Cycle of a Narcissistic Relationship

cycle of a Narcissistic relationship

In 1979 Lenore E. Walker developed what’s referred to as “the cycle of abuse.” In this cycle, there are 4 main stages: 1. Tension building; 2. Incident; 3. Reconciliation; and 4. Calm. This cycle is the standard go-to for understanding (and treating) abuse.  And while it can be really helpful for some people, I found it to be a little confusing for my situation, as my relationship didn’t run this course, and there were added elements in my relationships that weren’t found in this cycle.

Cycle of Abuse



Somewhere along the way I came across a lesser-known cycle of abuse (but I can’t find who came up with it), that puts a spin on the original cycle of abuse.  This “spin” really helped me to understand the patterns of both Narcissistic behavior and Narcissistic abuse, and wow–it’s totally spot on.

The cycle of a Narcissistic Relationship is: Idealize, Devalue, Discard.

cycle of narcissistic abuse

And while this cycle of idealize-devalue-discard is really helpful in understanding Narcissistic abuse, I felt that it would be really beneficial for it to be expanded upon so you can get a clearer picture of each phase.

Here’s my take on a more “fleshed out” picture of  the cycle of what a Narcissistic relationship looks like (complete with an explanation of each phase below):

cycle of narcissistic abuse


Idealize Stage 1: (when Narcissist and victim first begin a relationship)

  • Charming (Red Flag of a Narcissist #5)



Devalue Stage: (either to the victim’s face or behind their back–if this stage is done behind the victim’s back, they may not realize anything is wrong in their relationship until they are discarded.)

  • Walking on eggshells
  • Oftentimes bouts of Narcissistic Rage, which can include one or more types of abuse: verbal, physical, emotional, psychological, sexual, financial
  • Cheating
  • Parasitic existence (Narcissist begins to “mooch” off of and/or financially drain the victim)
  • Victim begins to question their behavior (Is it them? Is it me? Am I the problem? Am I making too big of a deal of things?)


 * Replace:

  • Identifies and lines up next source of Narcissistic supply (generally a new or former partner)
  • Behavior and stories make the current partner suspicious
  • Projection (accusing the current partner of cheating, lying, stealing, or behavior they aren’t doing)


(If Discarded by the Narcissist):

  • Generally very sudden, and without warning. “Light switch” like approach to both the relationship and the partner (I love you/you don’t exist)


(If Discarded by the Victim):

  • Ideally goes “Gray Rock” if No Contact isn’t possible
  • (If the victim doesn’t realize their partner is a Narcissist, they will most likely continue this cycle until they can’t stand it anymore–at which point they generally go “no contact” or “gray rock.”

Idealize Stage 2: (Happens after the discard stage. The “make up” stage, where the Narcissist tries to “suck” the victim back into the relationship.)

  • Dosing (everything that is found in the stage 1 of idealization, but to a lesser degree–it’s just the needed “dose” to make the hoovering effective (aka suck the victim back in).


* Regardless of how (and who) ends the relationship, the following are often experienced:

  • Victim is often replaced within a very short time frame (less than a few weeks), and often in a very humiliating, degrading, and public way.  Oftentimes the Narcissist take down all trace of the relationship with the old partner and quickly replace with the new parter–especially on social media. The pictures and portrayal of their life with the new partner is that of total happiness, which (intentionally) further serves to add hurt, heartache, and humiliation onto the victim
  • Victim is often fearful of the Narcissist after seeing their lack of empathy, regard, and remorse (even if the Narcissist has never had a history of violence or intimidating behavior)
  • Victim often experiences a wide variety of conflicting emotions towards their partner (fear, love, hate, rage, sadness, relief, etc.)
  • Victim often experiences intense emotional pain that can lead to night terrors, anxiety, panic attacks, bouts of unexplainable crying, depression, wanting to isolate, feelings of worthlessness, deeply damaged self-esteem, guilt, suicidal thoughts/feelings (can develop into PTSD)
  • Victim feels misunderstood by friends and family
  • Victims is confused by what happened, and their role in it–often feeling like they must be the problem, as their partner has moved on and seems so happy with someone else
  • Victim has a hard time explaining what was so wrong in the relationship, or why they feel so emotional (especially if they were the one to leave)
  • Friends, family, well-intentioned other people offer unhelpful advice such as “get over it”, or even urge the victim to give the Narcissist another chance, as they aren’t familiar with the dynamic of the relationship, or about the personality disorder, or otherwise view the victim’s relationship as simply a “bad” relationship (which it is so much more than that)
  • Victim suffers from really low self-esteem, shame, embarrassment, and feelings of being “ground down” (especially if there was a long devalue stage done to the victim directly)
  • Victim wants to isolate from others, and feels very alone
  • The Narcissist may attempt to get money from their victim either by draining their accounts, racking up credit card debt, etc.
  • *In more extreme situations the Narcissist may begin projecting/telling the victim that they wished they were dead, had dreams that they were dead, wants to kill them, etc. Oftentimes this talk is very specific (ex. “I had a dream last night that you died in a house fire.”), and should be taken as serious as a death threat–as it potentially is one.

The end of a Narcissistic (or any manipulative or abusive) relationship is often very traumatic. Please know that you are not alone, and that there is help out there. If you are feeling depressed, please seek help immediately as a discussion with your doctor about antidepressants and/or anti-anxiety medications might be worth exploring.  Finding a good therapist that is familiar with the different types of abuse can also really help you heal. Many domestic violence centers offer free or low-cost therapy options.

If you have any questions, comments, concerns, frustrations, would like to share part of your story, or would like some support, please consider joining my support group on Facebook.   (((hugs))) to you. <3

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I am a self-help junkie, former advocate for victims of domestic violence, current psychiatric RN, as well as being a recovering victim of Narcissistic abuse.

My goal is to educate, empower, and inspire other abuse victims in understanding more about what happened to them (and how to prevent it from happening again), as well as how to go on and rebuild an amazing life.

Even though I have had a lot of "in the trenches" experience with highly manipulative people of all kinds, I consider myself to be a student of Narcissism, mindset, motivation, healing, and life in general, and am by no means an expert on any of these topics.

It's for these reasons, that when you are reading my information that I encourage you to hold to what helps, and let the rest go.
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About Dana 252 Articles
I am a self-help junkie, former advocate for victims of domestic violence, current psychiatric RN, as well as being a recovering victim of Narcissistic abuse. My goal is to educate, empower, and inspire other abuse victims in understanding more about what happened to them (and how to prevent it from happening again), as well as how to go on and rebuild an amazing life. Even though I have had a lot of "in the trenches" experience with highly manipulative people of all kinds, I consider myself to be a student of Narcissism, mindset, motivation, healing, and life in general, and am by no means an expert on any of these topics. It's for these reasons, that when you are reading my information that I encourage you to hold to what helps, and let the rest go.


  1. I am married but separated to a Narcissistic. It has been a horrible 4.5 years. It took him screaming at me that he was going to divorce me and demanding in a rage that I see a therapist for MY “anxiety and depression issues” that shocked me unto acknowledging his verbal and emotional abuse. I did agree to see a therapist to shut him up. She told me GET OUT! So I asked him to leave, for a separation. He left, signing while he packed his stuff. Almost too peacefully. It’s been 3-4 weeks now and I hear NOTHING from him unless I initiate contact regarding bills that need paid etc. I’m sure he has his next supply source. Supposedly he went to a psychiatrist who told him that basically there’s nothing wrong with him yet he didn’t fill out a HIPAA form so I can’t give that doctor any info or anything. I’m not a doctor (I do work in the medical field) and I don’t need an official diagnosis to see and know that he is a covert narcissistic. Thank GOD daily that we have no children. I feel so messed up and alone. I am jumpy all the time. The ice machine noises even scare me sometimes now. Thankfully we had bought a house that we were sharing with my parents and he left the house so I have a place to live and family. NO ONE at our congregation fully grasps how insane and abusive he actually is so I feel very unsupported by people there overall. A few understand. Friends don’t get it and have disappeared. Thankfully coworkers and my boss see it and they are extremely supportive. If not for the handful of people who aren’t blinded by his charm I would be drowning right now. I tried to subscribe to your newsletter but the link doesn’t seem to be working.

  2. Hi Bambi,

    I’m sorry that you are going through so much right now. Unfortunately, with these people, unless you go through it–it’s really hard to explain it. Other people really have a hard time seeing how abusive these people can be. In large part this is because people have this idea of what abuse is, and what an abuser looks like. Most people think an abuser has to be a big man, and he has to look mean. (Like the husband in “Sleeping with the Enemy”.) This is rarely the case. And there are many different forms of abuse, which people don’t realize either. So there are a lot of reasons as to why they don’t understand.

    I would strongly encourage you to find as much support as you can during this time. I will be emailing you an invitation to the support group. I changed the group from “closed” to “secret” and that made all the lins no good–I didn’t realize that was the case ahead of time. Arg.

    Hang in there, and I hope to see you in the support group soon. (I will send the link as soon as I get home.)

  3. Thank you so much!!! I can’t say thank u enough about educating me. For 5 years I have been pining away for my ex.. he is a textbook I can get angry and go thru the stages of grief and get healed. !! Thank you God for what you do to help us!!

  4. Hi how can you make someone realise they are living in an abusive relationship and their partner is a narcissist thank you

  5. Hello and thank you! I have found so much clarity and relief in all of your work on narcissistic abuse! I too am an Rn and have a lot of experience with mental health patients and also domestic abuse but I find I’m still having trouble believing he is as terrifying sick and dangerous as he is.. Almost like if I believe he is an abuser all of our 13 year on and off again relationship is a lie and I get so upset with myself for letting it happen! I’m slowly trying to safely end things and have a few times for w few weeks but end up going back and miss him. I feel so helpless. Do you have any advice? How can I join your support group? Thank you and God bless!!

  6. Great question. All you can do is to give them a link to a site like mine, or to a support group, and then let go. …They know something is wrong in their relationship, but they aren’t wanting to leave for any number of reasons.

    Here is a video I did where a mother asked a very similar question. …I would encourage you to read the comments on YouTube, as many of them are from victims who have “been there, done that” and they offer a ton of insight as well.

    Here is a link to my support group:

    Many people who are in abusive relationships will find clarity that they are in a problematic situation once they start reading stories from others.
    Hope that helps.

  7. I just now saw your comment–so I apologize for the delay in getting back to you.

    I think oftentimes, especially if we do have training in mental health, we tend to REALLY second guess ourselves and wonder if we are being hypervigilant about seeing problematic behavior in others. I can’t even being to tell you how many therapists I’ve spoken with who have dated men (and women) that have been abusive, and then wonder how it happened to them. Abusive people are often highly manipulative, and suck all kinds of people in regardless of their education, their gender, age, occupation, you name it. I think the following three links will be a good start to help you get untangled from him and from this relationship. (((hugs))) to you. You are not alone in this. <3

    Here is a link to the support group:

    Here is a link to how to do a safety plan:

    Here is a link on “empty buckets” that I think will really help:

  8. When I was a child, I was subjected to some very serious narcissistic abuse by my mother and sister. I had not spoken to them for years, until my mother got very sick. My sister is attempting to contact me, not because she is concerned for Mom, but because she’s realized that she will be old some day and will need someone to care for her. I will not be that person, but cannot convince her of this. She is contacting other members of my family and talking to them about me, trying to convince them that I should be the one to do this. Are there any strategies I could use in this situation. I love my family and don’t want to lose them over this situation.

  9. You do not need to convince her or anyone else of anything. “No” is a complete sentence. …If you wanted to elaborate for some reason, you could always tell them that it just isn’t possible for you to care for her in the ways that she needs, (which is true) and then leave it at that.

    (((hugs))) to you.

  10. Hi Dana,
    Thank you so much for everything you are doing, I am on the support group and it is helping me so much.
    I wanted to know a bit more about Dosing. It is an interesting concept to me because as I was writing my story of what happened in his most recent discard of me, I was describing his newest hoovering attempts and I couldn’t quite put my finger on it but something just seemed more “off” than usual- in the past he would write pages and pages in his “love letters” when trying to hoover me, always pleading for forgiveness, pleading me to take him back, using all kinds of nostalgia and youtube videos of songs and things we both found funny to try and get me to “remember the good times and our great connection and never give up on us”; what was different this time was that he was sending the emails, but they were only one or a few sentences long, there was no asking for me back or asking to try again, but “hints” (because I can’t think of a better word) at things e.g. “I love you and the bottom line is I want to be with you, it’s as simple- and as complicated- as that”- I noticed he is trying to get me to think he wants me back but hasn’t actually even said it this time (perhaps decreasing his responsibility?). So as I’m writing this in the story I’m trying to articulate what exactly has happened- it’s like he’s doing the old hoovering thing, but just not putting in anywhere near as much effort- in fact quite little effort at all, the most minimal (no more showing up at my house out of the blue with his guitar to sing me love songs in the front yard, no more excessively expensive bunches of roses, no more poetry about how we’re meant to be together forever and “he’ll do absolutely anything he has to to be with me”). No, this was minimalistic at best and I couldn’t quite articulate it.
    Then I stumbled on this article about the cycle and the word “dosing” which I never knew before now but it makes SO much sense. So now I’m just wanting to know a bit more about it. He has never been this minimalistic before, and the devalue/discards have become the most severe I have ever experienced, enough for me to say “enough” after 4.5 years of waiting and hoping. Since he is becoming worse and has now started “dosing” rather than full on hoovering (or are they different things?) does this mean he will get sick of me now and finally leave me alone? Does dosing mean he is finally bored with me and has someone else? (of course he has) I don’t quite know how to process it because I still like hearing the things he says, I just know with the dosing now that he absolutely doesn’t mean it- it’s like he is just “going through the motions” of what he thinks will get him another ego fix from me with as little effort as possible. In fact one of his last comments to me in the discard was how little energy he has to “deal with me” and how exhausted and unhappy is around me all the time.
    Anything you have to reply would be greatly appreciated and THANK YOU again so much!
    – Newto2016

  11. It sounds like you have a ton of clarity as to your situation–and what to do about it, so yay you! 🙂

    Hoovering and dosing often go hand-in-hand. Hoovering is when a manipulative people circles around to former sources of “supply” with the intention of getting them to reopen communication. Dosing is a lot like “love bombing” but in a much smaller “dose.” (Just like what you described.)

    You mention that it’s hard to let him go, because what he says feels so good. I get that. …I think all of us who have been through this type of relationship get that. This is why people tend to go back. One of the best ways I’ve found to help break the cycle, is to turn inward, and identify which “empty bucket” this relationship is filling for you. (Here is a link to the video if you aren’t sure of what I’m talking about: Once you can identify the need he is filling, you can then start to fill it for yourself. For example, if you are staying with him because he makes you feel loved and important, then find some ways for you to make yourself feel that way–like volunteering, doing something nice for others, spending time with kids or animals, joining and spending time making new friends and doing things that you enjoy.

    Learning to fill your own empty buckets is why there is so much truth to the saying, “The fastest way over someone, is to find someone new.” Now don’t get me wrong–dating someone right now is not the solution, the filling of the empty buckets in a healthy way is the solution (friends, doing things you like, etc.)

    I hope that helps, and I wish you all the best in this next chapter of your life. <3

  12. Thank you so much for your reply Dana, the empty buckets is something I will definitely work on, it was in fact one of the first videos of yours I watched several weeks ago and is really important.
    I wanted to know more like if he has progressed (or down graded me to) dosing, does it mean it is coming to an end? Is he using it to manage down expectations and “wean” off me? Or do narcs tend to come back in full force even after dosing? Basically, is this dosing a signal that I am being downgraded from his primary source of supply? (I have gone no contact for the 3rd week now and have seen his new sources on facebook)- is there a way to tell that he will go away for good?

  13. There’s no way to really tell what’s going on with him–and the only way to tell if he goes away for good is to give things time and see if he actually stays gone. (Oftentimes they don’t–which this is called “hoovering”, which is why it can be very healing and helpful to block them across the board and set up their emails to go directly to spam, as well as to set up a new Facebook account and not add anyone who knows them so you aren’t bothered by them if they do try to contact you.) All you can do is to set your boundary and be firm with it. You don’t need to tell a person ten times that you no longer want to talk to them–telling them once is enough.

  14. Thank you foryour article.
    I have a narcissist husband, I’m just beginning to learn the to understand that the problem really isn’t me .
    My husband’s behavior is exactly as your article described.
    I always feel every emotion that is described as well ….shame, self doubt, isolated, and it all.
    It does help knowing I’m not alone in this, but it hurt me deeply that any other person has to endure the narcissist. Not a pleasant existence at times. As I write this, I’ve been given the silent treatment for the last 3 days. His behavior is beyond childish , I get so impatient with his moods, he acts like a spoiled child throwing a fit who doesn’t get the way they want.
    Again, thank you.

  15. I’m glad that my videos and blog have been able to give you some of the clarity that you were needing. …If you haven’t already joined the support group, I highly recommend it: Support Group (((BIG HUGS))) to you. <3

  16. The content on your webpage is very informative and helps me a lot. I am trying since 6 years now to move on from this on and off relationship with this man (or should I say boy since he keeps acting like his a teen looking for love). It’s really hard to stay consistent with no contact. I am usually the one who keeps running back at him without him asking or sometimes he baits me with a general social media message/marketing thingy. And I would stupidly ask how he’s been doing and next thing I know, I’m sucked in another of his whirlwind fake romance and instant discard. I was confused a bit regarding the fact that a lot of people who have encountered this type of relationship mention that they try to come back at them. Mine, usually doesn’t do much at me directly but only gives the silent treatment and disappears from my life. and it is pppainful as hell when someone does that without explanation… At this point researching his behavior made me realise that I have to absolutly stay away from him. It’s harder though, when you don’t have much support arround you. Most of my friends or fam just tell me to move on and stop whinning about it…. But I must say that whenever I feel the urge to go back your article helps me stay focus and revisit the points so I stay away. Thanks!

  17. I’m so glad that my site is helping–I know how validating it is hearing the stories of other people, and realizing that you aren’t alone and that you aren’t crazy! …If you get a chance, you might want to check out the support group: Support Group I hope to “see” you there! 🙂

  18. Hi Dana,

    I wish I could write you a full essay on my 2.5 years with a Borderline/Covert Narcissist woman and the hell she put me through. But your website really helped me put some explanation on what I was going through at the time and I thank you for it deeply, and I share it with others now that I know the signs to watch our for (In Women and Men!).

    Another big help is this article which is helping me to understand why I am finding it so hard to let go and truly move on. k

    I read another post about the last stage of the Narcissist abuse cycle, informally called STover ( I like this as it describes the stage where you truly and finally accept in your heart and soul the reality that your abuser will never ever change, not because they can’t, but because they don’t want to.

    I’m not quite there yet.. it’s not even a full year yet…but I long for the day when I am! Thanks for all you do Dana!




  19. I’m glad I can help–and I’m even more glad to hear that you are moving forward into healing. Yay you. 🙂

    Thank you for sharing the article–I think a lot of people will really benefit from it!

  20. This site has been such a comfort after the last 2 years of hell I’ve been through. I could not understand at all what had just happened to me and reading these article, specifically this cycle, is like watching my life as though it was a bad movie. My now ex remarried 20 DAYS after I had him removed from the house. To an ex girlfriend he had spent years consistently generating a smear campaign against while still talking to her and using her!! I let it slip a few months ago that he was talking to her and the reactions on their faces of “WHAT?!?” were disturbing to me. Once his “mask” slipped I allowed him to stay living with me, but I began collecting evidence because we had a child together. The smear campaign he leveled against me to the ex (oh Triangulation!!) was horrifying. He would tell me things about women I’d catch him spending time with and then say the SAME things about me to them! And they were lapping it up! He had THREE of us believing the others were sad disgusting leeches, taking everything from him and ruining his life. His family knew a lot about what he had been doing for years, but the depth was lost on them until I collected everything, filed it in court, and got an RO. He is also a drug addict and while he drained all my savings and racked up my credit cards, his addicted just took total control over his life (and mine to be honest). The abuse I endured for weeks afterward I kicked him out is something I can’t quite describe. I had to get an order that he couldn’t even contact me. Of course he discarded our daughter the minute he discarded me. It’s all just too much. I’m lucky I have a good therapist, good support, and that even his family is there for me to help me with our daughter. I never knew people like him existed and now his wife of 3 months is even covertly trying to contact me because she stupidly took him back knowing he was with me! She’s miserable and he’s taken everything from her already – pawned it or sold it. They are homeless and have been for over a month. She knew, she took him back, I blocked her because I’m not going to allow myself to be triangulated by her because that’s exactly what’s going to happen. Thank you so much for having this site and it’s been so helpful!

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