If you’ve survived a narcissistic relationship, this post contains 21 stages of a narcissist relationship that will make you feel seen.
- Narcissism as a Coping Mechanism versus Narcissism as a Personality Disorder
- 21 Stages of a Narcissist Relationship
- Top 21 Practical Steps to Recover After Narcissistic Abuse
- Get Closure After A Narcissistic Relationship
- Grieving a Relationship With a Narcissist: 5 Stages of Grief After a Breakup
- Change Your Life
- FREE Breakup Recovery Worksheets
Narcissism as a Coping Mechanism versus Narcissism as a Personality Disorder
Today, the words narcissism and narcissistic are widely used in everyday conversation to refer to someone who is extremely self-absorbed.
This informal adaptation of a clinical term could be compared to the use of the word depressed. Many people use that word to describe their feelings of sadness. This is very different from clinical depression, which is a serious disorder.
Narcissism as a Coping Mechanism
Self-protection strategies or coping mechanisms represent unconscious psychological strategies that aim to shield us from our wounded child’s negative feelings and thoughts.
These coping mechanisms may include:
- Binge eating
- Overreacting when you feel even slightly rejected, dismissed, or abandoned.
- Playing the victim
- Playing the martyr
- Holding onto resentments
- Blaming others
- Procrastination and using distractions
- avoidance and withdrawal,
Narcissism can also be a coping mechanism. It’s not healthy, yet it’s extremely common.
In this sense, narcissism is not a personality disorder but an outcome of being raised by less-than-perfect parents.
Narcissism as a Personality Disorder
Outwardly, someone with NPD appears to be a self-obsessed individual who thinks they’re the most important person in the room. But this demonstration of grandeur and flawlessness is nothing more than a self-protection strategy to suppress the wounded child’s struggle with feelings of worthlessness, deep insecurity, and inferiority.
According to the DSM-5 Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, narcissistic personality disorder erepresents “A pervasive pattern of grandiosity (in fantasy or behavior), need for admiration, and lack of empathy, beginning by early adulthood and present in a variety of contexts, as indicated by five (or more) of the following:
1. Has a grandiose sense of self-importance (e.g., exaggerates achievements and talents, expects to be recognized as superior without commensurate achievements).
2. Is preoccupied with fantasies of unlimited success, power, brilliance, beauty, or ideal love.
3. Believes that he or she is “special” and unique and can only be understood by, or should associate with, other special or high-status people (or institutions).
4. Requires excessive admiration.
5. Has a sense of entitlement (i.e., unreasonable expectations of especially favorable treatment or automatic compliance with his or her expectations).
6. Is interpersonally exploitative (i.e., takes advantage of others to achieve his or her own ends).
7. Lacks empathy: is unwilling to recognize or identify with the feelings and needs of others.
8. Is often envious of others or believes that others are envious of him or her.
9. Shows arrogant, haughty behaviors or attitudes.”
In this sense, someone with NPD doesn’t just cause problems in other people’s lives, the person who has the disorder experiences distress and upset as well.
Read More: 13 Traits to Help You Spot a Narcissist Early On — and How You Can Defend Yourself Against One
21 Stages of a Narcissist Relationship
Stage 1: Attraction
The narcissist attracts their victim by making them believe they have everything they’ve always been seeking – love and acceptance.
During this stage, the narcissist love bombs their victim by showering them with flattering comments, romantic messages, and gifts.
Stage 2: Illusion
The narcissist is closely studying their victim, trying to figure out what they need and desire.
They would make their victim believe that they like the same things, that they can give them everything they’re seeking – essentially painting themselves as their soul mate.
Truth is, the narcissist is incapable of love. They don’t see other people for who they are. They either idealize them (and feel special by proxy) or devalue them.
Whatever the narcissist is giving at this stage is not genuine and is temporary.
Stage 3: Devaluation
Once the narcissist hooks their victim into their toxic web, they won’t feel the need to fake their love anymore.
They, then, begin devaluing their victim in order to crush their self-esteem and control them.
What makes their abuse so subtle is the way the narcissist would also give validation alongside their putdowns.
It leaves the victim feeling confused and it further strengthens the toxic attachment that forms between an abused and their victim.
Stage 4: Trauma Bonding
Trauma bond is a highly addictive attachment to the people who have hurt you.
Although the narcissist is hurting their victim, they’re also offering fake validation and approval.
Through this cycle, the victim learns that the narcissist is the one who relieves their pain, failing to recognize that the narcissist is the very person who caused their pain in the first place.
Stage 5: Control
By now, the victim has become “addicted” to the narcissist’s approval.
The narcissist would use this attachment to control the victim to do whatever they want.
They may monopolize their victim’s time and energy and isolate them from other people in their life.
The victim becomes the caretaker of the narcissist, in exchange for pseudo-love.
Stage 6: Never Satisfied
No matter how much the victim does and gives, they never seem to be able to help the narcissist.
Although the narcissist would claim they need their victim’s support and love, deep inside, they don’t see anything wrong with them.
Thus there is nothing the narcissist needs to change or fix. If anything it’s always the world’s fault.
Instead, the narcissist is happy with the attention and the sense of power they have over their victim.
Stage 7: Defeat and Denial
The victim begins to lose hope that they can help or fix the narcissist.
They feel defeated, but not enough to walk away.
The victim would hold onto any fake promises they’re given. They choose to believe what they hear and not what they see.
They’re in denial because acknowledging the reality of things is painful.
Stage 8: Trapped
At some point, the victim begins to feel trapped.
Nothing they do is enough to get the narcissist’s approval.
They begin to feel afraid to voice any concerns, needs or desires they have. They’ve learned that doing any of that is just not safe.
By now, the narcissist has been implementing every emotionally abusive tactic (guilt-tripping, shaming, criticizing, invalidating, etc.) to crush their sense of self-worth.
The victim is living a state of anxiety, yet because of how attached they became, the idea of leaving sounds even more painful than the abuse they’re experiencing.
Stage 9: Resistance
The victim starts speaking up, which threatens the narcissist’s control.
As the narcissist is being confronted with the hurtful things they did or said, they refuse to accept responsibility or validate the victim’s experience.
Stage 10: Gaslighting
As the victim tried to speak up, the narcissist will try to project all their flaws into their victim and gaslight them to believe that “it’s all in their heads”.
They will minimize the victim’s experience and invalidate it.
The narcissist genuinely believes that everything is as it’s supposed to be and that the victim is the one who has changed.
Stage 11: Blame-shifting
Along with invalidating the victim’s experience and gaslighting them, the narcissist will shift the blame onto their victim.
The narcissist will never take responsibility for their role in what happens to them. It’s always less painful to focus instead on other people’s faults.
It’s not difficult for a narcissist to find something to blame you for.
Stage 12: Self-Blame
As a result of all the emotionally abusive tactics being employed, eventually, the victim starts to blame themselves.
The logic goes like this: If it’s not the narcissist’s fault, then it must be theirs.
Stage 13: Confusion
At this stage, the victim is feeling lost and confused.
They’ve been working so hard to make things work, give the narcissist what they need, improve themselves, etc. but nothing is working.
The victim doesn’t want to rock the boat and so they’re not ready yet to come out of denial and face the fact that they’ve been abused.
Instead, they try to rationalize what’s going on in the relationship as normal, simply, because they don’t understand it.
Stage 14: Survival Mode
Although the victim is feeling sad and anxious all the time, they’re still trying to cope.
They are in survival mode, walking on eggshells
They’re trying not to do anything that will upset the narcissist.
They don’t feel they can cope with any more rage, belittling, silent treatment, or any other tactic the narcissist uses to punish them.
Stage 15: Coming Out of Denial
At some point, the victim will realize that they’re in a relationship with a narcissist.
This may take hitting a rock bottom which gives them no choice but to come out of their denial.
Without the shield of denial, it can be devastating for the victim to realize that the relationship has been fake and one-sided.
Stage 16: Acknowledgement of Abuse
This is when the victim begins to reflect on every incident from the past and begins to acknowledge the ways they’ve been abused by the narcissist.
They’re feeling less confused, yet devastated at the realization that what they thought of as expressions of love and affection, were in fact abuse.
Stage 17: Taking the Power Back
The victim is filled now with righteous anger.
That anger inspires them to stand up to the narcissist and protect themselves.
Stage 18: Discard
Either the narcissist or the victim will discard the other.
The victim may feel enough courage to walk away.
Or the narcissist may feel threatened and choose to leave before the victim leaves them.
Stage 19: Healing
This is when the victim starts their healing journey.
They learn to listen to and validate their own emotions.
They start prioritizing their needs and desires.
Stage 20: Hoovering
The term hoovering is used in relationships to represent the vacuuming up ofany happiness or positivity the other person may be experiencing.
The narcissist would reach out suddenly and without warning, claim they recognize their toxic behavior and will change, and may even threaten to commit suicide or harm themselves.
The goal here is to keep their victim from moving on and reclaim their control over them.
It’s important for the victim to set firm boundaries and follow no contact rule.
Stage 21: Moving On
This is when the victim realizes that they’re no longer a victim.
They get back in touch with themselves, having learned the hard way how important it is to put yourself first.
They realize that the only true source of love and validation comes from within.
FREE Breakup Recovery Worksheets
- Portions of this article were adapted from the book Healing from a Narcissistic Relationship, © 2017 by Margalis Fjelstad. All rights reserved.
- Portions of this article were adapted from the book Healing from a Narcissistic Relationship, © 2017 by Margalis Fjelstad. All rights reserved.
- You Probably Think this Paper’s About You: Narcissists’ Perceptions of their Personality and Reputation – PMC (nih.gov)
- Narcissism Driven by Insecurity, Not Grandiose Sense of Self, New Psychology Research Shows (nyu.edu)
- Narcissism study sheds new light on the relationship between grandiose and vulnerable subtypes (psypost.org)
- Study shows Narcissistic Personality Disorder may have a biological component – UChicago Medicine
- Study Finds Link Between Narcissism and Aggression (verywellmind.com)
- A Study of Narcissism, Affiliation, Intimacy, and Power Motives among Students in Business Administration – Lynne Carroll, 1987 (sagepub.com)
- There Are Two Types of Narcissist, And The Difference Is Crucial, Research Shows (sciencealert.com)
- Effects of Narcissistic Abuse (verywellmind.com)
- The Effect of Pathological Narcissism on Interpersonal and Affective Processes in Social Interactions – PMC (nih.gov)
- 12 Signs You Might Have Narcissistic Victim Syndrome (healthline.com)
- Narcissistic personality disorder – Symptoms and causes – Mayo Clinic
- Frontiers | The Higher the Score, the Darker the Core: The Nonlinear Association Between Grandiose and Vulnerable Narcissism | Psychology (frontiersin.org)
- (PDF) Narcissistic Personality Disorder: Impact on Relationships (researchgate.net)
- Mediation effect of narcissism on the relationship between empathy and the quality of interpersonal relationships – ScienceDirect
- Narcissism: 5 Signs to Help You Spot Narcissistic Behavior (webmd.com)
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At the end of a relationship, a narcissist will often spiral down a long-winded gauntlet of manipulation tactics. They may blame you for causing the relationship to fail, work hard to keep you to stay with them, make lofty promises to change their behavior, or badmouth you to everyone around them.
Recovering from narcissistic abuse takes time, so you will have to remain patient. This process could take months or even years, but it's worth all of the hard work and effort. You can and will move on to find healthier and happier connections with others.
- Allow yourself to grieve. Go in to your feelings; dont try to avoid them. ...
- Challenge your negative beliefs. ...
- Put the responsibility back on the other person. ...
- Learn the life lessons. ...
- Move forward with your life.
In general, it may involve intense emotional reactions and a tendency toward vindictive behaviors, but it could also lead to depression and withdrawal. Narcissistic collapse isn't a permanent occurrence once it happens. Typically, the emotional pain will decrease and the person may return to feeling their usual.
They will bombard their exes with affection and attention
Some narcissists understand this and may seek to use their ex's attachment to satisfy their need for validation. To this end, narcissists often bombard their exes with high amounts of affection and attention at once to reel the ex back in.
There are four types of people who narcissists tend to be attracted to, according to Arluck: People who are impressive in some way, either in their career, hobbies and talents, their friendship circles, or family. Someone who will make the narcissist feel good about themselves, through compliments or gestures.
According to Dr. Darlene Lancer, many narcissists can only sustain a relationship for six months to a few years (at the most). Keep in mind, though, we're talking about one four-stage cycle.
In most cases, it is safe to assume that a severe narcissistic injury, like humiliation in public, will last a lifetime. Even when a narcissist is too old to remember what they ate in the morning, they might remember the ego hurt they felt at your hands 50 years back.
- Physically separate from the abuser. ...
- Cut off all lines of communication as far as possible. ...
- Acknowledge you have a choice and can choose to leave the relationship.
- The narcissist no longer hides their true colors. ...
- You feel the change. ...
- The narcissist will no longer give you love bombs. ...
- They are constantly irritated with you. ...
- The narcissist ignores everything you say. ...
- They criticize you. ...
- They are always distant. ...
- A narcissist will gaslight you.
So how to make a narcissist miss you? It isn't all that difficult. Ignore them, and they'll do everything in their power to get your attention; narcissists thrive on interest and admiration, so playing hard to get is one of the best strategies for winning them back.
Yes, they often do come back to relationships. A narcissist will repeat their cycle of abuse as long as they need you as a supply. Even their distressing discard performance will leave you in a firm belief they're done with you; a narcissist will come back.
One sign that you have defeated a narcissist is that you no longer need their approval. You have developed a healthy sense of self-worth and no longer base your worth on their opinion of you. Narcissists try to control others by belittling them and making them feel inferior.
Hitting bottom is utter defeat combined with another crucial factor. And that factor is the inability to deny the true cause of one's defeat. You see, narcissists are great at pointing fingers when things go wrong. They blame everything and everyone else.
You will know when a narcissist is finished with you because they suddenly go no contact. They won't initiate contact, and they will probably stop responding to your messages, and ignore your calls.
Narcissists are well-known for ending their relationships abruptly. They don't have the ability to empathize with their partners, and so, when they are ready to move on, they do so in a terrible way. The first thing you need to do is realize it is them, not you, and then you can start healing.
As mentioned earlier, narcissists come after you when you're at your best. You're most valuable to them after you've put your life back together. This is when they'll pursue you, saying that “you were good together” and they “don't even know why you two broke up in the first place”.
Long term exposure to abuse can therefore lead to new neural pathways being formed which simply bypass emotions completely. It's protective evolution of the brain. And means that narcissists never feel hurt, pain or love. Therefore they can move on without a care in the world.