How to understand and cope with abuse by a person with narcissistic traits.

The cycle of abuse, also known as the cycle of violence, is a framework describing the factors and processes that perpetuate abuse.

It was pioneered in the 1970s by Dr. Lenore E. Walker, a psychologist who conducted a wealth of research on abuse and gendered violence, and ultimately founded the Domestic Violence Institute.

In the context of an abusive dynamic where the perpetrator has narcissistic traits or a diagnosis of narcissistic personality disorder (NPD), the cycle can look a little different. There’s no clear definition of narcissistic abuse, but it generally involves psychological abuse and emotional manipulation.

The term “narcissist” is often used in casual conversation, usually to describe somebody who is selfish or vain. But in the context of psychology, it relates to a specific diagnosis, which affects a person’s behavior toward others as well as their self-image.

The official diagnosis, per the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th edition, text revision (DSM-5-TR), is narcissistic personality disorder (NPD). The diagnostic criteria require at least five of these nine formal symptoms:

  • grandiosity and self-importance
  • preoccupation with fantasies about power and success
  • a feeling of being “special” and uniquely gifted
  • a strong need for praise and admiration
  • a sense of entitlement
  • a tendency to exploit and manipulate others, sometimes for personal gain
  • a lack of empathy
  • strong envy or jealousy toward others, or a belief that others are envious of them
  • an arrogant or scornful attitude toward others

These characteristics can result in some specific forms of psychological abuse and emotional manipulation, including:

  • Gaslighting: A type of psychological manipulation designed to make a person doubt their experience of reality.
  • Narcissistic projection: A process in which someone with narcissistic traits projects their own behavior onto another person, rather than accepting responsibility. In the context of abuse, this is also sometimes known as DARVO (Deny, Attack, Reverse Victim and Offender).
  • Love bombing: In the early stages of a romantic relationship, or after a fight, a narcissist may shower their partner with affection and grand gestures in order to gain or re-establish control.
  • Emotional abuse: This may involve coercion, punishments, or emotional blackmail tactics such as issuing warnings and ultimatums, intimidation, or threats of self-harm in order to force the other person to comply.
  • Lack of empathy: This is a hallmark of narcissistic personality disorder. While conflict is a natural part of any relationship, a total inability to empathize with one’s partner can be a red flag.

The cycle of abuse, as defined by Dr. Walker, involves four stages:

1. Tension-building

The abusive person begins to display warning signs, such as irritability and emotional outbursts, that become gradually more intense.

This can create immense anxiety and stress for the non-abusive person, who may try to appease them by “walking on eggshells”.

2. Incident of violence

The tension builds to a crescendo and culminates in one or more abusive incidents.

Abusive incidents can involve a wide spectrum of behaviors but may include:

  • physical violence
  • emotional abuse and manipulation
  • intimidation
  • breaking objects in the home
  • insults and name-calling
  • humiliation

3. Reconciliation

After the incident of abuse, tension dissipates for the abusive person. They may attempt to make amends for their behavior through:

  • gifts
  • grand gestures
  • apologies
  • promises to change

4. Calm

A period of calm typically follows the reconciliation. During this stage, the abusive partner may continue to make amends, but abusive behaviors may also begin to creep back.

For example, they may try to shift the blame for the incident onto the other person or minimize what happened.

Narcissistic abuse may be more subtle and difficult to spot than other forms of abuse, but its effects can be severe. Those who have experienced narcissistic abuse may experience depression, anxiety, low self-esteem, and an overwhelming sense of shame.

Breaking the cycle of abuse can be very challenging. Survivors of abuse are often highly dependent on their abusers, whether emotionally, financially, or otherwise.

Narcissistic abusers are often highly manipulative and skilled at both persuasion and intimidation, which can make it especially difficult to extricate yourself from the situation.

Whether you’re in the process of leaving an abusive relationship, or don’t yet feel safe enough to do so, lifelines and support are available to you.

In the U.S., you can contact the National Domestic Violence Hotline 24/7 for confidential help: call 800-799-7233 or 800-787-3224 (TTY), or text “START” to 88788. They also have an online chat option.

It’s highly advisable to seek the help of a mental health professional who can help you to navigate the psychological effects of narcissistic abuse.

Narcissistic abuse is not easy to define and encompasses a wide range of different behaviors.

Because people with narcissistic tendencies often deflect blame and manipulate others, their abuse may go unnoticed, and those who experience it can feel isolated and worn down.

If you suspect that you may be experiencing narcissistic abuse, know that you’re not alone, and help is available.