Stages of a Narcissistic Relationship

Narcissistic relationships tend to move through various stages that establish the power dynamic and dismantle the victim’s confidence and identity.

After the victim has been lured into the narcissist’s web, the abusive behaviors slowly start to emerge. They are subtle at first, and the narcissist oscillates between being loving or abusive. This makes it difficult for the victim to know what’s happening and leave before it escalates.

Understanding the stages and cycle of abusive relationships could make it easier to escape while it’s still happening.

Lenore Walker (1979) developed the cycle of abuse model to explain how abuse happens in a predictable pattern. This model can be applied to any abusive relationship, including narcissistic ones.

an illustration showing the cycle of abuse: tension building, incident, reconciliation, and calm

1. Tension Building

Tension builds, communication breaks down, and the abuser becomes more and more volatile and angry. The victim feels uneasy and tries to resolve the situation.


Narcissistic individuals are skilled at presenting a false image to the world, especially when wanting to win someone over.

They ramp up their charm, mirror your body language and speech, and adopt your interests and attitudes to create a strong connection and bond between you.

Narcissistic individuals are black-and-white thinkers, so when they first meet you, they idealize you and put you on a pedestal. 

In their eyes, you are an alluring target who will satisfy their narcissistic needs. However, no one is perfect and narcissists get bored easily, so the idealization phase does not last long. 

Love Bombing

Throughout the idealization phase, narcissists perform their love-bombing dance.

They shower you with compliments and gifts, want to spend all their time with you, make grand gestures and statements, and make you feel like you have met the person of your dreams.

The combination of being idealized and love-bombed makes the victim emotionally connected, dependent, and ultimately vulnerable to the narcissist’s games.

It’s like a thick fog that conceals the narcissist’s true intentions and renders the victim blind to the insidious manipulation that happens from the moment they meet.


As tensions start to build, the first phase of the abuse cycle starts. You begin to experience the narcissist’s true colors, but it can be subtle at first.

They might make belittling or insulting remarks, wrapped up in an endearing voice, or excused with “I was only joking”.

Deep down you may know something is off, but because the narcissist has convinced you of their façade, you brush it off and may even blame yourself.

You try your hardest to please them and get back the person you first met, unaware of the fact that it was a front from the start. 

It’s all about power. From the very beginning, the narcissist is establishing a power dynamic in which they are in control and you are subservient.

This is further solidified during the devaluation phase when the manipulation and abuse escalates. 


Gaslighting refers to making someone question their perceptions and sense of reality. It’s a tactic often used by narcissistic people because it puts them in a position of power. 

Narcissistic gaslighting happens throughout the abuse cycle – when tension is building, when the abuse escalates, and during the reconciliation phase. 

It can start with small things like saying “You’re so sensitive” after they have insulted you, but as the relationship goes on, the gaslighting gets more frequent and severe.

They might:

  • Dismiss you, e.g., “The way you’re feeling is not real.”
  • Counter, e.g., “You’re remembering that wrong.”
  • Block you, e.g., “Not this again.”
  • Deny reality, e.g., “I never said that” or “That never happened.”
  • Blame you, e.g., “I did that because you did this” or “You’re so paranoid/ crazy/ broken.”

Over time, this chips away at your sense of reality, and you question your perceptions and memory.

You become increasingly unsure and dependent on the narcissist – and this is exactly what they want.

2. Incident

Verbal, emotional, and physical abuse occur. The perpetrator blames, argues, threatens, and intimidates the victim.

Eventually, the abuse and manipulation reach their peak – which would be the “incident” phase in the cycle of abuse model.

This can manifest in different ways – it could be intimidation and threats, verbal abuse, physical abuse, or a combination of them all. A few of the tactics the narcissist uses include:

Emotional Abuse and Control

This can range from criticizing everything you do, humiliating you in private or in public, insulting your appearance, dismissing or patronizing you, pushing your buttons, and shouting at you.

They might threaten and intimidate you, monitor your whereabouts and online activity, and control your finances, appearance, and social life.


They might withhold love, affection, and communication to punish you and further solidify their position of power.

This can cause the victim to become insecure and anxious, while still holding onto the narcissist’s façade. They “walk on eggshells” trying not to upset the narcissist and win their approval back.


Narcissists also use a strategy called triangulation, which means involving other people to elicit feelings of jealousy, competitiveness, and insecurity in the victim.

For example, they might compare you to another person “my ex was much prettier than you” or bring other people into an argument “I’m not the only one who thinks you’re crazy”.

It instills insecurity and makes you doubt yourself. As a result, you change your behavior and appearance to please them and prove that you are “worthy”.


It’s much easier to control someone when they do not have a support network. Thus, part of the narcissist’s strategy is to isolate you from your friends and family and even turn you against them.

They may plant seeds of doubt about their loyalty and support or point out their flaws. Sometimes, they may even make you choose between them and your friends and family.

Without anyone to talk to, it’s easier for them to continue the abuse.

Flying Monkeys

Another way narcissists isolate their victim is by using their “flying monkeys”. These are usually people in your network (friends, family, colleagues) whom they groom with the same tactics they used on you.

The narcissist gets them on his/ her side to strengthen his/her position.

For example, if you complain to your friend about something the narcissist did, they might say “No way, she’s such a nice person, she would never do that!” leading you into further self-doubt, confusion, and submission.


The narcissist may suddenly break off the relationship and discard you. It might be because they no longer feel like they are getting enough narcissistic supply (attention, admiration, control) and/or because they have found someone else.

Often, the abuse escalates even further during this stage as the narcissist wants to leave the relationship as the “winner”.

This victim is often left feeling confused and devastated by the loss of the relationship and the harsh way in which they were broken up with.

Thus, discarding the victim is also a method of asserting control – they want you to have an emotional reaction and cry and beg them to take you back.

Smear Campaign

To add insult to injury, the narcissist may launch a smear campaign against the victim. This can mean spreading rumors and lies about you, telling people your secrets, and trying to ruin your reputation and relationships.

They want to ensure that you look bad in other people’s eyes and they can take on the role of the victim. It’s another way of asserting control over you, even after they have discarded you. 

3. Reconciliation

After the abuse has reached its peak, the reconciliation phase begins. They do everything they can to make amends and lure you back into their web.

The abuser begs for forgiveness, apologizes, and promises to change but also minimizes the abuse and blames the victim.

Two main elements of the reconciliation stage include:


Narcissists use their charm and manipulation skills to hoover you back under their control. They apologize, promise to change, and tell you all the things you want to hear.

It’s similar to the love bombing phase so they might take you on a lavish vacation, shower you with gifts and compliments, and make grand statements of their love for you.

Naturally, you want to believe what they are saying and promising because you still hold onto the hope that things can work out.

Turning the Tables

Throughout a narcissistic relationship, a narcissist will never accept blame and will always turn the tables back on you.

They might even try to convince you that you are the perpetrator and they are the victim of your manipulative and abusive tactics.

This is no different during the reconciliation phase – they will find ways to blame you for their poor behavior and the breakdown of the relationship.

4. Calm

The abuse has stopped, and promises made during reconciliation might be met. The victim wants to believe the abuse is over and the abuser has changed, but not much time passes before the cycle starts again.

There is a brief period between the reconciliation phase and the cycle repeating itself when everything seems to be fine.

The victim wants to believe the narcissist has changed, and the narcissist plays nice for the time being.

Before this cycle starts, there is an idealization and love bombing stage, and the cycle itself is made up of many smaller stages as well, which will be discussed below. 

Note that some stages may not be present in all relationships. The following list is a general pattern and cycle of narcissistic and abusive relationships. 

The Cycle Repeats

Not long after the reconciliation, tension starts to build again until the abuse and manipulation are back in full swing. 

The more often the cycle repeats itself (and this can be very often), the more it chips away at the victim’s confidence, resilience, and sense of self and reality.

Feelings of helplessness and hopelessness take hold, leaving the victim unable to escape the narcissist’s tight grip.

Mental and Physical Collapse

The continued abuse, unpredictability, and deception have serious consequences for the victim’s mental and physical health.

It can cause chronic stress, exhaustion, anxiety, depression, and physical symptoms, such as headaches or nausea.

Gaslighting and other manipulation tactics erode the victim’s identity until they no longer recognize themselves.

They lose their grip on reality and internalize the constant blame, judgment, and criticism. The narcissist’s narrative of “nobody else will want you; you’re useless, ugly, etc.”, makes the victim feel unable to leave the relationship. 

This collapse increases the victim’s dependence on the narcissist, and, in turn, gives the narcissist more power – more narcissistic supply. 


Many victims of narcissistic abuse eventually find their way out of the relationship. They wake up to the reality of what is happening to them and their life, often as a result of receiving help and support from friends, family, or professionals.

Leaving a narcissistic relationship can be difficult, and it’s important to have a support system in place before doing so.


Healing from narcissistic abuse tends to be a long road, but it’s entirely possible. It means building yourself up again, reconstructing your life, establishing boundaries, focusing on self-care, as well as deep introspection.

It’s easier when you have the help of a professional (e.g., a therapist) and the support of your friends and family.

Putting an end to the cycle of abuse takes a lot of strength and courage, and it’s not the victim’s fault they were subjected to the narcissist’s game – they are very skilled manipulators and gradually gain more and more control over you. 

Blaming yourself for what happened is normal and often a direct result of having been in a relationship with a narcissist. However, a better approach is to have compassion for yourself and what you have been through.


Howard V. (2019). Recognising Narcissistic Abuse and the Implications for Mental Health Nursing Practice. Issues in Mental Health Nursing, 40(8), 644-654.

Vrabel, J. K., Zeigler-Hill, V., Lehtman, M., & Hernandez, K. (2020). Narcissism and perceived power in romantic relationships. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 37(1), 124–142.Walker, L. (1979). The Battered Woman. New York, NY: Harper and Row.

Saul Mcleod, PhD

BSc (Hons) Psychology, MRes, PhD, University of Manchester

Educator, Researcher

Saul Mcleod, Ph.D., is a qualified psychology teacher with over 18 years experience of working in further and higher education. He has been published in peer-reviewed journals, including the Journal of Clinical Psychology.

Olivia Guy-Evans, MSc

BSc (Hons) Psychology, MSc Psychology of Education

Associate Editor for Simply Psychology

Olivia Guy-Evans is a writer and associate editor for Simply Psychology. She has previously worked in healthcare and educational sectors.

Anna Drescher

Mental Health Writer

BSc (Hons), Psychology, Goldsmiths University, MSc in Psychotherapy, University of Queensland

Anna Drescher is a freelance writer and solution-focused hypnotherapist, specializing in CBT and meditation. Using insights from her experience working as an NHS Assistant Clinical Psychologist and Recovery Officer, along with her Master's degree in Psychotherapy, she lends deep empathy and profound understanding to her mental health and relationships writing.