The Cycle of Narcissistic Abuse
While it’s true that many marriages experience ups and downs, it’s important to understand that the cycle that happens in an abusive marriage is very different. Abusive marriages go through a pattern that repeats over and over. It is a cycle that is often marked by stages of idealization, devaluing, and discarding.
A key to breaking the cycle of an abusive marriage is to bring definition and understanding to what you are experiencing. Without clarity, many women find themselves trapped in an endless cycle of pain and confusion. Below is a description of each stage in the cycle of narcissistic abuse.
1. Idealization Stage – The Honeymoon
Narcissistic abusers target their victims and use a calculated grooming process to not only win over their trust and affection but also to get the victim bonded to them as quickly as possible. Through love bombing (grandiose pledges of love and affection, gifts) and future faking (painting a picture of future plans and dreams with you that they have no intention of following through on), they rush commitment, intimacy, and marriage. They use flattery and mirror what the victims find most important, pretending to possess those qualities while feigning sweetness, sometimes even innocence, hiding their true sinister nature.
All the while, the victim is unaware that the person they are falling in love with does not exist.
Often a narcissist will also groom the victim’s family and friends to cultivate a sense of trust and commitment, accelerating the bonding process with their victims. The fast pace of these relationships is simply because it’s very difficult for a narcissist to keep their façade up. Cracks in their carefully placed masks begin to surface over time. The sooner the victims are committed to their abuser, the harder it is for them to leave.
(It’s important to note that not all of these relationships happen fast, but it tends to be a common theme.)
2. Devalue Stage – Tension Builds
In this stage, the abuser will begin to:
- Minimize your feelings
- Ignore your boundaries
- Withhold affection
- Stonewall (refusing to engage with you)
- Dismiss your thoughts, feelings, and opinions
- Talk to you in a condescending tone
- Insult you under the guise of humor
- Isolate you through covert manipulation, guilt, and financial control.
They desire all the victim’s time and attention for supply. Supply is like a drug to a narcissist. It is your love, affection, and attention, as well as your pain, your tears, your confusion, your frustration, and your anger, that they feed on. The more out of control you feel inside, the more powerful, happy, and in control they feel. It’s a twisted dance to extract every ounce of energy from you until you are completely exhausted and drained mentally, emotionally, physically, and even spiritually.
Abusers will use gaslighting to confuse and cloud your reality while using triangulation to plant seeds of doubt to undermine you in the eyes of others. This sets you up to not be believed about being abused if you ever try to confide in anyone.
When an abuser displays intermittent reinforcement (inconsistent acts of kindness and love), the victim will often do all they can to avoid the mean side of their abuser and to coax back the sweet side that they first fell in love with. However, this sweet side was always an illusion though, a false self that the narcissist presented in order to entrap their victim.
Over the course of time, this sweet side of the abuser becomes more and more inconsistent until the narcissist eventually stops pretending to be sweet and loving at all. The victim is further confused, wondering where the person they fell in love with went. Often, cognitive dissonance (the inability to reconcile two conflicting perceptions) keeps victims trapped into believing the best version, albeit false, of their abuser. Most times, the natural impulse is to minimize the abuser’s behavior in an effort to hold onto the dream of what the relationship could be or to simply keep the peace.
3. Discard Stage – Tension Escalates
A narcissist needs you to be a mirror that reflects back to them a much more beautiful person than they are capable of being on their own. After all, they picked you because they viewed you as having value. They often target women who are successful, creative, and empathetic. Women who are not needy or demanding. Women who are loyal, forgiving, and have character and integrity—everything that a narcissist is not.
When their abusive behavior begins to alter the mirror they want you to hold up for them, and you can no longer reflect back to them what they demand, a narcissist will begin to devalue you, and the abuse escalates. Each time this cycle repeats, the abuse gets darker and more intense.
A narcissistic abuser may act out in some or all of the following ways:
- Act with contempt, cruelty and coercive force
- Loud or silent rage
- Deny abusive behaviors
- Invalidate or blame you for their betrayal and abuse
- Discard the victim temporarily or permanently
- More devious and intensified gaslighting
- Verbal and/or physical assault
The Cycle repeats
You have now entered back into the beginning of the cycle, and love bombing commences again. A narcissistic abuser will try to hoover (suck you back in just like a vacuum) you back into the toxic relationship.
After all the pain that has ensued, you may feel a welcome relief. Glimpses of the sweet person who you fell in love with start to flicker back to life. Confusion sets in, as you can’t reconcile how they have acted with who you now see in front of you. It’s as if they are Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.
It’s tempting to want to believe all of the excuses they use to justify, minimize, and dismiss their abusive behavior toward you. The person who has been so hurtful is now professing their undying love and promises of change. You may even feel that God has answered your prayers for breakthrough in your marriage.
Make no mistake, most times, their pledges of undying love or paltry attempts to prove they have now changed are not real.
This is an updated edition of a post originally published on Esther Company