The narcissistic abuse cycle is a pattern of manipulation and calculated abuse the narcissist uses to confuse a partner and make them question their reality. The narcissist will start by idealizing the person, then devaluing them, before finally rejecting and discarding them. Each phase works in tandem with the other to keep someone entangled in the narcissist’s web.
What Is the Narcissistic Abuse Cycle?
Narcissistic abuse follows a specific cycle of idealization, devaluation, and rejection. Narcissists tend to deflect all of their feelings onto others because of the pain they feel about their own emotions. They too may have had narcissistic caregivers or parents or experienced some traumatic event that shaped their upbringing. However, this is not an excuse for the physical and emotional abuse inflicted on their victims.
Narcissists behave in certain ways because they are unlikely to consider their actions as problems. Until they are able to reflect on these behaviors, the narcissist will not change. Unfortunately, their victims are left feeling entirely hopeless and stuck in this cycle of abuse.1
Stage 1: Idealization
In the idealization phase, the relationship is new and everything feels wonderful. The excitement of this newness is alive and joy is overflowing. This is often referred to as the honeymoon stage. However, in narcissistic abuse cycles, this is considered idealization. The narcissist will put a partner on a pedestal and make them feel perfect or incapable of wrongdoing. This can feel nice at first, but it escalates quickly and becomes overpowering and overwhelming to the partner.2
The idealization phase may include these types of behaviors:
- Giving a lot of attention given to the partner
- Grandiose gestures
- Elaborate gifts and dates
- Discussing marriage early on
- Lack of boundaries
- Attempts to isolate partner in the name of love
- Quickly moving into intimacy
- A sense of ownership of the partner and relationship
Stage 2: Devaluation
After the honeymoon stage wears off, couples tend to form a routine that they can count on and establish together. Most couples will grow deeper in their intimacy and learn problem-solving skills as they continue to develop the relationship. However, the next phase of the narcissistic abuse cycle is devaluation in which the narcissist removes their partner from the pedestal. Now, the partner will feel worthless as the narcissist begins to put them down, possibly by using verbal or physical abuse and physical intimacy as a weapon. When confronted, the narcissist plays the role of the victim (known as narcissistic injury) and continues to devalue their partner.2
The devaluation phase may include behaviors like:
- Attempting to change their partner
- Increasing criticism and insults
- Narcissistic gaslighting
- Physical threats
- Poor or lack of communication
- Increased violation of boundaries
- Narcissistic triangulation
- Increased control over their partner
- Withholding physical, emotional, and sexual intimacy
Stage 3: Rejection
In a healthy relationship, disagreements and conflicts are navigated with grace and patience as both partners are capable of solving issues and moving forward together. In the rejection phase, the narcissist places all the blame and downfall of the relationship on their partner. The narcissist will discard their partner, especially if they are no longer getting their fill of ego-boosting attention and affirmations in the relationship. They are not interested in love and security. The narcissist in this scenario will complete their cycle of abuse and move on to the next victim.2
The rejection phase may include these types of behaviors:
- Feelings of contempt and rage
- Betraying the relationship
- Invalidating their partner’s emotions
- Placing the blame on their partner
- Playing the victim
- Physical, emotional, and verbal abuse
- Ending the relationship permanently or temporarily with attempts to continue this cycle of abuse
The Impact of the Narcissistic Abuse Cycle
The narcissist will continue to demoralize victims and use them as the scapegoat for the narcissist’s own dysfunctional feelings. Those who care for the narcissist tend to internalize feelings and accept blame, all while the narcissist portrays themselves as the victim.
The only option someone has is to decide whether or not they want to continue to be in a relationship. Sometimes, removing themselves from the equation and breaking up with the narcissist is the best option. However, it is likely that the victim has formed a trauma bond with the narcissist, which can be hard to break out of or even recognize. This further continues the damaging abusive cycle. When a partner has met their usefulness, the narcissist will discard the victim instantaneously or hurt them, which is a common behavior a narcissist does at the end of a relationship. The impacts on the survivor include severe emotional, psychological, and sometimes physical injuries, an experience often referred to as narcissistic abuse syndrome.3
It’s likely that many who have survived narcissist abuse experience:
- Sleep issues
- Eating issues
- Hygiene issues
How to Break the Cycle of Narcissistic Abuse
It’s no secret that trying to break free from and deal with a narcissist in your life will be hard. First, it’s important to set firm boundaries and understand the narcissist will try to push and test these limits. Don’t be fooled into thinking that your efforts will be appreciated. Rather, recognize what the relationship looks like from an objective lens, which may come from a therapist or loved one.
To further break away from the cycle of narcissist abuse, allow the narcissist to sit in their discomfort. Do not soothe their hurt feelings or ego at the expense of your own emotions. This could become another avenue for the cycle to perpetuate. The narcissist will only take, giving nothing in return. Second chances never work with narcissists. If they feel they are going to lose you from their life, the narcissist will do what they need to do to ensure you fall right back into their trap.4
Healing From Narcissistic Abuse
Recovering from narcissistic abuse is a long process that takes time, so it is critical you allow yourself grace during this time. Make sure you have a safe environment to begin healing, seek support from loved ones, and consider seeking therapy. It can be challenging to talk about, but processing your experience is beneficial.
Given the emotionally volatile and abusive nature of narcissistic relationships, it’s important to seek help immediately if you feel you are in danger. You do not need to endure any kind of abuse and are not obligated to stay or try to work things out. Abuse should never be tolerated and a therapist can help normalize this until you really believe it.5
If you are dealing with a cycle of narcissist abuse in a relationship, talking to a therapist who specializes in this area can make a big difference in how you feel. Together, you and your therapist will develop a plan to help you through this situation and establish a safety plan if you feel you are in danger. Remember, you can break free from this cycle.