her to a mental institution and take her inheritance from her. A narcissist will use gaslighting tactics to manipulate you into questioning your memories and even your sanity.
During this stage of the narcissistic abuse cycle, the feelings of anxiety, confusion, and fear from the devaluation phase start to impact your well-being. You may begin to internalize criticism and wonder why the narcissist puts up with you. You may begin striving even harder to be a better person so that the narcissist doesn’t leave you.
If you start to pull away from them, the narcissist will feel angry and hurt at any attempts to put distance between yourself and them, and the entire narcissistic abuse cycle will begin again. They suddenly become overly affectionate and will go to extreme lengths to show their appreciation. Then, the minute you begin feeling more secure, they will begin devaluing you again.
This cycle is exactly why people with narcissistic traits or NPD often have successful short-term relationships but struggle to make their relationships last as they protect their own egos by belittling others.
The discard stage can differ from one relationship to the next. The narcissist may decide that they are done with you and reject you swiftly and brutally. They may become angry with you without any real cause and gaslight and control you even more stringently to keep their power over you.
In another scenario, you may decide to leave the situation, causing the narcissist to love bomb and idealize you all over again. The cycle will keep repeating until you decide to break free for good.
Understanding the Impact of Narcissistic Abuse on Your Mental Health
Narcissist abuse will damage your sense of self, your sense of reality, and even your feelings of emotional safety. You may begin to believe that you are overly sensitive or blowing things out of proportion. You may even be hesitant to label your experience as abusive at all, especially if there was no physical abuse present.
Many victims end up struggling with conditions like post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), low self-esteem, depression, and anxiety after being on the receiving end of someone else’s narcissism.
Coping With and Preventing Narcissistic Abuse
There are a few things you can do to avoid entering into these abusive relationships, as well as coping strategies you can put into place while you are in a narcissistic relationship or attempting to break free from one:
- Don’t rush into relationships. Most relationships, whether they are friendly, sexual, romantic, or even professional, begin slowly. Be suspicious of instant and overwhelming love.
- Don’t isolate yourself. One thing abusers will do is try to isolate you from your friends and family, especially with those that disagree with the relationship. If you find yourself struggling to talk with friends and family, find support groups like those at Circles.
- Know and communicate your boundaries. Know what your boundaries are and how you want to be treated in a new relationship. Be prepared to walk away if someone continually tries to push or ignore those boundaries.
- Keep a record. If you think someone is manipulating you, whether it’s at work or at home, keep a record of communication. Write things down and conduct as much of your communication by text or email. This will come in handy if the person starts presenting an alternative version of events.
- Become or stay financially independent. Try to avoid becoming financially dependent on the narcissist in your life. They may try to convince you to quit your job under the guise of taking care of you, but this can be another way to gain the upper hand. Squirrel away funds if possible if you are financially dependent but intent on leaving.
It’s important for survivors of narcissistic abuse, as well as individuals who suspect they may be in a narcissistic relationship of any kind, to find support. While your friends and family are critical supporters, it’s also extremely helpful to speak to others who have had the same experiences as you.
Fortunately, emotional support platforms like Circles can connect you (anonymously, if you prefer) with peers who have also survived or are actively in a narcissistic relationship. Circles provides support and connection through voice rooms led by peers and experts. Visit circlesup.com for more information.