Narcissistic Relationship Cycle – 4 Seasons of Torture

— Researched and reviewed by Dr. Sandip Roy.

Narcissists can be hard to understand and resist. The four stages of a narcissistic relationship cycle are a slippery slope of emotional torture.

Ultimately, they make you depend on them so much that you cannot decide what’s best for yourself.

Even when you break up, the trauma bond they bind you with makes a part of you strongly want to go back to them.

The Narcissistic Relationship Cycle

Understanding the typical narcissistic relationship cycle – love bombing, devaluation, discard, and the final act of hoovering – can help you notice it at first sight and protect yourself from these emotional leeches.

1. Love Bombing: The Dreamlike Beginning

Love bombing or the idealization phase in a narcissistic relationship refers to an intense phase where the narcissist overwhelms their target with affection, extravagant gestures, constant attention, and excessive early communication for control and self-enhancement.

To the uninitiated, it may seem like a fairy tale come true. Narcissists use this phase to create the illusion of a perfect relationship, carefully masking their deep-seated insecurities.

Let’s dissect this phenomenon and understand its toxic dynamic.

  • What it is: Love bombing is where the narcissist inundates the target with attention, affection, and extravagant gestures.
  • Why it happens: Driven by the narcissist’s insecurities, it’s designed to draw you into their fantasy world. It serves as a defensive mechanism rooted in the narcissist’s grandiosity. It protects their fragile ego and helps them feel in control of the relationship.
  • How it feels: It’s like a whirlwind of charm, charisma, and seeming perfection.

Start of Love Bombing

  • Magnetic Allure: Love bombing is often painted with phrases such as a “magical connection” or “whirlwind courtship.” Through the narcissist’s potent mix of charm, charisma, and confidence, it feels as though you’ve stepped into a dream. This stage frequently dazzles with extravagant tokens of affection, from unexpected travel to thoughtful gifts and ceaseless communication.
  • Being Idolized, Yet Vulnerable: Within the love bombing phase, you might feel revered, set upon a pedestal. But it’s worth noting that being so high up can be unsettling. The inevitable fall, when the narcissist’s idealization begins to wane, is often jarring and painful.
  • Dismissing the Warning Signs: The intoxication of the relationship can cloud judgment. Even if there’s an inner voice suggesting things are progressing too swiftly, it’s easy to silence those concerns, especially when observers around you are captivated by the relationship’s gleaming facade.

Strutzenberg & Wiersma-Mosley, 2017, explored love-bombing among 484 young adults. Her findings linked Love-Bombing with narcissism, specific attachment styles, and increased media use in relationships, highlighting its use by those with high narcissism and low self-esteem.

Evolution of Love Bombing

  • Initial Intensity and Decline: Love bombing, while intense, is typically short-lived, typically lasting 6–12 weeks. As the narcissist senses your unwavering commitment, there’s a palpable shift. This leads to the devaluation phase where criticisms arise, diminishing your worth in their eyes. The culmination is the discard phase, marked by decreased attention, hostile messages, and a growing sense of unease.
  • A Vicious Cycle: The allure of love bombing can be likened to an addiction, especially as you find yourself yearning for that initial euphoria. Beware, as some narcissists, sensing this vulnerability, might re-initiate the love bombing after a breakup, ensnaring you once more.
  • Diminishing Returns: With each cycle, the intensity of love bombing wanes. The once extravagant gestures might dwindle to the point where even minimal affection feels rewarding, having been starved of genuine emotional connection for so long.
  • Beyond Material Gestures: It’s crucial to recognize that love bombing extends beyond material gifts. It can manifest as possessive behaviors. Narcissists might demand incessant communication and quality time, which, while seemingly endearing at first, can quickly become suffocating.

Love bombing starts from first contact, with the aim of quickly securing you as narcissistic supply. So, recognize the behavior early and avoid falling into the narcissistic relationship cycle at this point.

Healthy relationships are built on mutual respect, empathy, and genuine connection, not extravagant gestures or control.

Narcissistic Relationship Cycle

2. Devaluation: The Hurtful Reality

Devaluation is a pivotal phase in narcissistic relationships. They simply detach from you, physically and emotionally.

It’s marked by a stark shift from adoration to contempt. What once felt like unwavering affection gives way to criticisms, scornful remarks, and emotional withdrawal.

This often jolting transition unveils the narcissist’s internal turmoil and their end of patience, projecting their self-loathing onto their unsuspecting partner.

  • What it is: The shift from being placed on a pedestal to facing criticism and contempt.
  • Why it happens: When the narcissist’s fantasy wanes, their self-loathing is projected onto their partner.
  • How it manifests: Emotional turmoil, constant criticisms, and feeling bewildered by the sudden shift.

Start of Devaluation

  • From Adoration to Contempt: The shift to devaluation starts once the intoxicating love bombing phase fades out. The compliments now morph into criticisms and scornful remarks. Affection, which was abundant, starts to wane.
  • Emotional Projection: A significant driver behind this change is the narcissist’s internal struggles. Their inherent self-loathing gets redirected onto their partner, creating a tumultuous emotional environment.
  • Jarring Transitions: The onset of devaluation often catches partners off-guard. It typically surfaces once they’ve become comfortable and settled in the relationship, making the sudden pivot from warmth to criticism particularly bewildering.
  • Personal Vulnerabilities: Individuals from backgrounds marked by invalidation or past narcissistic abuse may be especially susceptible to the highs and lows of such relationships. For many, the feeling of finally being seen and acknowledged by the narcissist is powerful, especially if they’ve grappled with feelings of invisibility in prior relationships.

Evolution of Devaluation

  • The Cycle Continues: Devaluation doesn’t remain static; it evolves. The initial criticisms become more frequent and cutting, and the moments of affection become rarer.
  • Anticipating the End: As devaluation intensifies, the relationship is ushered into the discard phase. This period is marked by stark emotional distance, hostile interactions, and a palpable tension. It feels cold, often leaving the partner feeling rejected and discarded.
  • The Victim Play: It’s not uncommon for narcissists to manipulate the narrative in their favor. Many will position it, so their partner feels compelled to initiate the breakup. This allows the narcissist to maintain a victim persona, deflecting any blame and responsibility.
  • Seeking Answers: Partners often seek closure, attempting to understand the drastic shift in dynamics. Yet, this pursuit frequently proves fruitless, as narcissists seldom acknowledge, let alone understand, the pain they inflict.

3. Discarding: The Emotional Abandonment

Discarding is a suddenly served cold cut. The narcissist distances themselves and cuts ties, often without closure or explanation.

This sharp break is not just an emotional withdrawal but a complete severance, creating a void in the relationship.

This disconcerting casting aside shift is driven by the narcissist’s desire for novelty or a need to exert total control, leaving the discarded one feeling confused and abandoned.

  • What it is: The narcissist often abruptly ends the relationship or becomes cold and indifferent.
  • Why it happens: Triggered by boredom or a need for something novel.
  • How it feels: Cold, abrupt, and often leaving the partner feeling lost and abandoned.

“When discarding a partner, they are ultimately discarding parts of themselves they are dissatisfied with by not addressing the realities which may be being presented to them.”

– Vickie Howard (2019) Recognising Narcissistic Abuse and the Implications

Start of Discard

  • The Distinct Change: As the devaluation phase evolves, the relationship inevitably progresses into the discard phase. This stage is marked by a stark reduction in attention, increasingly hostile messages, and a prevailing sense of unease.
  • Cold Abandonment: At the heart of the discard phase is the narcissist’s act of pushing the partner away, often with an air of indifference or even cruelty. This isn’t merely a phase of neglect; it typically feels like an active rejection.
  • Underlying Triggers: Various underlying emotions and desires fuel this shift. It could be the narcissist’s growing boredom with the current relationship, an increasing sense of contempt for the partner, or a yearning for novelty and new experiences.

Evolution of Discard

  • A Calculated Victimhood: One of the most challenging aspects of the discard phase is the way it often concludes. Many narcissists will manipulate the situation so that their partner feels compelled to end the relationship. This maneuver allows the narcissist to adopt a victim’s role, portraying themselves as wronged, even if their behavior was the catalyst.
  • The Emotional Toll: The coldness of the discard phase is particularly jarring. Partners feel abruptly abandoned, left grappling with the stark contrast from the earlier phases of the relationship.
  • Seeking Closure and Clarity: In the aftermath, the victim-partners seek closure and explanations, wanting to understand the reasons for the drastic change. This quest for answers, unfortunately, rarely provides clarity. Narcissists, entrenched in their self-centered perspectives, seldom offer genuine insights into why they broke up. And you can forget about their ever acknowledging the pain or the damage they caused.

4. Hoovering: The Manipulative Return

Hoovering in a narcissistic relationship is when the narcissist tries to pull you back in after a break or a cool-down period.
It can feel like the love bombing phase happening all over again, with attention, affection, and possibly gifts flooding in.

For many, it might seem like a genuine attempt at reconciliation. However, it’s often just another tactic for the narcissist to regain control and keep the relationship cycle spinning.

  • What it is: A tactic to draw the target back into the narcissist’s web, sometimes resembling love bombing.
  • Why it happens: To regain control, feel victorious, or respond to a perceived threat, like the target moving on.
  • How it manifests: From insincere promises of change to showering affection, it’s a potent mix of guilt, hope, and manipulation.

Start of Hoovering

  • Understanding Hoovering: At its core, hoovering is a manipulative tactic where narcissists seek to pull you back into the relationship. It’s crucial for those familiar with narcissistic relationships to recognize this technique to protect themselves.
  • Re-engagement Tactics: Hoovering typically involves a revival of the love bombing phase. Narcissists will flood you with affection, renewed promises, and gestures that mirror the relationship’s initial stages, aiming to exploit your desire for validation and any lingering guilt from the breakup.
  • The Deception: While hoovering can often mimic the idealization phase and rekindle hope, it’s essential to remember that it’s still part of the same toxic cycle that led to pain before.
  • Familiar Patterns: The emotional landscape of narcissistic relationships can be reminiscent of a roller coaster, which, for some, can evoke familiar sensations from past experiences or childhood, making the pull of hoovering even stronger.

Evolution of Hoovering

  • Empathic Vulnerability: Empaths, with their heightened sensitivity, can be particularly susceptible to hoovering. The weight of guilt post-breakup can make them prime targets for narcissistic manipulation.
  • Not Just About Romance: Hoovering extends beyond romantic dynamics. It can manifest in family environments and workplaces, where narcissistic individuals might wield guilt, control, or fear as tools to reel you back into their influence.
  • Underlying Motivations: At the root, narcissists hoover to reassert control and feel triumphant. In professional settings, this could translate to promises of promotions or better roles, but the underlying toxic dynamics often remain unchanged.
  • Resisting the Pull: The key to breaking free lies in recognizing hoovering for what it truly is: a continuation of the narcissistic cycle. Succumbing to it merely perpetuates the cycle, setting the stage for further pain. Embracing self-compassion and prioritizing one’s well-being are essential steps to resist the allure of hoovering and chart a path toward healthier relational dynamics.

Breaking Free From The Narcissistic Relationship Cycle

  1. Awareness is Key: Recognizing the distinct phases, from love bombing to hoovering, is vital to guard against the narcissistic cycle.
  2. Prioritize Self-Compassion: Rooting in self-compassion offers clarity. This stance means valuing personal well-being above the maneuvers of the narcissist.
  3. Seek Genuine Connections: Authentic relationships don’t lean on overpowering beginnings. Differentiating true affection from narcissistic allure is crucial.
  4. Understand Vulnerability: Empaths or individuals from families with narcissistic histories might be more susceptible.
  5. Recognize Emotional Traps: Hope and fear can bind one in the cycle, but comprehending their manipulative use can empower escape.
  6. Embrace Boundary Setting: Knowledge of these cycles is essential, yet actively setting boundaries and emphasizing personal well-being is the key to liberation.
  7. Maintain Perspective: Even when pulled back into the cycle, it’s essential to retain an objective viewpoint, understanding that a narcissist’s behaviors reflect their issues, not the worth of the target.

Breaking free from a narcissistic relationship cycle requires awareness and courage. While it might feel safe and tempting to go back to them, especially when the narcissist plays the victim, you must resist.

Beware, your being highly empathetic and forgiving doesn’t mean sacrificing your mental peace and emotional health.

Make yourself remember the past rough times more than the future times you think you can set things right.

Final Words

Twenge & Campbell, 2003, found that narcissists displayed heightened anger and aggression after social rejection compared to non-narcissists. The narcissists responded aggressively both directly to rejecters and indirectly to third parties, but did not show such behavior after social acceptance. Self-esteem had little impact on narcissistic rage and aggression.

Finally, in both family and professional environments, challenging a narcissist’s authority can lead to toxic fallout. However, recognizing their complex power plays and setting strict boundaries with them can go a long way to safeguard your well-being and professional dignity.

You cannot fix a narcissist. That’s the job of therapists, provided the narcissist seeks help.

Don’t judge yourself by their standards, and stay open for healthy relationships.

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