BY CHRISTINE LOUIS DE CANONVILLE, MIACP
Leaving a romantic abusive narcissistic relationship is not like leaving any other abusive relationship, that is because it is so confusing for the victim, both at a cognitive and emotional level.
Toxic narcissists, with their antagonistic patterns of abuse, are master manipulators who use ‘gaslighting’ techniques from the very beginning of the toxic relationship. This form of covert aggression uses specific psychological categories of abuse with negative intent towards the targeted victim.
‘Gaslighting’ is a common feature of domestic violence where one person (i.e., the grandiose narcissist) deliberately sets out to erode the sense of reality of another (i.e., their targeted victim). The average person mistakenly thinks that gaslighting behaviour is to do with the common phrases the narcissist uses to create a mental fog to confuse their victims.
For example, “You’re crazy.”, “You have mental health issues.”, “you need help.” Or “I never said or did that.” “You’re imagining things.”
Of course, this is one of the narcissist’s gaslighting tactics. However, gaslighting behaviour includes far more insidious and manipulative tactics that involve four devastating stages. Each stage is designed to have its own set of effects on the unsuspecting victim. So, what began as ecstasy is doomed to end in agony for the victim.
Phase1: The Idealisation Stage (the Honeymoon & Grooming Phase):
In the beginning, the relationship will be intense and all-consuming, like a lightning bolt out of the blue. The victim will be showered with focused attention by the narcissist until they are swept right off their feet.
This is the phase when the narcissist is in a highly activated state and looking for a reward in the psychopathic bond with their current targeted victim. This is the time when the victim is introduced to the narcissist’s lovely Dr Jekyll persona and is treated like the most precious and newest shiniest toy where they can do nothing wrong. The positive feelings encountered in this phase create an emotional bond in the victim. This can make the victim feel very special and needed, making it harder to leave the relationship later. This is also the critical start of the “entanglement and convergence process”.
The bombing process alters the brain chemistry, creating a chemical bond and the characteristic feelings that lead to the victim’s deep attachment to the narcissist. In effect, it is the Love Bombing Stage that leads to the Trauma Bond, and the trauma bonding process makes it hard for the victim to leave the relationship.
Of course, a strong attachment does not happen overnight. It results from having spent a good amount of time with the narcissist, and, of course, the intensity of that time together. Actually, in reality, the victim does not become attached to their narcissistic partner. What happens is, they become attached to the emotional experiences that they stir up in them, both good and bad.
Once attached, the victim craves more of the emotions that make them feel happy, and they then become fearful of losing the actual toxic person that is involved with those pleasurable feelings. However, this addictive bond, over time, will play havoc with, or even break the victim’s identity and self-esteem.
During the initial “idealization phase”, the narcissist deliberately puts on their “best face” to mould their victim into a symbiotic relationship with them as their narcissistic supply. This is when they turn on their offensive seduction to full blast; the time when they are loving, charming, flirtatious, energetic, exciting, playful, intense, and great fun to be with.
The narcissist is a master of illusion and deception, and they use their limitless ambiguous mind games to “hook” the victim, who blindly and quickly, is caught up in the playful spirit of their elusive perpetrator.
This playfulness even taps into the victim’s inner child, the innocent side of them that is full of awe and wonder, the side that does not often get aired due to their deep sense of responsibility.
This fills them with intoxication, and soon they are “hooked” into the addictive relationship. During the Idealisation Phase, the victim is love-bombed to such an extent that they are unaware of how they are being isolated from everybody by their adorable captor. They are well and truly caught in the narcissist’s “Web of Deception”.
During the manipulative seductive stage, the ubiquitous narcissist cleverly orchestrates a “forever presence” by creating powerful emotions and memories in the victim that can last a lifetime. The narcissist is very excited by any new source of supply that comes their way. This is because their reward system gets switched “on”, and becomes extremely activated by their brain chemistry at the beginning of the relationship (i.e., Dopamine, Serotonin, Oxytocin & Vasopressin, etc.).
During this Idealisation Phase, the narcissist’s love-bombing tactics are expressed in many ways; through thoughtful acts, gifts, intense sex, flattery, putting you on a pedestal and promises for the future, etc. In effect, narcissists will say anything that effectively sweeps the victim off their feet and causes high levels of infatuation. For example, they will say things like, “I wish I had met you years ago, you truly are my soul-mate.”
The victim, on the other hand, feeling a deep connection to the narcissist, looks to deepen the relationship by sharing personal information about themselves (i.e., their beliefs and values, how they think, what makes them feel good, their fears, their family history, etc.).
This information is a treasure trove to the narcissist, as it gives insight into their victim’s inner world, which they will eventually use against them to control them.
For example, the victim may reveal that they do not like conflict, or that they grew up in a house of violence, and as a result, it terrifies them when abusive people raise their voices or use other abusive tactics. The pathological narcissist will use this information to great effect later when they create our negative past and tap into our insecurities and fears, especially during the devaluing phase.
At this point, the narcissist is euphoric and enjoying the psychopathic bond. Unfortunately, this phase does not last very long. Typically, I have found that the narcissist’s idealisation phase lasts about four months before their mask slips, and their devaluing phase of psychological cruelty begins to chip away at the victim’s self-esteem.
Unfortunately, this bonding stage only deepens the relationship within the victim; it does not have the same effect on the narcissistic individual. Although narcissists will be very excited by their arousing chemistry in the early stage of the relationship, they will fail the important step of moving forward that is required when deepening any relationship.
As the relationship progresses, the pathological narcissist’s dopamine intensity lessens, therefore, they are no longer stimulated in the relationship, and they become bored. Because of their proneness to boredom, they tend to become disinterested, distracted or disconnected from the long-term relationship.
In effect, the narcissist’s brain system is switched “off” regarding their current relationship, and they fall back to their baseline behaviours. As in any healthy type of relationship, the victim (wanting to deepen the relationship) is likely to challenge their perfect partner from time to time. Unfortunately, because of the narcissist’s ‘black and white’ thinking, they see only that a person is either with them or against them. They read this challenge as the victim rejecting and abandoning them.
The narcissist’s deepest wounds are rejection and abandonment, and when they feel any slight or insult to their fragile ego, they will fly into a rage. The victim is then likely to experience their predictable pattern of abusive behaviour (i.e., psychological abuse, emotional abuse, verbal abuse, sexual abuse, or physical abuse) as their punishment.
When the narcissist begins to feel the threat of losing the relationship and they experience a ‘manipulative personality shift’ where they feel the need to control the victim, they will swiftly move into the next phase.
Phase 2 – The Devaluing Stage:
This is the time when the narcissist’s diabolical Mr Hyde persona is unleashed on the victim and the cycle of abuse begins in earnest. The lovely Dr Jekyll persona goes into hiding along with their previous behaviour (i.e. attentive, loving and considerate behaviours).
Any semblance of a healthy relationship is about to disappear. Although the victim does not realise it, they have become neurologically “hooked” and bonded to the pathological narcissist. However, in the narcissist’s eyes, their targeted victim has fallen from grace and can now do nothing right.
The victim will then be subjected to the psychological warfare that goes with narcissistic abuse (i.e., projections, gaslighting, stonewalling, triangulation, intimidation, invalidation, scapegoating, etc.). Everything the victim attempts to do is treated with disdain. The troubled relationship is becoming dominated by the narcissist’s covert aggressive gaslighting behaviours (i.e., their ambient abuse and coercive control).
Bit by bit, the victim will find themselves being isolated from friends and family; having to give up hobbies; eating, sleeping and dressing when and how the superior narcissist wants, etc. Naturally, the victim is not going to be a very happy or secure person during this onslaught and may pull back from their toxic partner.
Unfortunately, the narcissist will experience their behaviour as chronic abandonment and rejection, which will fill them with feelings of shame, humiliation, rage, and revenge. Without warning, they may return to their baseline behaviours, where they will want to devalue, hurt, and destroy their victim, and they take sadistic pleasure in being feared by them.
Narcissists are passive-aggressive people who cannot bond or empathise. Their ‘Gaslighting’ behaviour becomes a dynamic blend of Ambient Abuse (that instils fear in the victim) and Coercive Control (that takes away the victim’s liberty) for implanting in their victims an alternative reality to the one they hold. These gaslighting behaviours intend to use the abuser’s brainwashing-like tactics to imbue fear in the victim, leaving them doubting their instinct, perception, and memory or sanity.
During the destructive relationship, the victim will find themselves being bombarded with constant criticism, demeaning behaviour, threats, withholding of affection, silence, etc. These behaviours are guaranteed to fill the victim with feelings of fear, isolation, helplessness, and cognitive dissonance, which will eventually lower the victim’s sense of self-worth and power. But then, to confuse things further, the abuse of the victim will be interspersed with periods of loving-kindness, and it is this unpredictable “in and out” bonding that drives the victim to feel that they are going out of their mind.
In effect, the narcissist’s ‘intermittent good and bad behaviour’ is the perfect manipulation for creating unpredictability during the abuse cycle, and of course, for bonding the victim to them even deeper. It is this subtle form of conditioning that leads the victim to experience Stockholm syndrome, especially when dealing with a malignant or psychopathic individual.
Trying to exist while living within a spiral of behaviour that includes the extremes of constant threats and kindness (intermittent good-bad treatment); the victim goes through a process of feeling loved by the narcissist’s wonderful Dr Jekyll persona, while at the same time they are having their self-esteem shredded by the narcissist’s malevolent Mr/s Hyde.
In total, the gaslighting behaviour, with its ambient abuse persona and coercive control amounts to “intimate terrorism.”
The relationship is moving into a phase where the narcissist perceives the victim as being no longer useful to them because they are not forthcoming enough, so the narcissist looks for a new source of narcissistic supply. The relationship then enters ‘The Discarding Phase’. The narcissist’s cruel behaviours stabilise the narcissist’s fragile ego, salve their narcissistic injury, and preserve their grandiose self. However, it devastates the victim, who cannot understand or control what is happening to them.
Phase 3 – The Discarding Phase:
The “Discard Phase” is the time when the narcissist sees the victim as worthlessly inferior. Their goal is to eradicate them out of existence, that is until they want to resurrect them again (when they are low on narcissistic supply and resort to one of their hoovering tactics).
This officially marks the end of the relationship between the narcissist and the victim when they no longer share a life together. The time when the narcissist has moved out of the relationship and moved on with their life.
However, before that happens most relationships with abusive narcissists enter the “Peri-discard Period”, this is the transitional phase that happens before the final discard. Although both the peri-discard period and the discard phase may be part of the same overall ending, there are differences in terms of how the victim is treated during each phase.
As long as the relationship remains in the Peri-discard Period, the victim is most likely to be in the most abusive part of the cycle. By this stage the narcissist has lost all respect for their victim, there is no thought or care given to them; they constantly threaten to leave, saying to the victim “nobody else would want you”.
In effect, the narcissist is gone, disconnected mentally and emotionally, just not physically. The victim will be treated with disdain and subjected to being devalued repeatedly.
Every aspect of their life becomes a constant power struggle (i.e., physically, mentally, emotionally, spiritually, financially, etc.). It is as if the victim has sold their soul to the Devil; surrendering their personhood and their identity to meet the self-centred needs of the entitled narcissist.
The victim, because of their confusing feelings, is almost unable to think for themselves. They are forever walking on eggshells around their torturer as they try to live by their ever-changing rules, the very rules that every narcissistic person will break.
The victim finds that every little thing they shared about themselves with the narcissist is being systematically turned against them as a weapon, draining their vitality away. Confused and broken, the victim is left wondering, “This person whom I saw as my soul-mate, did they ever actually love me at all?”
There will be days when they will wonder if they have enough energy to survive one more hour of being demeaned by this verbally abusive and highly volatile “stranger”. The pathological narcissist’s gaslighting antics can bring about traumatic changes to the brain of the victim, causing them to crash into a depressive anxious state that is full of feelings of regret.
Sometimes the depression is accompanied by suicidal thoughts (suicidal ideation), yet the victim cannot slip away because the narcissist, like the parasitic vampires that they are, holds onto them because they want every drop of their victim’s blood.
However, sometimes something can happen to wake the victim from their deep slumber. It so happens that when the narcissist is ready to carry out the final discard, they often become sloppy and careless (in their acts or words). It is as if they do not care to keep up the pretence anymore. All they are thinking about is the excitement of their next conquest. They will have already lined something or someone up in their sights, and it is now just a short matter of time before they strike their final blow on their current victim.
Phase 4 – The Hoovering Phase:
The Hoovering Phase is when the narcissist feels the need to suck the victim back into their world repeatedly (whenever they like). This is especially so after the formal relationship has come to its conclusion. The hoovering phase is bound to happen when the relationship has passed through the discard phase. This is when the victim thinks that the intimate relationship is over, and they are finally out of the entanglement because the narcissist has moved on. However, this is rarely so.
For most victims, the game is not yet over, because the narcissist has something else in mind, something that requires bringing the victim back under their control once again. But why would they do that? They do it because they feel entitled to do so, after all, they invested a great deal of time and energy in the seducing, grooming, and hooking of their primary source of supply, therefore they see their victim as belonging to them. For those reasons, they feel entitled to keep reeling their victims in for drawing more oxygen out of them, whether it is in the now, next month, or ten years from now, that is of no consequence.
In the narcissist’s eyes, when the victim signed up with them, they agreed to become their biggest fan who would always be interested in them and their accomplishments. It is seen as a lifelong contract that they have entered into, so, there is generally never a clean mature break. The Hoovering is sometimes used to get the victim back, but generally, it is just a means to amuse the narcissist whenever they require more attention.
These 4 stages can be acted out many times throughout the narcissistic relationship:
These 4 stages can be acted out many times throughout the narcissistic personality disorder relationship (NPD), not just in one cycle as many people seem to think, but repeatedly. A victim could find themselves going through this cycle of abuse within 24 hours. The term for this collective behaviour is called Gaslighting. Gaslighting is a combination of ambient abuse, coercive control, trauma bonding, intermittent affection and withdrawal, etc.) all of which are part of the narcissist’s domestic abuse.
These behaviours are so soul-destroying that it has a devastating effect on the victim. There are different types of narcissists.
The higher up the narcissistic spectrum (i.e., the classical narcissist, malignant narcissist, or psychopath) the worse their behaviour will become, and the more negative effects on the victim. Is it any wonder many victims suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder?
Perhaps You Are Thinking That It’s Time For You To Leave Your Narcissistic Abuser:
When you have been in an intimate partner relationship with a narcissist then you will have been badly disempowered and controlled. Breaking the chains that keep you bound to such an abusive individual (whether it is because of love or fear) requires some work on your part. Once out of the relationship, you must maintain “no contact” with your abuser (or limited contact if you are co-parenting). Next, you begin educating yourself about narcissistic abuse, because you need this information to make sense of what has happened to you. Without it, it will be difficult to redeem your autonomy and self-worth.
Some victims find it helpful to Google “Narcissistic Abuse Forums” to find out what other victims are saying because they have a lot of information to share. You might consider getting support for yourself. For example, you might benefit from joining a support group, such as CoDA or ACoA. I would suggest that you find a therapist who works specifically with victims of narcissistic abuse. It will save you time and money getting through the work. Not all therapists understand this subject, and you will fail to get the correct psychoeducation and recovery plan if you don’t understand what it is to be a victim of narcissistic abuse.
Psychoeducation of the narcissistic abuse cycle is vital so that a victim can understand the insidious form of psychological abuse they were subjected to. For example, the feelings of humiliation, degradation, and shame that are central to the victim’s experience and to understand the effects of the abuse on them.
What is equally important is for the victim to understand the unconscious defence mechanism that they developed to survive their hostile environment. Failure to provide this information is likely to leave the victim vulnerable to re-victimisation. Unfortunately, they will continue to unconsciously work out of these same defences that leave them vulnerable to other narcissists who will be drawn to them like a ‘moth to a flame’.
Whatever You Are Thinking Or Feeling, “It’s Not Your Fault”:
Too many of the clients I have worked with feel that their submission was a sign of their embarrassing weakness to fight for themselves, and that thought fills them with shame. Victims need to know that their submission was an ‘active’ defence at a time when it was too dangerous for them to fight, take flight, or freeze. Their fawning (passivity or pleasing behaviour) was a clever unconscious survival strategy.
By understanding shame, when the shame is legitimate they can take responsibility for their behaviour (i.e., apologise if they have been insensitive), but if the shame does not belong to them, then they can leave it with their abuser, and not take ownership of it.
Leaving a narcissist is never easy, nor are the fear reactions you may be feeling. Nor is it an easy thing to look at one’s pain and damage after narcissistic abuse, because it involves layers of shame that need uncovering, and that takes courage and time to do so. Courage has little to do with bravado, nor is it to do with the absence of fear, it is the holding ability to speak and act despite one’s fear and shame at having been in a relationship with a pathological narcissist.
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