In the Greek telling of Narcissus and Echo, a talkative nymph (Echo) is cursed, robbed of the ability to start a sentence. Echo may only repeat or finish a sentence started. Narcissus, obsessed with his beauty, is on a hunt. Echo, who falls in love at first glance with Narcissus, follows him through the woods secretly.
Realizing he is being followed, Narcissus calls out to the presence he senses. Yet only the repeating of his calls can be heard. With a growing sense of curiosity, Narcissus calls out “We must come together!” Echo can only repeat the call and rushes to him. He stops her and calls ‘Hands off! May I die before you enjoy my body.’1Instead of simply moving on, Echo’s love grew for Narcissus. She mourned his death as he withered away, lost in his own reflection.
This Greek Myth tells the story of what is now known as a narcissistic relationship. A narcissistic relationship is characterized by one or both in the relationship experiencing a degree of narcissism. Narcissism is characterized by a deep sense of personal importance, a need for admiration, a belief in being superior to others, and often they possess little concern for others’ emotions.2 Internally in this relationship type, this may manifest in different ways. One may need constant affirmation and attention. Others may feel they know best or that they have to be the best. The narcissist will appear to only need the other when they are fulfilling their needs.
Make no mistake, the narcissist does not behave in such a way due to innate evil. Instead, they are acting in such a way to soothe or disguise an emotional or psychological wound.12 Author Peg Streep feels narcissists really reveal themselves during conflict. Where the normal person would provide some give, the narcissist seeks to win at any cost.
It is assumed 1% of the population suffers from narcissism and 75% are men.2 However, this refers to the diagnosis which is difficult to assume due to the fact that most narcissists don’t seek treatment. Also, there appears to be an increasing prevalence of toxic, narcissistic traits wreaking havoc on relationships though it does not qualify for the NPD diagnosis (narcissistic personality disorder). Interestingly, narcissists seem to freely admit their predilection. Among the most predictive tests for Narcissism is simply: On a scale of one to seven, how narcissistic are you? The narcissist is in love with an idealized version of themself and not how they really are.4
In relationships, Narcissists don’t have consideration for boundaries, their own or the others’. They will make decisions based solely on what benefits them. They have no concern for the other’s feelings, being too wrapped up in their own.
Narcissists often have a short fuse, difficulty regulating emotions, don’t take criticism well – not the recipe for a civil relationship. They frequently have their feelings hurt. Though they may be belittling, at the same time they may see themselves as the victim. They will often gaslight, planting seeds of doubt in the other. This destroys the ability of the other to trust themself and may make them feel ‘crazy’. Though the narcissist will discard the other once he or she is finished, an attempt to exit the relationship before s/he is done will inspire them to pull out all of the tricks to win you back.
Narcissistic Relationship Cycle
There are four stages in the Narcissistic relationship cycle, Idealize, Devalue, Discard, and Push/Pull.5
At the beginning of a relationship with a Narcissist, they will show complete adoration, projecting exactly what they believe you to want them to be. This is the idealization stage. The pairing seems to be “meant to be”. They may not even be aware of what they are doing, feeling compelled to shower you with love and affection. The term “love bombing” comes from this type of behavior.6 The beginning of the relationship usually progresses with unusual speed.7 You’re soul mates, finally discovering one another.
As the relationship progresses, the narcissist will completely pull you in. At this point, they may change. They may attempt to isolate you from your family and friends, removing or dislodging your social network. Facts and events will become distorted, twisted, or just outright lies. They may guilt trip you, insult you, shame you, and withhold acts of love until demands are met. The manipulative tactics often cause the other to start doubting their worth and sanity.
An attempt to leave during this time is often met with threats, insults, or put-downs. On the other hand, they may also offer grandiose apologies, gifts, or behaviors in order to win you back.
Once the narcissist feels they’ve had their sense of “false self” subverted, their idealization of you disturbed, or the need that you filled is no longer being filled, they will discard the relationship. The pent-up emotional energy from the gaslighting, insults, and belittling often manifest in an explosive scene that will either lead to the discard of the relationship or a return to the Idealization phase.
Anecdotes from victims report their partner disappearing for days, not coming home at night, and becoming cold, distant, and cruel.10 Many report feeling as though they were addicted to the narcissistic person. One woman writes that she felt her existence, as well as any of those around her, was disrespected by the partner.11
On victim writes: “Defeat becomes your daily routine as he tests you more and more; harsh words become condescending put-downs; sarcastic jabs become full-fledged attacks; molehills become mountains and partnership becomes a power play.”12
The final stage describes the Narcissist’s behavior post-relationship. This is often called Hoovering, preferred here is the term push/pull. The narcissist will push and/or pull at you attempting to inspire a reaction. Often, if the narcissist feels s/he has done enough damage to make his/herself feel important, they may stave off contact. If not, they may continue to reach out intermittently, offer insincere apologies, may desperately need help or to divulge important information, and/or make grandiose promises.
Why Don’t We Leave a Narcissistic Relationship?
If you find yourself in a narcissistic relationship, it may be useful to discover how you arrived here. Many people who engage in relationships with narcissists suffer from some level of codependency. In this context, it simply means a willingness to deal with a level of abuse to feel worthy of love or the hope of love. Often, the idealization phase of the cycle is so powerful, that as the relationship goes on the narcissist plays a game of balance. In this game, they give just enough to spark only the hope of the love received during the idealization stage. Narcissists are very good at choosing their victims and tend to seek a certain quality of vulnerability, pain, or situation, or those with high levels of empathy.9
Even in abusive relationships, the abused can find good things about the abuser. Narcissists demand applause for each good thing they do, no matter how incremental. A relationship with a narcissist can be the result of a trauma bond, a desperate desire to retrieve a once had connection with someone. This often involves a back and forth, the abused trying to regain the love-bombing that initiated the relationship. Women go back to their abuser an average of seven times in the process of a breakup.13
Altruism, the idea that the other is trying. The relationship is stayed in the hopes of improvement. Denial of abuse is often a factor in remaining in these relationships. There is also the element of financial control, yet another element that makes it hard to leave a narcissistic relationship.
A narcissistic relationship can dramatically affect a person’s ability to trust others, impact future relationships, and how the victim views the world.10 Many victims experience Post Traumatic Stress Disorder or PTSD. In the relationship, the victim can often feel isolated, indecisive, physically unwell, disassociated, and depressed. All the ideals held about relationships, the goodness of people, and partnerships are put into question.14 The relationship suddenly appears as though it was never what it seemed. Often victims will engage in self-blame, the red flags suddenly becoming so clear. The experience can be severely psychologically challenging.
Another victim’s experience:
“I was too overwhelmed to leave my apartment. I jumped at loud noises. I developed a painful bacterial infection. I saw a PTSD counselor. During the worst of it, my sense of self was so non-existent, I felt there was nothing left to live for.”15
Concerned? Hear Are Some Watch-outs
If you’re feeling concern for your relationship, ask yourself these questions:
*Is their charm is off the charts?
Are they unusually, out-of-this-world charming? is this how they got to you?
*Are they are often discussing themselves in a grand and positive way?
Self-love is good, but is their self-love a means in itself?
*Do they feed off of your compliments?
It’s great they like your attention, but are you beginning to feel obligated to give compliments in fear of reprisal?
*Do they concern themselves with the emotions of others?
If they don’t or if others’ emotions only have to do with them, this could mean trouble!
*Do they have any or very few long-term friends?
Are there many people they describe from their past as being ‘blacklisted’? No one around has seen the whole show?
*Do they pick at you excessively?
Why did you spill wine on the counter? Why didn’t you call? Why did you put that there! What is wrong with you? Well, ask yourself, do you want to deal with this?!
*Do they gaslight you?
What you believe about your life and the world around you is constantly challenged. It’s now to the point you don’t trust yourself or your thoughts. HINT: you don’t want this.
*Will they define the relationship?
You may live together, but they are introducing you as their friend. Hmmm…
*Do they believe (truly believe) they are right about everything?
There’s no debating, there’s no educating. There is only their view.
*Did they (would they) lash out when you try to end things?
Have they completely and irrationally flown off the handle when the subject has been brought up?
Moving on From a Narcissist
The path to move on can be as difficult as the relationship. Sorting through the experience in retrospect can have psychologically distressing consequences. It can be difficult to accept the abuse, decipher what was real between what was a fallacy, and what it says about you that you allowed yourself in the situation. However, take note that narcissistic relationships happen cyclically. Take steps to heal and ensure that another is not entered into.
Recall there was a reason that the relationship ended. A relationship should be ended when the other has shown no interest in fulfilling your needs.17 Narcissistic persons are masters at creating doubt to manipulate where the blame lies. This impact may carry on after and in your recollections of the relationship. Understand your grieving and take the space to allow yourself to do so.
Remember why you were so drawn to them. They probably seemed confident, vibrant, affectionate, and very focused on you. You’re no fool for desiring and enjoying these things. Yet with this new knowledge and awareness, you can ensure that this isn’t idealization, but instead a budding healthy romance.
This video does a good job outlining the healing process…Check it out!