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Stages and Cycles of a Narcissistic Relationship

With a relationship with a narcissist, often it is easier to look back at the past and see situations with more clarity. After leaving a relationship with a narcissist, victims will often describe feeling like they have been swept through a tornado or hurricane and that they didn’t see the warning signs as they were happening and only realized too late how toxic their relationship was.  Each person and each relationship is different in the specifics, but often it is helpful to look at and learn from overall trends.  There is much information online regarding the patterns, cycles, and stages of a narcissistic relationship. There is also much variance in terms of how detailed and broken down each stage is and so articles describe anywhere from 4 to 21 stages. Generally, I see the relationship cycle broken down into the following 6 phases:

Stage 1: Idealization/Attraction

In this initial idealization phase the narcissist attracts their partner or victim by sweeping them off their feet, making them believe they are everything they have always DREAMED OF! By providing love, security, and acceptance they make the victim feel they are the most important and coveted gem in the world. They have finally found their soul mate!  This intoxicating feeling is almost addictive, and it is often what keeps one in the relationship despite the red flags. During this stage the narcissist “love bombs” their partner by showering them with affection, flattery, romantic messages, and gifts.  Instead of gradually building rapport over time, date after date, and developing the relationship in a healthy way, the emotional predator skips all that. With an abundance of charm, romance and gifts, the narcissist hopes that the victim will be hooked quickly and fall head over heels in love.

The emotional predator will want their partner to trust them in every way, in the first few months. They will seem perfectly reliable. They’ll show up on time, every time. They work hard so that their partner will be impressed with the generous spending, illusion of financial security and feeling special and adored. They may even tell their partner deep secrets early on, entrusting them with information so that the victim feels honored to have broken through those emotional walls and created that intimate bond. In doing so the narcissist also creates an environment where they encourage the victim to share secrets. The emotional predator will likely go the extra mile and hint that they want to have a deeper connection and may even talk about marriage and children. The emotional predator will often say things like “you’re the most special and amazing person I have ever met”, “You’re the one!”, “I think you and I can have a long, happy life ahead of us”. They will get into deeper and serious future conversations way too soon. They want the intoxicating spiral to move fast and so this talk of the future is part of the manipulation game, “the hook”.

Turning on the charm is also the reason that they’re so appealing and attractive to friends and family. They display amazing generosity to make them look like “the best catch ever”, super kind, super generous, the best thing to happen to them. Narcissists typically will continue to play that game forever with friends and family, which makes the victim feel that they will look crazy if or when they say anything negative. Friends and family will probably never see that other private manipulative side. This is why it can be so hard for the victim to reach out to get any type of support when they are in this type of relationship.

Stage 2-Devaluation/Degradation

After a few months of grooming to develop trust, adoration, and love, gradually things will start to change. Then some experience a gradual shift where the narcissist shows up as moody, angry and intolerant, when they are alone. For others, it’s a switch that just turns off, and now they are a different person altogether.  They are careful never to show that side to anyone else. Finding fault in everything their partner does, the victim slowly begins to question themselves and devalue their sense of self over time.  The narcissist withdraws affection and love gradually or abruptly.  With increasing anxiety, confusion and isolation, stress is heightened with an ever-changing rulebook. Manipulation can be subtle, strategic and behind the scenes. Passive aggressive behaviour and mind games are used to bully, create guilt, control, and persuade the victim to do whatever they want.  The relationship becomes confusing and a painful experience for the victim as they try to figure out what they did wrong.

Emotional predators usually gravitate to those that are kind, generous, caring and compassionate. They prefer people who are hopeful or desperate for true love, attention, and that fairytale relationship. The more desperation the victim has for love, the more the emotional predator can prey on them, giving them their dreams initially and then withholding that love and romance later. This is why sometimes it’s so hard to leave and get out of the relationship, because the victim wants more of that great stuff that they were given in the beginning. But now the emotional predator is not giving it anymore. The predator wants their partner to be so attached to them that they pine and long for them like a romance novel. The victim may already have codependent tendencies resulting from childhood or former relationships. This makes the victim more susceptible to this type of controlling abusive relationship and feel confused, thinking it’s their fault or that they are to blame.  After being told repeatedly that they are deserving of this treatment and that their actions led to these cruel consequences, they start to believe it themselves, and question their own judgement.

The narcissist is an expert at triggering the internal critics and intuitively recognizes vulnerabilities. They are very good at fanning empathy and concern which, ultimately is manipulation and a control strategy. They play on worries and may make them feel guilty about something. Shame, regret, or fear of their loved ones saying, “I told you so!” further isolates and prevents them from reaching out for the much-needed support from friends and loved ones.

This is the emotional part of their main game. Over time they get the victim to stop trusting themselves and sows self-doubt and confusion in their reality so that they aren’t even sure if what they believe to be true, is actually true. That’s part of an insidious mind game called crazymaking or gaslighting. They will use secrecy, blame and threats. They will invalidate and minimize. The emotional predator may not directly threaten the victim to keep them from saying anything, but the victim will experience such an elevated level of self-doubt, disorientation, and self-invalidation that they will feel too confused and “stupid” to say anything to anyone else.

To complicate the situation even more, often the victim’s friends’ and family will love the emotional predator. They will only see the good side and are never exposed to their manipulative side. This can also be used as coercion, or mind-games, i.e. “Your friends say I’m the best thing that has ever happened to you!”

Stage 3-Discarding

At this point, the narcissist either withdraws gradually over time, or suddenly disappears without explanation and the victim is “ghosted”.  They may cheat and then blame the partner for it, often once again hitting those insecurities, i.e., “too serious”, “not fun enough”, “gained weight”, or allude to problems in the sexual relationship. The victim is left feeling worthless and abandoned and not understanding what just happened.

Stage 4-Hovering

After the relationship has ended, the narcissist may then reach out, hover, and persuade their victim back, while being overly charming or loving, once again. “I’m sorry for everything, I miss you so much. I promise to change, please come back.” “I know we have had some problems, but I can’t stop thinking about you. I still love you.” “You’re the only one who really understands me. I need you.”

This again is very confusing and difficult for the victim as they may still have strong feelings for them, missing those early days in the relationship.

The cycle continues as the narcissist is only doing this because they want something, supply, and will eventually move on to someone else once they have what they want.  Or manage a few relationships at the same time, while each victim is unawares.

Stage 5- Repetition – Cycling back through various stages.

Ideally, no one would put up with being treated poorly and anyone would want to break free from a person who demonstrates these narcissistic qualities and behaviours. Unfortunately, narcissists are skilled experts at using the victim’s insecurities to erode self-esteem and to isolate the person further from friends and family.  They load on shame and guilt, using anxiety to coerce and control them to stay. They use the victim’s tendencies of people pleasing and play to their long-standing fear of being rejected or abandoned. They emphasize financial insecurity, custody of children, housing costs, and the impending judgement from friends and family as manipulations to not discard them.  After months, or years, of mind games and gaslighting, insecurities and worries, the situation may feel so overly complicated and overwhelming to the victim that they find it difficult to even think about or to describe what is going on to someone else. The victim may go through stages of bargaining, dreaming of maybes and false hopes, erroneously thinking that there will be change.  They wonder if they can remain friends, positively coparent, be amicable or even to reunite the future. “If only” they could get them to self-reflect and agree to therapy.  They wonder, “Maybe they will miss me when I’m gone and once again realize my worth”.

Since self-reflection is not possible for a narcissist, it will not happen. The victim is left rejected once again, disappointed, more lonely, more sad, more overwhelmed. Although hurting and mourning the loss of the relationship, it is difficult for the victim to reach out for support from others. Although there are so many conflicting feelings, they may still cling to the initial positive aspects of the relationship and can’t share with others the good memories.

Although made with good intentions, friends or family may make comments such as “Good riddance!”, or “You should be happy because you are better off without him/her”. Sometimes, it can be the opposite, when outsiders don’t see and didn’t experience the manipulation and abuse in the relationship, and so question or criticize them for leaving (or allowing the partner to leave) such a great relationship.

Also at play, is the fear of what their partner will do, especially if there is even the possibility of physical harm. There is also denial and hope. When they have been in a relationship for a long time, they develop feelings for their partner and always hope for those initial great qualities to come back, the ones that they saw when they first met them. Yet, they don’t seem to show up or very infrequently. It’s the fear of not knowing what the future holds. They have been in the relationship for such a long time.  That has been the financial security or stability of bills being paid, property and there was a lot tied in the relationship. But again, once they see it, once they take off the rose-coloured glasses, they awaken. It’s harder to push down those inner voices. And then the inner battle begins. That decision to leave is a tough one, fraught with a lot of pain and confusion. Hoping that if they leave, the narcissist will beg for them to stay.

Stage 6-Freedom!

Once the victim leaves and doesn’t have that critical and negative voice manipulating their reality, healing can begin.  The victim can start having thoughts that don’t include the toxic person in their life. Dreaming of a new future. That’s when problem solving can begin and goals can be set.  Gradually better decisions can be made for themselves. That’s when the doubts start going away. It takes time. Time for healing. When they start to think clearly, they can start to trust themselves again and start to get their instincts or intuition back. They start to feel better about themselves again and being in that space, they realize that this is what life is supposed to be. And once their head is clear, then the work begins around listening to themselves, challenging some of those negative thoughts and assumptions.

The inner critic is still there, and so it needs to be silenced. The positive thoughts need clear space to enter.  This is where a skilled therapist can be the best guide.

 

Four Seasons Counselling, and their specialized training, can help support you to know what to expect and how to prepare, managing each step along the way as you gain emotional and physical freedom.

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Blog by: W M Hope

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