Surviving Toxic Love: 4 Stages of Narcissistic Relationship

Learn to recognize the stages of narcissistic relationship and protect yourself from the toxic manipulation that defines most narcissistic relationships.

People high on narcissism feel self-important, feel entitled to special treatment, and often engage in vain or exhibitionistic self-promotion (Sedikides and Campbell, 2017).

The four stages of a narcissistic relationship reflect those traits of theirs as they increasingly drain their partners emotionally and mentally.

Narcissists will use many tricks to get their partners under their control so that they can use them to feed their egos and secure a constant source of narcissistic supply.

If you can recognize these stages at the outset, you quickly safeguard your emotional well-being before they put you through the dirty ways they reserve for an ex-partner.

stages of narcissistic relationship
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The 4 Stages of A Narcissistic Relationship

Narcissists search for the perfect people to fall in love with. They are attracted to trophy partners, whom they see as mirror images of their faultless selves and as a springboard for their own status (Grapsas, 2020, Seidman, 2016).

Here are the four stages or phases of a narcissistic relationship:

1. Idealization Phase: A Closer Look At The Narcissist’s “Love Bombing”

The idealization phase in a relationship with a narcissist can be exhilarating while also being deceiving.

Nearly everything feels perfect during this stage, as the narcissist behaves as if you are their ideal.

Now, a surprising finding from research.

  • In the early stages of a relationship, people often see their romantic partner as better than themselves. This is called “partner enhancement.” This helps them handle conflicts and disappointments better, expect less change from their partner, and have happier relationships.
  • Researchers found that narcissistic people do not enhance their partners much at any stage of their relationship (Czarna & Śmieja, 2022).
  • Narcissists instead manifest “self-enhancement” – they evaluate themselves more favorably than their partner – so, they are likely to experience relationship dissatisfaction and face relationship dissolution (Morry et al., 2014)

The narcissist will tell you that you complement them in every possible way, that their life feels complete after finding you, and that they do not need anyone else in their life ever.

The narcissist in this stage showers you with love, affection, and attention.

They will go out of their way to make you happy and feel loved and happy, often using grand gestures to create a fairytale-like atmosphere.

This stage, commonly called the “love bombing” phase, is when the narcissist is most likely to secretly manipulate their partner to get what they want.

“Narcissists are great con artists, and they know that when they first meet someone, they can make a good impression. As a result, they often attract people with their charm, only to later reveal their true colors.”

– Dr. Ramani Durvasula, Clinical Psychologist and Professor of Psychology

During this phase, the narcissist gives you the feeling that you are special and you are in control.

They tell you that they have found the perfect partner in you who fills the lacuna in their lives.

They fulfill all your needs and desires. They buy expensive gifts, plan extravagant dates, and use their charm and charisma to win your heart.

The narcissist’s manipulative tactics during this stage are often so subtle that the other person falling for them may be completely unaware of what is happening.

The narcissist will also try to mirror your interests, values, desires, and even your body language.

This mirroring, they know, can create in you a deeper sense of connection and make you feel as if you have met your soulmate.

They often present themselves as victims of past relationships, seeking your sympathy and support.

However, the narcissist cannot sustain this phase. Once they have won you over, they lose interest in trying to impress you, start seeing your flaws and imperfections, and eventually end the idealization phase.

The once loving and attentive partner becomes increasingly critical, distant, and controlling, as they set the stage for the next phase in the relationship: devaluation.

2. Devaluation Phase: The Narcissist’s Tactic to Diminish and Control

This is when the relationship takes a dark turn, and they reveal their true colors.

The devaluation phase is a slowly growing painful stage in a narcissistic relationship. This is when they start to assert their dominance and your victimhood.

Some truths from the research:

  • Narcissists put themselves above others (Park & Colvin, 2015; Rau, 2021).
  • They even prioritize themselves over their close others (Tortoriello, 2017; Roberts, 2018).
  • Narcissists feel that they contribute more to the relationship than their partners, and consider themselves more attractive and better than their partners (Campbell et al., 2002, Rohmann, 2011).

This devaluation phase marks the point when they indicate that they have had enough of trying to dance to your tunes and now want to be given the attention they believe they deserve.

One of the most apparent signs during this phase, they begin to put you down at every chance.

They constantly look for ways to belittle you, make your achievements seem useless, and gradually increase the frequency and intensity of their criticism and humiliation.

They unleash their volley of negative comments about your appearance, intelligence, abilities, and your family and friends, all to make a severe dent in your self-esteem.

Then they demand that you conform to their wishes and preferences, wearing clothes they approve of and behaving with others as they dictate.

This gradual turn by the narcissist makes you afraid of displeasing them, for they can humiliate you in any social situation, thereby giving them more control of the relationship. They try to isolate you from your family, friends, and colleagues.

You often wonder, “Is this the same person I fell in love with a few months back?”

They may start emotional withdrawal, become distant, cold, and unempathetic, and withhold their affection and emotional support.

You may bleed from an accidental cut, but they can look away.

This stage creates an intense state of confusion in you, making you doubt if they even want you in the relationship.

The narcissist may resort to giving you The Silent Treatment – a form of emotional abuse marked by a complete lack of communication.

They stubbornly refuse to answer your calls and reply to your texts, and if they do, they respond in monosyllables. They can behave like you don’t exist even when you are in the same room.

The devaluation stage can be incredibly damaging to your self-esteem and mental health.

Their constant criticism, emotional withdrawal, and controlling acts can lead to feelings of worthlessness, anxiety, and depression.

If you suspect the current spate of hurtful behavior is coming from a narcissist in the devalue phase, consult a therapist. They can help you rethink your thoughts, learn coping strategies, and safeguard yourself against further emotional trauma.

“The narcissist will always be looking for that next hit of supply, and if it’s not coming from their partner, they will get it from somebody else. Narcissistic relationships are very much about keeping the narcissist’s ego inflated.”

– Dr. Karyl McBride, Marriage and Family Therapist, and Author of ‘Will I Ever Be Good Enough?’

3. Discard Phase: The Narcissist’s Final Act of Emotional Cruelty

The discard phase marks the end of a relationship with a narcissist, as decided unilaterally by the narcissist.

Most often, they reject you emotionally and psychologically before doing so physically. This whole distancing act is designed to leave you feeling abandoned.

They begin this phase by becoming emotionally detached from you and losing empathy for you.

They often intensify their rude behavior, leaving you feeling utterly worthless, hopeless, and helpless. Then they increasingly withdraw from you, blaming you for being overly sensitive.

They stop asking you for anything and often curse you under their breath, block out all communication, and seem to see through you when you are talking to them.

They may start spending more time away from you, working longer hours, or engaging in social activities without you.

They stop spending time with you, even walking off when you approach them.

All this can be extremely distressing, and you may feel intense mental pain trying to make sense of their radical shift in nature.

You may wonder, “How can they hate me so much?”

In the discard phase, the narcissist may begin to idealize a new partner.

They may speak highly of someone else or even start dating someone new while still being with you.

To make things more heart-wrenching for you, they will leave ways open for you to catch them cheating on you. When caught, they will blame you squarely, claiming it’s you who makes them feel replaced, discarded, and abandoned.

The discard phase is not always a sudden, dramatic event, but can be a slow process unfolding over months and years. By and by, they lose interest in you and in the relationship.

However, once the narcissist reaches this stage, they are unlikely to reconsider or attempt to resolve issues. They may simply ghost you, leaving you feeling blindsided and emotionally devastated.

“The hardest part about leaving a narcissistic relationship is that you often don’t realize you’re in one until it’s too late. They’re masters of manipulation, and it’s not until you’re completely enmeshed that you see the truth.”

– Shannon Thomas, LCSW, and Author of ‘Healing from Hidden Abuse.’

Surviving the discard phase requires strength, support, and self-care. Reach out to friends, family, or a counselor to help you process the grief and pain of the loss of the relationship.

Focusing on self-love and self-compassion, and rebuilding self-esteem, can help you get through this phase and move forward.

4. Hoovering Phase: The Narcissist’s Attempt to Regain Control

Hoovering is a manipulative tactic employed by narcissists to lure their former partners back into the relationship, aiming to reestablish contact and regain control over them.

If the narcissist’s new relationship fails, or they feel you are better than their current partner, or if they simply want to keep you as a second narcissistic supply, they may begin the hoovering phase.

During the hoovering phase, the narcissist may apologize, request you to re-partner, and restart their love-bombing.

They may send non-stop text messages, make many phone calls, show up unexpectedly at the ex-partner’s home or workplace, or send gifts.

They may also resort to guilt-tripping, manipulation, or threats to elicit a response from their former partner.

On a deeper look, the hoovering phase can be triggered by any perceived threat to the narcissist’s ego.

They may feel envious and insecure at their ex-partner moving on with their life, finding a new partner, or getting into a better situation instead of feeling abandoned or rejected.

Hoovering serves to get the narcissist a second chance to wield control and power over their former partner.

Experts advise victims of narcissistic abuse to set and enforce strict boundaries to resist their hoovering attempts, and, if possible, cut off all contact with them.

Engaging with the narcissist during the hoovering phase may make you feel in control, but it is a prelude to later manipulation and abuse.

Learn how to respond to a narcissist’s hoovering attempts and avoid their traps.

“Narcissistic relationships are characterized by an excessive focus on the narcissist’s needs, often at the expense of the other person. Survivors of these relationships must learn to prioritize their own needs and well-being, which can be challenging after having been conditioned to cater to the narcissist’s demands.”

– Dr. Craig Malkin, Clinical Psychologist and Author of ‘Rethinking Narcissism.’

Final Words

Navigating a narcissistic relationship can be emotionally exhausting right from the start. To protect yourself, keep in mind these key messages:

  • Maintain strict boundaries with the narcissist at each phase of your relationship.
  • Have a support network of well-wishers to protect you from their manipulation and abuse.
  • Seek help from a counselor expert in NPD if you are unable to decide the future of your relationship.

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Author Bio: Written and researched by Sandip Roy — a medical doctor, psychology writer, and happiness researcher, who writes on mental well-being, happiness, positive psychology, and philosophy (especially Stoicism).

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