Recognize the stages of narcissistic abuse, get insights into the destructive patterns of narcissistic cruelty, and break free to heal from emotional harm.
The narcissistic abuse cycle is a pattern of abusive conduct that is frequent in narcissistic relationships.
While not all narcissists have Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD), its hallmark signs are an inflated sense of self-importance, a strong need for admiration, and a lack of empathy.
Let’s find out how to recognize the stages of the narcissistic abuse cycle, and break free from its damaging claws.
What Is A Narcissistic Abuse Cycle?
The narcissistic abuse cycle is a recurring sequence of behavior by a person with a narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) in personal relationships or at work. Each cycle goes through four stages of idealization, devaluation, discard, and hoovering.
It can cause severe and lasting emotional damage to those in a relationship with a narcissist.
It can leave the abuse survivor with feelings of hopelessness and helplessness long after the narcissistic relationship has ended.
4 Stages of The Narcissistic Abuse Cycle: IDDH
The narcissistic abuse cycle typically consists of four stages:
- I – Idealization,
- D – Devaluation,
- D – Discard, and
- H – Hoovering.
Understanding these stages can help you identify when you are in an abusive relationship and provide you with the tools to leave the narcissist, even when you have no money.
The first stage of the narcissistic abuse cycle is the idealization.
This stage is often popularly called the love-bombing phase.
This is the stage where the narcissist puts their partner on a pedestal, showering them with compliments, love, and attention.
They may seem like the perfect partner, and the victim may feel like they have finally found true love.
If you look closely, during this stage, narcissists may make you feel guilty for spending time with other people in your social circle, and will often violate your boundaries and personal space.
“The love bombing at the beginning was intense. Constant texts, long calls, deep discussions, lots of gifts, he even wrote a song about me and had his band mates help him record it. Introduced me to his friends, family, parents within a month of us deciding to actually start dating. It was a whirlwind. He called me his soulmate. Declared his love for me.”– Covert Narcissist Info (Insta)
The second stage of the narcissistic abuse cycle is the devaluation.
This is the stage where the narcissist begins to tear their partner down, criticizing their behavior, appearance, and opinions.
It can include periodic shows of unexplained aggression, deliberate gaslighting, demands for obedience, bitter criticism, physical attacks, abandonment, and attempts to socially isolate the victim from her friends and family.
The victim may feel confused and hurt by this sudden change in behavior, and may try to win the narcissist’s affection by changing themselves.
A narcissist can falsely pin actions on you and then force you to accept that you did them until you begin to question your own recollection of events. This form of psychological manipulation is called narcissistic gaslighting.
Gaslighting can make you start to doubt your own memory and question your sanity.
Some of the ways that narcissists devalue their victims are:
- Veiled criticism
- Ridicule and humiliation
- Comparisons with others
- Backhanded compliments
- Excuses for their bad behavior
- Lack of empathy and validation
- Mind games that seem harmless
- Zero-Sum or Zero-Win situations
Some narcissists are extremely cruel and physically violent during the devaluation stage.
“The minute I expressed an opposing opinion or a dislike of something he did was the minute the devaluing started. Then the threats like him saying he had one foot out the door or he’s going to flake on our relationship started. I’d be given the silent treatment only for the love bombing to return stronger. Then, the rules: I was not allowed to discuss my feelings because unless he felt the same way, I was wrong. I could never get truly close to him because his mood could change on a dime. He’d tell me I deserved him one day; the next, he’d say I was almost perfect. This alters your brain chemistry. The chaos is addicting. It takes a traumatic event to shake you loose. Once you’re free, the withdrawals start. It’s a battle not to go back. It’s painful. It takes time. Then, slowly, the fog clears and you see them for what they are.”
The third stage of the narcissistic abuse cycle is the discard or rejection.
The narcissist may simply end the relationship without any explanation, leaving the victim feeling confused, discarded, and abandoned.
Another way the narcissist behaves in this stage is by ghosting, which is when they simply disappear without any explanation and become incommunicado.
The victim is left feeling unworthy of the narcissist. They may begin to doubt their self-worth and may succumb to overthinking and despair.
A narcissist’s victim in the discard stage often blames themselves, “They left me beacuse I’m wasn’t good enough. I’m not good enough for anyone. I am good for nothing.”
According to a 2017 study, people with narcissistic personality disorder are successful in short-term relationships, but have difficulties maintaining long-term partnerships.
In short-term relationships (like dating and early-stage partnerships), narcissists are driven by Admiration. But in long-term relationships, they are driven by Rivalry.
Narcissistic Rivalry is defined as narcissists’ tendency to protect themselves from a negative self-view by belittling others (antagonistic self-protection).
“Now, the ending: I was suddenly pushed aside, as though my worth had vanished overnight. One day I was the center of his world, and the next, I was an afterthought. It felt as if he had discarded me like a used object. I tried to understand what went wrong, but his coldness was unfathomable. I was given silent treatments, and my attempts to reconnect were futile. It was a harsh awakening. The realization hit me hard, like a freight train. It’s a cruel twist, a harsh departure from all those promises of undying love. There are moments of intense pain, days of confusion, but there’s also a growing sense of freedom. Gradually, I start to regain my self-worth.”
The final stage of the narcissistic abuse cycle is hoovering.
Hoovering is the narcissist’s way to try to return you into the relationship, promising to change and promising to never hurt you again.
They might put up a miserable figure of themselves missing you. You may take their promises as genuine and consider going back to them.
They may move you by their pitiful state and push you into deciding to return. To sway your opinion further, they will start their love-bombing and idealization.
Then, when you begin to feel secure in the relationship, they will start to devalue you again, and you will find yourself caught in the painful phase of the narcissistic abuse cycle once again.
“And then, the comeback: Just when I thought I was finally free, there he was, trying to sweep me back into his chaotic world. His messages and calls were persistent, as if nothing had happened. He seemed to have transformed back into the charming person I first met. Apologies, promises of change, grand gestures – it was a whirlwind of manipulation. It was almost tempting, like a moth drawn to a flame. But, I had been through this before. I recognized the pattern, the ploy to reel me back into the cycle of abuse. It was a struggle, a tug of war between my heart and my mind. But I stood firm, reminding myself of the pain, the heartache. I saw through the smokescreen and recognized his actions for what they truly were – a desperate attempt to regain control.”
Breaking Free From The Narcissistic Abuse Cycle
Breaking free of the narcissistic abuse cycle can be a difficult and long process.
Here are some tips for saving yourself from this damaging pattern:
- Seek the help of a professional therapist or counselor.
- Seek support from trusted friends and family members.
- Create a safety plan, including a plan for leaving the relationship.
- Educate yourself about narcissistic personality disorder and the narcissistic abuse cycle.
- Surround yourself with positive, supportive people who believe in your worth and value.
Understanding the stages of the cycle and why you feel trapped can help you leave the relationship and move forward on a healthy path of recovery.
- Mental illness is not an excuse for abuse. Even a diagnosed NPD has no right to abuse you.
- Never excuse narcissism by explaining it away that you tolerate it because they are mentally ill.
Years of narcissistic abuse cycles may continue to devastate you long after the relationship is over. To get over the gnawing sense of shame that can linger for a long time:
- Mentally detach from the narcissist by realizing that the shame they have given you to own is exclusively theirs.
- Remind yourself constantly that you have decided you will no longer carry their shame on your shoulders.
Why is it so hard to leave an abusive relationship with a narcissist?
Victims often feel trapped in narcissistic relationships, unable to leave, because the narcissist has set up a trauma bond with them, creating an addiction-like emotional attachment and psychological dependence.
Trauma bonding makes the victim distrust their own ability to live and function independently without the narcissist. It also keeps them hoping that their abuser will change to become compassionate, loving, and kind.
Narcissists also make their victims feel ashamed for their many behaviors. It is actually their own shame that they project on their victim.
As a result, the victim feels ashamed of being stupid, inadequate, and impractical, making it difficult for them to leave the narcissist despite continued abuse.
Narcissists also fill the victim with pre-emptive shame by telling them, “I know you will leave me someday, the betrayer and deserter that you are.” This makes the victim believe that if they leave, it will be branded a betrayal.
What are the long-term effects of narcissistic abuse?
Long-term effects of narcissistic abuse may include feelings of confusion, shame, guilt, low self-esteem, and helplessness. The victim might question whether they are misinterpreting the narcissist’s illness as abuse. Victims may need psychological counseling to recover from emotional trauma and to rebuild their self-esteem and confidence.
If you or someone you know is in an abusive relationship, know that there is hope and help available.
Please seek support from friends and professionals whenever you feel you can’t handle it on your own.
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Author Bio: Researched and reviewed by Dr. Sandip Roy — a medical doctor and psychology writer, with a unique focus on mental well-being, positive psychology, narcissism, and Stoicism. His empathic expertise has helped many mental abuse survivors find happiness again. Co-author of ‘Critique of Positive Psychology and Positive Interventions’.
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